National broadcaster using Deakin expertise to inform future of regional and rural news

Partner impact story

Exploring how to improve the quality of news and information flow and ensure the sustainability of newspapers in rural areas.

Key facts

    • Deakin University is working alongside the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC to explore new ways to support local news sustainability.
    • In a study funded through the Australian Research Council Linkage grant scheme, Deakin researchers are aiming to ensure the future of high-quality local journalism in rural and regional Australia.
    • The research comes at a time of declining local media coverage in regional and rural areas in a post-COVID,’ digital-first’ world, despite evidence showing the importance of local community news.
    • Deakin’s new partnership with the ABC follows previous work with Country Press Australia that was used to inform a senate inquiry on media diversity and a parliamentary inquiry into local newspapers.
    • This work is led by Professor Kristy Hess, an expert in Australia’s changing media landscape.

With almost 30% of the nation’s population living in rural and regional areas, country and regional news outlets represent a vital part of Australian journalism. The COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters have exacerbated some of the challenges facing the local news sector – especially traditional print newspapers – at a time when reliable, credible information sources are essential for local communities.

‘Big Tech’ has also disrupted the advertising model that has largely sustained journalism and small outlets have been hit hard.

With local and international research showing the importance of community news, Deakin University researchers are working on developing new ways to support local news sustainability.

Leading this vital work is media expert Professor Kristy Hess of Deakin’s School of Communication and Creative Arts and the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.

‘Countries across the globe are mapping increasing news deserts and gaps as outlets struggle to be commercially competitive in a world dominated by Big Tech like Google and Meta,’ Professor Hess says.

‘As a society, we are faced with existential questions about what we want and expect from local news providers, from who produces it to how it is disseminated and shared.’

That’s why Professor Hess and her team are seeking to develop sustainable models that can be used by industry and to inform federal communications policies and ensure that local news can survive the digital landscape.

‘Rural and regional communities want and deserve access to reliable, original and quality local news and information,’ says Professor Hess.

‘For millions of Australians, local news matters. As a research team, we’ve been reminded of just how important local news is – especially in rural and regional areas – for democratic, social, economic and, cultural, reasons. If people see themselves as being 'local' or connected to somewhere, chances are they have reached for (or searched online for) the local masthead to maintain that sense of place. That said, if people reach out for the local paper and it just doesn’t 'feel local', then the connection is lost. Game over.’

Local newspapers remain important for regional and rural Australians to feel connected to their local community, however researchers found many local papers rely on advertising and syndicated stories from metro outlets.

ABC partnership – 2023 - 2026

The ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, has sought Deakin’s expertise to determine how it can best develop partnerships and collaborations with regional news outlets to support public interest journalism.

The three-year Australian Research Council (ARC)-backed study follows a recommendation by the 2022 Parliamentary Inquiry into Regional Newspapers suggesting Australia’s public broadcasters should increase their efforts to support regional news sustainability through partnerships.

ABC News Strategy Research Lead Dr Angela Ross says the crisis in local news deepened during the pandemic, as hundreds of regional and rural newspaper titles closed.

‘The cuts and closures have led to fewer regional issues, stories and perspectives being reported and, worryingly, less accountability reporting at the local level,’ she says.

‘The ABC plays a critical public service role in connecting rural and regional communities and elevating regional stories and issues, but it can’t fill all local news gaps.

“The ABC is keen to use this project to consider how it may help design a unique and effective partnership model targeting regional areas underserved for local news.”

During the project, the research team – which includes Deakin’s Professor Matthew Ricketson, Professor Susan Forde (Griffith University), Dr Ross and ABC Victorian regional editor Hugh Martin – will identify the challenges faced by regional broadcast, print and digital news providers, particularly in communities underserved by local media. It will then recommend the best ways in which the ABC can support the local news sector. The team will also consider and incorporate lessons learnt from existing partnerships between the ABC and groups such as the Local and Independent News Association (LINA) and First Nations Media Australia (FNMA).

Professor Hess says rural media plays a powerful role in the local towns and cities building social capital and helping people to develop a sense of belonging within their community.

‘We need to look at the existing media infrastructure and service provisions and determine whether there is an appetite to work together to support especially vulnerable areas of the ecology.

