I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021 and in support of schedule 5 of this bill, which will extend the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund beyond 30 June 2021.
We’re so fortunate in my electorate of Indi to have a dozen local newspapers that publish on a daily and weekly basis. These papers serve as reliable local news to their readers, and many have done so for more than 100 years. With regional newsrooms around Australia shutting up shop, there is no shortage of high-quality print journalism in my electorate, and I am so fortunate and grateful for that.
Take the Border Mail, for example, now under the editorship of Julie Coe. The Border regularly wins nationwide awards and has shone a light on important issues that would otherwise go under the radar of this and other governments.
The Border Mail, for example, was instrumental in bringing proper mental health support to the region, through its compassionate and dedicated reporting of the scourge of suicide and self-harm. The Ending the Suicide Silence campaign won the Border Mail Walkley awards and was a great credit to the then editor, Di Thomas, and to her predecessor, Heath Harrison, and all the team at the Border Mail. That campaign, together with the work of the community, resulted in our very own headspace on the border.
The Border Mail kept residents informed as the Victorian and New South Wales border closure came down haphazardly overnight in July last year, and they’re currently focusing on the many different faces of the housing affordability crisis in our region, making this critical issue impossible for anyone to avoid.
It’s easy to see how papers like these are invaluable community assets. We should be doing all we can to keep them in business. Without them, we lose a part of ourselves. They tell our stories and they connect our communities in ways that big-city mastheads and broadcasters never could.
I was proud to learn that two well-deserving local newspapers in Indi were grant recipients in the 2020 round of the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund.
The first recipient was the Alexandra Newspapers. This company prints the Alexandra Standard and the Yea Chronicle mastheads that serve the people of the Murrindindi shire to the south of my electorate. It’s headed up by Karen Morrison, manager and director, and editor Anne Richey and is one of the oldest community newspapers still running in Australia.
This grant funded seven new computers and screens for staff and spare laptops for working from home. It also funded a revamp of its website, which now hosts news articles, advertising, videos and links from the Facebook page.
The team made sure that the grant money went straight back into the local community. The new equipment came from the country tech store in Alexandra, and the web design was done by a local computer guru Caolan O’Connor from Regional Business Toolkit. In the first month after the launch of the new website, the papers saw a 30 per cent increase in traffic. This is a phenomenal outcome, which shows both the quality of the website and the news content produced by these fabulous local newspapers.
The Alexandra Standard and Yea Chronicle have served the Murrindindi region for over 150 years, and this grant went some way towards ensuring that the Alexandra Standard and Yea Chronicle stay in our community for years and years to come.
But we could be doing more. Back in 2019, the Alexandra Newspapers were successful in getting another grant from the innovation fund to produce large-print editions for their papers. Recognising that newsprint was hard to read for the elderly, they scaled up the paper to make the news more accessible to those with low vision.
During COVID lockdowns, Alexandra Newspapers delivered a personal copy each week to each nursing home resident in Kellock Lodge, Darlingford nursing home and Rosebank Hostel in Yea to reduce the risk of contamination.
Unfortunately, that funding ran out in March 2021. As model community citizens, though, the Alexandra Newspapers have continued to supply the large-print papers to the nursing homes at no charge, but they can’t do it forever and will have to discontinue this service, unfortunately, at the end of June this year.
That’s just one example of what we could be doing if we not only extended but replenished the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund. I call on the government to do that, and I note that there is an amendment from the member for Greenway to make that happen as well.
The second grant recipient from Indi was the Corryong Courier in the Upper Murray, which has been bringing news to the Walwa, Khancoban, Cudgewa and Corryong districts for over 100 years. It’s a small but dedicated operation that publishes once a week under the editorship of Mark Collins, and what a fantastic job Mark does.
The Corryong Courier were a crucial voice during and after the devastating Black Summer bushfires. They share news and events, recognise community heroes, give local businesses a leg-up with their classifieds and keep tabs on the results of the local footy teams. Telling the story of our bushfire recovery has been so important in this disrupted period of healing, where COVID and border closures kept people apart and made sharing information about what’s going on so much harder.
The Corryong Courier used its grant funds to upgrade its digital technology and purchase new photographic equipment, which will increase its reach and boost its advertising revenue. The Corryong Courier’s website looks just fantastic—get on and have a look—and the Facebook page is going from strength to strength.
Supporting small and regional publishers is so important, and I’m glad that the government’s Public Interest News Gathering grants gave some of ours a leg-up during the COVID shutdowns at their peak, when advertising revenue all but dried up.
The funding supported several local newspapers, including the Wangaratta Chronicle, the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, the Myrtleford Times, The Alpine Observer, The Euroa Gazette and the Mansfield Courier. I was happy to make representations to Minister Fletcher to underscore the need for this funding.
Finally, on the topic of regional and small publishers, I want to register my sadness and disappointment about the end of the Nine News Border North East nightly bulletin. This will come to an end on 30 June, leaving only one local TV news bulletin for a region of over a quarter of a million people.
For many people, including older Australians, the nightly local TV news is where they find out reliable information about what’s happening in their community. It’s where they see the faces they recognise, the people they know and the stories that are so important to their daily life. This is a major blow for our rural and regional communities.
Many talented staff have already left the broadcaster, and so many of these staff have taken their families with them too. Many of them are young and many of them were excited to be in the roles that they had, but they are sadly lost to us.
We need more high-quality journalism and more diverse views and stories, not less, in regional Australia. We have extraordinary stories to tell that not only engage us but engage the entire nation and indeed the global community too with the unique aspects of life in rural and regional Australia.
The extension of the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund is good, and I want to see the same approach to supporting regional journalism applied across all mediums. I commend this bill to the House.