Why regional journalism is struggling for survival
Dr Kristy Hess, Associate Professor in Communication, describes the powerful role that rural media can serve in their local communities and how it’s being challenged in the digital age.
A journalist in regional Australia for 10 years before making the move into academia, Dr Kristy Hess’ main research area examines the relationship between media and what is known as ‘place-making’, particularly in rural and regional settings.
“Rural media serves an incredibly powerful role in the local towns and cities that they serve. It’s very well established that regional press in particular play a social capital building role, helping people to develop a sense of belonging within their community,” Dr Hess said. “But there’s a lot of different dynamics to the placemaking process, not all of them positive.”
“It’s not only about generating this sense of belonging amongst their readers and audiences, they’re also capable of making people feel out of place simply by how they portray certain individuals in the communities that they cover. Additionally, it’s about putting people in their place, by pigeonholing or assigning individuals to certain restrictive groups within their community.”
But focusing on the positives, how has the digital age impacted the power of rural and regional media in building social capital and developing a sense of community in the areas in which they operate?
“There are clear challenges facing rural news outlets in this digital environment. The media landscape has changed considerably in the past couple of decades and has opened up to these intense social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”
“But there’s also an increasing process of centralisation impacting rural news media. So taking local knowledge, taking local reporters out of their environments and centralising them into metropolitan locations creating what are known as ‘news gaps’.”
“These news gaps create serious issues for communities and for us as scholars. There’s no coverage of politics, no understanding of what’s happening in civic spaces, and no ability for news media to play that essential place-making role in their communities.”
In an era of digital disruption and resource centralisation, Dr Hess believes that ‘Aunty’, or the ABC, may have a key role to play in a solution, based on her research with fellow Deakin academics Lisa Waller and Julie Freeman.
“What’s interesting is the ABC does not have a commitment to rural and regional Australia as part of its Charter, so we’ve been advocating quite strongly for the ABC to direct funding into regional communities, particularly where there might be identified news gaps. That would be a role that the ABC could fill.”
“I’m very motivated by any issue that relates to rural and regional Australia. I declare an open bias because I have lived and worked in regional communities for most of my life, and so I’m very keen to play a role in securing their future and growth in this period of digital disruption.”
“At the moment there are some concerns about the future of rural media, both in Australia and globally. But there’s increasing studies in the US and the UK that are pointing to a very positive future, particularly for local print publications that operate both as a traditional newspaper and in the digital space. What we’re trying to do is see if we identify or help to enact that same positive future in Australia.”
Dr Hess is a chief investigator on a research project recently funded by the Australian Research Council that will analyse the role of media, journalism and social media activism in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013-2017).
The University of Canberra-led Discovery Project, ‘Breaking silences: media and the Child Abuse Royal Commission’, will investigate the impacts of a rapidly changing media environment on commissions of inquiry in the digital era, what they refer to as “national ‘listening’ exercises”.
She is joined by Deakin University’s Associate Professor Lisa Waller, as well as colleagues from the University of Canberra, UNSW and the University of Oslo, Norway.
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