The Digital News Report: Australia 2021 conducted by the University of Canberra shows the appetite for local news is as keen as the appetite for local goods and services, with a vast majority of Australians (81%) accessing local news and information regularly. The most popular topics for readers of local publications are weather (55%), COVID-19 news (36%), local crime news (27%) and information about shops and restaurants (25%).
Despite this, local news is under threat. Local publishers are struggling to grow revenue and consolidation has had a major impact on the industry. Just last year, News Corp Australia confirmed more than 100 local and regional newspapers would become digital only or disappear entirely.
Greg McLagan was the managing editor and part owner of The Bellingen Shire Courier-Sun from 1987 until he retired in 2012. After he left, the printed version of the paper stopped and was eventually merged with the Macleay Argus in an online only version. Mr. McLagan says the absence of a local rag has been felt by the tight-knit community based in northern NSW.
“The attitude of most Shire residents hasn’t changed; they would still prefer to have their local news delivered every Wednesday to the letterbox. Younger readers were prepared to accept the online version, but they can’t even access that anymore,” said Mr. McLagan.
The impact goes well beyond media. As Mr. McLagan explains, when a small community loses its local newspaper, it loses jobs as well as commentary on local stories that are hard to cover by reporters who don’t live in the area or understand the nuances of the community they are reporting on.
“Our biggest asset as a paper was being local. People wanted their local news, be it the Country Women’s Association monthly meeting, the latest from Bellingen Council, the rugby league match and a very active “letters to the editor” section,” said Mr. McLagan.
In the absence of a printed weekly paper, the community has taken matters into their own hands with the advent of a new online hub “I Love Bello Shire” for all things relating to the Bellingen Shire.
It indicates the desire for local news and connectedness via the sharing of information is still there. However, Mr. McLagan fears the active community spirit that publications such as his were good at fostering have been dulled somewhat by consolidations.
“Sadly, the closure of local newspapers probably conditioned some people (in the community) into losing their appetite for local news - they have come to accept the loss as the new norm.”
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