12 November 2023

AUTHOR: Melissa Keogh

A global pandemic, declining advertising revenue and audience migration to digital platforms have created the perfect storm for regional journalism. How have country newsrooms weathered these challenges? How can we help attract journalists to regional areas?

UniSA journalism student Jessica Dempster.UniSA journalism student Jessica Dempster.

Twenty-two-year-old Jessica Dempster knows the value of country newspapers.

Growing up in Naracoorte in the southeast of South Australia, she appeared on the pages of the town’s local paper The Herald over the years and even found her first job when it was advertised in the newspaper’s classifieds section.

Snippets and articles from The Naracoorte Herald were always stuck to her grandmother’s fridge and, despite the rise of digital media, Jessica says her dad still reads the hard copies, filled with heartwarming stories and community issues.

“They (country newspapers) are still very much alive in the country, and I think that’s very important,” she says.

“Growing up, my Nanna had so many pictures of my sister and I stuck on her fridge, of every single time we ever got featured in The Herald. When you’re at the local coffee shop, there are so many people who grab the local paper, my dad still reads it – it’s a lot more alive than people realise.”

Dempster is now studying her final year of journalism at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, 335km away from her hometown.

She doesn’t have any set plans post-graduation but she’s certain about one thing – how important it is for regional communities to have access to local and reliable information.

“There's a saying in journalism that the news serves as the community watchdog, and I think that's really apparent in country towns. It's how everyone keeps in touch with everything,” says Dempster, who won the Julie Duncan Memorial Award for Student Journalism at the 2023 SA Media Awards.

“I think once I graduate, I’ll be moving back to the country. Starting my career in a regional newsroom would be a good opportunity to gain experience and find work in a competitive market, as well as connecting with my country roots.

“Journalism is a very competitive industry and I’m graduating with a lot of amazing colleagues and future journalists. Hopefully, pursuing regional journalism could set myself apart.”

Regional media landscape in a state of flux

Society’s need for accurate, reliable and accessible information is increasing, ironically as a result of the ‘information economy’ and technological change providing people with more sources of ‘news’.

However, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news workforce has been shrinking, with the closure or restructure of many regional newsrooms across the country.

This has left many communities without a voice and without hardworking and passionate journalists to tell their stories.

In 2020, News Corp Australia stopped printing more than 100 local and regional newspapers, with some remaining as online mastheads and others shutting down completely. Many of the standalone digital news sites have since merged with the company’s city-based mastheads.

Similarly, the country’s biggest regional newspaper publisher, Australian Community Media (ACM), has sold or closed dozens of its newspapers since the pandemic began.

The shrinking of regional journalism has not just affected newspapers, but TV too. In April 2023, Southern Cross Austereo axed Spencer Gulf News, which was until then the only locally produced commercial TV news station covering regional South Australia.

The bulletin featured stories produced by journalists in Port Pirie, Whyalla, Port Augusta, Port Lincoln and Broken Hill.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. At the end of 2022, ACM sold 14 of its titles to Star News Group including a handful of SA newspapers, with the changing of hands reportedly leading to the expansion of titles and staff.


Media revival in the South East

SA’s South East, including the regional city of Mount Gambier, has also experienced growth in news media. Independent news outlet The SE Voice launched in 2020 following the temporary closure of The Border Watch, one of regional Australia’s oldest newspapers.

The new community paper was pulled together by a small team within a matter of weeks and thousands of copies now end up in the hands of readers when it’s printed twice a week.

Dr Chrisanthi Giotis

UniSA journalism and writing lecturer Dr Chrisanthi Giotis has worked across suburban, daily regional and metropolitan newspapers for much of her career. She’s also researched the importance of good journalism for thriving democracies and has analysed the current state of regional media. 

She describes the regional media landscape as being in a “state of flux”.

“We have some areas that are really strengthening, Mount Gambier being one of them. Since COVID, they have more journalism than before,” she says.

“We know from research overseas that wealthier communities can weather these storms. What we’re seeing is a focus on hyperlocal, which can be sustained in better-off communities where there’s not a complete news desert. Poorer communities are less able to support new business ventures.

“Because of COVID, we’re seeing local people taking control and creating community-based newspapers. Some have folded but others are going strong, The SE Voice in Mount Gambier being one of them.”

Replacing the traditional rivers of gold

So, what is challenging the current regional media landscape? Advertising and modern distribution models are two of the biggest hurdles, says Dr Giotis. With the rise of the internet and social media platforms, people have become used to not paying for news. A dip in advertising demand and a rise in the consolidation and syndication of content is a recipe for doom in regional newsrooms.

