Dollars are not the sum total of local news

This year more than 100 local and regional newspapers across Australia were either shutdown or cut back to online only publications, four decade veteran of Queensland regional news, Ian McDougall says don’t blame the coronavirus

18 December 2020 | Ian McDougall

I reckon a local newspaper—and especially so in a one-paper town—should be free of bias. Cover big issues, yes, but more importantly basic human yarns, stories of real people doing everyday things, people whom readers can relate to, not business/social identities/”influencers”, those with a sense of trumped-up (yes, in that sense, too) self importance, favoured businesses (bugger Joe and Judy Blow running small operations).

So, as an old print hack, it gives me great sadness to cancel my newspaper subscription for three main reasons—editorial bias; poor quality journalism and editing; and a lack of decent meaningful news coverage.

If I want a news source that panders to right/left/whatever leanings I will seek it out.

Locally, I want a newspaper that values its readers, treats them with respect, listens to them, knows their needs—much like the scores of papers now shut down or being shut down by the country’s two main proprietors. They cast them, and their staff, aside with nary a thought for the effects on communities already facing significant challenges.

Newspaper groups have been for too long run by bean counters with no understanding of or respect for the industry. The papers have cosied up and to career politicians with similar attributes: educated, yes, but mostly with legal or political party experience, not worked behind counters, on retail floors, in the heat and dirt and flies, in low-paid jobs caring for others (aged, infirm, disabled, mental), even hardly teachers any more etc. Cosied up to big business. Only the publications with great advertising revenue were kept, the weekend real estate liftout alone on Queensland’s Gold Coast would cover the rest of the week’s costs and then some! A page or two of token regional content once a week was deemed sufficient to service those areas.

Ian McDougall (standing in centre) shortly after being appointed
editor of the Townsville Advertiser

Blatant incorrect facts in letters and the increasingly popular low-brow Txt To Editor sections go unchecked and uncorrected. Like social media, statements which would have brought slander/libel upon journalists in years gone by are allowed in and go unchallenged, especially those that align with the company’s attitudes. Pool sub-editing, where news organisations outsources what should be a core function of fact checking to outside companies, is appalling. This is a death nell for local news as newspapers are being pulled together by people who don’t live in the community—in some case by people living in another country, like New Zealand.

When the ever-decreasing-in-size local free weekly was still going, I complained to one group editor-in-chief that many households didn’t receive copies of the news, the response was staggering. The blame was laid at the feet of the company contracted to deliver the news.

Among other things, contractors were refusing to deliver to residences with “no advertising/junk mail” sign on their letterboxes and the publisher’s representative passed this off by saying “it was the contractor’s decision.” Surely there is a greater responsibility for communities to have access to local news and the newspaper’s local reporters to have their stories widely circulated. Not to mention local advertisers who finance local news with every right to expect their message be delivered to an entire community, not simply those people a contract delivery company sees fit to be informed.

In recent months every time I went into a local business, especially one which I knew advertised regularly, I made sure I told the proprietors newspapers were not being delivered to many households. It is that lax attitude towards communities which had a far greater contribution to the death of local news than COVID-19.

I can comment on all this because I was editor of a tri-weekly newspaper which increasingly failed its community. The reasons are many and varied: no budget, under resourced, remote production issues, unrealistic demands to raise advertising revenue in a struggling rural area and corporate interference among them. I became worn down by the pressure, lost touch with readers. I wore the blame, took the fall and still bear the guilt. This was the trigger of my ongoing anxiety and depression. I even wrote to the local council some years later to apologise for my undue focus on its operations and councillors – it was easy pickings for a time-poor journo.

In spite of all that, the paper and I won numerous awards, even topping all other media outlets in NSW to be honoured with the Tidy Towns Association State Media Award.

When the paper’s owners were scooping up little and not-so-little papers across NSW for tuppence to build their empire (but in reality to stop others doing building their own), I came within a whisker of being dismissed for writing an editorial about the need to retain independent newspapers in those communities.

I think my ears are still ringing from the blast I copped from the big kahuna down south. The parent body, Fairfax, sold out to Nine Entertainment last year and those papers are gone or going. On a bright note, sacked journos, advertising staff or other people in towns are starting their own publications and doing pretty bloody well in most cases.

All that aside, I did set up and run the online Southport Star, reporting on local and some citywide issues, for a few years after I left government in 2011. Gawd I miss making newspapers and dream of it every week. My psych says I should get back in the trade somehow. Too burned out, I said.

Overall, the relentless 24-hour news cycle has a lot to do with lack of quality. Easy access to foreign agency news and a desire for ‘clickbait’ led to an increasing number of stories of very little consequence. A road accident in Germany, a novelty chicken in some far flung land or a handbag snatcher in Baltimore along America’s prosperous eastern seaboard do not keep communities informed. Whilst on Australian television, with its multiple news bulletins, bored journalists stand outside court houses, government buildings, accidents and crime scenes with ‘live cross’ news that often gets replayed every 20 minutes.

Ian McDougall got his first job in journalism by taking out an ad in Townsville Bulletin offering his services as a cadet journalist, the ad was answered by the Northern Miner. In a career spanning more than four decades he worked at a number of Queensland titles including posts as editor of the Inverell Times and Townsville Advertiser.