Opinion: Communities suffer as newsrooms shrink

READING about the shape of the Australian media landscape has become increasingly depressing in recent years, with jobs cut and outlets closed or merged.

Where once thousands of diverse voices told the stories of every-day Australians - their challenges, triumphs, concerns and celebrations - fewer newsrooms with increasingly stretched staff find it ever-harder to fulfil that role.

Meanwhile, bombarded with new technologies, a plethora of online news and the constant noise of social media, consumers feel they're seeing more than ever.

Increasingly, that couldn't be further from the truth.

When people occasionally pause to reflect on the decline of traditional media, most comfort themselves that the only losers are billionaire moguls like Rupert Murdoch.

In reality, declining newspapers, amalgamated radio stations, and shrinking television newsrooms come with a far higher price.

Without quality journalism, our community is the biggest loser. Democracy suffers, as corruption, misconduct or favouritism remain hidden. Local communities become fragmented, isolated and uninformed. Good deeds go unseen, while violence, exploitation, theft and criminality remains shrouded in the darkness.

Last week, The Northern Star's editor launched a defence of his paper after a reader texted to say that with paper now costing $1.50 it simply wasn't worth the price. It's a message no doubt every newspaper in the country has received in recent years.

And the excuse is all too familiar: it's the media's fault that people don't pay for news anymore.

In truth, what most people are saying is that they don't see why they should pay for news when so much information is available free online

Ignoring for a moment the fact that most people spend three times more on a coffee, drunk while reading the paper, let's examine what that cover price actually pays for.

Most people understand the logistics. Someone writes content, another person lays it out, big presses print it on reams of paper, truck drivers distribute it and newsagents sell it.

What they don't realise is how those stories come to be.

It starts with a newsroom of people, checking court lists, submitting freedom of information requests, asking tough questions, talking to people in the know, and building up a wealth of local knowledge.

Add to that the effort of trawling through stream of press releases, reports, emails, phone calls, and social media posts and you've got a busy workday before the first word is even written.

The real art, and one that is honed over decades, is separating from all this noise the stories that people want, or need, to see.

Sure, you can punch a search into Google and be told there are hundreds of stories about a topic, but look more closely and you'll find that at most half a dozen are original content. Examine further and you'll generally see the story was only revealed because of the tenacity of a single journalist who started it all.

The cover price pays for the journalists who, day-in and day-out, uncover, research, then compress important stories into a few hundred words for you to easily consume.

Compare that to social media. While it may come free-of-charge, it is also free of the journalists who ask hard questions, the sub editors who checking the facts, and the editors who question whether the story is of value.

Instead, "newsfeeds" are increasingly populated with advertising, misinformation, and scams.

In an increasingly fast-paced world, where we are bombarded from all sides by people with ulterior motives, a couple bucks for a quality local publication is nothing short of a bargain.

Tim Vollmer is a former print journalist who now works at Mountain Media as a communications consultant, assisting a range of community and not-for-profit organisations tell their stories.

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