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Memo to Michelle Guthrie: as local newspapers die, might the ABC help out?

In this man’s day, Cooma had a thriving newspaper. Now it is gone – could the ABC step into the breach? State Records NSW/flickr

Memo to Michelle Guthrie: as local newspapers die, might the ABC help out?

The ABC’s new managing director, Michelle Guthrie, has been in the job for just over a week. She has already made it her mission to increase diversity at the broadcaster and Helen Vatsikopoulos offers some suggestions how this could be done. Our experts consider how to improve news and current affairs coverage, local content and digital services and Brian McNair (below) suggests how Guthrie could assist with the crisis in local and regional journalism.

Last week saw the closure of the Cooma-Monaro Express, after 130 years of serving the Snowy Mountains community of Cooma.

The title is the latest casualty of Fairfax Media’s restructuring, and a real blow to the people who have depended on it for local coverage. Nine journalism jobs will be lost at the paper, and there will be knock on economic impacts.

Cooma newsagent Shane Clark told the ABC,

It was quite a big shock. It’s not like sales have dropped dramatically so it’s a bit out of the blue on behalf of Fairfax. Country towns love their local papers and sometimes I think that the decision-makers up in Sydney don’t understand how important local papers are to country areas.

At QUT, our research on the Australian public sphere shows that people truly value their local journalism. In a world of media industry turbulence and change, the local paper (and its online equivalent) retains its value as the only place where a certain, crucial category of information can be found.

We can access all the national and global news we want on ABC, Sky, CNN and BBC World. We can read the whole world’s media online at the touch of a button, finding out what’s going on in the US presidential campaign at exactly the same time as the Americans themselves.

But when it comes to how the local mayor is performing, or who is being born and who is dying in the community, or what multinational corporation is trying to get an LNG permit to dig up a neigbourhood beauty spot, we need local journalism to report, investigate, scrutinise, expose. To lose a title such as the Cooma-Monaro Express is to lose a central element of the infrastructure of local democracy.

Australia’s crisis of journalism is nowhere more evident than in the local and regional sectors. Deakin University scholars set out the challenges in a thoughtful submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications last March. They noted that:

While rural and regional Australians have access to more media than ever before in a digital world … they are receiving less news that is relevant to them at the local level.

The Deakin paper focuses on what the ABC can do to preserve and protect its own local and regional services, as it too struggles to restructure and streamline for the digital era.

But as Michelle Guthrie steps into the role of ABC Managing Director, we should be asking what the ABC can do to support the commercial sector in the regions, and communities such as Cooma.

Michelle Guthrie speaking to the Senate Estimates Committee last week. Lukas Coch/AAP

Mark Scott’s February speech to the National Press Club identified “the closure of many regional newspapers and the continued loss of local content makers in the bush, with fewer regional radio and TV news services” as part of the challenge facing Australian media.

One way to address this widening democratic deficit would be to expand the ABC into regional news holes abandoned by Fairfax and others. But even if there were funds for that approach, it presents the ABC with political problems around perceived anti-competitiveness and overreach.

Moreover, the ABC is a big behemoth, lacking both the funds and the agility, one might suggest, to replace very localised outlets such as the Cooma-Monaro Express.

It would be far better to develop the approach Scott alluded to in a 2013 speech in the United States, where he quoted approvingly journalism professor Jeff Jarvis’ notion of “an organisation that sees itself as a member of an eco-system” and which understands “the value of every relationship, even relationships with competitors, to create both value and efficiency … a platform or network that would foster others’ success”.

In that speech, Scott outlined some pilot schemes and initiatives around content sharing with local commercial content producers. These include the BBC’s Newstracker service, which drives online traffic to local media and makes the BBC “the fifth highest feeder of readers to UK commercial newspaper websites, sending many more visitors there than Facebook”.

Since then, the BBC has gone further to support the UK’s local media industry, and local journalism in particular, with schemes focused on hyper-local websites at one end of the spectrum, and partnerships with big commercial companies on the other.

It was reported two weeks ago that the UK News Media Association, which represents the national, regional and local press, was nearing agreement with the BBC to work together on reviving local journalism.

Details remain to be finalised, but specific proposals include:

  • regional press providing the BBC with a comprehensive reporting service primarily covering local authorities

  • a video bank that would make BBC regional content available to local media partners free of charge

  • a shared data journalism unit

  • an agreement on better linking to local media content on BBC news sites and attribution to content originated in local media.

  • 100 journalists funded by the BBC on local coverage which would be shared with the commercial sector.

The BBC, like the ABC, walks a tightrope between the provision of public cultural goods such as journalism, and the perception of competitors that it is squeezing commercial media enterprises out of markets.

While the idea that the ABC should be only a market failure broadcaster is a recipe for decline and marginalisation, it is entirely valid to say that an organisation protected from the bitter winds of free market competition should use its resources and prestige to bolster a key journalism sector which the commercial sector is best suited to deliver, but struggling to maintain.

The ABC already cooperates with Fairfax and other media organisations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on specific projects such as the Panama Papers. And it should be among Guthrie’s strategic priorities to accelerate and consolidate the collaborative approach, sharing the tax payer’s dollar with those who wish to access the ABC’s vast resources and expertise in pursuit of public services such as quality local journalism.

Australia loves its ABC, and local communities such as Cooma need their journalism.

With the digital opportunities opening up, is it time for the ABC to think in new ways about how it can serve local communities by helping local and regional news producers stay in business with much needed quality local coverage?

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