Amidst all the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, an anniversary quietly slipped past. This year perhaps it mattered more than ever.
May 3 was World Press Freedom Day – an event designed to recognise the importance of the fourth estate and celebrate the role it plays in holding governments and organisations accountable.
At a time when “fake news” is a trending term, when social media is being distorted for political gain, when local newspapers are shutting down and shedding jobs in droves, it’s never been more important to celebrate the role of the free press and what it delivers our communities.
Right now, mainstream media is changing, its commercial viability is in question and its very existence is being eroded by corporate cuts along with people in immense power who have a preference for questionable Twitter rants.
Although the press may not always hit the mark, the media plays an important role as the mirror in any society.
It records our history, our successes, our failures, and our fears. It tells our stories on grand scales and small. Ideally, it questions when it should and stands witness when few others will. Occasionally it sets the agenda, but not as often as many would believe.
It is both the backbone of small communities and the bastion of large movements. If you think about its relevance, it is the first place many of turned to in order to comprehend the scope of Covid-19.
It’s not perfect, but in most cases it works, reflecting our society and shining a light in dimly lit places.
In late May, NewsCorp (Rupert Murdoch’s vast organisation behind most of Australia’s community newspapers) announced over 100 mastheads would shift to the digital realm and some would cease to exist altogether.
And here lies the full stop of community news. Like it or loathe it, that weekly paper arriving in your driveway is perhaps the punctuation mark of your local community. It’s the parochial place where debates rage, letters to the editor abound, Council decisions loom large, and general opinions matter.
But it’s gone...archived behind a paywall. And though that might not seem the biggest issue of 2020, it will prove important in years to come.
On June 24, the ABC announced 250 jobs would go, with 75 of those in the news department and 19 in the regional and local division. The $84 million budget cut will also see a flagship radio news program axed, while the recent round of belt-tightening comes on top of $254 million in cuts since 2014.
Community newspaper closures and ABC cuts come in the wake of a major overhaul at AAP Newswire - an industry subscription service that was recently saved from closure altogether at the 11th hour.
For those who might have missed it, AAP Newswire is a critical backstop for Australia’s media in general. It feeds newsrooms with the global and national stories they may not be able to access due to a shortage of resources.
Now under new management, AAP Newswire will be streamlined, but it will continue to exist nonetheless, and that’s important for a news industry already stretched thin.
The bottom line is this…you may not read your weekly community newspaper religiously. You may not tune into your local ABC radio station each morning.
But if you want to know whether your rates will rise, which streets are affected by a natural disaster, whether a significant development has got the go-ahead or you want to understand your region’s history, these are the places you turn.
Entire communities are documented in these pages and bulletins, from sporting wins to electoral losses, and a plethora of events in between.
Not only that, it’s this journalism at the coalface of local communities that often sparks some of the biggest stories in our history.
Just consider – the stories you find in your TV bulletin, or your city tabloids – well some of the most important started as a whimper rather than a roar and often their genesis was a journalist covering community news.
In short, regional newspapers and local radio are custodians of a community’s story. They know a region’s history, its weak spots, its ambitions and sometimes where the metaphorical and even literal bodies are buried.
Over recent years this commitment to community has been steadily chipped away. And there’s a very real chance as a democratic society, we won’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.