‘Ultimately this is about helping to secure the long-term sustainability of a sector that has struggled in a period of digital disruption to ensure rural and regional audiences have access to genuinely local news.

‘Given Deakin’s commitment to rural and regional communities explicitly outlined in our charter, we’re ideally placed to lead these types of research projects.

Deakin researchers say government investment is vital to the long-term sustainability of small, independently owned news outlets.

Country Press Australia partnership 2010 - 2023

The ABC partnership follows the extensive work and report developed by Deakin and Country Press Australia (CPA) over more than a decade of partnership.

In 2018-22, Professor Hess led a separate ARC-funded project in partnership with independently owned local newspapers to assess the value and health of the sector in the digital age.

The study included a national survey of audiences – the biggest of its kind in Australia – and recorded responses from 4000 local newsreaders.

The work culminated in a blueprint for achieving sustainability in local news in the digital era and guarantees regional voices are heard in discussions about the future of independent news in Australia.

The researchers made 22 urgently needed recommendations to policymakers to inform subsidies, advertising, industry practice, government policy and future research areas.

The final ‘Media innovation and the civic future of Australia's country press’ report, released in 2023, found that:

  • Audiences value rural and regional news but want more of the ‘local’ original content about the towns, cities and suburbs where they live or with which they have a sense of connection. They are acutely aware of, and resistant to, publications with lots of syndicated content, reproduced media releases, plenty of advertisements from multinational companies and some government advertising.
  • The notion that ‘print is dead’ in Australia’s rural and regional media is not true and the printed product is considered an essential service to communities.
  • Government policies and advertising spending are vital to the long-term sustainability of small, independently owned news outlets. Subsidies have been vital in supporting news outlets, but existing taxpayer funds supporting media have been misdirected into larger metro outlets and social media.
  • Defining ‘local’ can be tricky for policymakers when determining how to adequately assess whether a news outlet is providing quality and reliable news to its community. More work is needed to encourage news providers to outline more clearly the area in which they provide a reliable form of public record and quality source of regular civic, social and political information.
  • Many newsrooms have begun to diversify their operations to focus on and draw attention to the strong connection they have to their regions, such as adding lifestyle publications, commercial printing, merchandise manufacturing (for example, tea towels that feature images of historic newspaper front pages), historical records and online information apps and business directories.
  • There is a need for small news providers to enhance collaboration across regional, state and national levels and share problems and opportunities.

Bruce Morgan, CPA’s former Executive Officer, says the tabling of the CPA-Deakin research project was a highly significant event.

‘It is a beginning, not an end; a launching pad, if you like, for what will be the new model of community-based journalism, where publishing in regional and rural communities is very much still a business but also a critical part of their fabric,’ he says.

‘Crucially, too, this research report now provides an academically tested framework from which policymakers can better understand the importance of community journalism, and act accordingly.’

The research has since had a strong influence on government and media policy and continues to inform more than 174 local newspaper operations across Australia.

Ultimately this is about helping to secure the long-term sustainability of a sector that has struggled in a period of digital disruption to ensure rural and regional audiences have access to genuinely local news.

Professor Kristy Hess

About Professor Kristy Hess:

Professor Hess’s research focuses on local, hyperlocal and community news; media power and society, media, social capital and civic participation, journalistic place-making, media, rurality and agriculture. She is especially passionate about education and training of practicing journalists in local/regional settings and encouraging media professionals to pursue life-long learning.

  • Chief investigator on two projects funded by the Australian Research Council.
  • Co-author of two books (Palgrave, Routledge), co-editor of two published edited collections (Routledge) and is the associate editor of Digital Journalism (Routledge).
  • Deakin University Faculty of Arts and Education Mid-Career Researcher Award 2019 and Early-Career Researcher Award 2018
  • Member of the research advisory board with the Public Interest Journalism Initiative.
  • Deakin University Vice Chancellor Award for Contribution to Rural and Regional Engagement, 2009
  • Trusted media commentator and expert on the Australian media ecosystem, and contributor to The Conversation.
  • Available for PhD supervision in areas of digital journalism, local, rural and agricultural communication, media and place-making, media, social order and civic participation.

Could a collaboration with a Deakin expert like Professor Kristy Hess solve problems in your business or industry? Learn more about research partnerships with Deakin:

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