The impact of digital disruption on traditional media is well acknowledged, but the devastating knock-on for journalism at a grassroots level is only finally registering on the political and social radar.
In barely a decade, more than 100 local and regional newspapers have closed in Australia and hundreds of journalists have been retrenched. The consequence is that we have become a country of untold stories, and the crisis threatens to tip into catastrophe.
One hope is that the Federal Government can stem the haemorraghing by adopting the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendations from its Digital Platforms Inquiry. Most of the attention has been on the big media companies’ calls for greater regulation of the tech titans, Facebook and Google, who have raided revenue streams.
But one of the most dramatic consequences of media disruption has occurred right around us with little apparent community concern.
Life in the ol' girl yet as Australian regional titles sold for $115m to Antony Catalano, private equity
The sale of Australian Community Media, with 160-plus regional and rural titles, to real estate marketing guru Antony Catalano is likely to usher in more promising times for newspapers across the expansive continent.
Despite everyone writing off newspapers, including the very bosses who have run some of them, there’s life in the ol’ girl yet.
Catalano, backed by Aussie billionaire Alex Waislitz's Thorney Investments, picked up the massive regional stable for the bargain basement price of $115 million.
Among the titles bringing home the bacon are the Newcastle Herald, The Canberra Times and the often ignored agriculture bible, The Land. These titles with a handful of other daily titles rake in most of the revenue for ACM, formerly Fairfax Regional Media.
Thereafter is a very long tail of lesser titles, many weeklies and bi-weeklies, that seek to serve their disparate communities the best they can with minimal resources.
Not too long ago, some of those big titles alone could have reaped as much as the sum total for the entire regional empire now to be transacted.
The sale tells us quite a bit about the state of print in this country, but let me zone on three insights.
It was a bold enough statement for me to take note - and to recount now more than 20 years on.
While on a study tour of the US in 1996, I was talking to a senior media executive in Chicago who emphatically declared, without a hint of self doubt: “In 10 to 15 years, people will look at a newspaper and laugh”.
Sure enough it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but print still matters - not just to news folk but also to those in the communications business finessing their media ecosystems.
Big media has defined the public impression about print - closures, sell-outs, layoffs and dwindling profitability.
But in the world of small publishers it is actually a far more positive scene.
Community newspapers, which comprise the overwhelming number of newspapers across the world, tell a different story to the big media’s narrative of How Digital Killed Print.
The small newspaper market faces similar challenges from media fragmentation, but the strong appetite for hyperlocal news means the local paper continues to provide a great sales and marketing environment.
Take New Zealand.
When quarterly circulation figures next ping the email boxes of newspaper publishers, it is likely to be another sea of red.
I am old enough that I recall those days as an editor when you could experience the adrenalin rush of a circulation spike. No such thing today. In the past five years, moderate decline, say negative one to three per cent, is as good as it gets.
The romantic in us wants to believe newspaper decline will plateau. There is no evidence of this.
However, there are seven big mistakes that newspapers regularly make that are killing them. Avoid them, and you can make print stronger for longer.
Traditional media keeps getting a pounding - and entering the fray at a sensitive time in New Zealand is the Flat Earth Society disguised as the country’s regulator, the Commerce Commission.
ComCom has rejected the proposed merger of Fairfax New Zealand and NZME, citing the likelihood of greatly reduced competition in the market. The argument: less outlets, less views, poorer society.
It beggars belief, of course.
Almost all new digital revenue goes to Facebook and Google - ComCom among the advertisers with the former.
Under a merger, the businesses would have been rationalised. Old jobs would have been axed but new jobs would have been created in what represented a chance for big but struggling media there to respawn.
With another round of editorial job losses imminent at Fairfax Media in Australia, the continuing contraction in the industry supports the argument that if you want to get your message out you might need to go DIY.
An increasing number of corporate and community organisations are setting up newsrooms to fill the void left by retreating traditional media - or to compete with what is left.
Fairfax has announced $30 million in cost cutting for FY18. Most of that is likely to come from axing staff in the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. This is my journo maths, but at the upper limit that represents about 200 staff, although expect it to be between 100 and 150 after some argy-bargy.
Some media competitors report this almost gleefully. However, staff across News Corporation in Australia can expect to see new rounds of redundancies too, according to my mail.
Meantime, given the fragmentation of the media and audiences, companies are investing large chunks of their marketing and communications budgets to better leverage digital and social media channels.
The declining fortunes of local media represents an unprecedented opportunity for local governments to step into the breach, set up a DIY Newsroom approach and go direct to residents with their message.
Today I learned of another “restructure” at one of Australia’s largest media chains, which is code for more staff redundancies and the lay-off of more journalists.
This spells another grim chapter for an already distressed traditional media.
In the regions, newspapers have greatly reduced the number of editorial staff, their circulation has plummeted and that has meant they have had to try to do more with less. The regional TV landscape is not pretty either.
When I was editor of a large regional daily newspaper several years ago, I had a staff of 80 full-time editorial employees. Today, there are less than 30 editorial staff.
Council insiders tell me that shrinking local media is making it harder for council messages to be heard.
Or, is it actually councils’ best-ever opportunity to engage with residents and ratepayers in new and profound ways by setting up a true DIY Newsroom?
That is right: if they were SMART, councils would see themselves as the primary destination and distributor of compelling, useful and relevant content for their local government constituents.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.