Grievance Debate: Regional Newspapers

Wednesday May 01, 2019

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (15:27): If we want regional newspapers to survive, we need our regional members of parliament to support their regional papers. It was only a few months ago that I was here speaking about the importance of regional media, and today I am here to draw attention to another issue potentially facing South Australia's regional newspapers.

Currently, it is a requirement that councils and the state government advertise in newspapers in the local area matters of public relevance—for example, where there is public consultation required, bushfire notices, public assemblies, road closures or development applications. This is to notify the public, describe the matter under consideration and invite anybody with interest to make a submission to have their say.

There is the potential that this could change. If it changes, it is likely to change where it would be advertised on a website only, determined by the minister, or to give agencies the option to now bypass publishing in local newspapers. Some people would consider that any amendment to those acts would be a good thing. Whilst I support the modernising of notices, job applications and requirements by local councils and state governments, there is a real danger that this change could potentially affect our regional papers.

On the Limestone Coast, The Border Watch Newsgroup produces seven papers that cover six regional councils, including Mount Gambier, the District Council of Grant, Wattle Range, Robe, Kingston, Naracoorte and Lucindale. The news group currently employs around 45 staff across its Mount Gambier and Millicent sites. On any given day, there can be up to five or six public notices published under these mastheads from various councils and state government. An audience of around 62,000 people reads these papers each week, both in print and online.

Any changes to the current situation could result in advertising being withdrawn or severely restricted because the state government is satisfied that it has advertised online. It would have a devastating and irreversible effect on country papers. For The Border Watch and its papers in the Mount Gambier region, it would lead to the loss of at least 2.5 full-time equivalent jobs. In short, this government will be taking jobs away from regional areas, and that is something that I want to draw to the attention of particularly regional members.

If the state government and councils are able to skip advertising in newspapers and only post on websites or social media platforms, I would argue that this would be a major loss of transparency and connection with ratepayers and community members. Facebook is a platform highly prone to misinformation and a lot of fake news. If we look at the combined Facebook audience of the two Limestone Coast major councils, we are talking about a total of 3,180 people. There are 35,000 people in my two councils combined.

This would be a major shortfall in the reach and ability of the state government to connect with regional communities. I cannot understand why the state government is heading down this road. It is going to lead to job losses and a disconnection with regional communities, a disconnection of the communication with those communities. I have also spoken to Darren Robinson, who is President of Country Press SA. He represents 14 independent newspapers that will all be severely impacted by any change, leading to lost coverage on days or complete closures of their papers. He said:

I strongly [oppose] the decision to remove the requirement to advertise in newspapers as this does not align with the views of our member newspapers.

I could go on. I want to warn regional members that any changes to this advertising requirement will have a serious and severe impact on regional papers.