Editorial January 29th 2021

Welcome to this week’s editorial,

Here we are, 1 year on from last year’s bushfires and the calamity that followed. One of the consequences of the bushfires, followed by COVID-19, was the disappearance of the Moruya Examiner newspaper.

In April 2019 Australian Community Media (the publishers of the Moruya Examiner, Bay Post and Narooma News) ceased print operations at four of its press facilities as it suspended a number of non-daily newspapers with many employees stood down. Staff were informed by email, with CEO Antony Catalano blaming the economic downturn brought on by COVID-19.

More than 30 leases of small offices around the country, including the offices of the Bay Post and Narooma News, were closed. One year on and both these offices remain closed with a skeleton staff working remotely. According to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative's Newsroom Mapping Project, almost 170 newsrooms have shut across Australia as COVID-19 continues to impact advertising revenue.

The local impact in 2019 also brought on the closure of the Moruya Examiner masthead after 150 years.

What followed some months later was some serious lobbying from some of the industry’s biggest players via the highly publicised “Save Our Voices” campaign featuring Ray Martin and backed by ACM as well as Prime, Southern Cross and WIN. Each declared substantial losses that required Government intervention. While there was Job Keeper in place these big media players needed more.

In November 2020 it was announced that Australian Community Media (publishers of the Moruya Examiner, Bay Post and Narooma News) would receive $10.4m under the Public Interest News Gathering Fund designed “to help newsrooms continue to tell the stories of their communities despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

In making the announcement the Deputy Prime Minister said “This money will support news gathering in regional communities, ensuring local content will continue to be written by local journalists. The network of ACM papers delivers important public interest journalism, keeping our regional and remote communities informed and connected.”

With $10.4 million now earmarked to regional newspapers there was an expectation that the Moruya Examiner might be resurrected and that the cloned articles that ACM had been publishing would disappear to deliver local, relevant, timely, quality journalistic substance.

Image: Canberra Times JUNE 29 2020

Alas this has not happened. The Moruya Examiner is still no more and the offices of the Bay Post and Narooma News remain closed. There is no evidence of any new journalists being employed and there is no evidence a single dollar of the $10.4 million having been spent on our ACM papers.

At the time of the grants to the vocal ACM, Prime, Southern Cross and WIN, who were decrying their loss of profits independent publishers across the country collectively advised the Communications Minister that ACM did not, and does not, stand for local news.

“There’s nothing independent or investigative about them,” said Di Morrissey at the time, publisher of The Manning Community News . “The same stories, the same advertorials, the same advertisements run in every paper.”

What was once a proud stable of local newspapers that reported on local events in each of the three principle Eurobodalla towns has now become a mediocre amalgam of cloned stories from the wider region. If you pick up the Bay Post and Narooma News on a Wednesday they are virtually indistinguishable other than by way of their ads and sports results.

While many may have hoped the $10.4m under the Public Interest News Gathering Fund may have seen the return of quality local news to these once proud mastheads it is now evident that the money has gone elsewhere leaving our local ACM papers to become a sad reflection of what they once were.

Some might blame the failing advertising revenues that have flowed to Facebook and Google; and that social media has stepped in to replace the demand for local news. Others might suggest that the old model of for next Wednesday’s paper to read about what happened yesterday is no longer acceptable in a modern world of immediacy. While this might reflect on poor paper sales (and advertising) there has been no dynamic pickup by the mastheads to lift the bar on their social media engagement or rise to investigative journalism at a local level. Instead they appear content to languish in mediocrity believing the world still revolves around a printing press. That attitude and their failure to adapt has been their undoing.

Today, Friday January 29th 2021, I picked up my 16 page edition of the Bay Post to find that eight pages of it was syndicated advertising, one page worth of local ads and classifieds and two pages were a TV Guide. Of the five pages of news one and a half pages were contributed photos and only two articles were written by a journalist, one being a book review taken from a Blue Mountains ACM paper and the other a decent local sports article on the local speedway.

You might consider this editorial harsh. I consider it more as a statement of disappointment. We once had good local papers that were well respected and that played a vital role in the warp and weft of our community. We have lost those and the community is all the poorer.

As for where the $10.4 million of Public Interest News Gathering Fund to ACM went? Certainly not to the Eurobodalla.

Four years ago, on a Sri Lankan beach under the shade of a coconut tree I made the decision to come home and fill what I saw was an aching gap in our community that was in desperate need of a decent newspaper.

Most know that The Beagle is just me with a laptop and a commitment to deliver timely, inclusive news that covers everything from jumble sales to Federal Government media releases. The stories are sourced from media releases and a wide array of contributions accompanied by the occasional focus I am able to provide to local council matters.

The Beagle is supported by local advertisers and by the kind generosity of donors who help to keep the paper afloat. It doesn’t require Google to pay a fee to use The Beagle articles. Instead I am thankful that Google allows me to index all of the 15,000 articles published to date that enables you, the readers, to be able to find past articles in Google’s vast archives.

2021 is a new year. If we look at the world as it is there is more of a need than ever before for us to be accurately informed of what is happening. At an International level, a National level and, not to be forgotten Local level where we live our day to day.

To best prepare for the times ahead we need to be engaged and informed. I had hopes that our local papers might have returned with a 2021 model of freshness and vibrancy, embracing the latest technology and delivering a vastly improved product with their $10.4 million handout. However, if today’s edition of the Bay Post is the best they can do then there is little hope of seeing any improvement.

We can only hope things might improve.

Until next Lei