The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts (the Committee) has published a list of recommendations from its’ inquiry Into Australia’s regional newspapers, following two days of public hearings earlier this month.
The Committee made 12 recommendations based on 340 submissions put forward from interested parties, including Seven West Media (SWM), Australian Community Media (ACM), Australian Associated Press (AAP), SBS, Google and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, alongside hundreds of other organisations and individuals.
The recommendations are aimed at addressing core sector issues, and implementing alternative and sustainable business practices to ensure the longevity of regional news across Australia.
The Committee has asked that the Australian Government invest further into the survival of regional news, recommending that the Government should “review government advertising expenditure across all departments and agencies with a view to ensure a minimum of 20% of government print advertising is placed in regional newspapers”. The Committee asserted that this should form part of long-term advertising contracts that would provide financial certainty for regional publications and could be implemented cost neutrally within 12 months.
The Committee also recommended that the Government, as part of a comprehensive review of the viability of regional newspapers in Australia, consider the viability of a tax rebate for the regional business that support local newspapers through a minimum advertising spend as well as regional newspapers that produce public interest journalism ad employ local journalists.
In another recommendation, the Committee suggests the Government to develop targeted grants program for small, independent newspapers based in regional and remote communities.
The remaining recommendations cover proposition’s for further research, legislative amendments, partnerships and initiatives to support Australia’s newspaper services in rural, regional and remote areas, some modelling off successful schemes seen overseas, such as the BBC Local News Partnerships program and the US News Desert project by the University of North Carolina.
Commenting on the recommendations, Committee chair Dr Anne Webster MP said: “Regional newspapers in Australia represent a large and diverse industry, which has experienced significant challenges over the past decade. With the transition to digital news and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, assessing the health of our regional newspapers is more important than ever before.”
“For people in regional, rural, or remote communities, regional newspapers are the main source of local information. It also plays an important role in maintaining an interconnected community, and a healthy democracy. A diversity of opinion from all sides of the political spectrum and coverage of local, as well as national issues, is essential to public debate. It is important we ensure the sector remains viable in the long-term,” said Webster.
The first day of the hearing on the 28th of February saw ACM and SWM flagged potential masthead closures and job losses for regional newspapers without government intervention.
“The News Media Bargaining Code brought Google and Facebook to the table,” said ACM managing director Tony Kendall, “which they would not have been prior to that. We’ve negotiated terms with both of those parties, but it’s fair to say that regional players negotiated their terms after the metro players had done significant deals. So the Seven Group, the News Limited Group and the Nine Group had taken quite a significant chunk of the available monies that Google and Facebook were prepared to put in this. That said, we’re happy with the deal we’ve negotiated, but they represent only about 5% of our total revenue.”
Despite ACCC’s estimate that the code had led to upwards of $200 million in licensing deals, the overwhelming sentiment from the hearing was that it was not, nor was it intended to be, a “silver bullet”.
On the second day of the hearing, Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications first assistant secretary, online safety, media & platforms division Pauline Sullivan said: “We are looking at an industry that’s in structural decline and it has been declining over 20 or 30 years with a range of technological changes, the most recent being the rise of the internet and digital platforms…. our view would be that with any industry that’s instructional decline, you need a range of interventions over time to support the transition of that industry to new business models.”
The full list of recommendations by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts can be viewed on the Committee’s website.