Opinion | Relaxing media rules could hit local diversity

MORE journalism jobs are disappearing in Australia and around the globe. 

Announcements about down-sizing newsrooms are inevitably wrapped in what appears to be mandatory bluster about ongoing commitments to quality journalism, although you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who believes it.

Both Fairfax Media and News Corp have announced recent cuts to capital-city operations. Australian commercial news organisations have not been able to successfully gain sustainable revenues in their transition to digital platforms. The advertising revenue is not there. Google and Facebook are the big players and they don’t employ news journalists, but riff off the backs of organisations that do. Fake news and clickbait are the new rivers of gold.

REVENUE FALL: For social media giants, clickbait and fake news are new rivers of gold.

REVENUE FALL: For social media giants, clickbait and fake news are new rivers of gold.

The Hunter has lost many news journalists in the past decade across print, radio and TV. The ABC lost a number of editorial positions in the Hunter in the last round of cuts at Aunty, although in March this year there was a management promise of a Content Fund aimed at increasing the digital and video output of regional Australia. Waiting.

Commercial radio news in the Hunter relies heavily on content taken from the Newcastle Herald. Radio stations don’t have the resources to send a journalist to sit through a court case or a council meeting. A reliance on the Herald results in a version of Herald radio news rather than a broad and diverse news agenda for the region. It’s as if an unfunded merger of the Herald and commercial radio news has already happened, although the Herald gets nothing out of it – in most cases, not even a mention.

The government announced last week a possible easing of media ownership rules. A day later, the Senate said it would investigate the future of journalism. The Senate has powers – including “required appearance” – which, if nothing else, will at least provide squirmy amusement as camera-shy Sam Dastyari bullies selected CEOs.

Harry Criticos from the School of Creative Industries at the University of Newcastle says any easing of Australian media ownership rules will result in regional areas like the Hunter being the biggest losers. Using Newcastle as an example, Dr Criticos says allowing a company to possibly own two radio stations, the local newspaper and the local TV station may result in consolidation or possible closure of local newsrooms resulting in even fewer news journalists.

His research suggests those who argue that changing the current rules will allow media organisations to compete against Facebook and Google are having a lend, and that industry claims that proposed change will allow for more investment in local voices is farcical.

Prime has centralised its news to its Canberra HQ, having closed its Newcastle operations long before the internet had any demonstrable impact, and most recently, closed its Tamworth newsroom. Outside of sales/commercial production Ten has no local presence in terms of news or other content. Ten and Prime provide pointless three-sentence news updates to meet licence requirements.

A diversity of news sources is fundamental to a healthy and vibrant democracy. Perhaps the Senate inquiry will come up with solutions that don’t rely on the public purse, but I won’t be holding my breath. As for the easing of media ownership rules, that could be another hit to the diversity of regional news sources.

Twitter @paul_scott_ or emailpaulscott@gmail.com