Local news is still important in an evolving media environment, according to research from Deakin communication specialists.
The act of reading a local newspaper can provide a sense of belonging in a community, even though the experience of everyday people who engage with local media is often overlooked in scholarly articles.
“What matters to people isn’t always news about politics, but news about other people,” said Dr Kristy Hess, a senior lecturer in communication with Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts.
“It’s generally local information that helps people to understand their place in the world, and where that fits into global politics.
“It’s about how a person identifies with a place. When we know we’re a local, it’s innate and it’s embodied. Being local is separate from a purely geographical definition,” Dr Hess said.
The duo is also involved in shaping research to inform policymakers over the future and state of regional media in Australia.
"Local Journalism in a Digital World" draws on theoretical approaches and international studies to provide a resource for students and scholars.
“There is a lot that scholars don’t know about local media, and there is nothing quite like our book in Australia or internationally at present,” said Dr Hess.
Dr Waller said there was significant participation in media by local communities.
“We have noticed a difference in values, and how people engage with local media in comparison to mainstream media,” Dr Waller said.
“However, employment cuts within the media industry have led to more news being centralised, away from local hubs.
As a result, the majority of content is being produced and edited in one metropolitan office space.
“We interviewed journalists who don’t get out of the office to cover stories as often as they used to. They’re relying on information coming in to them, like press releases and council reports, rather than getting out into the community,” Dr Waller said.
“If there is no reporter on the ground speaking to the community and investigating stories, it impacts on what gets covered, and which voices are heard,” she said.
While the centralised media process is driven from a need to reduce costs, and meet ever urgent deadlines, “Local journalism in a digital world” explores the consequences of overlooking the importance and purpose of truly local news.
The pair’s research uncovered examples such as a reporter erroneously referring to a river, known as the life blood for the local town, as running in the wrong direction.
“This illustrates local reporting that doesn’t understand the nuances of the people and place they’re referring to,” said Dr Hess.
“But when journalists don’t have that local knowledge or understanding, it can really damage their legitimacy and reputation. It can also have an impact on the perceived credibility of the news source, and subsequent levels of trust from the audience.”
The book has a strong international focus, including a chapter that maps the differences and similarities of local media around the world – research that was conducted with the help of funding support from the Edward Wilson Trust.
“We found that while local news was important everywhere, differences in ownership and point of view really varied,” said Dr Waller.
“For example, in the South Pacific, it’s the churches that own local media. In places like Vietnam, it’s owned by the state.
“Local Journalism in a Digital World” will form a key supplementary course reading in Deakin’s Australia-first course unit on local journalism, as graduates are most likely to start their careers with local news outlets.
However, the duo’s work won’t end with the book’s publication.
“The future of the ABC and local broadcasting has been in the spotlight recently. We’re interested in mapping the nuances of local journalism to highlight what’s going on in Australia, to provide the intricate details that are required for policy makers to decide on issues like funding and support for local broadcasters,” said Dr Hess.
“The landscape is uneven; some areas are well serviced and others aren’t.”
Dr Waller said more research was required to find out how these decisions are made, the patterns in the success of media when independently owned, and the value that may be lost when local media is no longer available.
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"Local Journalism in a Digital World" by Dr Lisa Waller (top) and Dr Kristy Hess (bottom) explores the consequences of overlooking the importance and purpose of truly local news.