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The headlines are one thing, the facts another

While headlines might say "Surging Canberra Times audience amid COVID-19 crisis drives ACM network to 8.4 million readership nationwide" the fact remains that ACM have decimated their regional newspapers Long before ACM took over from Fairfax the mega publishers imagined a new world order of paywalls across their regional papers and the eventual whittling down of newspaper product. But then along came Facebook and Google turning the dream upside down. The mastheads were now too expensive to advertise in, their readership was waning and the world was embracing social media news... for free. Up until now the mastheads had beleived they had a monopoly on news and were the only place to advertise. Then they realised that their advertisers were leaving in droves. What followed has been the steady decline in engagement between our local papers and the community where it is now more than apparent that the mighty dollar rules with our local papers dedicating, on average, 40 to 50 % of their pages to advertising and TV guide liftouts. Where there was one grass roots community content the local papers became clones of each other with a Bega story or Batemans Bay story appearing in the Narooma news for want of filling a space between adverts. The local content that reflected the warp and weft of the community simply disappeared as if to indicate there was nothing to report. Advertisements became more national, occupying full pages, photos for articles became larger and content made way for revenue to the point where the local papers sold their front pages to advertisers such as Pennitel and the Liberal Party in wrap-arounds dressed up as news. It has now come to a point where there is a serious downturn in respect and regard for local newspapers and the role they once played in a community has been brought into disrepute. As more and more people come to realise the content of a paper is not what it was there are less and less sales. The Centre for Media Transition suggest n the decade to 2018,106 local and regional newspapers closed in Australia, leaving 21 local government areas - 16 in regional areas - without a local newspaper. But the Mastheads believed that if the set up an on-line subscription paywall they could continue to maintain their revenue stream with their local news monopoly. That hasn't quite worked out for them. Locally the community needed immediacy of news regarding the bushfires, then floods and now Covid. They needed access to timely reliable information and the idea of waiting for a Wednesday or Friday to read about what happened last week revealed the inadequacies of an aging model. And while the fires burned the community turned instead to the radio and to social media frustrated with what they found behind ACM paywalls. ACM has speculated that that unwillingness to pay for online content may have changed if it was the only way to get local news but from the fires rose the quality delivery of radio emergency coverage and, more locally, two key social media news sources that were instrumental in keeping the community advised via socail media. While there was considerable chatter on social media chat pages the community turned to the Braidwood Bugle and The Beagle for their updates. The statistics of engagements at the time were incredible. ACM reports that the total readership ofThe Canberra Times surged dramatically to almost 2.3 million in March as audiences turned to canberratimes.com.au for breaking news on the growing national COVID-19 emergency following rolling coverage of summer's deadly bushfires on the NSW South Coast. That might well be the case for Canberra but the reality in Braidwood and on the coast was that the enagement figures for ACM just didn't reflect that surge, in fact the opposite was the experience.

Above: January 6th The fires were raging around Braidwood and the reality of the scale of the Eurobodalla fires was beginning to be realised as they spread. The community needed timely, accurate and accessible information. The role of radio was critical during the fires and many listeners turned to social media to follow their readio stations as supplementary news feed was provided.

The above figures tell their own story of the role that the mastheads played during the fires. Their model of being behind a paywall forced them to open the doors to free updates. The papers stopped being printed as delivery was not secure and the community came to learn that there were more timely altenates to turn to. Prior to going into the bushfire season the writing was on the wall that the model that ACM had for their regiona papers was failing their audience and the public. The bushfires further revealed the failure and the cessation of printing of many of its papers including the Moruya Examiner during the Covid lockdown simply twisted the knife even further. Since then the local publications of the Bay Post and Narooma News have become so threadbare that it must be argued what do they actually offer their readership. It has been offered in wider discussions that newspapers serve the older members of the community who are not internet connected. If this is the case then the Bay Post offeres to them little in the way of local news, virtually nothing by way of local council substance, contributed sports reports and week old fishing reports. There is the TV lift out guide, crosswords and letters to the editor. At nearly 50% of the paper occupied by advertising and with dwindling numbers of sales it is not a surprise to see that companies like ACM and NewsCorp are calling for Government assistance. While the unions are arguing over the loss of staff and the important role that journalists play in the community the fact is that, at a regional level the community has come to expect less and less from their local newspaper to the point where they have looked elsewhere for local news or have disengaged from local news. If we pull the headline of "Surging Canberra Times audience drives ACM network to 8.4 million readership nationwide" apart it is easy to see how they arrived at this conclusion as they add "the total cross-platform audience was up by a dramatic 180 per cent from March 2019, and up 101 per cent from the previous January-December 2019 survey period." And there you have it "101 per cent from the previous January-December 2019 survey period". Coming out of Covid we will expect to see quite a few post Covid changes. It might pay to keep an eye on regional media as more and more independent newspapers come on line, restoring quality, inclusive local news back to communities sick and tired of being treated as cash cows paying to read full page advertisements to satisfy the revenue streams of shareholders and unrealistic and unsustainable profits. ******************************************************************** What's the future of community newspapers? By Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Extra The closure of hundreds of small suburban and community papers has left a hole in civic life. But it's not all gloom and doom - entrepreneurial journalists and publishers are forging a new model - even if its from their dining room table. Guests: Eric Beecher, chairman, Private Media Genevieve Jacobs, group editor Region Media Carol Altman, The Terrier

Duration: 25min 17secBroadcast: Sat 6 Jun 2020, 8:05am Listen HERE

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