How to fix regional mastheads

Regional and rural mastheads in Australia are shutting down at a rate of knots. But it’s unnecessary and can be fixed… if the model is completely changed.
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Regional and rural mastheads in Australia are shutting down at a rate of knots. But it’s unnecessary and can be fixed… if the model is completely changed.

I originally published this over at LinkedIn, where it formed my 200th article. It’s very different from my usual modus operandi. I want to give you my thoughts on how Australia’s regional newspapers can be saved.

The idea is radical, and it totally disrupts existing models.

It does not necessarily involve more digital media.

But what it does do is suggest that the entire notion of ownership must change if these valuable publications are going to persist regardless of economic change.

I must also preface what follows by pointing out that this thinking isn’t new for me. It’s been in the forefront in my mind for many weeks. It’s undergone conversation with friends, and much cogitation. Some rural towns already function on a substantially similar model, though with a newsletter, rather than a newspaper.

Right now, as a result of various governments’ decisions to shut down economic sectors across the nation, some of Australia’s most significant regional newspapers are closing their doors. Various media are making it seem like it is because of a virus, but it isn’t: It is a direct result of economic failure to thrive.

That economic failure to thrive is itself largely a result of a revenue model, and a business model, that hasn’t changed for 200 years.

It’s the same problem that faces businesses everywhere. Maladaption will always result in failure. And rather than stand back and consider all of the possible ways in which something can be fixed, many of these mastheads are simply throwing their hands in the air and giving up.

If you aren’t familiar with regional newspapers in Australia, they are very often the centrepoint of a community. They are read (or at least purchased) by almost everyone in a community. They give you the local goss, the sports results, access to people selling stuff that you might need, job listings, and a genuine sense of being part of a specific community that has needs that are different from metropolitan areas. In a rural or regional area, getting into the local rag is often an enormous point of pride: Families keep articles and photographs of themselves and their kids, and gaining coverage is actually a big deal. I know this, because this is the environment in which I grew up. My family still has clippings of all of my own newspaper appearances, for example.

Additionally, many mastheads have enormous historical vaults, where they have kept every print edition ever published in a newspaper’s history. My own home town’s paper, The Spectator, has one of these deep inside the bowels of the building. Gaining access is like getting into a treasure chest.

So it’s not a simple matter of ‘oh well the papers need to stay up to date’.

Newspapers in regional areas are a big deal.

Additionally, they are often one of the only ways in which cadet journalists can find a place in which to cut their teeth. Many journalists describe their time in regional newspapers as some of the most fulfilling work they’ve ever done.

Disappointingly, the major union for Australia’s media professionals, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance – of which I am a financial member – has responded to the closures by footing a petition.

It seems that these folks don’t actually understand the business of regional media. A petition isn’t going to cut it – but that’s another story, and another opinion for a different day.

The way to save regional and rural mastheads is to completely change the business model. Not to foot a meaningless petition to some government nobody.

Right now, these mastheads are almost entirely reliant on advertising. Grants from governments are few and far between, and tend to favour ‘public interest’ journalism, which you can understand as ‘favourable to the State’.

So what is a newspaper to do? Soldier on or die?

Well, not quite.

A model of community ownership and production exists in other industries, and there is a real chance for media organisations to pick it up and apply it.

One model is what we see in community banks.

Regional newspapers, as the heartbeat of what’s going on in a community, are perfectly placed to leverage community ownership. It would require the long-standing family owners to stand back and bring into their worlds the communities that they serve, and that is likely to be the greatest challenge that they face. If they are able to overcome this point, then there is the potential for newspapers to regain their footing by rethinking where their money comes from, how their decisions are made, and what ‘serving the community’ actually means.

If you run (or you know someone who does) a closing regional masthead, and you’re keen to run a pilot, maybe we can prove it together. Let me know.

Anyway, here’s how I imagine this shift might work.

First, the masthead’s business would restructure away from a family business and into a not-for-profit organisation. One of the missions of that NFP must be to return benefits to the community.

As part of that restructure and reorganisation, the masthead must make a very clear-headed decision about what is required to keep it alive. Not necessarily thriving in the beginning, but alive. Maybe it’s a smaller team, reduced overheads, different staffing models… whatever it takes.

Once that’s completed, shares are offered out to the communities that they serve.

This thinking follows the same thinking as community banks. In exchange for paying $X for a shareholding, which directly refills the coffers of the masthead, the community’s shareholders have a say in:

  • Editorial direction and the balance of news coverage
  • Major financial decisions, such as shifts in pricing, subscriptions, or advertising rates
  • How profits are distributed to the community, and for what kind of projects.

This immediately creates greater interest and buy-in from the community itself.

Rather than the local rag being something to flick through, it becomes something in which you actually have a say. It directly represents you, because you are involved at an intimate level. And furthermore, if an outside interest wanted to disrupt your Good Thing, you have a say.

If you’ve ever lived in a bush town, you know as well as I do that there are always plenty of folks in regional communities who wish to have greater involvement in their local media. That’s why small towns nearly always have a committee that produces a newsletter, in the absence of a real newspaper. (This isn’t the first time local papers have exited stage left.)

There are many ways to extend this community-based model with your usual suspects, such as subscriptions, digital applications, and adjunct services.

But it’s in the projects and flexibility of shareholdings that this potential model really shines.

One project, for example, may be to fund media training for young teenagers, or the creation of additional cadetships that could expand the masthead’s coverage. Or to fund the launch of a teens’ publication that is run by teens for other teens. Others may be to fund local medical or educational services, or even perhaps a community garden.

A flexibility in shareholding may see a local printing house, to which printing is outsourced, contribute printing rather than funds. In exchange they may be allowed to advertise to a certain volume for free, and may choose to provide priority service access to other shareholders. There would be other ways in which critical services could be negotiated as part of a shareholding, which would directly contribute to reducing costs for the publication.

Beyond a fundamental restructuring and re-pricing, there are certainly additional extras.

Some examples include:

  • introducing subscriber pricing that returns specific benefits to subscribers as well as a year’s worth of reading, in a format of their choice (either digital or in print)
  • creation of owned applications that allow the paper to push notifications to smart phones
  • creation of subsidiary media arms for marketing consulting to local businesses, copywriting collaborations, photography services, and so on.
  • funding local events to bring more tourism or interest into the region
  • creating and selling year books of the best from the community each year, which could be used for revenue generation (or fundraisers for local schools)
  • … and so on.

The possibilities are endless.

The challenge is resolving the revenue question.

Certainly, restructuring may require downsizing and changing the focus of a publication. It may change the frequency of editions – especially if the shareholders believe that the community could be better served on a different basis. And it may reduce the number of team members on the staff (or how they’re employed) until the business is financial.

But the critical point is that the masthead still exists.

The community is still being served.

And independence in Australian media is retained.

What it requires is deep thinking, courage, and an entrepreneurial appetite that focuses on the value to the community rather than the benefit to the owners. Over time, the benefits spill out and affect everyone.

The trouble is, many of those seeking to ‘help’ regional businesses like this are based in cities and have very little valuable perspective, much less a true desire to help. This one model could solve it, while returning additional benefits to the community… and frankly, isn’t that the point?

Anyway, this is my thinking. Does it resonate with you?

Leave your thoughts in a comment below.

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