The future of local news


Challenges for local news have raised the questions of what it takes to be successful. Photo: Felicia Buitenwerf.

In recent years the news media landscape has been very unstable, with changes in media ownership and the financial downturn during the Covid-19 pandemic both heavily contributing.

Much of the turbulence has been felt in local and regional news. Following the merger between Nine and Fairfax, Australian Community Media bought the Fairfax stable of 160 regional papers and began the shift to online subscription, and News Corp stopped the print editions of around 100 regional papers.

Each of these changes led to job losses, closures and contractions, and disruption to loyal audiences.

The extent of the upheaval can be clearly seen on a map of newsroom changes across Australia created by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative.

Arcs of red, orange and green dots, pinpoint parts of the country where newsrooms have closed, contracted and expanded.  Since January 2019 there have been 287 closures and contractions, partly offset by expansions and new offerings.

Despite this, many outlets are still fighting for the future of local and regional news and are going about it in different ways.

A notable example is Region Media in Canberra, which runs the Riotact news website and has recently opened a new office in the Wagga Wagga area known as Region Riverina.

The Riotact was purchased by two Canberra based businessmen, Tim White and Michael McGoogan in 2013, who had been involved in various successful business such as All Homes and UberGlobal.

The Riotact has slowly become a well know news organisation in Canberra through a combination of experimenting with their business model and hiring talented and well-known journalists.

Instead of running a subscription model as most local and regional news outlets do, The Riotact chooses to run all of its editorial content free on its website. Without a paywall.

In order to do this The Riotact focuses on securing partnerships and producing “Partner Content.”

These partnerships can vary from pure advertising and banner space on the site to editorial content about the partner organisation’s products or services overseen by The Riotact’s business team.

Riotact Group Editor Genevieve Jacobs said in terms of the business model there is very little else that is working as well as partner content for news organisations currently.

“You’re really just not going to make enough money off of display advertising, so [partner] content is the way to go,” she said.

“I think [partner] content can be done ethically. I think it can be done with full disclosure and with real clarity about what you’re doing. I also think it can just be interesting, which is the standard we set for ourselves here.”

The Business and Editorial teams work independently of each other, with the business team focusing on the partnerships and assisting in the development of any partner content.  The editorial team focuses on news content, but also assists with writing the partner content when necessary.

According to Dr Kathryn Bowd, a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, having people from outside of journalism start news businesses has brought a new perspective on models that are financially viable.

“A lot of journalists look at news and go ‘We have a model, it works, why can’t we just try that again’ but due to significant and constant change over the last 10 to 15 years that model doesn’t work as well as it once did,” she said.

“Having someone outside of journalism come in and try to make a successful newspaper has brought to light some alternative and viable models that people in journalism may not have looked at or wanted to use.”

The model implemented by The Riotact is somewhat controversial. Some critics are concerned the reliance on partner content might impact on editorial independence.

Hal Crawford, a well-known Australian media commentator stated that the advertorial model was a dangerous one.

“You have a schism between the interest of the audience and the interest of the advertiser there’s always going to be some amount of misalignment,” he said.

According to Ms Jacobs, this is something that is explicitly discussed with any potential partners.

“We are very clear with our clients that [their partnership] doesn’t give them any kind of opportunity to interfere with the news and there is a very clear division between editorial content and commercial content,” she said.

“The standard we hold here is that if people trust us with their content in the front end, they’ll trust us with their money in the back end.”

The organisation also emphasizes the importance of both social media as a way to distribute content but also audience interaction via a (heavily moderated) comments section that can be found under every article.

But Jacobs says reliance on social media is both a blessing and a curse. News organisations are at the mercy of social media companies whenever they change their algorithm.

“Facebook’s deprioritisation of news is coming at us very quickly,” she said.

“We saw that when Facebook temporarily shut down all news on their platform at the beginning of last year.

“It would be a real mistake to assume that [Social Media] is a worthwhile way forward and base your business on access to social media.”

The Guardian Australia is taking a different approach to increase its regional news coverage.

Known across the world, The Guardian came to Australia in 2013 and established an online presence with The Guardian Australia, which focused on stories of national interest. Recently, it has made a push to get coverage into Australia’s news deserts.

Gabrielle Chan is the Editor and Manager of the Guardian’s new Regional Network.

The Guardian’s Regional Network has been trying to push regional and rural news to the forefront of media in a different way.

Ms Chan said the network was currently completing its first of three pilot years and had been going well.

“At the Guardian we’ve been talking about how we can cover regional Australia in a different way, bearing in mind we haven’t got a lot of resources to move journalists around Australia.  Right now, we think we have a model that does a reasonable job of that,” she said.

“We don’t just send journos to regional areas, but we also take contributions from journalists based in those areas.”

According to Ms Chan, this is a project she and other Guardian journalists have been looking into for a while.

