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Media Innovation and the Civic Future of Australia's Country Press: FInal report

posted on 2023-06-26, 06:01 authored by Kristy HessKristy Hess, Alison Mcadam, Angela Blakston, matthew Ricketson, LIsa Waller, Jerry Lai
This Australian Research Council Linkage project provides a comprehensive assessment of media innovation and the civic value of rural, regional and suburban news in Australia, as well as the opportunities and challenges shaping its sustainability in a digital world (LP180100813). The project is led by Deakin University with support of RMIT and in partnership with Country Press Australia – a not-for-profit association serving the interests of more than 200 small and independently owned news providers across rural, regional and suburban Australia. These news outlets serve towns and cities with populations as little as 1000, such as Allora in Queensland, to larger regional areas such as Shepparton in Victoria (population 68,000). The importance of our research became especially clear when, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (and this project), dozens of rural, regional and suburban mastheads closed in response to the unprecedented crisis. At the same time, the term ‘essential service’ became part of the everyday lexicon as governments assessed what vital parts of society were exempt from lockdowns. A key finding of this research project is that rural and regional audiences view their local newspaper as an ‘essential service’. We also found that, while digital innovation is an appealing and, in the media’s parlance, a ‘sexy’ solution to supporting the future of local news, there are in fact systemic issues that need addressing first, in particular, existing relationships between media and forms of government support. Many of the newspapers that closed their doors during the pandemic (some temporarily) were owned by bigger conglomerates – notably, Australian Community Media and News Corp Australia. However, small news producers who we interviewed across Australia remained steadfast. Some told us they simply could not let down their communities amid a global health crisis and would operate ‘on the smell of an oily rag’ if necessary. This report offers steps and solutions to ensure their sustainability into the future. This three-year project has involved extensive audience engagement via national surveys, seven focus groups involving news producers and staff (editors, journalists, advertising managers) and interviews with start-ups and long-serving news proprietors. A PhD project has examined the underlying factors in the sustainability of several Australian local news mastheads that have defied the perceived crisis in journalism. A survey of editors’ use of and attitudes towards metrics and analytics was also conducted. There has been extensive engagement with academic literature, policy documents, reports about the news media sector in Australia and internationally. Our research has reinforced the important and various roles that audiences expect a local news provider to play within the communities they serve. Journalists working in ‘local’ environments are expected to hold people in power to account, to help residents engage in democratic processes, to provide them with a voice and a legitimate platform to advocate for community change (Williams et al., 2015; Schultz, 1998; Firmstone & Coleman, 2014). A well-resourced local news outlet is also expected to act as a social connector, or the ‘social glue’ (Olsen, 2021, p. 814; Hess, 2015; Fisher et al., 2021) that helps people connect with one another and the places where they live and work. Journalists and editors play the role of cultural ambassador or civic custodian, helping to construct a community’s identity by highlighting its traditions and distinct geographies (Hess, 2015; Buchanan, 2009). Further, local news outlets are acknowledged for serving as community recordkeeper, and for creating and collating a valuable archive of historic material that documents everyday activities of people in their communities (Allen & Sieczkiewicz, 2010). Of course, this all takes time and resources to do effectively. This research report is specific to the Australian context; we have sought examples from overseas and engaged with international peers, but we do not claim this study solves the challenges facing all local news outlets across the globe. Rather, we suggest that small, independently owned local news outlets are experiencing mixed fortunes depending on the context in which they operate. They are shaped by geographic factors as well as wider social, cultural and economic forces and relationships to power in a digital world (Hess, 2013). The research project also adopts a constructionist approach in developing recommendations for a way forward. This is more complex than simply presenting ‘evidence’ via our survey findings, analysis and qualitative data. A constructionist approach relies on shared knowledge creation between researchers and the subjects of inquiry. In this case, it has involved extensive engagement with news providers and audiences, broader literature, scholarly theories and concepts. It is this rich knowledge that makes academic partnerships with industry important and distinctive from consultancy research.






Research statement

Background This is a final report connected to ARC Linkage project (LP 180100813). It summarises an extensive body of research and lists 22 recommendations for policymakers, industry and academics to advance the sustainability of Australia's local newspapers in a digital world Contribution This 80-page report is the first of its kind in Australia as there has been no indepth, multiperspectival research into local news sustainability. It is divided into 10 chapters, each of which discusses in detail findings, literature and recommendations on key aspects that relate to the future of local news. Significance This final report has been sent to Communication Ministers, state premiers and local governments as well as the wider research community and more than 200 news organisations. The launch of the report generated more than 100 news stories in the Australian media.

Publication classification

AN Other book, or book not attributed to Deakin University


Country Press Australia

Place of publication

Melbourne, Vic.

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