A tribute to WIN’s Orange and Wagga newsrooms, from the journo who set them up

Dr Neryl East set up WIN's Orange and Wagga Wagga newsrooms in the early '90s. Those newsrooms will close next week. Here, she reflects on what it was like to build local bulletins from scratch, and what the latest blow for regional news means in the bigger picture.

This week‘s decision by the WIN Network to axe its news services in Wagga, Orange, Dubbo, Albury and Wide Bay is the full stop at the end of a sentence that began more than 25 years ago.

While the end of WIN’s local news is a huge blow to each of those communities, the decisions about Orange and Wagga struck a particular chord for me. I set up those news services in the early 1990s.

WIN’s Wagga news staff in 1993

It was a new frontier. The federal government‘s aggregation policy, which for the first time allowed local TV stations to compete against each other in bigger markets, was still only a few years old.

WIN looked at its newly-expanded market, now including the central and south west of NSW, and considered how it could replicate the success of the high-rating local news it produced in Wollongong, the network’s home town.

Setting up news operations in Wagga and Orange to compete against the incumbent station, Prime, might have seemed a logical step, but it was also a big undertaking. TV news is expensive to produce and commercial operators rely on selling advertising space to make the program earn its keep.

Armed with enthusiasm about the challenge of building a news service from the ground up, we got to it.

We launched our first Wagga-Orange news in 1992, a hybrid of stories produced by a journalist and camera operator in each of the two regions. The rest of the bulletin was made up of stories from our then network affiliate, Channel Nine.

That program allowed WIN to dip its toe in the water of its new markets, but the ratings were dismal. To their credit, WIN’s executives took this not as a sign of defeat, but as proof that the people of Wagga and Orange wanted more local news, not less.

They bit the bullet and decided we would launch a separate half hour of news in each region, produced by local journalists and camera crew. The bulletins themselves would be broadcast from WIN’s Wollongong studio, but the stories would be truly local, generated from the central and south-west markets.

Creating two news services was an exciting opportunity; working out budgets, how many staff we could afford, sourcing equipment, and even designing the weather set. I remember being given the mandate to hire staff, but there was no budget for face-to-face interviews. I did all the hiring over the phone.

Launching the bulletins was a mammoth job, considering how far technology has advanced in a quarter of a century. In 1993, emails were only for the select few. I oversaw the two programs from Wollongong, spending the entire day with a phone glued to my ear as I liaised with my two chiefs of staff and reporters in the field.

The new services were well received but, by late 1994, there was already talk about how we could cut costs. WIN experimented with another hybrid regional bulletin in the Wagga-Orange markets, but ultimately settled into a routine of two separate bulletins with plenty of cross pollination from across the network. If a sporting fixture was played in Wollongong and involved a team from Orange, it would be shown in both the Wollongong and central west areas.

Much has happened in the intervening decades. The information superhighway emerged and swept everything in its path, depleting advertising sales and leaving regional newsrooms with shrinking resources. Many local news services didn’t survive. While this week’s announcement was a shock for the staff involved and their local communities, it’s part of a much bigger picture.

As a journalist, I’m the first to stand up for the continuation of news programs, particularly in regional areas where there’s a strong connection to local news. I’m also enough of a realist to understand the world has fundamentally changed since we set up those services with such wide-eyed enthusiasm.

Regional communities used to be information poor, relying on the six o’clock news. Now, we’re information rich but truth poor. There’s no shortage of news; we just don’t know which of it to believe. We crave a familiar voice to help us put the message into our own local context.

In many ways, the notion of producing a daily news bulletin, broadcast at a specific time, is a relic of last century trying to survive in an ever-changing digital world.

I don’t have a magic solution that would enable regional news services to continue into the future, but I know the answer doesn’t lie in trying to replicate the glories of the past.

Until we find a new way to deliver local news to the people eager to consume it, regional areas like Orange, Wagga, Albury, Dubbo and Wide Bay will have to turn to other information sources.

Dr Neryl East is a professional speaker and media specialist whose PhD thesis focused on the development of regional television services across Australia


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