Parish pump vs big media

Unsold newspaper returns
Unsold newspaper ‘returns’ await collection. Photo Bob Wilson

While our free local weekly, The Range News, had by default become a localised version of the Sunshine Coast Daily, we sorely miss our weekly news. At Crystal Waters Markets last Saturday a few of us were discussing things that happened in the village we did not hear about, partly because the Maleny-based TRN had gone, but also because the closure of the UpFront Club, a reliable source of gossip, had to some extent broken up the information network.

TRN’s owner, Australian Regional Media, chose to fold the paper on May 12, rather than include it in the portfolio of publications it had recently put up for sale. In the final edition, Sunshine Coast General Manager Ken Woods said that despite the paper being well embedded in the community, his team had been unable to revitalise the business, which had suffered from dwindling commercial support.

TRN had a long history of independent owners over 34 years. In 2006, it was sold to ARM which, through its listed parent company Australian Provincial Newspapers (APN), owns a stable of titles in Australia, including 12 regional dailies in Queensland and NSW and 60 community newspapers and specialist publications.

ARM’s 2015 annual report claims 87% penetration in its local markets and 1.6 million readers a week (newspapers and online). ARM’s audience growth was driven by increased digital audiences. Total online audiences grew 20% year-on-year, mobile audiences grew 43% and social audiences grew 20%, contributing to overall digital revenue growth of 36%.

The bad news would sound familiar to most media organisations.

“National agency revenues finished the year challenged, following an accelerated drop in top 10 national advertising client advertising spend. All other revenue from national advertising clients was flat year-on-year.”

 APN let the market know in February it wanted to sell its regional and non-daily titles, while keeping its radio network, outdoor advertising business and numerous websites.

Along came Rupert Murdoch, wielding his 14.9% holding in ARM and offering $37 million to take it off APN’s hands. That happened in June and the sale is subject to shareholder approval, a foreign investment review and an ACCC ruling on market dominance.

If this transaction takes place, News Ltd will then own every daily newspaper in Queensland, along with most of the non-dailies and all the suburban weeklies in Brisbane.

The closure of community newspapers does not appear to bother profit-motivated publishing companies. A spokeswoman said ARM had closed ‘a handful’ of newspapers in the past year for similar reasons.

ARM would tell you they still cover Maleny news (and they do). Recently they wrote about a former Maleny school girl who had gone through a gender crisis and emerged as a policeman. There was also a story about the long-term owners of Maleny Newsagency selling their business. Then there was the controversial yarn about plans to stage a motorcycle race through the hinterland. I read those stories on ARM’s website, and here’s the thing: you will never read provincial stories like these on Huffington Post, Yahoo News or the Daily Mail.

There are still independent free newspapers circulating on the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, including the weekly Glasshouse Country and Maleny News, Sunshine Valley Gazette and the monthly Hinterland Times. The removal of TRN puts additional pressure on these publications for editorial and advertising space. Being a commercial enterprise, the number of pages in the newspaper that sells advertising is entirely governed by how much advertising is sold.

Meanwhile the dedicated internet browser can, with self-discipline, canvas a very wide sample of national and world news each day, for no cost, or a token amount. So many publications allow their content to be shared on social media there is a constant stream of news and commentary hour by hour, depending on your tolerance level for staring at a computer screen or a tablet device.

But the Net is not an easy place for media companies to make money. The New Internationalist’s cover story about internet billionaires tells us that 85% of every new dollar spent on Internet advertising goes to Google or Facebook rather than those generating the content.

A June 13 special edition of Media Watch investigated the multiple problems facing online news websites. Host Paul Barry began by reporting that in the past seven months, online news sites including Vice, Salon, Mashable and Gawker had all laid off staff. Buzzfeed has been forced to cut its 2016 revenue forecast by half. The Guardian lost 59 million pounds last year and is laying off 250 staff, even though 42 million readers a month visit its international digital news sites. The Daily Mail (53 million digital readers a month), is also struggling.

As independent publisher Eric Beecher told Barry, it is getting harder for news sites to sell ads for decent money “because everyone on the internet has an electronic billboard to fill”.

Business Spectator chief Alan Kohler had this to say about the challenges of persuading online readers to pay:

“The trouble with subscriptions is that there’s just so much free stuff still available; that getting people to pay for content that’s basically the same as what you can get for free is never going to work. I mean, it’s got to be very special to get people to pay.”

The other major obstacle to making a living through online news is the ubiquitous Ad blocker, a (free) piece of software that banishes ads from pages as you browse. Research in the US suggests one in three internet users employ Ad blockers, estimated to cost publishers $22 billion in 2015.

ARM’s regional media online subscription offers subscribers unlimited access to ARM titles across all platforms, unrestricted access to The Courier‐Mail, digital subscription access to FOX SPORTS online, free multi‐platform digital access to The Washington Post and access to the Presto Entertainment bundle. That’s a lot of access for $6 a week.

Despite the impressive numbers around ARM’s online strategy, I suspect there is still a place for free a community newspaper.

I started my journalism career as a country newspaper reporter and my first boss described local news as answering your neighbour’s question: “Who is digging up the road into the park and why, and when will whatever they are doing be finished?”

Call it parish pump if you must, but if people want to know who cut down five roadside trees in Freestone Road, and why. Only the Warwick Daily News (and FOMM) will tell them that. (Main Roads, under the policy of removing any tree that is within one metre of the roadway).

Many of the large circulation newspapers are resorting to what used to be called ‘yellow journalism’ in a bid to attract/retain readers. To wit, the Daily Telegraph’s bizarre page one depiction of Labor leader Bill Shorten as “Billnocchio” – portraying him with a long wooden nose.

Big media, with its obsessions about politics, crime and corruption, big business and celebrities, not to mention haplessly editorialising in favour of a Coalition election victory, are missing the market.