Friday, May 29, 2020

Musings on the end of New England's local and regional media

On 17 April 2020 (Reflections on the suspension of the Armidale Express and other ACM mastheads) I discussed the implications of the suspension of newspaper publication by Australian Community Media. I concluded:
I hope that this break in printing might actually force us to ask what we want from our papers, to challenge the papers and especially management on the service they provide, to answer the question why they are important to us. I accept that this is naive view, but I am tired of managements that treat papers as simply another masthead.
Following that post, we learned that as part of its changes, ACM had closed the Express office in Armidale. It had been the Express office since the early part of the twentieth century. To recover capital, Fairfax had sold the office in 2015. The office was sold on the basis of a secure lease to 2019 plus 3 x 5 year options until 2034. Now the office was unceremoniously exited. The local historical society managed to save some of the bound back copies now stored in the meeting room.

On 18 May 2020 in a post on my history blog I provided a consolidated list of posts on the history and changing role of the media in Australia's New England. In that post I also mentioned that I was writing a series of columns on the history of the New England media. These will start to come up shortly.
In my 17 April post I mentioned the suspension by News Corp of publication of most of its community and regional media. Now the company has announced the next stage of restructuring. The following table provides details of New England newspapers that will now be digital only or have ceased publication entirely. 

Tweed Daily News
Digital only
Ballina Advocate
Digital only
Byron Shire News
Digital only
Coffs Coast Advocate
Digital only
Grafton Daily Examiner
Digital only
Lismore Northern Star
Digital only
Newcastle News
Digital only
Coastal Views
Ceasing publication
Northern Rivers Echo
Ceasing publication
Richmond River Express Examiner
Ceasing publication

To this list we can add two Queensland newspapers with strong historic connections to New England. 

Warwick Daily News
Digital only
Stanthorpe Border Post
Digital only

I am not blind to the challenges posed by evolving computer and communications technologies including most recently the internet. On and off I have been writing about it since the 1980s. However, I am also very conscious about the ways in which the metro centred corporates with their focus on maximising gains or minimising losses across empires have effectively destroyed the ethos of the country press including the capacity of papers, radio and TV to provide a broader regional voice. In so doing, they have eroded the loyalty of the very audiences on which their commercial survival depends. 

This is not a new process. It began more than fifty years ago. In 1950, every newspaper and radio station in the broader New England was locally owned. When TV came, local or regional ownership was mandated as well, Staff at all levels identified with their communities, saw their roles in local and regional terms.   

By 2000, local ownership was restricted to a few independent newspapers. The ability of local media to define local roles, to cooperate on broader regional issues while being extremely competitive, slowly vanished. Their capacity to grow people diminished too. A remarkable number of New England people across the media have gone onto significant careers.

I suppose that I am in an unusual position. 

My family has had connections with the New England media for many years. As a sometimes political and community activist I have worked with the local and regional media in the North and in Canberra, Queanbeyan and Eden Monaro to try to achieve community objectives. To use an example outside New England, I was constantly in and out of the offices of the Queanbeyan Age carrying press releases and talking about particular concerns. I expected the paper to carry this material and indeed it did. 

As a regional historian, I rely on the newspaper records. As a regional historian, I have written on the history of the New England media and the country media in general. As a regional historian, I have read the board papers of Broadcast Amalgamated, of the Armidale Newspaper Company, of the early days of TV New England. I have seen the way in which they responded to commercial problems including isolation, small scale and access to advertising. The story of the Country Press Association is an example of response, one which enriched Australian life far beyond the local. 

As an analyst and commentator on New England issues, I have watched the way in which the combination of localisation with corporate processes has slowly destroyed my ability to report and analyse. I have watched the way in which the rise of pay walls has diminished the richness of the New England media environment, the capacity to report properly. I have watched the way in which individual outlets have lost all independence. 

At times, this process has brought tears to my eyes. I did not expect to be monitoring and writing about the end to so many dreams. I did not expect our past, the very structures of local and regional life, to be swept away. 

I don't know where to go from here. 

At a micro level, what happens to the internet archives of closed outlets? I know that newspapers are no longer the source of record in the way that they once were, but they are the only record we have. The internet may have improved our access to information, but it has also destroyed the survivabilty of the very information on which we depend. 

More broadly, now that our newspapers have abdicated their local and regional roles, now that they have effectively given up, what might take their place? How do I as an activist committed to our local and regional past, present and future get my message across? How do I communicate? How do my older friends find out what is going on? How do we find the resources to create the information and structures to that people depend on?

In my own way I am trying to fill the gap especially through Facebook groups. But I just don't know what might fill the gap in a real sense. I am just one person! In the end, perhaps, we are going back to the nineteenth century and the rise of the newspaper press. 

Just as there was a gap then, now we need new localised mechanisms. I wonder what form they might take?