The availability of local news in Australia has undergone a “sharp and worrying decline”, a report commissioned by Australia’s peak local government body says.
ALGA’s annual State of the Regions report, Population, Productivity and Purchasing Power, released at the Regional Cooperation and Development forum in Canberra on Sunday, contains concerning new findings on the availability of local news and information.
It says a survey of local government media managers by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative this year found that 68 per cent of metropolitan LGAs and 45 per cent of regional and rural LGAs reported a “very sharp” decline in local news.
More than a third of LGAs reported that no journalists attended local government meetings.
“The indications are that a large part of local government business goes entirely unscrutinised and unreported,” the report says.
It warns the absence of “real” news is creating a vacuum that is at risk of being filled by PR agencies and propaganda from lobbyists and vested interest groups.
“It means people with the right skills and motivation can manipulate the media,” the report’s co-author Margaret Simons told the forum.
In the regional NSW town of Moree, she said, staff at the sole local newspaper had been cut back, lacked training and were often unable to leave the office, to the extent that the anniversary of the Freedom Rides, a seminal event that highlighted racial discrimination in Moree in 1965, went unreported earlier this year.
“I would suggest this is of great concern,” she said. “The result of these trends is going to be more fractured, vulnerable, isolated, poorly informed regional communities, and the trend is likely to get worse.”
Collapse of old models
The report says the decline is is the result of the collapse of advertising-supported business models and the rise of social media as a news-delivery platform.
Up to 3,000 journalists are estimated to have lost their jobs over the last five years and the decline is continuing, with print media most affected. The Tasmania North West region has experienced an 8.5 per cent per annum decrease in journalists each year.
Genevieve Jacobs, Group Editor for Region Media, a digital media platform for Canberra and surrounding areas, told the forum when smaller print organisations started feeling the pinch they responded by centralising production, syndicating content and staffing mastheads with inexperienced junior journalists.
The effect was a “ripping to shreds” of what local readers most valued about their papers, she said, resulting in broken trust, bewilderment and a sense of abandonment among communities.
Despite this, local news remains highly valued and is frequently accessed by readers, the report says.
“(Local news media) are closer to their audiences and advocate for them; and journalists and editors are much more accessible and contribute to social and community cohesiveness,” the authors write.
“Civic leaders believe local media does a better job of reflecting the needs of communities than state or national media. Recent new digitally based entrants to the news media business have all focussed on national and international news, leaving local reporting untouched.”
Need to get behind local media
Ben Taylor, president of Country Press Australia and a proprietor of five regional Australian newspapers, told delegates it is crucial for councils to support and foster good relationships with their local papers.
Councils can often find themselves at the pointy end of reporting, he said, but local papers are crucial to facilitating the most fundamental functions of local government.
“The democratic process, freedom of speech and informed decision making – regional newspapers are critical to the decision making process by providing detailed information and analysis as to what is happening in your local government area,” he said.
Local reporting not only helps councils gauge public reaction to help inform decision-making, it also provides a vehicle for councils to communicate the benefits and rationale of policy positions.
“Smart councils work with media, not against,” Mr Taylor said. “Our industry goes hand in hand with public office. Informed debate, informed decision making and community engagement are all important elements of a strong democratic process and hence good local government.”
Not being talked about worse than being talked about
ALGA president David O’Loughlin said playwright Oscar Wilde had famously noted that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about.
“In the first instance you’ll find local government is happy because there’s less content that’s about scrutiny … but it’s really the start of the end of serious journalism,” he told Government News at the sidelines of the conference.
“It’s really important for local governments to be able to communicate to their communities about what great things are happening there, in terms of what policy directions they’re taking and why.
“It’s also important for journalists to provide a bit of balance from the other side to have public scrutiny of projects, policy positions and public expenditure.”
The report calls for policy intervention at a government level.
“Given that numerous pieces of research worldwide indicate a close relationship between journalism and the broader civic health of communities, this decline has serious implications for the agency, power and health of citizens in Australia’s regions,” the report says.
Ms Simmons said the issue needs to be discussed by local government as a top policy issue and called on ALGA to advocate for a review and upgrade of the federal government’s current rural and regional media grants system.
There also needed to be tax incentives for investors in public interest journalism, she said.
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