A Warrnambool-based Deakin University researcher is undertaking the largest ever study of country newspapers in Australia in a bid to ensure their survival.
Project leader Associate Professor Kristy Hess, an expert on regional journalism, said rural media served an incredibly powerful role but there were clear challenges facing news outlets.
The three-year project, led by researchers from the university's Alfred Deakin Institute and funded by the Australian Research Council linkage program, aimed to come up with sustainable models to help local news survive in the digital frontier.
"The timeliness of the project with the ACCC's recommendations means that we have a chance to develop an innovative policy and ensure regional communities have the same standard of journalism as their metropolitan counterparts, despite the challenges of a digital era," she said.
On the back of the ACCC's Digital Platforms Inquiry, she has called for online platforms such as Google and Facebook to take more responsibility for the impact they've had on local journalism.
While she backed calls for the regulation of social media giants, Associate Professor Hess also said governments' own advertising spend on Facebook, especially in local areas, needed to be looked at.
"There's danger in Facebook directly providing grants and support for established local news outlets, because this only reinforces Facebook as a legitimate platform in which such information should be shared, strengthening the digital monopoly that we have," Associate Professor Hess said.
She said there had been an overall decline in advertising revenue, especially from government which was traditionally a reliable income stream for regional and rural newspapers - and that needed to be explored further.
It is concerning that some local governments are being left without independent media coverage.Kristy Hess
The ACCC also recommended better tax breaks to encourage more philanthropic support for news media, including at the local level.
"It is time we have a forensic look at what's going on in the sector, whether local newspapers still provide 'quality journalism' and ways to support their long-term future," Professor Hess said.
Between 2008 and 2018, 106 local newspaper titles closed, leaving 21 local government areas without coverage in Australia, the ACCC report says.
"It is concerning that some local governments are being left without independent media coverage," she said.
"Regional press plays a critical role in building social capital within communities by developing people's sense of belonging," she said.
She said the research project would provide urgently-needed evidence and strategies to rethink media innovation and inform federal communications policy.
Almost 30 per cent of Australia's population, close to eight million people, live outside major cities in rural and regional areas and are less well-serviced by the media than their urban counterparts.
Deakin University has partnered with Country Press Australia for the study.
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