Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Politicians are urging communities to support their local news outlets after the shock announcement that more than 10 of the region's papers would close for a while due to the coronavirus pandemic. Australian Community Media announced that it would temporarily stop printing over 120 non-daily regional papers. In the New England/North West these papers include the Glen Innes Examiner, Moree Champion, Namoi Valley Independent, Tenterfield Star, The Armidale Express, The Guyra Argus, The Inverell Times, The Tamworth Times and Walcha News. Labor Senator Tim Ayres said regional papers are the lifeblood of their communities. "It is how country people get local and national news, sport, including junior sport, local cultural events, support for local businesses," he said. "It is also where country people get to have their say. "Regional news, country newspapers and regional newsrooms are even more important today when people are in social isolation and to make sure public health messages reach everyone in the community." Senator Ayres said he is concerned that the sites won't reopen when the pandemic is over. "No government should let regional media collapse - it is just too important," he said. "The test for the Morrison Government is simple: unless all of these newspapers remain open and viable - and that means no further temporary closures, the package is too little, too late." Senator Ayres added it is a low-margin industry, that faces a lot of challenges and that the government has responded to some of the pressures but needs to make a concerted effort to keep these businesses alive. Northern Tablelands MP Adam Marshall today expressed concerns on behalf of the community and thrown his support behind hundreds of journalists and staff. Mr Marshall said the shock announcement by ACM's CEO Antony Catalano had left almost all communities north of Tamworth without a public journal of record. "The news that ACM will cease publishing the Armidale Express, Moree Champion, Glen Innes Examiner and Inverell Times until at least June is devastating and my heart goes out to the region's journalists and staff, who have had their lives turned upside down," he said. "I understand COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the bottom line of regional media but in one foul swoop and without consultation with staff ACM appears to have taken the first steps towards shutting its smaller newsrooms and leaving many without any local source of information. "It saddens me to think the hard-working journalists in ACM's non-daily papers have been asked to give up everything for the business during this difficult time, while for dailies in larger places like Tamworth, it's just business as usual." Mr Marshall issued a rallying cry to the community to get behind their local papers. "The survival of regional newsrooms is in the balance and now is the time for us as a community to step up and support our those publications which have stood by us over many years as employers, sponsors of local sporting teams and recorders of history," he said. "I'm urging those who can afford it to take out a subscription for their local paper, either digital or online, and show ACM's bean counters that they are still important parts or regional communities. "ACM cannot use this as an excuse to close down these publications for good, but must get their journalists back in the field and the printing presses rolling again once COVID-19 passes."
Mr Catalano told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age there cannot be a situation where communities around the country are left in the dark about the issues.
"I think the Government could be forgiven for believing that media operators were posturing last year to force consolidation, but those of us operating these businesses knew the seriousness of the situation," he said.
Mr Catalano has been campaigning for relaxation of existing regulations in regards to ownership. "We have to allow consolidation otherwise a number of media companies will collapse," Mr Catalano told media. "The markets are simply not big enough to sustain four voices, and it's time that legislators understood that failing to recognise digital operators in the voices test demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of the media sector." Senator Ayres said there is already a heavy concentration of media ownership, and it has been evidenced by the decision of one company that saw 120 papers shut up shop temporarily. He added there is no commitment from ACM to see these papers reopen. "I am worried that this crisis provides an opportunity for some of the big operators in regional media to get what they always wanted - a relaxation of restrictions, a relaxation of regulations to get their way," he said.
AMENDMENT: An earlier version of this story said the Narrabri Courier and Wee Waa news had shut. This was incorrect, the news organisations are still running.