MY introduction to the world of country newspapers came in the form of an indignant, well-dressed woman in a smart green suit who threatened me with dire consequences if I dared to print a story about her driving mishap.
Although I was unaware of her little main street bingle, she was fuming in anticipation of some unwanted publicity in the Harden Express.
The Express is a weekly, and I was its recently-appointed reporter, sub-editor and editor all-in-one, putting to bed 8-to-12 pages every Thursday before setting about to clean the office toilet and vacuum the floor.
After nearly two decades working for The Australian and the Daily Telegraph, this was my toughest assignment yet. And all on part-time money in the interests of a readership catchment of barely 3500 people and a circulation of less than 1000.
But as hard up as the Express was for news that week, I reassured the agitated woman standing before me in Harden, 60 kilometres north-west of Yass, that I did not think a dented bumper bar warranted a story.
Alas, this is the lot of the country newspaper editor: car accidents, council meetings, births, deaths, shows, fairs, fundraisers, footy clubs, men’s sheds, women’s groups, garbage collection, parking problems and what type of tree to plant on nature strips. It can all add up to a whole lot of sausage sizzles.
And negotiating the fickle interests of the locals can be a high-wire act. In return for an intensely loyal and engaged readership, the country editor must step warily: it is all too easy to offend but really hard to win redemption. Country readers have long memories and once upset, it can take years to win them back.
Add to the mix a small pool of advertisers and it makes for a challenging enterprise, regardless of the bush telegraph’s particular business model -- whether the title is a daily newspaper serving a large regional centre, weekly or bi-weekly, priced or give-away, full colour or black and white.
So, in this context, the digital revolution is just the latest in a long history of challenges for country media, which has forever battled economies of scale, wide distribution costs and transient populations. And like the metropolitan press, country proprietors’ responses to digital – both opportunity and threat – have so far differed markedly.
The Harden Express, part of the Rural Press empire swallowed up by Fairfax Media in 2007 (a year after my editorship), has been absorbed into a broader digital strategy that involves 230 regional newspapers and 105 websites. Its online presence is in line with Fairfax’s “iceberg” template – a bit of local news at the top, underpinned mostly by syndicated state and national news.
A typical Fairfax Regional Media website now has a selection of local stories, which will also appear in the newspaper, fighting for space alongside “Latest News” tabs that offer national and state news sourced from metropolitan newsrooms.
The digital diet is similar to that offered by APN News and Media, whose 70-plus regional titles reach into Queensland from northern NSW, blending local information with news from elsewhere.
But other titles sit poles apart in their strategies. Some independents, such as the Narrabri Courier in northern NSW, are embracing the digital world with great enthusiasm. Others, including the family-owned Temora Independent (once a stablemate of the nearby Harden Express), are steadfastly resisting the digital onslaught.
“If I could find a way of making money from it, or at the very least not costing money, I would do it,” suggests the paper’s owner, Arthur Bradley, a long-time newspaper owner who believes readers will stay loyal “as long as the content is there”.
Other proprietors, patently aware of the damage inflicted on metropolitan titles that rushed to give away content for free, have dipped a toe in the digital space, erecting paywalls to partly protect online content.
“I am a hyperlocal sort of bloke,” says Bob Yeates, a fourth generation newspaper man who is charging for the Bairnsdale Advertiser’s digital offering and is the president of the industry body the Country Press Australia. “You just can’t get that news in any other place than the local paper, so I think the best model is a [hard copy] paper with a sensible digital presence.”
Which dovetails with the approach of the Narrabri Courier, which has leapt into the digital abyss in its centenary year. The newspaper and its website have been redesigned and the Courier is producing a digital edition for subscribers, charging $55 for six months. Its content is unashamedly local, with extensive sports reporting.
It is owned by Ian and Wanda Dunnet, who also own the Wee Waa News, which enjoyed a circulation spike recently when the French techno group Daft Punk chose Wee Waa for the launch of their new album. In a strange colliding of cultures, the world music media descended on the tiny NSW town for the launch, which coincided with the Narrabri Show and the crowning of Miss Wee Waa 2013.
The Dunnets’ company is the very model of dynamic newspaper management, embracing training opportunities for their staff of 18 and last year employing a former 2UE radio producer, Ben Rossleigh, as editor to introduce a little outside perspective to their news coverage.
“In country towns, thinking tends to be a bit hidebound, hardwired and conservative,” Ian Dunnet says. “You can think you’re a modern free-flowing thinker, but you have to keep looking at new things.”
The Dunnets contracted newspaper editorial services company Pagemasters to redesign the paper for a fresher look and employed a full-time local “tech-head”, James Tolson, to consider the digital options.
“It was great to have an in-house technical person,” Dunnett continues. “James had an extraordinary knowledge and wandered around looking interested in everything and helping with all technological areas.
“We were mindful we needed to move in the digital direction, even though there was no way to monetise it. But we need to be there, need to be in the space. That’s the way of the world.”
So now, while the hard copy remains the Courier’s staple, digital readers can download the print edition and follow news updates on Facebook and Twitter.
And yet, the Courier has melded old traditions with the new. It still prints on the premises and on its two production days each week, the whole staff descends on the press to collate the various sections. Paper boys and girls then take it out to sell out of their barrows.
