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Thursday, 27 November 2014
Page: 9639

Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (20:18): There is a bushfire ripping across rural and regional Australia that is, to a large extent, unreported and uncommented on in this place. It is an attack on our most vulnerable communities, small towns and regional cities—outback places and places off the beaten track. It is an attack costing communities jobs. It is an attack on the fabric that holds communities together. And so far, this has gone almost uncommented on in this place.

Government decisions have far-reaching consequences. These may not be apparent at the time. We have heard much this week about the ABC staff cuts. As an Independent senator for Victoria based in the regional city of Ballarat, I note the impact this will have on regional communities. My colleague from the Nationals, Senator McKenzie, has been vocal in her concerns. She has noted publicly the planned demise of the long-running ABC radio program, Bush Telegraph. Senator McKenzie has commented on the show's importance in reporting on rural and regional issues, and the opportunities it gives to rural and regional reporters.

As part of the cuts, the ABC office in Newcastle will be downgraded. Additionally, small ABC offices in Port Augusta, Gladstone, Nowra and Wagin will be closed. Plus, in my home state of Victoria, the ABC office in Morwell will be shut. Morwell is already a community under siege. I travel regularly to Gippsland and I see how people down there are doing it hard. I see empty shops, deserted factories and kids on the streets at night across Gippsland. If ever there were forgotten people, I would say that the good people of Morwell are part of that. This decision by the ABC to withdraw from that community is another case in point. Groups as diverse as the National Farmers' Federation have voiced their concern about cuts to ABC regional programming. And what has ABC management promised in return? A new ABC regional division. But I will not be holding my breath.

The CEO of Fairfax, Greg Hywood, has been making promises about his company's rural and regional division. Mr Hywood has been touring country newspapers across Australia since shortly after his appointment to the position in 2011. He has been telling country Fairfax employees that the company needed to reorganise. 'But don't worry,' he said, 'Fairfax will continue to invest in quality journalism.'

So, tonight I wish to draw to the attention of the Senate the slash-and-burn approach of another media company apart from the ABC. I want to put on the record the devastation being caused across regional and rural communities as Fairfax starves to death its newspapers and staff in its rural and regional division. Australian Community Media—I am told that is the current name of the regional and community division of Fairfax Media. Last month, it announced another major restructure. These events are always described in corporatespeak: 'major restructure'. These are just words for 'slash and burn'.

There are many small Fairfax newspapers across the country. These include dailies such as the Newcastle Herald, the Illawarra Mercury, The Examiner in Launceston, The Courier in Ballarat,the Bendigo Advertiser, The Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga and The Standard in Warrnambool. There is also the Latrobe Valley Express, which I have had much to do with, as well as The Guardian in Swan Hill. And in the town where I have my workshop, Hepburn Springs, I have been reading The Advocate, as well as appearing in its pages, for close to 40 years. All are great newspapers with a long history of serving their communities.

This so-called restructure is the precursor to the biggest attack on regional journalism ever seen in Australia. This attack is predicated by a company which has only survived in recent years due to the profitability of these very same newspaper operations. I understand Fairfax has distributed a proposed new editorial and sales structure for south-west New South Wales, encompassing The Daily Advertiser at Wagga and several small non-daily publications. This proposed new structure will cut editorial staff by almost half. It will include removing all local sub-editing, reducing dedicated photography to a sole employee and removing support for editors by making senior roles including chief-of-staff, sports editor and night editor redundant. After a consultation process some positions have been saved, but I am told 25 per cent of staff will still go. The restructure will continue in Victoria, I am told, and the whole of the regional network will be impacted in the next 18 to 24 months.

It is expected that, unlike the metro slashing of subbing and photography, the work will not be outsourced to Pagemasters or Getty Images. Instead, sites will be required to find internal solutions for subbing and photography; and both duties will largely fall onto the shoulders of reporters. Effectively this will mean less time reporting and more time producing content. With fewer resources to manage the newsroom, there will be some errors; there will be less time for research and reporting of real news and real stories. There will be more reliance on press releases and quick-fix 'churnalism'. And there will be more bad grammar—oh, the quality of writing in the newspapers these days! I am told that any suggestion by Fairfax that a similar news structure will not be implemented more broadly across its regional network is laughable. As I say, Victoria is next on the company's hit list and I am told the cuts will be severe.

What is most ironic about this is that Greg Hywood, the CEO of Fairfax, continues to spout his intentions to invest in quality journalism. Some newspapers in the country Fairfax stable have histories stretching back 150 years. All of these newspapers have successfully adapted to the challenges of the digital age by expanding online audiences and revenues. Yet this has meant bugger-all in the face of the required cost savings, which are predicted to be $40 million in this financial year alone. I understand that Mr Hywood outlined this figure openly in his address to the annual general meeting recently. I am told there is significant fear amongst Fairfax's regional staff. The quality of our press, the quality of our journalism, the ability of our reporters and our photographers to operate without fear or favour and to be adequately resourced is a cornerstone of our democracy. I voted against the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 not least because of its impact on press freedom and the ability of journalists to do their job. There is no doubt out media is under attack in this country. This attack is coming both from government legislation as well as economic and technological change. There is no doubt that people working across all sectors of the media, including those in rural and regional Australia, face an uncertain future.

You may ask what business is it of the parliament how private companies run their business. Companies like Fairfax have a duty of care that goes beyond the bottom line. Companies like Fairfax that have built years of profit and shareholder value from rural and regional communities must act responsibly in the way they face their current business challenges. And to those people living in those small and regional communities, my message is this: do not take this lying down. I personally know how important your local newspaper is. I know firsthand that the stories of local shows and weddings, church and school events, sporting wins and defeats, births, deaths and marriages are the fabric of your lives. Do not take this lying down, I say. It has been reported that Fairfax is looking to close up to 60 regional newspapers. It has been reported that Fairfax is sacking sales staff as well as journalists across our country towns and cities.

In crisis there is opportunity. To the people of rural and regional Australia: if your newspaper is dying, if the big shots in Sydney are killing your local paper, start your own. That has happened in my home town of Hepburn Springs where a former Fairfax journalist, Donna Kelly, and her husband launched a paper appropriately called The Local. In the shire of Moorabool, a short distance away, Helen Tatchell has been successful in taking on both Fairfax and Leader Newspapers with her vibrant weekly The Moorabool News. There are many ways to skin a cat. There are many ways to tell the news effectively and cheaply. So I say this to local communities where the Fairfax paper is being strangled by senior Fairfax management: take heart, take control and take back the heart and soul of your local town. Start your own blogs on local events, use volunteers, use local knowledge, get people involved. The time to act is now.

Senate adjourned at 20:30