How councils are future-proofing themselves against shrinking regional media

Locals and journalists are the two main casualties that come up in conversations around regional media closures, but what about the councils which rely on local titles to get their messages out into the community? Mumbrella's Hannah Blackiston speaks with Bundaberg Council's Michael Gorey and Ipswich City Council's Simon Holt - two men at the front of the trend for councils to launch their own news platforms - to find out why they took the step and why they believe other councils will do the same.

It’s been a turbulent year for regional media. WIN News closed five newsrooms across NSW and Qld, West Australian Newspapers called for voluntary redundancies, there were print closures and mergers, a number of titles moved behind a paywall, and Nine offloaded its entire ACM regional newspaper portfolio for around $115m.

The main concerns are obvious – what does it mean for independent journalism if there are no newsrooms in regional areas? Where will people in regional outposts get news about their area if there’s no local reporting? And with many independent publishers in regional locations, if the business models don’t seem to be surviving, what will happen overall in Australia if we’re only left with the larger companies based in metropolitan areas?

But there are other frustrations too. For local councils, it means the news they want to spread about their towns no longer has an outlet. There isn’t a local journalist who goes along to community events anymore, nobody reports on what’s happening at the art gallery, or celebrates local wins, or spreads information about charity events. It’s these frustrations which led Bundaberg Council’s Michael Gorey to take action.

Bundaberg Now

“Bundaberg mayor Jack Dempsey is very keen to have a strong focus on communications, so we restructured the communications department last year, but the response we were getting was that we needed to get our message out there more effectively. We’re a large organisation, there’s 850 staff and we cover a range of different service areas, more than many local governments in other parts of the country, so there’s a lot of news there. But like the rest of Australia, Bundaberg has seen a decline in local media and the resources they have,” Bundaberg’s Michael Gorey tells Mumbrella.

“We’re not critical of that, it’s well documented that they’re facing a lot of competition, but there’s definitely been a cutback on journalists in Bundaberg. We’ve had two newspapers close in the last four or five years.”

As a result of those closures, and the lack of resources in the region, the council wasn’t seeing a return on investment for the press releases and information it would send out. Out of ten or so releases, only two would be covered and the information would end up behind a paywall. Gorey approached Dempsey with a model he had seen in Ipswich, a council-run news site which would purely cover local good news. That conversation led to Bundaberg Now, a digital news platform run by Gorey and a small team of journalists and contributors.

“A few days later we had the site up and running. It’s effectively a way of trying to improve two-way communication with residents and enable stronger connections with the community. It covers council news, from the art gallery, entertainment venues, museums, botanic gardens, water services, and the residents are able to comment and interact, so we’re getting that feedback.”

The site is very clear about it’s aim. It won’t cover court cases, or crime, or politics. The reporting will only be on good news about the region, small business wins, local events and community initiatives. Gorey is quick to say there’s no attempt being made to cut into the audience of local media. Bundaberg Now just serves to fill the gap that’s been left by shrinking local newsrooms.

Ipswich First

Bundaberg isn’t the first council to try the model. Gorey was inspired by the Ipswich First, an initiative launched by Ipswich City Council and led by Simon Holt, manager of media and stakeholder relations at the council. He says the idea for Ipswich First was born out of a desire to tell the wider story of the region, more than focusing on just the council.

“Like most councils, we were traditionally producing magazines and a variety of other publications. We had active social media accounts. Yet, we felt we weren’t effectively utilising digital platforms to build and engage an audience,” says Holt.

“We felt that the best way to maintain a credible dialogue was not only to tell the story of the council as an organisation, but more importantly to tell the story of the city we service – celebrating successes, sparking discussion on important issues, and encouraging an active, healthy and engaged community.

“Ipswich First wasn’t about creating a website. It was about creating quality content which could be distributed to a growing audience via multiple platforms.”

Holt says the success of the platform has been partly due to the approach by the team, who aim to keep Ipswich First running like a news platform. The reader is first and foremost for each story, what they might want to know and how they want to consume it. There’s also a dedication to transparency in the stories that are reported on.

The news produced by Ipswich First is open source, so local media is encouraged to share the content with their audiences, and Holt says the landscape is vibrant in the town, with a daily newspaper, radio station and other smaller publications.

“Our mission is to connect with the people of Ipswich. Our local media outlets are a very important link in helping us achieve this. All content produced by the Ipswich First team is open source, so we are not aiming to compete in the media space. All media outlets are welcome to share our content with their own audiences,” says Holt.

Funding the platforms

For the council behind Bundaberg Now, the title has allowed them to cut back on their spending elsewhere, and put those funds into the platform. The whole thing is operated by the Council communications team, additional staff are on government-subsidised positions and don’t work on the title full time, and the reduced spend with newspaper and television has made the platform cost-neutral to date.

