Progress Leader Loss Leaves Community in the Dark
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
According to Robert E. Park, one of the most influential sociologist in history, "local news is the very stuff democracy is made of” because it informs the community about itself¹.
The first newspapers were local newsletters chronicling the gossip of the court and the town in seventeenth-century England². As cities expanded and the modern newspaper developed, reporting on events and politics on a much larger scale, this human interest and public opinion still remains the essential substance of the news³ - the ‘tribune of the people’.
News Corp accounts for over 70%* of all major newspaper circulation in Australia⁴. As of 29 June 2020, the news media giant ceased the printing of over one hundred community and regional newspapers, transitioning 76 online and closing 36 permanently. The Progress Leader was one such discontinued newspaper, the local broadsheet reporting on news relevant to Hawthorn and surrounding suburbs.
The move was part of a planned restructure toward a digital-based business model to adapt to the decreasing profitability of print news, accelerated by COVID-19⁵. News that was freely available in the local newspaper is now locked behind online paywalls. News Corp also cut the amount of journalists covering regional and community news from over 1200 to just 375⁶. This dramatic reduction in public informants, platforms to discuss local issues, and availability of information could be devastating for the health of democracy in Australia.
News Corp neglected to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Dr Diana Bossio, senior lecturer of Media and Communications at Swinburne University, said News Corp’s decision to cease printing local and regional newspapers is “a huge blow to communities”. While all newspapers stimulate public life and social activity through providing information, local papers provide “a vital service by doing this on a much smaller scale”, considering the consequences for the people of that specific area. Removing local newspapers removes the opportunity for vitally important local issues to be publicly discussed, leaving communities less informed about important decisions being made by their local governments and institutions, which are more likely to impact their daily lives.
"The social practices associated with the newspaper including civic engagement, transparent processes of accountability of government, and awareness of local political processes are likely to be much harder with the disappearance of newspapers," said Dr Bossio.
The move raises a huge concern of accessibility.
14% of Australian households do not have access to the internet. This increases to 23% in remote areas⁷, which have been most impacted by the removal of community and regional newspapers and journalists. With the decline of newspapers, particularly remote communities are being increasingly left in ‘news deserts’ with little access to information about their own local area.
Many people rely on newspapers to be able to understand and contribute to their local communities, said Dr Bossio. While some will migrate to social media, “this isn't always an option for some of the marginalised groups in our communities, such as those who don't have access to newer technologies or have low digital literacy”. This is especially significant considering more than half of Australians over the age of 65 do not use the internet⁷.
In the era of media convergence - the increasing, collaborative merging of different forms of media - statistics do confirm that the majority of people get their news online. While 79% of Australians did still access traditional offline news in 2018, compared to 82% who accessed online news, only 6% of Australians cited newspapers as their main news source⁸.
However, research also indicates that as newspapers disappear, the public reads the news at a remarkably reduced rate. For example, when the UK’s The Independent transitioned from print and digital news to online-only in 2016, the publication lost 81% of the total amount of time its news was actually read. The Independent has millions more subscribers to its online content than it ever did to its newspapers. However, newspaper subscribers would spend up to an average of 50 minutes reading the news per day, while online subscribers consume digital content for an average of six minutes per month⁹.
People simply do not engage with online news in the same way as they do newspapers.
"A newspaper is not merely printed. It is circulated and read. Otherwise it is not a newspaper. The newspaper that is not read ceases to be an influence in the community. The power of the press may be roughly measured by the number of people who read it." - Robert E. Park¹⁰
The digital era has forced news corporations to deal with economies of scale, weighing up their historical democratic function against the profitability of modern news production. Meanwhile, communities are increasingly losing access to news that is freely available, locally relevant and adheres to quality and ethical standards of traditional journalism as opposed to social media.
After a particularly isolating year, a recent influx of positive feedback from the Glenferrie community about our own local newsletter causes us to consider this issue in our current context. The disappearance of local newspapers presents an extremely concerning future for our local communities - not just in their ability to stay informed, but in their capacity to stay connected.
"If public opinion is to continue to govern in the future as it has in the past, if we propose to maintain a democracy as Jefferson conceived it, the newspaper must continue to tell us about ourselves. We must somehow learn to know our community and its affairs in the same intimate way in which we knew them in the country villages. The newspaper must continue to be the printed diary of the home community. Marriages and divorce, crime and politics, must continue to make up the main body of our news. Local news is the very stuff that democracy is made of."
2. Park, E. Robert 1923, page 276.
"The first newspapers were written or printed letters; news-letters they were called. In the seventeenth century English country gentlemen used to employ correspondents to write them once a week from London the gossip of the court and of the town."
3. Park, E. Robert 1923, page 277-78.
"It is not practicable, in a city of 3,000,000 and more to mention everybody's name. For that reason attention is focussed upon a few prominent figures. In a city where everything happens every day, it is not possible to record every petty incident, every variation from the routine of the city life. It is possible, however, to select certain particularly picturesque or romantic incidents and treat them symbolically, for their human interest rather than their individual and personal significance ... The motive, conscious or unconscious, of the writers and of the press in all this is to reproduce, as far as possible, in the city the conditions of life in the village. In the village everyone knew everyone else. Everyone called everyone by his first name. The village was democratic. We are a nation of villagers. Our institutions are fundamentally village institutions. In the village, gossip and public opinion were the main sources of social control."
* 4. * This article makes the claim that "News Corp accounts for over 70% of all major newspaper circulation in Australia".
The exact portion of Australian media concentration that News Corp holds is a heavily researched and contested figure, and varies between ownership, market share, quantity of newspapers and their actual sale and readership.
Sources for the 70% claim:
"Added to their existing dominance of the metropolitan, regional and community newspaper markets (around 70 per cent of newspapers in Australia)..." Australian Press Council 2008, State of the News Print Media in Australia: 2008 Report'.
"The influence of the Murdoch media is profound – in Australia with 70% of the major newspaper circulation". Manne, R 2011, 'How can climate change denialism be explained?', The Monthly.
However, these statistics should be noted:
Under Newspapers: "News Corp.’s News Ltd., with six titles accounting for 65% of metropolitan and daily circulation". Papandrea, Franco, and Rodney Tiffen 2016, 'Media Ownership and Concentration in Australia', Who Owns the World's Media?: Media Concentration and Ownership around the World, Oxford University Press.
"Measured by circulation, News Limited [News Corp] is by far the largest with 65 per cent of total circulation of metropolitan and national daily newspapers". Finkelstein 2012, 'REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT INQUIRY INTO THE MEDIA AND MEDIA REGULATION' for the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.
Before the closures, News Corp (formerly News Limited) had owned over 70% of metropolitan print newspapers for over two decades. These figures above do not account for the high readership of News Corps' news.com.au
Based on study: Thurman, Neil, and Richard Fletcher 2018, 'Are Newspapers Heading Toward Post-Print Obscurity?: A Case Study of The Independent's Transition to Online-Only.', Digital Journalism, vol. 6, no. 8, 2018, pp. 1003–1017.
10. Park, E. Robert 1923, page 274.