Chair's Foreword

Australia’s regional newspapers are about regional stories and are a shared community experience. Regional newspapers put into the public area the stories of people who have excelled in sport, school or their business enterprise, as well as coverage of valuable community-based issues such as council decisions, court matters, public health issues and local weather events.
Regional newspapers have been challenged for more than a decade by loss of revenue, loss of talent and rising costs that have forced many to permanently close their doors. As newspapers close, readers are pushed towards social media for their news, which increases Australians’ exposure to misinformation and creates a disconnect in communities.
Revenue for regional newspapers has been declining as more companies move their employment, real estate and motor vehicle advertising online, much of which was a primary revenue source. Government advertising and public notices have also been largely withdrawn from regional newspapers in favour of online outlets or larger, metropolitan newspapers, further exacerbating the decline in revenue.
Larger publishers, such as Australian Community Media and NewsCorp Australia have withdrawn from print publication in regional areas, forcing smaller publishers to go further afield to print their newspapers and driving up costs in a time when viability for many is already under threat.
Further, the emergence of COVID-19 saw many individuals turn to their local newspaper for credible and up-to-date information, however, decline in business during this time saw local and national businesses alike withdraw advertising from local newspapers at a time when it was needed most.
Unfortunately, as a result, regional newspapers have experienced a significant loss of jobs and important community issues are going unreported. ‘News deserts’ have also been emerging—meaning that some communities are not covered by a newspaper at all. However, those in regional Australia – and their newspapers – continually demonstrate their resilience and ability to innovate. As part of the inquiry, the Committee heard of several new and emerging models to adapt revenue structures and address printing costs, to continue to provide news services to their communities.
The Australian Government has recognised the importance of regional news services by providing funding grant packages in 2017 and 2020, however, the Committee heard it was challenging for smaller newspapers to receive any support, and almost 87 per cent of the funding under the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program went to larger news providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee welcomes the $10 million federal Government funding for cadetship and journalism programs announced in February 2022, however, there are more concerning challenges in regional areas associated with increasing operational costs, financial sustainability, and attracting and retaining journalists which need to be addressed.
The news industry in Australia is constrained by an outdated legislative model that is no longer fit-for-purpose. The Broadcasting Services Act 1992 is preventing news organisations from adapting to technology and embracing new multifaceted operating models. The ability to understand the full impact of this is hampered by the lack of complete data to examine these concerning trends and address the emergence of news deserts in regional and remote Australia. A comprehensive review of the viability of regional newspapers needs to be conducted, including the development of a national register of regional news providers.
While these measures would provide a good evidence-base for long term analysis of the issues affecting regional newspapers, there is an opportunity to immediately improve support and revenue to regional newspapers. The Committee heard from a number of witnesses that reduction in government advertising is an ongoing direct challenge to the long-term viability of regional newspapers, and therefore, the Committee has recommended that the Australian Government ensure that a minimum of 20 per cent of government print advertising is placed in regional newspapers.
As more Australians turn to the internet for their news, measures have been implemented to ensure that smaller news providers can negotiate fairly with digital platforms that host the news produced by regional newspapers and derive tangible and intangible benefits from this ability. The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code was welcomed by many as a tool to provide a level negotiating platform. However, at the time of the inquiry, no digital platform had been designated and the Committee heard the benefits flowing from the Code were not consistent. The statutory review of the provisions is welcome and will ideally address the concerns raised by submitters during the inquiry.
The Committee recognises the valuable contribution of large publishers like Australian Community Media in providing submissions and appearing at public hearings to support the Committee’s inquiry, as well as the contributions of digital platforms like Google Australia and Meta. However, it is regrettable that News Corp Australia was not able to contribute to the inquiry by providing a submission or appearing at public hearings, especially noting the significance of News Corp’s role in Australia’s media landscape.
This inquiry has given small, independent newspapers the opportunity to be seen and heard, and the Committee expresses its appreciation to the many individuals and organisations who have contributed to this inquiry by providing submissions, appearing at public hearings, participating in its online survey and contributing to the Committee’s understanding of this important issue.
The 12 recommendations made by this report are an important starting point to address the ongoing viability of regional newspapers. The review of the News Media and Digital Platform Bargaining Code, and the Department’s review recommended by the Committee, will provide a more in-depth understanding of the complex issues underpinning Australia’s news environment and the outcomes will be considered with interest by the Committee.
Dr Anne Webster MP

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