“The reason we went with a pilot was because we weren’t sure what would happen, and I think the first year has proved it will work, though what form it goes forward in after three years is still unwritten.”

This regional news initiative is funded through The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Doc Ross Foundation.

According to Research from the Public Interest Journalism Initiative’s (PIJI) Gary Dickson, 131 areas in Australia currently have less news outlets now than they did in 2019 and nearly 60 per cent of media contractions since January 1 2019 happened in regional Australia.

According to Professor Kristy Hess from Deakin University, regional newsrooms are often the first to go when news organisations are under financial pressure.

“Big companies often take resources out of small communities to support shareholders or metropolitan-based offices or workers,” she said.

“There’s not huge profit to be made from local journalism but there’s enough. You can make a credible living out of running a local newspaper.”

Despite the viability issues befalling local and regional news in parts of Australia, Ms Chan believes things are looking better. This is due to the willingness of people to fill the gap when traditional news outlets close.

“People will always want news, even if you have someone who isn’t traditionally trained as a journalist bringing it to you, this has been a major strength,” she said.

“These areas are all very passionate about what is going on so there will always be something, even if it isn’t a traditional news source and instead a Facebook group.”

A study from the News and Media Research Centre (N&MRC) at the University of Canberra shows an increase in social media for news in areas where newspapers have closed.

According to the Digital News Report: Australia 2022, two-thirds of respondents across the country say local news is the topic they are most interested in.

This is despite recent developments that have made the viability of local, regional and rural news organisations more difficult to run and operate.

“What I’ve seen over the last 10 or so years is that the traditional model of having a bureau with a journalist in various regional towns is no longer viable because the revenues that funded that have disappeared,”  Ms Chan said.

Lee O’Connor is fighting hard to keep her local newspaper alive. O’Connor is the owner and editor of the Coonamble Times, a hyperlocal print and digital publication, and the Western Plains App, a regional digital publication covering 11 local government areas in remote north-west New South Wales.

She took on the newspaper and launched the app partly because genuine local news is critical to the wellbeing of regional communities.

As a smaller news organisation, Ms O’Connor says the landscape for local, regional and rural news organisations has become highly volatile.

“In the last few years, we have had to worry about a lot of new things that we didn’t need to before,” she said.

“First, we had covid which we kept printing through, then more recently we’ve had the increase in price for newsprint which has been a really big hit for us.

“Finally, most of the (printing houses) in the state have closed so we now need to print our paper in Sydney which has raised a whole slew of new logistical issues and has even led to our paper not being delivered on the right day on a couple of occasions.”

According to Dr Sora Park from the University of Canberra, the main issue facing many news organisations in the local and regional areas is shifting audiences from print to online.

“Especially print-based news companies are not able to translate their print audiences to online,” she said.

“They’re not able to convert their print advertisers to online and in an online environment they need to compete with so many other outlets.”

The Coonamble Times has been running since 1885 and was bought by Ms O’Connor five years ago. Its model for staying afloat in this tumultuous landscape has been experimenting with a variety of revenue sources.

“As of now, our print product is currently on sale for three dollars, and we have local businesses as both traditional advertisers and sponsors.

“We recently launched the West Plains app to help distribute news and help our advertisers reach a wider regional audience, and we are also looking into creating a way for people to directly donate to us and support our journalism that way,” Ms O’Connor said.

The Coonamble Times is one of many smaller regional or rural news organisations that has been faced with rising costs and instability.

A rise in the price of newsprint early in 2022 greatly affected many newspapers around the country with Australian Community Media (ACM) calling on the government to help newspapers cope with the sharp increase.

Luckily for the Coonamble Times, Ms O’Connor is a part of the Country News Press Association which has been able to negotiate with Google and Facebook as part of the News Media Bargaining Code (NMBC).

The NMBC was introduced by the Federal Government in 2021 to try to level the playing field between the big digital platforms and news organisations by striking financial deals to pay for the use of their news content on their platforms.

Ms O’Connor says they have been lucky to be involved as many similarly-sized organisations have missed out or been overlooked.

“The News Media Bargaining Code excludes many of your small publishers, fortunately we managed to scrape in,” she said.

“I know a lot of people who weren’t in any position to take advantage of it even though it was offered to them because the content delivery threshold was unrealistically high.”

Despite the challenges, the editors of the Riotact, Guardian Regional Network and the Coonamble Times remain optimistic about the future of local news.

According to Dr Kristy Hess this optimism is well-placed because there will always be room for local and regional journalism.

“Local newspapers are considered an essential service, people need them. It offers a niche element of news that you can’t get anywhere else.”

“I think the local newspaper, with its long-standing history, even news start-ups that have passionate locals and trained journalists willing to help is incredibly important.”

A lot of news proprietors know their value to the community, they’re holding their own, keeping their heads above water and that is something we need to think about.”