After widespread closures, independent regional publishers fight to revive the local rag
CLICK THE MAP ABOVE TO VIEW A RECORD OF PAPERS OPENED AND CLOSED
Some were started by local business people. Some were started by mothers homeschooling five children.
Some were started journalists let go from the fledgling newspaper they have attempted to replace.
All have the same priorities: to provide purely local news to their community and to survive.
In mid April 2020 Australia was blanketed under COVID-19 lockdown orders.
Already suffering from years of drought and the worst bushfires in living memory, rural and regional communities despaired at the thought of months without tourism.
Then, a bombshell hit: Australian Community Media announced that it would cease printing most of its local rural weeklies, citing a pandemic-led drop in advertising revenue.
No assurance the titles would return was provided.
The following month, the other shoe dropped: News Corp would move more than 100 regional and local newspapers online, with 14 to disappear altogether.
The country reacted with shock at the thought of thousands of jobs being lost in the midst of the pandemic but the justification from the media companies – that the print products were no longer sustainable – was scarcely challenged. It’s been gospel for many years that print media in terminal decline, long supplanted by online news.
But on the ground in these communities, locals had a different perspective.
In the mid-Queensland town of Marybourough local business identity and former Brisbane ad-man Craig Winter started receiving numerous requests from locals visiting his antique store to start a newspaper after News Corp’s Fraser Coast Chronicle went online.
“I had a lineup of people at the shop a couple of months ago, wanting me to start a newspaper, and I kept saying ‘no, no, no, not interested’,” Mr Winter said.
But then the stories from locals started to weigh on him.
“This man’s 92, I think, and his only exercise during the day is to get up in the morning and walk to the shop to buy his paper,” Mr Winter said.
“And when he couldn’t buy the Chronicle anymore, he had no idea why he was gonna leave the house in the morning. Wow.
“The other really significant one was a nurse in an aged care facility, she writes a huge letter to us.
“The last thing she does in the week is she reads the newspaper to all the dementia patients.
“And when the newspapers disappeared, she immediately, of course, opened a laptop
“And they didn’t trust it. They didn’t. They didn’t believe that what she was reading off this electronic device was real.
“That stuff is huge but when you’re a corporate, you never hear that stuff.”
Mr Winter jumped into action, securing a local printer, delivery people, four journalists and two sales people.
In August 12,500 copies the first issue of the free, biweeky Maryborough Sun rolled off the presses and it was almost instantly profitable.
“The Chronicle used to operate with like 23 staff, so their overheads were just really high,” Mr Winter said.
“So we can charge 20 per cent less for advertising than they did and still come out on top…We made back 95 per cent of our budget in our first week.”
This occurred despite the paper deciding not to print classifieds within the first month of its existence.
“A lot of our customers just don’t want to advertise online or on Facebook,” Mr Winter said.
The feedback from readers has also been stellar – Mr Winter said he received 300 letters and emails after the publication of the first issue.
He puts the success of the paper down to a simple editorial philosophy: If the news doesn’t involve or impact the Marybourough-Fraser Bay area in some way, it doesn’t make the cut.
If the news doesn’t end on an upward note, it doesn’t make the cut.
Mr Winter said this editorial philosophy was directly influenced by the type of news carried in the News Corp predecessor – copy which was often syndicated and if it was relevant to the area, often alarmist.
“We’ve told our journalists that they can write anything they want, they can kick politicians half to death, they can complain about me,” he said.
“They can do whatever they like, provided every story has some impact on the area and provided every story ends positively.
“So, if you’re talking about a con man that’s running through the area, fleecing old people, that’s fine but that instead of using it as a scare tactic you know, use it as an educational thing and end it on a positive note.
“I knew a journalist at the old paper and he had to write the major stories and five minor stories every day in a town of less than 20,000 people.
“That’s why you ended up with crap newspapers. He’s got to reach his target, so if little Billy sees a dog across the road, then suddenly a rabid dog is out there attacking children.”
Mr Winter says the future of his paper is bright: He’s easily making a seven per cent profit margin – he reckons the Chronicle made just three per cent – and has plans to extend circulation into neighbouring towns as classified revenue grows.
“We’re having nibbles at the other regions around us. We don’t want any other newspaper groups creeping up on us, which could happen,” he said.
“It’s sustainable – you won’t make a million dollars – but I don’t need a million dollars.”
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On May 28th journalists at the sister papers at the South and the Central/North Burnett
Times received some news of their own: their 110-year-old newspapers was to cease
serving the towns of Kingaroy and Gayndah, Queensland, in a physical format.
A total of 12 of the 18 joint staff were to be let go at the sister publications – some
of these employees were as tightly bound as the papers they worked for.
“My boyfriend getting made redundant wasn’t a nice feeling,” said Laura Blackmore,
one of the four journalists who was kept on for the digital transition.
Laura’s friend and close colleague Kate McCormack was also made redundant. As a staff
member of two and a half years, she was the longest-standing journalist at newspapers,
which suffered from high turnover due to the workload.
“I got made redundant straight up, which was shocking as I was the journalist who
had been there the longest,” she said.
They were given their notice – in late June, the twin papers would move online.
But the general mange, Daniel Pelcl, was hit with an outcry from the local community.
“Daniel was the general manager of the News Corp papers at the time and when he
saw the reaction of the community, he decided they still needed a paper out there,”
“He partnered with a few other directors and now he’s the managing director of
“We got it off the ground a month after we were told that we were going online,” added
With a weekly circulation of 6000, the North, South and Central Burnett today is
outselling its predecessor.
At 64 pages an issue, it is also larger by a third.
“We felt like News Corp, they didn’t care about the community I don’t think,” said
“Our paper was such a source of news for people – there are so many ways people interact with newspapers, through real estate, through sport or whatever.
We also have a large population of elderly people who don’t navigate online news very
well and we have people on properties without good internet connections. So they
need a print product.”
“People with learning disabilities don’t access online news very well so a print
product is very important for them as well,” added Laura.
Unlike other new local papers, the Burnett today costs money.
At $2.50 an issue the paper is bringing in $10,000 a week in circulation revenue
alone – helping support its 16 staff and office just 100m down the road from that of
Laura and Kate both think the new paper will be viable for many years.
“I think so, people still read the paper and we see it everywhere around town.
It may be a long time before people don’t need a paper,” Laura said.
“I guess because the times stopped their print product, the community realised
how much they value the print product so they have been really supportive,” Kate said.