Why the death of suburban papers is about more than just business

As Fairfax prepares to shut six suburban newspapers in Sydney, Medical Media's Nazar Musa considers the true cost of Australia's dwindling local newspaper presence.

A couple of weeks ago, Fairfax Media’s Australian Community Media (ACM) division announced it would be closing six suburban newspapers in western and north-west Sydney, and launching a swanky new magazine instead that would “continue to serve the north-west Sydney audience”.

ACM director John Angilley, who has since departed the company, said that while the organisation was “intensely proud of our current suburban mastheads … we could not ignore the commercial realities of operating these titles, and need to embrace a new and more commercially sustainable approach to delivering our journalism in the city’s north-west into the longer term.”

Angilley left the publishing giant after 10 years on Friday

I agree. It’s no secret that print publications especially have been bleeding money for years, and that no one has yet come up with a suitable solution to plug this financial hole.

But this doesn’t mean that it’s not a little sad. Most transitions tend to be, even when they ultimately prove necessary.

Closing the six titles will reduce the number of Fairfax’s Sydney suburban mastheads from 16 to just 10. This means that at least six neighbourhoods (most likely many more, as these local rags tend to traverse multiple communities) will no longer have access to their hyper-local, individualised community news, much of which is the lifeblood of small communities.

Those who live in cosmopolitan cities such as Sydney and Melbourne often forget that people on the outskirts of their own cities – and even far closer than that – rely far more on their local publications that we could ever imagine.

While every morning, those of us living in inner suburbs of big cities reach for The SMH, The Age, The Daily Telegraph or even the New York Times (on our iPads, of course), suburban and rural communities also reach for their local gazette to check out profiles of local businesses, the times of their kids’ school fete and when their town hall will be hosting Carols By Candlelight.

One of my earliest memories is sitting down and flicking through our local paper, checking out an article about the kiosk down the road, seeing what’s on over the weekend. If you’ve ever been in the paper, chances are it was in your local newspaper (that’s how I started!), where journalists still have time and the inclination to cover heartwarming stories of teamwork, local heroes and church appeals.

And let’s not forget – community papers help local businesses advertise. Without them, it’s more difficult for small businesses such as the local gardening company, a bakery, a mechanic etc to convey their services to those living in the area.

While putting up flyers in the suburban post office or hairdresser or buying an ad through local radio are options, they tend to be costly in both money and time, and struggle to provide the kind of hyper-local targeting that online agencies can capture.

Going digital is the next stage in the advertising industry. But this doesn’t mean there won’t be any casualties as we transition into a digital media industry. While most age groups are on board the online trend, some demographics – especially the older ones – just aren’t on there, and probably never will be.

The challenge for online will be to capture that grassroots, community sentiment that suburban papers have done so well for centuries. Initiatives such as NABO, an online portal that allows people to enter their postcode and find locally recommended tradies, events, bargains and more, are trying to close that void, and, speaking from personal experience, are doing a great job.

NABO also clearly shows there is space in the digital sphere to create a new sense of community, at least for the generation growing up with the internet. And while it may not be the same kind of community as the one propagated by these dying physical publications, it’s one that will perhaps reflect a different world, a more globalised version that still acknowledges those pockets of society dependent on local communications.

But until the transition is complete, the dwindling number of publications that bind people together has left a gap that may not be filled for years to come.

Finding out what’s going on in their community, being able to share family and good news stories, and reading about local baker Janice winning the best vanilla slice in the state is what often makes people’s days.

While I do understand the financial imperatives that have led publishers such as Fairfax into closing many unprofitable smaller titles, the reality is this: as these community publications disappear or morph into one giant magazine, the appetite for big and dramatic stories tends to overwhelm those sweet, simple tales that give people a thrill every morning.

And for me, that’s just very sad.

Nazar Musa is the CEO of Medical Media


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