“Even before COVID, we saw a lot of consolidation and shared content, so one story being shared across multiple news outlets. We have businesses trying to cut costs and syndicated copy is the way to do that. I think the challenge is to maintain quality and build loyalty in a very tight financial environment, to the point where people will say, ‘Yes, I will buy the paper’.

“Replacing the rivers of gold, which were in the classifieds (small ads) section, with a more subscription-based business model, is a challenge. Also, governments need to step up and come to the party in terms of understanding the key value that regional papers play.”

A Federal Government inquiry into Australia’s regional newspapers in 2021-22 found that a reduction in government advertising and public notices in regional newspapers had contributed to the significant fall in advertising revenue. Government advertising and notices were either moving online to social media or to larger, metropolitan papers following their incorporation of smaller, country newspapers.

As part of the inquiry, 12 recommendations were made to address core sector issues and ensure the longevity of local newspapers. These included undertaking a comprehensive review of the viability of regional newspapers in Australia, ensuring 20% of government advertising falls with regional papers, and providing funding to assist local publishers.

Charlotte Chalklen

UniSA lecturer Charlotte Chalklen began her career in rural newspapers and now teaches journalism and professional writing at UniSA. In her first year after graduating, she was editor of a weekly newspaper, managing a team of journalists and writing front page stories.

“It was a huge workload and responsibility, but it was a level of experience and confidence that I wouldn’t have obtained if I had gone on to be an entry-level cadet at The Messenger or The Advertiser,” she says.

Regional newsrooms a lesson in life experience

Both Chalklen and Dr Giotis agree that despite the industry’s challenges, journalism graduates who want to work in the industry, do find jobs.

The employment outlook for journalists and professionals with journalism skills is strong, contributing to the University’s decision to introduce an online journalism program in 2023, enabling students to study from anywhere at any time.

Despite the struggles facing regional newsrooms, Chalklen says often the challenge is for outlets to find journalists willing to move to the country to start their careers.

“I’m always promoting the country to students as it’s a great training ground and a place where there are opportunities. We would like to open more students’ eyes to that and facilitate that more so people can take advantage of it, not only for their own careers but for the benefit of the community,” she says.

Dr Giotis also knows the benefits of finding her feet in a country newsroom. Early in her career she worked at daily newspaper The Daily Liberal in Dubbo, northwest of Sydney.

“I remember being very homesick at first,” she says. “You think that you’re leaving your friends behind, but being at a country paper, you’re in the centre of everything and you have a fantastic social life. It’s just overcoming that initial reluctance.”

Highlights include covering rich stories, full of character and purpose.

“Some of the most important stories I’ve ever done in terms of proper, hard-hitting investigative journalism, I did in Dubbo,” she says. “Regional Australia is so important for our economy, for our country and in so many ways for our environment.

“We need to be listening to, and understanding, regional Australia much better. We are in real danger of making bad decisions about water, about all sorts of climate issues because we don’t understand regional Australia.”

Careers rich in versatility

About 50 students graduate from UniSA’s journalism programs each year and move into the workforce. UniSA offers the only journalism degree in South Australia. While not every graduate ends on TV screens, in radio studios or bustling newsrooms, academics say those who want jobs find them. 

Dr Bonita Mason

“It might take them a little while, but they will succeed,” says the program director for journalism, Dr Bonita Mason. “Those who want to be journalists, in my experience, have always found a job as a journalist.

“Our journalism graduates are highly valued … I sometimes feel like an employment bureau, I know so many people who are looking for staff. We are a reliable source of competent, young journalists.”

A degree in journalism is the foundation for a career that can take many avenues – whether it be communications, social media, content creation or public relations. Dr Mason says graduates are armed with a toolkit of skills that go beyond traditional notetaking, interviewing and news writing abilities.

“When journalism students graduate, they understand a lot more about the world than they did before. They know how to communicate and tell stories, they know how to shoot video, make a TV or video story and how to produce audio, radio programs or podcasts,” Dr Mason says.

“Once you know how to write a hard news story, you know how to write a report, a media release, a book if you have the time and stamina. You can make documentaries and produce podcasts. Some of our students are also graduating with mixed reality (AR/VR) skills.”

Above all, Dr Mason says, journalism students develop the skill of listening and understanding.

“They are not just writing for themselves, they’re writing for something bigger than that.”

Visit the UniSA website to find out more about UniSA’s journalism and professional writing degree.

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