Once a year, the Dunnetts hold a ‘wayzgoose’, a traditional printers’ celebration where all contributors, advertisers, staff and news tipsters are invited to a party of thanks, held around the press.
An eight-page special edition is made up with pictures from the night “dropped in” as the edition's final two pages so that guests can see the process of making the paper.
“The paper is part of the fabric of the community and the digital version will add another layer,” enthuses Ian Dunnett. Older customers can still be seen waiting at their front gates on publication day for the newspaper to be delivered, “so it remains to be seen what will happen with digital. I think it’s a generational thing.”
The Narrabri Courier’s embracing of the digital opportunity, remains an exception rather than the rule among the estimated 100 or so independent newspaper groups nationwide.
But while country media has been slow to adopt digital technology, their wariness has allowed proprietors to assess the mistakes and the successes of the metropolitan media’s digital transition.
Bob Yeates is optimistic about their future, notwithstanding the crisis afflicting the metropolitan industry. And with an eye to the future, Yeates actually put up a paywall for his East Gippsland newspapers six years ago, well before the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia and Fairfax.
While most people still like to buy the hard copies – circulation numbers 27,700 across all his mastheads – Yeates is pleased to have 200 digital subscribers. Casual readers can get a small online taste for free, but subscribers get print editions in PDF form for $85 a year.
“We did our best revenue ever three years ago and it has come down since then. Whether that is the digital [media] malaise or because things are tough in the bush, I don’t know,” he concedes.
Still, the big players remain Fairfax and APN, the former accounting for around half of Australia’s 400 rural and regional newspapers, and APN’s regional network boasting a reach of more than 1 million readers a week through its 12 daily and more than 60 non-daily and community publications. The group has more than 30 news websites in regional markets.
APN’s editorial director, Steve Zeppa, says that like all publishers, APN’s print circulations have declined over the past five years.
“However, when you look at total audience figures, the number of people who are engaging with APN’s various regional brands, across all the platforms — print, web, mobile and social — has grown over that time.”
As a result of changing readership habits, Zeppa says the company is considering a “subscriber solution”, or paywall, on its news websites.
He said while regional newspapers could rely on their unique selling point as the only provider of local news, they still needed be mindful of staying relevant.
“Regional publishers need to ensure we are engaging with our communities, continuing to be relevant and providing the platforms for the various conversations which occur every day in our towns to be amplified.”
“Hyper-local” is the mantra also being espoused by arguably the most successful investor of the 20th century, American Warren Buffett, who spent more than $US300 million in 2011 and 2012 acquiring 28 daily newspapers across the US while insisting that “newspapers continue to reign supreme … in the delivery of local news”. (He was adding more in the past few days.)
“Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that services the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents,” Buffett noted.
The notion echoes Fairfax Regional Media’s slogan “Life is Local”, but the company’s balance sheet woes is forcing a rationalisation that is changing the shape of their country footprint markedly.
This year, Fairfax announced the closure of “pre-press operations” across 23 sites in South Australia, Western Australia, NSW and Queensland. Some of the work, which includes ad design, trafficking content and classified pagination, will move to other Fairfax sites and some will move to the company 2adpro, which has offices in India.
At the same time, there is pressure on editors to move news stories onto websites rather than hold them back for readers prepared to pay for print editions.
It is a conflict that grates with some Fairfax Regional editors, who sense a lack of understanding among metropolitan editorial management of country readership. They argue that whereas newspapers are a binding force for communities, online news would not provide the same fraternal glue because regional websites ended to be fragmented as local content finds itself competing with national news.
The economics of survival are by no means clear cut. Indeed, the cost of the digital transition was brought home to the community of Harden only in recent weeks with the Express announcing it was closing its office in the main street with the paper to be produced out of the larger town of Cootamundra, about 30 kilometres to the west. Now, the many contributors who would call into the Express office to deliver local sports results and other community news, chewing the fat with the editor on town issues as they went, will be forced to drop off their material to a local collection point.
Many locals have ruminated on the implications for the town and the Express’s once unique content. Almost immediately, a prominent member of the community who featured in the newspaper’s lead story had her name misspelt in a headline, a mistake that almost certainly would have been caught by a local casting an eye over the page proofs.
And yet, for all the faults and abiding frustrations of the country rag, the fact remains that most rural and regional residents remain rusted-on newspaper readers. It is the only place they get see their neighbourhood truly reflected.
In the digital era the question remains, which is the best model for the bush telegraph? On one hand, Fairfax and APN are taking a uniform approach, mixing local, state and national news on digital platforms. On the other, there are emerging in the independent newspaper space 100 slightly varied models.
CPA president Bob Yeates refuses to entertain the notion of country newspapers entering a “twilight zone” as they grasp for the best digital/print mix.
“I would say more like a sunrise zone – the beginning of something new,” he insists. “My father used to say to me: ‘Never get excited about what people say or do to you. This business is about the paper’.
“When all the [country] editors get together, we talk about how we maintain a profitable model, then how we are connecting with the community. Local papers stick to what they know -- their communities.”
Gabrielle Chan is a Canberra-based political correspondent and blogger who has worked for newspapers and websites for 30 years. Twitter: @gabriellechan