More regional journalists need to be employed to focus on local stories and combat the “great watering down” of news from country areas, a Nationals MP has said.
Richie Williamson, MP for the NSW seat of Clarence, said closures of local newspapers had eroded the quality of news about country people and country issues.
“I’m very worried about the future of regional journalism,” he said. “We are seeing the great watering down of that profession, in every major media, whether that’s print, television or radio.
“There is a watering down of professional journalists, in terms of quality and numbers.
“When I first started in radio, The Daily Examiner was in full swing. I would hazard a guess that there would be up to 10 to 12 journalists, with three photographers. Now there are no photographers and I believe one journalist.”
According to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, since January 2019, over 322 news services across the country have closed, many of which are in regional Australia.
Williamson, who worked as a radio broadcaster at Grafton based 2GF for 30 years before entering public life, has observed first-hand the declining health of regional media in his Northern Rivers community, through the collapse of their News Corp owned local paper, The Examiner.
“Since News Corp shut down all their regional mastheads (some converted to digital), one of the really big issues in my community was and still remains, how do local residents get the information about who has died?” he said.
“The Daily Examiner, which was a daily journal, carried all of that information. And while it seems on the surface to be a small thing, if you dig down to it, it is actually a connectivity issue. People felt unconnected because they weren’t getting that information.”
Williamson believes regional stories are integral to the Australian identity, and says the media performs at its best when it highlights regional stories, and supports regional journalists.
“The stories that need to be told [in regional papers] are stories that show that life is different in regional New South Wales,” he added. “It doesn’t mean that’s a good or bad thing, but I think the story is that life is different.
“We get our news in a different way, we travel in a different way, and we communicate in a different way than a lot of people do in the city. I think that’s the main issue for regional media, to acknowledge that the regions are different to the city.
“It’s absolutely vital, to ensure that our stories in the bush are not only told in the bush, but they’re also told in the city as well.
There’s a lot of scope to do some really good reporting and tell stories that perhaps you don’t see in the metropolitan news cycle.
“Well trained, highly qualified journalism is equally important in the streets, towns and regional cities as it is in Pitt Street.”
Lucie Peart, the owner of independent news publisher Gilgandra Newspapers, and President of Country Press NSW – an organisation that represents over 40 regional mastheads – believes no media model compares with regional papers.
“There’s a trust with your local media and your local paper that they’re operating with standards,” she said. “All Country Press NSW members abide by Australian Press Council standards, as part of our charter.
“There’s a recognition that what we’re printing is of a standard of truth and fairness.
“The internet doesn’t do that. Anyone can say anything they like on the internet, true or not.
“So, getting rid of a source that is promoting truth and fair discussion would be detrimental to the health of our democracy.”
To Peart, regional papers have a leg up on their metropolitan counterparts because they don’t just share news, they build communities.
However, she cautions the way regional stories are told across the country.
“I think there’s definitely merit in having regional issues brought to light in metropolitan media, but they have to be brought to light properly,” she said. “Not with some sort of strange tokenism about the ‘battlers of the bush’ or all these things. That can be an experience for one issue, but we’re also thriving, and people want to move here.”
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, regional Australia’s population grew by over 100,000 residents in the 2021-2022 period, and by over 70,000 the year before.
With this growth, Peart argues the regions are gaining new citizens looking for the kind of captivating and community-oriented journalism that only regional media can provide.
“There’s much more room to tell [community stories] in a local newspaper than there is on TV or radio, and there’s recognition that if something has been covered by the local paper, that it’s a real issue,” she said.
“There’s a lot of scope to do some really good reporting and tell stories that perhaps you don’t see in the metropolitan news cycle.”
Main picture of Richie Williamson supplied.