AS a former newspaper journalist, Kristy Hess was surprised to find out that many of the things people value about newspapers had little to do with journalists.
Ms Hess, a journalism lecturer at Deakin University, interviewed a range of people about newspapers, from readers to news sources and journalists, for a PhD she is undertaking on the future of regional newspapers.
While many valued the community advocacy role that local newspapers played — such as that of The Standard in support of Peter’s Project for better cancer treatment in the south-west — equally important to many people was how newspapers connected people to each other through such means as births, deaths and marriage notices and public notice advertisements.
As newspapers shift to providing a more online format, Ms Hess fears that “connection” service is being lost with information such as births, deaths and marriages either being hard to find or not provided at all on newspaper websites.
Newspapers could learn a lot from social media sites such as Facebook and develop platforms that not only allowed people to connect with each other but also directed them to the newspaper’s website, she said.
Ms Hess’ other findings were that local newspapers remained the most legitimate source of news for communities.
“People might read something on Facebook but the chances are they will go to the local newspaper the next day to verify that and learn more,” Ms Hess said.
She believes regional newspapers will become a mix of online and print that will be identified by a masthead, the newspaper’s present name, rather than by the form in which they presently deliver information.
“Regional mastheads have a strong future, particularly those that have a long-running association with towns.
“They have strong symbolic value.
“They have a history of being leaders in the community.”
However that future was being threatened by the diminution of local knowledge and resources such as the centralisation of sub-editing away from the newspaper’s home town.
“Local knowledge builds newspaper credibility,” she said.
Ms Hess, who also works for the Country Press Australia/Deakin University post-cadet journalism course (an education program for working journalists), said she had seen the reduction of staff at newsrooms throughout regional Australia.
“It’s like a game of Jenga. You build a solid structure, then take away as many pieces and hope the structure stays,” Ms Hess said
She said while many media outlets were struggling against the loss of revenue to online, local newspapers were holding their own.
“It does not make sense to strip away resources from one of the most viable forms of news in an advanced liberal democracy,” she said.
To ensure their future, local newspapers had to make local content their “absolute niche”, Ms Hess said.
While Ms Hess believes the future of regional newspapers was likely to be more online, she baulked at getting people to pay for online news.
“Regional media should swing to membership and generate (online) advertising through that membership base,” she said.