Founding editor of Buzzfeed Australia, Simon Crerar, to co-launch local news startup

Buzzfeed Australia’s founding editor and former general manager, Simon Crerar, has partnered with three other co-founders to create a local news startup. PS Media’s purpose is addressing the market failure for local news, including establishing mastheads in communities where newspapers have shuttered, creating news deserts.

Since early 2019, 194 local newsrooms have closed, Crerar told Mumbrella. The new platform will have a different business model to other “creaking and struggling” regional news companies and employ local journalists. But before the launch, planned for next year, the first steps are to fundraise, listen to what communities want, and “co-create this with Australia”.

“We’re going to go out and develop our product and run some pilots this year,” he noted. “And then next year we’ll be offering this model to the whole of Australia and rolling it out wherever people want it.”

The PS Media founders. Clockwise from top left: Karen Mahlab, Dr Margaret Simons, Simon Crerar, and Robert Wise

Crerar is joined by Karen Mahlab, founder and CEO of Pro Bono Australia and a founding board member of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative; Dr Margaret Simons, a journalist, author, academic, and former director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism; and Robert Wise, the founder of Be Collective and a leader of social enterprise businesses.

“We’re really worried about basically the system failure in the business model that supports local news,” Crerar said of the gap the founders are filling.

“This is obviously a trend we’ve seen happening for more than a decade, really. The internet has profoundly changed the landscape for news, the business model. And what we saw over the last decade in Australia is more than a hundred local newspapers closing. Last year, in particular, this really intensified because of the impact of the coronavirus.

“For lots of people, over the last four years they’ve sadly known more about what the guy in the Whitehouse [former President Donald Trump] was tweeting about it than they know about what’s happening about in their suburb or their town or where they live. And that’s really disorientating for people.”

Last year, News Corp axed more than 100 print papers, converting them to online titles, and closed 14 completely. Australian Community Media suspended non-daily titles during the worst of the pandemic, and both companies closed a number of printing presses.

Crerar himself has not been immune to a contracting media market. In early 2019, he was one of the first impacted by a round of redundancies at Buzzfeed Australia, before the entire newsroom was closed last year as the pandemic took hold.

There has to be a solution, Crerar believes, and it lies in innovation. He explained PS Media has conducted research and analysis into which communities to prioritise, and drew inspiration from regional media progress abroad.

“One of the things that’s really inspired this is that, internationally, in North America, across Europe, over the last five years, there’s been this huge developing ecosystem of innovation in local media, in particular,” he said.

“We haven’t seen that in Australia. Part of that is our geography and our smaller population, but we do think that at a local level there really needs to be innovation coming through in order to come up with some alternatives to the businesses that are really creaking and struggling.”

The former Buzzfeed exec, who has also spent time at The Times in London and News Corp Australia, referred to the platform as “a piece of community infrastructure”, thanks to the expertise of co-founder Wise, for example, “who has a big history in technology businesses”.

“That’s the thing I’m really excited about, working on this. When I was at Buzzfeed, we had a lot of technology that we built internally, and that sense of being able to really build the products with the communities that we seek to serve is a really crucial part of what we’re wanting to do,” Crerar elaborated.

To fund the business, the group is “developing a really different, diversified revenue mix”, including exploring co-ownership, brand partnerships, and data products. While Crerar can’t talk too much about the model at this stage, he used the example of the experience accessing existing small newspapers to illustrate what PS Media wants to do differently.

“From a UX perspective, a lot of local media is pretty challenging. There’s a lot of banner ads … and stuff kind of flashing around,” he said.

“It’s not a great experience for the reader or the viewer. And actually it’s not great for the brand either. So we definitely want to have a much deeper, integrated relationship with brand partners and have been in some really interesting conversations up until this point with partners that we think may come on board.”

Editorially, the long-term strategy is “less chasing ambulances and cats stuck up trees and more really thinking about ‘What’s happening with the health of the local river?’ or ‘What’s happening with the local hospital?'” PS Media wants to be a source of “professional, public interest journalism” produced by people who know the places they are reporting on.

Simon Crerar

Crerar is looking to change the media landscape in regional Australia

“We don’t want to be embedding reporters in there who are coming from somewhere else,” Crerar explained.

“[There’s been] thousands and thousands of journos who have lost their jobs over the last decade. There’s a lot of those people who got into the profession because they wanted to serve their communities, and unfortunately, because of the problems with the business model, they can no longer do that.

“We definitely want to be hiring people who deeply understand communities, who’ve lived in them a long time or grew up there. And to provide a pathway, both for experience, because we want to hire experienced reporters, but also for young reporters.”

While the official launch is still a ways off, its announcement comes at a time in which debate around media diversity and sustainable news models is swirling. Earlier this week, small publishers including Junkee’s Neil Ackland, Country Press Australia (CPA), and Solstice Media’s Eric Beecher presented at the senate committee hearing into the News Media Bargaining Code.

Crerar is concerned about media diversity

Ackland claimed Google’s withdrawal from the local market, as threatened, could be “fatal” to small outlets, and “would undoubtedly put pressure on jobs, particularly journalism roles”. Beecher stressed the importance of protecting media diversity, addressing the platforms’ concerns, and ensuring the code doesn’t prioritise the big media players “get[ting] more money to make more money”. And one of CPA’s primary arguments was that the code should not extend to the ABC, which competes against small newspapers in some regions.

Crerar agreed with Ackland that “the most concerning thing is the threat of a nuclear option at this stage”. As a founder of a fledgling local news business, he said that Google’s exit from Australia or Facebook’s removal of news content would really “hurt media diversity in Australia, and the small players”.

“That’s what we’re most concerned about really, is the lack of media diversity, the fact that people are often living in these news deserts,” he added.

“The quantum, so the variety of journalism, and the quality of it, is really fundamental to civic health, and to a functioning democracy, to citizens’ sense of agency. And without media playing that traditional role, as it has done very successfully, as the fourth estate, it becomes a problem.”


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