The rot in Australian media is already advanced. We need to understand the damage wrought in 2020

Jason Wilson
Photograph: William West/AFP via Getty Images

The Northern Age was founded in Townsville in the 1890s – there are conflicting reports of the precise date – in what was still the Colony of Queensland. 

It was moved to Ingham, just north of Townsville, then the smaller neighboring town of Halifax, changing its name to the Planter, and perhaps the Northern Planter, before returning to Ingham for good.  

From 1904 until last Wednesday, through world wars, depressions, and four Foley Shield championships for the Herbert River Tigers, it was published as the Herbert River Express. Now its current owners, News Corp, have shuttered it for good, along with 111 other community and regional newspapers. The masthead will disappear and its coverage will be folded into the Townsville Bulletin’s website. 

No longer a newspaper, the Express will not even have its own URL. Ingham and the surrounding region will no longer have a newsroom of its own. 

There’s something to say about media ownership regulations that allow so much civic and cultural heritage to be entrusted to a single, profit-driven entity. But even if News was not always the best custodian of local newspapers, owners can change, unless capacity is lost. 

Related: From being threatened by bikies to sitting with grieving mothers: how regional reporting shaped me | Amy Remeikis

News Corp is not alone in closing papers. Australia is not alone in wondering what to do when local news disappears, and entire communities are left without newsrooms.

We need to understand how advanced the rot already is in Australia, and how much damage has been wrought in 2020 alone. 

The Public Interest Journalism Institute tracks Australian newsroom closures in their Australian Newsroom Mapping Project. Their latest data, due to be published next week, paints an ugly picture. According to their research and projects manager, Gary Dickson, in 2020 so far, dozens of newspapers have vanished or been seriously diminished. 

In an email Dickson told me that nine mastheads have merged into other properties. Ninety-one papers have ended print editions. One newsroom (10 Daily) has closed entirely. And 20 mastheads have closed (19 News Corp regional newspapers announced on Thursday, and Buzzfeed Australia). Disproportionately, masthead closures have taken place in Queensland. 

The pandemic has struck at the news industry in the United States, as well. 

US journalism-focused non-profit the Poynter Institute reports that 30 local newsrooms have closed or disappeared in mergers during pandemic lockdowns. 

Some, like the Daily Iowegian of Centerville, Iowa, and the Knoxville Journal Express, had been publishing since the Civil War, or earlier. 

Elsewhere, Poynter keeps a running list of the newspapers, publishers and broadcasters which have closed, reduced printing days, or shed staff during the Covid-19 emergency. 

The carnage is also reaching into world cities which are crucial to the US economy. In Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Daily Post will only be printing four days a week. The San Francisco Examiner has cut staff. The New York Post has furloughed or laid off reporters. 

Media researchers use a term, “news deserts”, to capture the status of communities that aren’t served by a dedicated print news outlet. Already, by 2018, 171 counties in the US had no newspaper at all; 1,449 had only one, usually a weekly. New figures on news deserts are yet to be calculated, but there are sure to be more of them in the US and Australia. 

Related: News Corp carnage: fine print reveals even greater hit to local journalism | The Weekly Beast

The term may not be quite adequate because, in a way, it may be overly optimistic. 

It’s not quite true that news stops flowing in a town with no paper. Rather, that community loses an institution that, whatever its biases may have been, had ethical and legal imperatives to verify the information that it published. 

Inhabitants of news deserts do not suffer from a lack of information. They suffer from a dearth of relevantfactual information about the communities they live in. 

The void left by local news might be partly filled by national news outlets — the loss of a newspaper does not mean the loss of a cable subscription or an internet connection. Small town audiences can watch CNN, Fox News or Sky; they can also browse news.com.au or the New York Times. 

Of course, those outlets will not cover council meetings, local courts, or local economies. They will not carry wedding or funeral announcements from Tully or Topeka. And national outlets themselves are often far from financially secure. 

Moreover, US studies suggest that in the absence of local news, national news can exacerbate the partisan polarisation that contributes to America’s political gridlock, and in turn to its increasing political instability. 

The question of the relationship between political attitudes and media consumption can easily become a fruitless chicken and egg discussion. But we do know that when it comes to national media, in many western democracies, people with political differences inhabit distinct informational universes. 

The 2019 Reuters’ Institute Digital News Report shows how people with “populist attitudes” in Europe and the US are more likely than non-populists to get their news from television or Facebook, and less likely to get it from print sources. 

Data from the UK suggests that when “populists” do consult print sources, they strongly favour tabloid newspapers such as the Sun. In the US, “populists” gravitate to Fox News and websites such as Breitbart, neither of which offer dedicated local news reporting, and each of which, far from seeking to tamp down on political polarisation, have incorporated it into their business model. 

For all the flaws of national media, a worse alternative exists for newspaperless towns. News deserts may provide particularly hospitable soil for a bloom of mis- and disinformation, fertilised by social media. 

Social media is already outstripping embattled local outlets as a source of news for many people in many countries. To the extent that local newspapers still exist, evidence suggests that their reach as a news medium is smaller than that of social media, and has been for some time. 

In Australia, again according to the Reuters News Institute report, the nationwide weekly reach of local newspapers was just 20%; regional news networks Win and Prime7 just 10%; whereas 36% said they got news from Facebook. 

In the US, local newspapers had a 20% weekly reach, and local newspaper websites 10%, but 39% of people said they got news from Facebook. 

The trouble with that is that Facebook and other social media companies are not liable for the torrent of disinformation that cascades across their platforms, and they have only intermittently devoted attention and resources to cleaning up their act. 

This reluctance to take on disinformation has had serious consequences, large and small. Facebook has been used to organise genocidal attacks on minorities in countries such as Myanmar. It has been connected with a rise in vaccine hesitancy, which may yet cruel our chances of defeating the coronavirus. It has been an effective platform for extremist groups around the world. 

Groups or pages devoted to local communities are prey to the conspiracy thinking, fake news, and polarisation that affects every other part of Facebook. And in the absence of a local newsroom, there’s no obstacle to disinformation taking hold. 

The coronavirus emergency has dramatised this. In the US, people have poured into state capitals to demonstrate against pandemic precautions derived from the advice of public health experts. Antivaxxers and conspiracy theorists have been front and centre at the events. Facebook has played a crucial role in allowing the anti-lockdown movement to organise at a local level. And frequently people are coming to state capitols from the same rural areas where newspapers have been supplanted by cable news and partisan websites. 

This perfect informational storm has driven the US slightly mad. Its effects have been fractal. Shattered local news ecosystems have made local communities easy prey for ideologues and grifters; at the same time, a polarised national media landscape makes any resolution of the country’s abiding problems difficult to envision. 

Now the storm is settling in over Australia. 

There are no easy answers to the collapse of the business model for news. It may be that we need to think about journalism beyond the institution of the newsroom, and beyond the profit driven model of independence. It may be that we need to regulate social media companies more forcefully. 

The consequences of the collapse of local news are not confined to the communities most directly affected. When local community ties are broken, when citizens come to mentally inhabit closed partisan worlds, nations are torn asunder. 

The people of Ingham may be mourning the Herbert River Express, but really all of us should. 

  • Jason Wilson is a columnist for Guardian Australia