Barrie Cassidy, pictured in 1971, says the closure of regional mastheads is “tremendously sad”. (Supplied: Barrie Cassidy)
They cover everything from dodgy council deals and environmental disasters to your footy team around the corner, but local newspapers are facing a crisis that many fear will send them the way of the dodo.
- Many regional and community newspapers are being taken out of operation amid the coronavirus pandemic
- Veteran ABC journalist Barrie Cassidy says that means many stories in those communities will not be covered
- Other journalists who started their careers in the bush say grassroots reporting is essential in a democracy
This year, companies including Australian Community Media (ACM) and News Corp have suspended publishing of numerous regional and community mastheads due to COVID-19’s hit on advertising revenue, prompting fears it could mark the end of traditional local news.
Several of Australia’s most respected journalists — who started out at newspapers in the bush — believe local papers have a crucial role in connecting people across the country while also contributing to democracy by keeping communities informed and decision-makers accountable.
Closures ‘tremendously sad’
In 1963, Barrie Cassidy started writing for a small weekly newspaper in his hometown of Chiltern in northeastern Victoria at the age of 13.
The four-page Federal Standard was free and owned by the local shire president.
“I would read his [the owner’s] football reports and I wasn’t very impressed with them,” Cassidy said.
“So one day I approached him and said to him, ‘Would you give me a go at writing football for you?’, and maybe he was kind of stunned by the audacity of it, but he said, ‘Alright I’ll give you a go’.
“For five years I would write the football report and put it under the door of the Federal Standard office and go off and catch the school bus to Rutherglen.”
Cassidy was never paid for the work, which kicked off an award-winning career spanning almost six decades.
He described the recent wave of regional paper closures as “tremendously sad”.
“So many local stories are not going to be picked up anywhere else,” he said.
“It’s just not the mindset of the larger newspaper and media organisations to go out and find news stories at that level.
“So much of what is going on won’t be reported.”
‘This is an enormous hit’
Mr Wright in 1979 outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court after witnessing the assassination of Raymond “Chuck” Bennett. (Supplied: Tony Wright)
Tony Wright, the associate editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, this week celebrated half a century in the industry.
He said the decision by some companies to shut down local papers “hurts his heart”.
“I don’t know if it will be possible for these players to come back because they’ve taken a big hit for a long time, but this is an enormous hit,” he said.
Wright spent a significant part of his early career reporting at rural and regional mastheads.
He said it was this time at grassroots newspapers that taught him the foundation of fair and fearless reporting.
“It taught me how to approach and talk to people in a way that respected them and gave the reader an understanding of every issue.
“It also taught me to be relatively sceptical — you can be sold a line by a local councillor just as you can by a prime minister.”
To this day, Wright picks up a printed copy of the Portland Observer — which has a history spanning more than 150 years — whenever he is back in his south-west Victorian home town.
He said it was sad to see the toll the COVID-19 crisis had taken on the paper.
“One of the huge stories of our time is gobbling up our ability to tell that story,” he said.
The ‘huge role’ of country newspapers
Award-winning journalist and Herald Sun national political editor Annika Smethurst has first-hand experience in regional reporting, having started out at the Bendigo Weekly.
ACM’s daily newspapers:
- The Canberra Times
- Newcastle Herald
- Illawarra Mercury
- Northern Daily Leader
- Central Western Daily
- Western Advocate
- Dubbo Daily Liberal
- Wagga Daily Advertiser
- The Border Mail
- Bendigo Advertiser
- The Courier (Ballarat)
- The Standard (Warrnambool)
- The Examiner (Launceston)
- The Advocate (Burnie)
Smethurst said the decline of regional newspapers would take its toll on the communities they serviced.
“I think it’s incredibly worrying when any newspaper or news outlet closes,” she said.
“They play a huge role in connecting people in country and regional Australia, and I think it’s terribly disappointing that another victim of COVID-19 is regional media.
“But there’s a particular thing about a country newspaper where they’re often the main — or only — source of news or information for communities.”
Smethurst said opportunities in regional media provided great value for new journalists.
“I always tell young journalists to go to the country and I’m always surprised when they don’t want to,” she said.
“I guess it propels you to do jobs you wouldn’t necessarily get to do at a city paper.”
Local rag gives sense of ‘ownership’
Mr Murphy (L) with subeditor Andrew Pigford review a page of the Esperance Express circa 1982. (Supplied: Sean Murphy)
For Sean Murphy, a long-time reporter and producer of ABC’s Landline program, the cuts to regional newspapers have struck a chord.
He said he was extremely disappointed to see the paper where he did his cadetship — The Esperance Express — on the chopping block.
The Express is among the 125 ACM newspapers impacted by the company’s decision to stop printing indefinitely.
“Everyone at some stage would have got their picture in the paper that bred in them a sense of ownership, people love their paper and I’m really sad for them,” he said.
Murphy started reporting for the paper in 1981, aged 19, after packing up his life into a Hillman Minx and setting off for Western Australia’s south coast for his first official journalism role.
“I often look back and consider how lucky I was and I’m extremely grateful that I had that opportunity,” he said.
“You’re immediately covering environmental issues, business, agriculture, taking pictures, shipping and weather, features, everything.
“It was sink or swim.”