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Regional newspapers get a raw deal

Country rags may be trash, but they’re our trash, writes Lane Sainty.

Country rags may be trash, but they’re our trash, writes Lane Sainty.

Most of us have little need to regularly consider the fate of the newspaper. It arrives on our doorstop, or at the corner store, every day without fail. But recent shake-ups in an industry under immense financial pressure have made us think twice about our throwaway rags.

The rise of the tablet and events like the Fairfax restructuring in June have given us much food for thought about the inevitable switch to online platforms. However, information about the changes regional newspapers face has been virtually non-existent.

There is one struggle we have heard about: that of Fairfax’s Newcastle Herald, Illawarra Mercury, and associate papers. They will have editorial production outsourced to New Zealand, changes that were opposed by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) but will go ahead regardless. This will not only result in job cuts, but also inevitably impact upon the ‘local’ nature of these papers.

This is an important part of the story. Regional papers may have a much smaller readership than their metropolitan counterparts, but often command a larger percentage of the intended community. This means they can wield a tremendous amount of influence, albeit amongst a small population.

My local, Griffith’s The Area News. At the best of times it’s an enjoyable read; at worst, a trashy paper almost completely unhindered by qualms about bias. It has taken positions on a number of controversial town issues, and is currently pursuing a relentless campaign against the infamous Murray Darling Basin Plan.

The Area News also contains weekly segments that challenge the idea of ‘newsworthiness’ as we know it.

One section, carrying the inane title ‘What are you into?’, asks a random person what music, books, food, and websites they happen to be enjoying at the moment.

Obliging amateur chefs eagerly fill up ‘Recipe of the Week’. ‘My Wheels’, which profiles someone and their car or motorbike, is testament to the grand country tradition of ‘lapping’.

My personal favourite is the ‘Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down’ column, in which the people of Griffith detail readers with various small-town complaints and compliments. These usually involve speeding P-platers (complaints) and those who help elderly people carry groceries to their car (compliments). However, more creative— and more spiteful— entries have been seen. A recent contribution read: “Thumbs up to the thumbs down to the thumbs down to the P-platers blocking the service road at Marian Catholic College.” I wish I were joking.

Needless to say, stories in The Area News are often uninteresting. Heck, they are often plain irrelevant. But they are always local, and this is what keeps the paper both alive and successful today. The MEAA agree, stating in regards to the Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury issue that “commitment and engagement with the communities of the Hunter and the Illawarra depends on journalists embedded in and understanding those communities”.

Essentially, you can’t take the local out of local papers and expect them to keep chugging on as is. This applies to regional communities across Australia. Fairfax and News Ltd. would do well to dwell on that message as they negotiate this tumultuous era.

Lane Sainty is on Twitter:

@lanesainty