What would a country community be without its local newspaper?

Tim Hughes, journalist, grazier and former editor of the Glen Innes Examiner.
Tim Hughes, journalist, grazier and former editor of the Glen Innes Examiner.

REGION - When the Burnie Advocate launched a public campaign against disrespect towards police officers and emergency workers earlier this year, the newspaper was taking a stand for its community.

The Show Some Respect campaign came about after a police officer used pepper spray on a teenager, an incident that was filmed, heavily edited and uploaded to YouTube.

The officer was charged and taken to trial but exonerated when the full footage showed the disrespect and abuse he was subjected to.

When The Advocate got access to that video, its staff realised this was an opportunity to instigate cultural change in communities right across north-west Tasmania.

"We also had police officers come up with their personal stories of what they've had to put up with, which was in line with a report that showed assaults against police were on the increase," Advocate editor Julian O'Brien said.

"So this came at a pretty opportune time for the paper to take a stand."

As a result, many Advocate readers and prominent community leaders signed the Show Some Respect pledge, which formed the basis of a public forum in Burnie and a document to be tabled in federal parliament by Tasmanian Senator Stephen Parry.

"The pledge will be our message from our community," O'Brien said.

"It reinforces that the paper has a great role to play in our community and can take a position of leadership."

The Advocate's campaign is an example of the role newspapers play in communities across rural and regional Australia, not just as informers, entertainers and scrutineers but advocates for its towns and cities.

Fairfax Regional Media has 220 mastheads carrying out that task across Australia.

But because of last month's news regarding major structural change, a redundancy program of 1900 employees and the downsizing of broadsheets to tabloids at Fairfax's flagship mastheads, the regional papers have been swept up in a storm of uncertainty.

The controversy surrounding mining magnate Gina Rinehart and her bid for seats in the Fairfax boardroom haven't eased the tension.

But the reality is that Fairfax Regional Media is a very different kettle of fish.

After last month's announcement on changes at the metro newspapers, Fairfax Regional Media chief executive officer and publisher Allan Browne sent out a memo of reassurance to staff about the state of play outside the capital cities.

"An important difference between the position of our regional papers and the Metro mastheads is the proportion of the population that reads Fairfax's printed papers," he wrote.

"Across Fairfax Regional Media, it is generally 70 to 80 per cent of the community that reads our papers.

"This can be contrasted with the Metros where the figure is closer to 15 to 20 per cent, but with a much larger percentage accessing Fairfax journalism through digital platforms."

While regional newspapers are working hard at staying ahead of the game, Mr Browne said that the time had come to set the record straight.

"To a certain extent people are seeing what's happened in the metros and automatically making the assumption that that's what will happen in newspapers all over the country," he said.

"I think to talk about ourselves is something we haven't done very well, ever.

"Now, in my view, it's time for us to let the people of regional Australia know more about our plan - to continue to deliver content to every regional city, town and siding as we've done for hundreds of years."

He says Fairfax Regional Media has a lot to be proud of - a thriving publishing business with thousands of staff across Australia and a drive to deliver content across new platforms to meet readers' needs.

"This is not just rhetoric, look at our great newspapers, small and large," he said.

"Look at The Border Mail's new-look website. Look at the huge public response to our iPhone apps at Launceston, Burnie and now Bendigo."

Readers such as Councillor Phyllis Miller, mayor of Forbes Shire Council in Central West NSW, are acutely aware of the importance of healthy regional newspapers.

Ms Miller, whose city is home to about 9000 people, says the 100-year-old Forbes Advocate is the council's most important vehicle for getting information to the public.

"We've got a really good robust working relationship," she said, of the Advocate and the council.

"They rely on us to feed them information and we rely on them to print it."

David Haymes, chairman of Haymes Paints based in Ballarat, is a long-term reader of The Courier.

He doesn't have shares in Fairfax, nor has his family's company ever spent much on advertising in The Courier but he is happy to speak as a loyal supporter.

"The Courier is my local paper and I'm very proud of it," he said.

"They do a damn good job in there on what's happening in Ballarat.

"Its role is to unite the community rather than split in half, which is what can happen in metropolitan newspapers.

"It's representing the community; it's a community newspaper, not a source of revenue from advertising."

While Fairfax's regional newspapers are working every week to play their part in the community, they are businesses too, which Mr Browne says they still do very well.

In fact, he says the regional group is the largest profit earning section of the company, by a considerable length.

That doesn't mean there aren't hard decisions to make and The Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga is an example of that.

At the end of last month, 11 staff left the business as part of a voluntary redundancy program, the first of its kind in The Border Mail's history.

Fairfax also decided in May to send 60-odd sub-editing jobs at the Newcastle Herald and the Illawarra Mercury to New Zealand.

It's fuelled a mood of uncertainty at regional papers, which Mr Browne acknowledges.

"I think we have an air of anxiety about us as an industry at the moment and it's really now time for the leaders of all our businesses to ensure we remove that by continuing to develop our business in the way our audience wants us to," he said.

"Will that mean there are never redundancies?

"No, I think they're part and parcel of the business."

However, Mr Browne believes there needs to be an adjustment in thinking regarding what he calls regional media's core elements - content and revenue.

He says the demands for more content across the four platforms - print, online, mobile devices and social media - will require more reporters, not less.

"But I do believe, as technology continues to develop, that elements of production will be done more efficiently," he said.

He also foresees journalists being called on to not just report on stories but also use smart phones to take photos and video.

Equipping journalists across 160 sites with the skills to become such 'content generators' is the challenge that is currently keeping Mr Browne awake at night.

"We've got to work on how we do that," he said.

"Albury needs it but so does Coleambally.

"That's probably my biggest focus at the moment, how we get training to meet our market demands for quality content."

As he struggles with this, Mr Browne is encouraged by American billionaire tycoon Warren Buffett spending $142 million on 62 newspapers in four southern US states in May.

In fact, he says Mr Buffett is copying Fairfax's 'very successful regional media model'.

"That's what he's doing and we've been doing that for a long time," he said.

"I like the prospects of the local community content - that's been the regional strength all along.

"That's our vision for the future, to continue to provide the stories that are still important in Inverell, Glen Innes, Launceston as well as Albury.

"This is what we do every week - (Buffet's) realised and we realised it some time ago so it's encouraging that he's done it."

Tim Hughes, a journalist, grazier and former editor of the Glen Innes Examiner, is well familiar with the ability of regional newspapers to deliver local content.

During his time as editor from 2005 to 2010, the paper won three media awards for the paper's work as an advocate for community issues and for uniting a community in challenging times.

"Basically, there were two fatal car accidents in very different circumstances within a week, tied together because a policeman on the scene in the first one - a murder suicide - was then called out to a double fatality, one of which was his son," Hughes said.

The paper played a critical role in helping the community navigate its way through that time of tragedy, coupled with race and mental health issues.

Then the paper took a stand against the proposed closure of the Glen Innes Agricultural Research Station, organising petitions, a town hall meeting and the support of metropolitan media.

"That reflects the best of what community newspapers can do that no one else can do - unite a community, champion a community, be advocates for a community, whether it's bad roads or bad health," he said.

"Because they're so much closer knit, people get their sense of community from their newspaper.

"That's where they see who the new babies are, who the candidates are for the local election, and the photos of the sporting teams."

Hughes said regional newspapers could carry out that role in a way other mediums were unlikely to ever be able to.

"Let's face it, if you want your national news or international news, you can go anywhere for that," he said.

"But the only place that will give you the news in your local community is our local newspapers.

"What would a country community be without its newspaper?"


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