Not waving, drowning: fight to keep news alive

Vivienne Wynter

‘All Australians – regardless of where they live – want and deserve, access to local news they can rely upon.’
Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland

As the news media shrinks dramatically, not all Australians are getting that access to reliable local news.

A valiant group of independent news publishers is trying to fix that.

Minister Rowland told publishers at the Local and Independent Media Association (LINA) Summit at Port Douglas this month, the Federal Government has their backs.

Minister Rowland said the government’s News Media Assistance Program (News MAP) would support independent news publishers filling the vacuum after the legacy media closed or downsized hundreds of newsrooms.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland

Newsroom closures continue

The Minister’s assurance came as the Public Interest Journalism Initiative’s (PIJI) Australian News Data Report found contractions in the news industry continue to outpace expansions.

PIJI has recorded 323 contractions and 171 expansions of newsrooms since January 2019, with a net change of minus 152.

Newsrooms continue to trend down. SOURCE: Public Interest Journalism Initiative

Independent news publishers are stepping up, but as advertising increasingly goes overseas to social media and search engines, the reality is they need government support (though tax law changes and funding) to survive.

Minister Rowland told the LINA Summit the Federal Government ‘understands that helping sustain a diverse and independent media landscape is vital for our democracy’.

Hang on, help is on it’s way

The federal government is already funding LINA and PIJI, but exactly what further help the government might offer remains to be seen.

There’s hope that media platforms set up as charities might be made eligible for Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status.

This would be a game changer because philanthropy could then become a major support as it is for not-for-profit news in the US and the UK.

Tax breaks are a key legislative change LINA has pushed for.

A fairly new peak body, LINA represents 67 publishers – producing 108 mastheads – and is proving to be a player in the media sector and to have the ear of the Albanese Government.

LINA Executive Director, Claire Stuchbery, has a background in community broadcasting.

She blends pragmatism with optimism when it comes to the future of the Australian news media.

‘The number of newsrooms operating across Australia has been in decline for over a decade now,’ Ms Stuchbery said.

‘It’s absolutely a challenging environment for local news providers to operate in and many have closed their doors.

Reason for optimism

‘What we’re also seeing and what I feel optimistic about, is the emergence of newsrooms driven by community-minded people who are stepping into the void.

LINA Executive Director Claire Stuchbery. IMAGE supplied.

Ms Stuchbery said community and government support were critical to whether the new independent newsrooms survived.

‘If we can get some financial and policy-based support into grassroots journalism, embedded in the communities it serves, I believe we can curb the trend of closures, if not reverse it,’ she said.

META may pull the plug

As they wait for government support, independent publishers are seeking new ways to reach their audiences as social media looks more and more precarious.

META has threatened to deactivate Facebook news accounts and is already believed to be using algorithms to divert readers so it can avoid paying for news content.

META has already banned news accounts on Facebook in Canada.

Many Australian news publishers are turning to email newsletters to reach their readers, a model that’s been successful for Mumbrella, Solstice Media and others.

There’s an app for that

One news outlet at the LINA Summit, The Wanaka App is bypassing social media with a successful app designed to deliver news directly to subscribers on their phones or other devices.

The iApp Network publishes news directly to phones

Developer and publisher, Tony O’Regan, says the Wanaka App is a profitable news platform employing two publishers, an editor and 1.5 journalists.

The Wanaka App team developed the iAppNetwork for other news publishers and sells it for around $6000.00 AUD.

Mr O’Regan said it’s the only platform of its kind in the world because it’s designed to publish hyperlocal news and has built in spaces and functions to book and display advertising.

iApp Network’s Tony O’Regan

The app uses notifications so users know throughout the day when new content’s been published.

Other lifelines available to independent news publishers include collective fundraising and advertising campaigns and impact tracking programs.

LINA hopes by pivoting to new business models, using the latest tech and receiving government and philanthropic support, the independent news industry might survive.

Need for news continues in climate change era

‘The need for local news hasn’t changed,’ Ms Stuchbery said.

‘People need to know what’s going on internationally, nationally and within their state.

‘They also need to know what’s happening in the area that directly affects them, particularly in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and more recently in climate-based emergencies such as floods and fires.’

This was evident when Cyclone Jasper smashed the Far North Queensland tourist towns of Port Douglas, Mossman and Ellis Beach in December last year.

Following closure of The Port Douglas and Mossman Gazette, local news publisher Newsport was the only media outlet giving local residents regular and in some cases, life-saving news updates.

Decisions due this year

Newsport and other independent news publishers should have a clearer idea of whether they can continue serving their communities with such vital information later this year.

That’s when the Federal Government is due to decide whether to ‘designate’ META (require it to negotiate), announce details of NewsMAP and announce whether charitable media organisations will get tax breaks.

Deakin University’s Associate Professor of Communication Kristy Hess told there are tough days ahead for Australian news platforms.

Even if Meta ‘doesn’t need news, society needs news’, Professor Hess said.

Facing tough times ahead, independent news outlets are hoping for a lifeline

‘We are at a very difficult point in society (when it comes to) what we’re going to do, how we’re going to fund journalism and how we’re going to ensure people engage with journalism,’ she said.

‘Those are two very difficult questions for us.’

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