The future of local newspapers
This post was prompted by an item in the Oran Park Gazette, an A4 newsletter newspaper. Gazette journalist Lisa Finn-Powell asked: What is the future of the community newspaper?
The local ‘rag’ in our suburb is a free tabloid newspaper thrown onto our front driveway each week. Actually there are two of them, the Camden Narellan Advertiser and the Macarthur Chronicle. Where I live some of these newspapers stay on the neighbour’s driveway for weeks and disintegrate into a mess. Other neighbours just put them in the bin. So not everyone is a fan of the local ‘rag’ in the age of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
Yet others, including those in our household, devour the local newspaper from cover to cover. More than this I clip the local newspapers each week. I compete with others in the household. By the time I get the newspaper there already a holes in it. There is certainly a future for local newspaper in this household.
The local in local newspapers
In the Oran Park Gazette Lisa Finn-Powell maintains that the community newspaper does have a future. She argues that it provides a way for members of the community to support each other by celebrating local events, anniversaries and traditions. Local newspapers make people feel good about their neighbourhood.
From the journalists point of view Finn-Powell maintains that their readers are in their face. Local journalists are ‘up close and personal’ with their readers. The local newspaper, according to Gazette editor Belinda Sanders, shares local stories with local people who all have a story to tell. (Oran Park Gazette, October 2017)
While the purpose of the Gazette’s story was to bolster local advertising editor Belinda Sanders has a point about the importance of local newspapers. Her self-interest is not pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Scholarly literature on newspapers supports her position.
Survival of the local
Media historian Rod Kirkpatrick maintains that community newspapers have survived because of their closeness to their community, their reflections of a community’s values, their contribution to its cohesion, their service to the progress and welfare of their local community.
A similar list has been compiled by regional historian Louise Prowse . She maintains that the local newspaper is central to the life of country towns by underpinning social capital, strengthening social relationships, reflecting the town’s values, valuing local history, having close links to the community, and providing a voice for the community.
Local newspapers, especially country newspapers, tells stories in a different way to the large metropolitan daily newspapers. The country newspaper editor reports in a narrative style and does not obsess about the inverted pyramid. They write feel good articles that are generally not sensationalist. The local newspaper is less likely to need to put a negative spin on a story. The editor goes for the known and comfortable and readers might be living around the corner or have personal knowledge of the people and events.
Camden Advertiser journalist Jeff McGill maintains that the local newspaper creates ‘the strong weave in our social fabric’. After working for the large metro daily he decided he did not like writing negative attack style stories all the time, so he went back to his roots and became a journalist in the local paper. There he could write stories with a positive spin for a readership who personally knew him.
How different is different?
The essence of country newspapers, community newspapers, or provincial newspapers is the style of reporting practiced by journalists according to Rod Kirkpatrick in his examination of this issue.
Just as there are significant differences between the closed self-contained rural and regional communities and the large metropolitan areas. There are distinct differences in the practice of journalism between newspapers these two distinct economic, political, cultural, and social landscapes.
Jock Lauterer who wrote Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local says that community newspapers have three things in common:
- a readership of less than 50,000,
- an exclusive focus on stories with a local connection and
- offices accessible to their readers.
So what is community journalism? There are handbooks and guides on community journalism. They provide sections on how to report local council meetings, writing an obituary, wedding or other local celebration. They provide advice about the peculiarities of dealing with local organisations and businesses and other everyday matters. Interestingly Kirkpatrick maintains that city-based journalism would do well to take heed of this style of writing.
Kirkpatrick maintains that journalists on community newspapers need to understand that the daily doings of the community that are of interest to readers. Local celebrations, traditions and events, for example, weddings, funerals, births, fetes, and anniversaries. Few if any of these stories ever make it to the large metro dailies.
The journalist is up-close-and-personal and need to ‘touch the pulse of the local community and fight its battles against’ outsiders. The journalist might find themselves embedded in a small community where they do not have the anonymity of their city-based journalist colleagues.
Journalist David Kurpius described community journalism as civic journalism. Central to this type of writing is an in-depth understanding of the community that makes up the newspaper readership.
Journalists in this environment write stories with a degree of depth and understanding of the issue that are important to the local community. He maintains that the journalist has to engage the readership and have a conversation with them about the values that are important to the community.
The journalist needs to capture the ‘priorities, concerns and perspectives on different issues’ of the citizenry.
This is certainly what Lee Abrahams the owner/editor of the The District Reporter does on a weekly basis. She feels that her local newspaper ‘is different from other newspapers’. She aims to tell the ‘local people about their local area and their stories are part of that agenda’.
Abrahams has stated that she writes ‘good stories’ and leaves out the police and ambulance rounds as they often have a negative line.
Abrahams likes reporting the small and strong and raising public awareness, by informing and keeping public interest. In particular she attempts to cut through the spin from the state government and give the story a local angle. (Camden History, vol 3, no 1, 2011)
This type of difference that can be identified in the country press is not new and is typical of earlier times. One example was wartime.
A point of difference, the local press and war
This blogger has written about the country press in wartime and examined its crucial role in patriotic volunteering and fundraising, keeping up morale, supporting the war effort and a host of other issues.
I particularly looked at the role of the owner/editors of two local newspaper in a small country town during the Second World War and how these local identities used their influential role on their reportage in their newspapers.
