When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

The extraordinary developments at Fairfax have been well-covered throughout the Australian media and blogosphere. In particular, the Jonathan Green on The Drum, Andrew Jaspan in The Conversation and Eric Beecher in Crikey are very good articles, full of insight and context. But, if Fairfax falls, what will become of rural and regional papers? Or, perhaps more pertinently, what will happen to those papers during the process? Bloggers, The Conversation and the ABC might be able to pick up some of the slack at a national level, but they cannot hope to replace the (often) single-source media voices in many rural and regional markets.

Fairfax announced job cuts to sub-editing positions at the Illawarra Mercury, the Newcastle Herald and their affiliates only a few paltry weeks ago. Those cuts seem miniscule compared to the 1900 across the country and it is now doubtful those cuts will be all that regional mastheads will face.

Newspaper industry marketing body The Newspaper Works says the weekday editions of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian collectively dropped 10.6% readership in the year to March 2012. The worst performer of these three was the SMH, which lost 13.6%.

In contrast, Australia’s regional papers dropped only 6.5%. Ironically, in NSW the best and worst weekday performers respectively were our old friends the Newcastle Herald (-4.2%) and the Illawarra Mercury (-9%). Only two weekday regional papers surveyed outperformed the Newcastle Herald: the Gold Coast Bulletin (-1.21%) and the Gladstone Observer (-3.7%). The only papers to increase circulation were the Saturday Daily Telegraph (+0.8%), the Saturday West Australian (+0.5%) and South Australia’s weekday The Advertiser (+0.1%). In all, it paints a horrible picture, but regional and national papers are faring much better than the state/metro papers upon which the Fairfax business is based.

Fairfax may evoke some form of devolution with the rural network (Rural Press) and the regional papers (like the Illawarra Mercury and the Newcastle Herald) breaking away from their metro businesses. This approach makes little sense given these papers seem to be performing much better than the SMH and Age. Another option is that non-metro papers are more tightly integrated with Fairfax and take over writing stories for the metros. In my experience, the SMH usually re-writes stories from rural papers rather than publishing them directly, but with fewer editorial staff, content sharing becomes much more likely. Some rural papers already borrow, with attribution, articles from their metro cousins, so further integration is not unlikely.

Should Fairfax fall, many rural and regional areas would be left without their only print news company. In NSW, News Limited has virtually no community newspapers outside of Sydney and given they are facing their own big cuts, they would be unlikely to establish new titles. Of other media, many communities have only local radio stations supplemented by regional television. Media consolidation and ownership seems like a big deal for metro areas, but it is a much bigger issue when there are already only three voices.

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