Researchers from the University of Canberra have taken an in-depth look at Australian regional news, finding that the use of social media has been one of the biggest influencers on the working lives of regional journalists over the past five years, and that regional communities who have lost local news outlets are keen for new services to take their place.
The News and Media Research Centre (N&MRC) from the Faculty of Arts and Design has released two reports supported by the Google News Initiative today, one that looks at what regional journalists need, and the other a deep dive into local news consumers.
Australian Regional Journalists: What they need and how they see the future
Australian Regional Journalists: What they need and how they see the future has found that 95 per cent of the journalists surveyed say the influence of social media has become stronger, followed by the importance of visual story elements (80 per cent) and competition for audience attention (76 per cent). A lack of time and resources were also nominated as the biggest challenges.
The pre-COVID-19 study is based on a survey of more than 300 regional journalists from around Australia across print, TV, radio and online plus in-depth interviews with 30 reporters. The central aim of the study was to find out what regional journalists themselves need to keep serving their communities.
Lead author of the report, UC Associate Professor Caroline Fisher, says there is a lot of debate about the state of regional journalism, but the voices of practitioners are often missing.
“While the study was conducted prior to COVID-19, the challenges identified by the journalists have simply got harder,” said Dr Fisher.
“Though we can’t predict how well the regional news industry will recover, we do know that reliable local news in times of emergency is essential. The dedicated reporters in regional newsrooms will need more support than ever to meet the needs of their communities in a time of ongoing transition and uncertainty.”
Overall, the report found regional journalists are dedicated multitaskers who produce several stories a day a across a wide range of topics. They see delivering impartial information, educating the public and scrutinising local government and business as their primary roles. They consider themselves to have a much stronger connection to their communities than reporters in the city. Those who work for local independent newspapers are the most likely to see themselves as advocates for their local area.
In relation to the growing influence of social media, some reporters see it as an opportunity, while others see it as a curse.
“Reporters also have mixed feelings about it. While many find it valuable for researching stories, it is time consuming promoting stories and interacting with comments from the public,” Dr Fisher said.
The report found relatively high job satisfaction. The majority of the journalists said they enjoy the job of reporting but are less happy about their hours and pay. A lack of time, staff and money were identified as the biggest obstacles to their work, especially for those in single person newsrooms where there is no back up.
Local News Consumers
The Local News Consumers report surveyed over 2,000 adult regional news consumers to identify gaps in local news provision and whether there is an appetite for a new grassroots news service with a reporter in their town and how much they are willing to pay for it.
Twenty-nine per cent of regional respondents said they would be willing to pay for such a service, which is double the national average of Australians currently paying for news (14%). The most popular form of payment was to give a small one-off donation followed by a $5 monthly subscription.
Lead researcher Professor Sora Park says people living in areas where news services have closed are more likely to pay than others.
“Almost one-fifth of people said they had experienced the closure or amalgamation of a local news service in the past five years. The loss was felt most in small Local Government Areas,” said Dr Park.
While the majority (88 per cent) of regional news consumers surveyed access local news regularly, the report finds one-quarter do not have access to local TV news service (24 per cent) or a local newspaper (25 per cent). One third said there was no local commercial radio (33 per cent) and more than half (55 per cent) said there was no physical ABC local radio presence in their area.
Sixty-two per cent of people who experienced the closure of a local news outlet said it had a negative impact on their community, almost half (46 per cent) said it had led to a reduction of local information and one-quarter (23 per cent) said it had reduced their sense of belonging to their community. These people were also less satisfied with their remaining available news offerings and have the strongest desire for new offerings.
Dr Park says the findings are important in light of the ongoing decline of regional news services, accelerated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This survey was conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak and highlights that residents in many regional areas were already missing out on local news and information. The situation will only get worse following the recent newspaper closures and further cuts announced to the ABC.
“But the good news is, people want local news. They trust it more than general news and more people are prepared to support it than currently pay for online news,” Dr Park said.