President’s column – 3 July 2020

Image shows President David O'Loughlin smiling in front of a black background

Are journalists about to return to country council chambers? The Federal Government has thrown the regional media a much needed lifeline – and there was more good news for the sector this week.

Further details of the $50 million package to support public interest journalism were announced and the sale of Australian Associated Press (AAP) to consortium of philanthropists and investors was finalised on Monday.

In March, AAP’s then major shareholders (Nine Entertainment Co and News Corp) said they were closing the service for good because it was no longer commercially viable.

Now a consortium has stepped up to continue a business that has serviced media outlets across the country for 85 years.

Even more encouraging was the new owners saying they had “a desire to protect media diversity … through ensuring the long-term sustainability of the AAP newswire and its provision of independent quality journalism on issues that should matter to all Australians”. Long may they reign I say.

The Federal Government also appears to be prioritising continued high-quality news production, especially  in regional and remote areas – so the announcement that $20 million is being allocated to television, $18 million for publishing, and $12 million for radio under the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program is welcome.

Separate to PING, the Commonwealth administers another initiative supporting public interest journalism: The Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund which began in 2018.

Recognising that media outlets are struggling with the plummeting advertising revenues in the wake of Covid-19, the Government has brought forward the 2020 funding round, and an announcement of successful recipients can be expected shortly.

It is to be hoped this taxpayer support slows or reverses the disappearance of over a hundred regional and community mastheads since the pandemic struck in March. However, the issue that remains unresolved is the long-term viability of media outlets, particularly small and independent mastheads in the regions.

The erosion of the traditional newspaper and TV station business model – by Internet advertising, social media and changing consumer sentiment – has been underway since the 1990s.

The resultant changes of ownership and progressive belt-tightening have not been terribly obvious in the capitals. But in the regions and even many suburban areas there is no disguising the fact that fewer and fewer journalists are reporting on the many activities of their local communities, including councils.

This is a trend with serious repercussions for future civic engagement and social cohesion – not to mention accountability and good governance.

ALGA’s concerns on this issue are long-standing. In 2019, we commissioned a study which outlined the attenuation of public interest news gathering in regional and rural areas while recognising that there are no easy answers.

A string of inquiries and reviews have considered a range of possible solutions: subsidies, tax incentives, and codes requiring Facebook and Google to pay for links to news publisher sites.

Those internet giants have shown little inclination to pay for news content – even when directed to do so by governments in Europe.

The ACCC’s draft news media bargaining code due shortly could further address the bargaining power imbalances between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms.

It is unlikely there was a connection, but Google recently announced it would pay some media groups in Australia, Brazil and Germany for content.

Whether this voluntary move, coupled with a new code, is a significant development or not remains to be seen. But in any event, small publishers won’t benefit substantially.

ALGA remains committed to ensuring local communities – particularly in the regions – remain well informed about what is going on around them. The ABC does an admirable job in that regard, but we need viable print and digital mastheads as well.

We are continuing to work with the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) as it maps newsroom coverage and researches public support for independent journalism as well tax and business models to sustain independent news coverage.

I’d urge councils to volunteer their experience and knowledge if PIJI comes calling. Sure, we don’t always enjoy media scrutiny, the filtering of information or the lack of interest in good-news stories, but our communities will be the poorer for lack of information and diversity if regional and community media dies.