Rural newspapers, which have been at the heart of their communities for well over a century, are falling victim to the crippling effects of coronavirus. In Victoria’s north-west Mildura’s only daily newspaper, the Sunraysia Daily, will close this weekend — a move that has shocked the community. This year, the Sunraysia Daily was supposed to be celebrating its centenary, but at a meeting today staff were told Saturday’s paper would be the last until further notice.
Mildura’s Sunraysia Daily and other regional papers close as coronavirus wipes out more than a century of tradition
Staff will also be stood down at three other Elliott Newspaper Group papers, including the Swan Hill Guardian and the Gannawarra Times in the Loddon-Mallee region of Victoria.
The owners of the Yarram Standard and the Great Southern Star in Victoria’s South Gippsland also today announced the two newspapers would go into indefinite recess.
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And at the bi-weekly Latrobe Valley Express staff were told to expect their hours to be cut as management fights to keep the paper in print.
Papers that survived world wars crippled by virus
The Yarram Standard is 145 years old and the Great Southern Star was celebrating its 130th year in print this year.
Owner Helen Bowering said advertising revenue had ground to a halt.
“It is a heartbreaking day for all of our newspaper family,” she said.
“We are hoping to come back from this as we are proud of our local papers and serving our communities.”
The manager of the Latrobe Valley Express and Gippsland Times, Bruce Ellen, said a reduction in hours was a survival measure.
“Advertising revenue is down, catalogue inserts are down, classifieds are down and public notices are down because everything is cancelled. The impact on us has been significant,” Mr Ellen said.
“It is a crisis time for us.”
Mr Ellen said all rural newspapers were straddling a rapidly declining revenue stream at a time when readers were relying on local news more than ever.
“We’re looking at every single cost we have, and we’re making cost reductions wherever we can simply so we can continue to produce the newspapers and get the news to our communities for as long as we can.
“But I don’t think any business can make any guarantees at all at the moment.”
Mr Ellen said he had dire concerns about the future of community journalism.
“If we lose our newspapers, we lose community.
“The only place that a local community gets the news about themselves, their families, their local governments and local sport is their local newspaper, because nobody else does it.
Deb Lucas, who has worked as a journalist and photographer for the Yarram Standard for more than 20 years, said the shutdowns had left country newspapers in a black hole.
“All the events are cancelled, there’s no sport, advertising revenue is practically non-existent, so it makes it really difficult in these tough economic times,” she said.
“I feel like we are letting our community down.”
Government help needed to keep ink on print
Mr Ellen is also the president of Country Press Australia, which represents 140 rural and regional newspapers around the country.
The group is lobbying the Federal Government for immediate help.
“We are in contact with the Federal Government, which is considering what it can do to continue to support public interest journalism at this time,” Mr Ellen said.
Former journalist and Victorian Federal MP Darren Chester said he would like to see all levels of government support local papers through advertising and other measures.
“This is a perfect storm, where we’ve seen a downturn in some of our traditional industries,” he said.
“We’ve had bushfires and drought affecting advertising revenue and a disruption in the media market.
“It has changed to a more online platform so all of that has disrupted the way community newspapers operate.
Union says paper closures are premature
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which represents journalists and media professionals, is concerned newspaper managers have jumped too early.
MEAA Regional director Adam Portelli said it was a disappointing and drastic step.
“While there’s no doubt this is a difficult environment, these papers have survived depression, drought and world wars — yet just a week of this current crisis has led them to shut their doors,” he said.
“Their decision is premature, there is going to be stimulus money available to these businesses imminently and there’s likely to be further stimulus after that.
“We implore these mastheads to wait for that funding. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of their community as much as it is of their workforce.”
At the North Central Review, Whittlesea Review and The Free Press in the Macedon Ranges, editor Lauren Duffy said she was trying to ride out the economic impact of the virus.
“We’re a free newspaper. We are 100 per cent reliant on advertising so there’s no doubt we’re concerned,” she said.
“We’ve had several businesses call to cancel advertising already.”
She said the business would reassess the paper’s situation on a week-by-week basis.