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The Coronavirus is killing local Media

On Wednesday, News Corporation announced that it was closing the print editions of 60 local newspapers including the 114 year old Manly Daily. This follows on the demise of the Elliot Newspaper Group which published the 100 year old Sunraysia Life, The Guardian – Swan Hill, Gannawarra Times and Loddon Times — a trickle of regional Australian newspaper cuts and closures became a torrent.

Among the newspapers to have closed were the Barrier Times in Broken Hill, and the Latrobe Valley Express and the Great Southern Star in Victoria.

This comes at a time when news is more important than ever. The Neilson Ratings show that more people, including young people, are reading news than ever. The problem is that as the number of proper news rooms is collapsing people are turning to social media for their news and this not always accurate.

The reason why the mastheads are closing is that the advertising market has collapsed. For many newspapers the advertising is based on real estate, entertainment and hospitality, which are sectors that have been closed down because of disease control. The upside is that these sectors will probably rebound when the crisis is over. However no-one knows when that will be.

At the moment there are 2,340 regional journalists whose jobs are threatened. If these people are forced to look for work elsewhere or to move onto job-seeker allowance it will be a big hit to regional economies.

Some of these journalists may try to move into digital media but this is not as easy as it looks. The monetisation of digital news is a lot more difficult than print advertising and the returns per word printed are much smaller. There are 540 regional newspapers and 2 in 5 people in the country read a local newspaper at least once a week. It is unlikely that these people will move to reading a web based news site if they have to pay for it. The alternative is likely to be that they will get their news from local radio and national television.

At the moment local radio is sustained by government advertising linked to the coronavirus crisis. If radio stations go the way of newspapers then there will be no local news. This will leave a significant hole in communities. Local media provides the connections within local communities that are essential for community inclusiveness.

“The only place that a local community gets the news about themselves, their families, their local governments and local sport is their local newspaper, because nobody else does it,” Latrobe Valley Express and Gippsland Times manager Bruce Ellen told the ABC.

“If we lose our newspapers, we lose community.”

While this comment overlooks the role of local radio it is true of both mediums; local media is an essential service. While the ABC provides national coverage through digital, audio and video platforms it does not drill down to the local level where social capital is sustained through close connections.

Desperate regional media owners are pressuring the Government to spend the remaining $40 million of the Regional and Small Publishers Fund but there are problems with the eligibility criteria for these funds.

At the moment many rural newspapers and radio licences look to be substantially over-valued. This will limit the capacity of these businesses to borrow more to keep going. One thing is for sure, if Rupert Murdoch has decided to close local newspapers, it won’t be long before other newspapers are closed.

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