Since launching in February, the page has over 12,000 likes on Facebook, and unlike other media outlets in the area which focus on the bigger Wide Bay area, the page’s focus on Bundaberg alone allows for highly-targeted reporting and coverage that appeals to locals. Its Facebook engagement already rivals bigger media companies in the area, and the page views and analytics are all on the rise. From March – June the title reported 70,659 page views.

The real aim of the game for Gorey is to future-proof the council against a shrinking regional media presence. Unless there’s some major investment on the horizon, the writing seems to be on the wall for regional outposts like Bundaberg, which will leave the council with no way to spread the information they want to share.

However, it does raise some questions among other news outlets. Despite both Ipswich First and the Bundaberg Now being very clear that they will only report good news and will always strive to be transparent and fair, there’s still no independence in the reporting. And once the inevitable happens and other regional outlets drop off, where will locals get news outside of that being reported by the teams at Bundaberg and Ipswich?

Font PR

While they’re the first councils to launch, both Gorey and Holt are expecting to see more councils join the wave, and they’re keen to work with other regions to help create the best possible model. But they’re not the only ones getting into the regional media game.

Tasmanian PR firm Font Public Relations announced recently it had purchased two regional newspapers, The Sorell Times and The Tasman Gazette. The titles were formerly owned by Temperate Zone Tasmania, a private company which also owns the East Coast View community newspaper. The company also owns the Derwent Valley Gazette after purchasing it from News Corp in 2018.

“The papers will be independently edited by experienced journalist Martine Haley, who has more than 15 years experience in editorial at News Corp, both in Tasmania at the Mercury and Sydney, at the Manly Daily,” the Font PR announcement read at the time.

Shortly after, a report by the ABC revealed that Haley has previously admitted to using fake Facebook profiles in her role as a principal adviser to Premier Will Hodgman. Former senior Liberal advisers Brad Nowland and Brad Stansfield are also involved in the Font PR business. Communications and politics are very tightly linked and it isn’t rare for people to make the jump from one to the other, but it does show how easy it would be for a bias to appear.

By their very design, PR companies aren’t impartial. Organisations such as the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) have voiced their concerns over markets like Tasmania and regional Victoria where there’s a danger of local reporting only stemming from sources which are neither impartial, nor operating with public interest at their heart. Font PR was approached by Mumbrella for comment, but did not respond.

But the debate becomes even more complex when you look at the recent purchase of ACM. While there are concerns that ex-Domain boss Antony Catalano may have ulterior motives for the purchase, namely creating Domain 2.0, he has vehemently denied that, and many believe the ACM portfolio wouldn’t have survived otherwise. Inside a large news organisation it’s hard to divert focus from metropolitan sectors which are usually bigger and more profitable than regional outputs. With the sole focus of Catalano’s ACM on regional media, there’s a chance the business could flourish in a way that wouldn’t have been possible inside a bigger portfolio.

Gorey and Holt are adamant that the purpose of their business isn’t to distract from local newsrooms, and they do serve a different purpose while still providing local journalists with jobs and community members with the chance to be involved in events and engage with news in their area, but if the shrinking continues, there’s a chance they will end up being the only outlets left.

Future-proofing councils

“Our core mission is to provide the community with content that helps them appreciate and engage with the physical, cultural and social environment around them. To do that, the more eyeballs on our content, the better. Since launch, we’ve increased our news alert database 20-fold, and traffic on Ipswich First content has consistently doubled year-on-year,” says Holt.

Gorey says Bundaberg Now received a boost when the local paper went behind a paywall, something which has been a strategic push by the likes of outlets like News Corp, which is currently launching a string of digital-only regional titles behind paywalls. While News Corp is reporting a good pick-up on its paywall titles, the recent University of Canberra Digital News Report showed Australia still has a way to go when it comes to paying for news.

“The mayor wants to future-proof Bundaberg against further decline in traditional media and we see this as a strategy towards doing that. When the WIN closure was announced there were several regional mayors across different parts of New South Wales and Queensland lamenting the loss of that newsroom, but this isn’t new, these sorts of changes been going on forever,” says Gorey.

“As a journalist I thought they’d plateaued out when I went back went to The Canberra Times in 2017, but no, they hadn’t and then a couple of months after I arrived there were more job cuts and now there’s been changes again. So no one knows when it’s going to bottom out or all those changes are going to sort of have the end of their life cycle.

“I think for local government because we’re the closest level of government to the community, it is vitally important that we have a tool whereby we can communicate messages to the community.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.