If Government is serious about supporting media diversity and public interest journalism to address the news deserts that have emerged across Australia, it needs to clear a path for locally produced news to build sustainability.
By Claire Stuchbery*
The COVID-19 pandemic and increasing extreme weather events have highlighted the role of localised media services in community safety and resilience.In 2023, we are at a critical juncture for news and information in Australia and require support to turn the tide on shrinking local news reporting.
Local news publishers are under pressure globally as business models sustained by advertising and user-fees have weakened in all markets, compounded by COVID-19 disruptions, causing concern for media diversity across the world. Government interventions across the globe have included grants supporting content production and/or journalist employment, tax breaks for public interest news publishers, and operational support for publishers in the form of grants and subsidies.
Here in Australia, we’re ranked as the 10th most concentrated media market in the world (Brevini and Ward 2021; Stanford 2021). Nearly 300 Australian newsrooms have downsized or, more often, closed completely since January 2019. At least 30 areas across Australia are now considered to be news deserts with no local print or digital outlet at all (Dickson, 2022).
The Commonwealth has attempted to curb this trend through a variety of policy levers in recent years, including: creating the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund; developing the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code; the Public Interest News Gathering fund; tax relief measures for the commercial broadcasting sector; and, more recently, a print relief assistance program for print newspapers. With varying levels of success and engagement, these actions have provided one-off funding injections, predominantly to large news corporations.
But it’s not all bad news. A growing hyperlocal and independent news sector exists and is well placed to address the news and information needs of local communities, strengthen Australia’s democracy, reduce the spread of misinformation and disinformation, and build community. In the wake of local newsroom closures, community members have stepped up, establishing news services to meet a need for locally relevant news. Around 20% of hyperlocal newsrooms have launched in the past three years (Bones, 2021), demonstrating an encouraging rate of growth in response to an audience shift to digital news consumption over decades.
There are a range of ways Government could support these green shoots in the news industry, but here are just five that would make a big difference to our media landscape in the short term:
Give donor gift recipient status to public interest journalism
While community radio and television services are required to be not-for-profit to meet licensing eligibility requirements, community-based digital newsrooms in Australia are disincentivised from establishing themselves as not-for-profits and/or charitable organisations by a lack of recognition for public interest news services as a public good. By comparison, in the U.S. where journalism is recognised as a public good attracting tax deductibility for donors, the industry has been highly successful in attracting philanthropic support. For example, the Institute for Non-profit News runs an annual NewsMatch program raising $47 million, with $5.1 million in matched funds from 17 national and regional funders in 2021. In the Australian market, smaller populations and cost of living pressures will limit the potential scope for donations. However, an increasing number of people are making donations to support a digital news service, up by +1 to 4% in 2022 (Digital News Report, 2022), and the philanthropic community is indicating a willingness to support newsrooms with DGR status. All that’s needed is a DGR category for public interest journalism to be introduced to support donations from the public, philanthropic grants, and, where appropriate, corporate sponsors.
Legislated government spend ratios
Australian governments spend nearly $450 million each year (combined) on advertising campaigns to communicate important information to the public (Wood, Stobart & Griffith, 2022). However, government appointed media buying agencies consistently preference networked media with advertising campaigns that are hidden behind paywalls, not locally relevant, and/or missing significant audience segments. Commercial incentives to streamline booking processes are understandable, but do not adequately meet Government’s responsibility to reach all audience groups.
Local news outlets are well placed to keep communities informed of activities such as community consultations, road closures, recruitment, meetings, and events. These actions increase transparency and engagement with local Council activities. Again, looking to successful examples in the US, New York and Chicago governments have signed Executive Orders to boost advertising spend through community media organisations (including print and digital publications, television, and radio outlets). Both cities have reported significant success from the equity-based policy intervention, and diverse news outlets have increased local reporting. If applied at all levels of government in Australia, a requirement of 5% of all government media spend would be enough to shift the media landscape and better inform audiences.
Update Local Government Acts
In most jurisdictions, the relevant Local Government Act requires Councils to publish public notices in the local print newspaper – should one exist in the region. There is a growing number of local government areas where no local newspaper is printed, in which case Councils are generally publishing public notices on their own websites with no obligation to reach a broader audience.
This legislation has become outdated by technology changes, given the trend in audiences seeking information on digital platforms. The inclusion of digital news publishers in the legislation would mean Councils were obligated to publish notices in local print and/or digital news publications at a minimum for public engagement.
Eligibility for support programs
This one is another simple tweak to some wording. While the Commonwealth has recognised the need to support news media in Australia, policy interventions implemented in recent years have regularly excluded digital publishers in favour of subsidising rising print costs and supporting established media outlets. The Global Investigative Journalism Network recommends governments provide subsidies, whether direct or through independent intermediaries, in ways that do not privilege old-fashioned forms of distribution, and that are tailored to support local journalism and journalism serving underserved, underprivileged, and marginalized communities as a key to news media preservation (Pandania, 2022). Small digital newsrooms, including new entrants to public interest journalism, should be eligible for all government programs supporting news media.
Getting a local newsroom off the ground in this challenging environment is no small thing. A significant barrier to addressing news deserts and increasing media diversity exists in a lack of wage support to allow businesses to launch successfully, with many operators hamstrung by attempting to operate news businesses alongside alternative paid employment. Correlations between a healthy media sector and a strong democracy are well established in academic literature. To bolster both, the Commonwealth should provide operational support for news business start-ups. There are a range of capacity building supports required to strengthen public interest journalism around the country. None of these five policy levers is the silver-bullet to saving news media in Australia alone. But they would certainly give local news publishers a head-start toward building sustainability to deliver high-quality news content to communities. And they wouldn’t hurt to try.
*Claire Stuchbery is the Executive Director of the Local & Independent News Association (LINA) and a community media policy specialist