I recently put up a conference proposal for a paper on how country newspapers reported during the First World War. The abstract for the proposal went in part as follows:
Country newspapers provide an archive record of the First World War that is identifiably different from the large metropolitan daily newspapers of the war period. The local newspaper has a number of differences that are related to their localness and parochialism, their relationship to their readership, their promotion of the community and their approach to the news of the war. The local newspaper recorded the subtleties of local patriotism and wartime voluntarism and fundraising, the personal in soldier’s letters, the progress of the war and a host of other issues.
Digital disruption – just the latest challenge
Will local newspapers survive in the age of digital disruption?
Rachel Matthews says in her article on the provincial media in Routledge Companion to British Media History writes that the demise of local newspaper has been predicted on numerous occasions. Matthews goes to outline six historical phases to the development of provincial newspapers over the last 300 years and are:
- the local newspaper as opportunistic creation;
- the characterization of the local newspaper as the fourth estate;
- the impact of New Journalism;
- the growth of chain control,
- the move to computerised production and the advent of free newspapers;
- the provincial press in the digital age.
She concludes that these challenges provide ‘far reaching implications’ for the British provincial press.
I have written about the history of some of the mid-20th century newspapers in the Macarthur region on an earlier occasion. These country newspapers were some of the first to use the regional name of Macarthur for the Campbelltown, Camden and Picton areas.
The Macarthur region is located on Sydney’s south-western rural-urban fringe and is one of the fastest growing regions in Australia.
The local newspapers in the Macarthur region have changed in recent years as online sites suck up their advertising revenue. Where once our local edition of the Camden Narellan Advertiser might have run to 110 pages an issue they have shrunk to 60-70 pages.
Yet where there was once just one local edition of a newspaper there is now three in this ever growing area on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe.
The Advertiser is now published in three separate editions as the Campbelltown, Camden Narellan and Wollondilly Advertiser. A similar thing has happened to the Macarthur Chronicle, a part of the News Ltd stable.
As the regional population has grown so new opportunities have opened up for local suburban newspapers to fill the gap in the market place. The Oran Park Gazette, and its stable mates across Western Sydney, have filled some of these gaps that have appeared in the new suburbs.
Another which has appeared in 2016 was the Independent South-West, part of the King Media Regional group.
It is interesting to compare the Camden Narellan Advertiser with the Illawarra edition from the same newspaper stable The Advertiser Lake Times. The Illawarra edition barely makes 50 pages. It has to compete with a provincial daily The Illawarra Mercury. Yet it continues to thrive.
Change at the local during wartime
Media historian Rod Kirkpatrick points out that war has had lasting changes on the nature of the provincial press. He maintains that wars ‘have traditionally been a trigger for the emergence of newspaper or for significant change in their industry’. During the peace politics dominates, but during the conflict the war dominates the stories.
In country newspapers the war is on the front pages. While the First World War put cost pressures on the Australian press the voracious appetite at home for news of the war and sales of metro dailies soared during the conflict.
Newspapers shrunk and reportage of stories became terse and condensed. This contrasted with the convoluted narrative reporting style of the pre-war years.
The future in a digital age
So is there a future for the local paper in the digital age? I think so.
There is a craving for the authentic and personal to people can connect with their neighbourhood, even in the suburbs.
The internet is impersonal, the local newspaper is not. The local newspaper still has many challenges to meet especially around monetising advertising in the age of Google and Facebook.
With creativity and persistence the local newspaper will meet these challenges and be a part of the media landscape into the future. The local newspaper has changed in some communities to that it is an A4 newsletter newspaper.
The Oran Park Gazette, a free monthly A4 newsletter newspaper which boasts on its banner heading that it is ‘your community news’. It is published on the first week of each month and distributed to the new suburbs of Oran Park, Harrington Park, Gregory Hills and Harrington Grove. It started publication in November 2015 with a circulation of 3,500 and is part of a stable of five mastheads in the Flynnko Group.
The District Reporter is a free weekly tabloid of 16pp with a circulation of 17,000 across a footprint of 37,000 homes published by Wombaroo Publications in Camden. The newspaper started in 1997 in the Austral area by Lee Abrahams (editor) and Noel Lowry (sales). The masthead is blue and green to reflect the rural landscape of the sky and grass. They filled a gap left by the demise of the Camden Crier. The Reporter circulates in the Camden and Wollondilly Local Government Areas. (Camden History, vol 3, no 1)
The Menangle News is a free monthly newsletter newspaper of 4-6 pp. It is published in the Menangle village by husband and wife team Sue and Brian Peacock. It has a circulation of 218 and distributed throughout the village. It started life in 1980 as a duplicated news-sheet run off on a Gestetner copy machine. It only carries stories from the village which as a population of around 1200. It is truly local. (Camden History, vol 4, no 3)
This is a free tabloid that has been published twice since its launch in November 2016 in Camden. The Independent South-West is published by King Media Regional in Bowral, and is part of a stable of four mastheads. The 20pp tabloid is printed in colour on glossy paper. Editor Jane King states in Issue 1 that the paper will serve the local community and employ local people. The initial print run of 10,000 was distributed throughout the Camden LGA.
Free newspaper on the rise as traditional media declines in regional areas. ABC News 21 January 2016