Facebook has blocked the news feed from the Wombat Post in it’s blanket ban on Australia news media. That means local stories for Daylesford and Hepburn Springs can’t be shared through local social media pages, including the Wombat Post’s own Facebook Page. Facebook is unhappy with legislation being debated at the moment that would force them to pay for news content.

Currently, Facebook and Google don’t have to pay news organisations for the stories that are posted or accessed through searches. News content is valuable because people read it and advertisers pay to associate with the news feed. Facebook and Google receive payment for the ads but the news creators do not receive payment for the news. The idea behind the legislation is that the digital platforms and the news organisations should share profits from advertising. The legislation forces digital platforms to negotiate profit sharing and sets up arbitration arrangements if there are disputes.

The new law only applies to major digital platforms like Facebook and Google and to registered news organisations with a mainly Australian audience that have revenue of over $150,000 per year.

The legislation does not apply to voluntary, local community news organisations like the Wombat Post (or most small local commercial news organisations). However, Facebook has decided to make their point by excluding all news organisations for the moment. In doing so, they managed to block a range of government and non profit information websites, including a number of health websites. They scrambled to fix the overreach as community outrage grew.

Local News is Disappearing

The new media bargaining laws won’t fix the problem of disappearing local news. They will make it easier for News Corp and Nine entertainment (which now owns the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald) to extract payments from Facebook and Google.

Early in the COVID-19 lockdown, the major publishers of local and regional newspapers, Australian Community Media and News Corp, suspended print publication. News Corp has announced that over 100 local and regional print papers will disappear. About three quarters of the publications will continue digitally, but print will be a thing of the past, except in areas where there is enough advertising to keep them going. COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated the long-term decline.

The loss of local news is important. Local news services deliver news that is not covered in regional and national news services. It informs the community about what’s happening and provide checks and balances for local government, health and community services, planning and business development.

Local news celebrates community contributions and successes. It helps citizens to engage and participate in the their local community and assists them in making better decisions for a stronger and more resilient community. Credible, authoritative national, regional and local news is one of the underpinning institutions for an effective democracy.

The old model of regular local coverage supported by lucrative advertisements is in deep trouble in most places. Newspaper circulation has plummeted. Journalist positions have disappeared and there is much less capacity for investigative journalism as news loses the battle for attention.

About three quarters of Australians adults read ‘newspapers’ but most now do so digitally. Print readership of major ‘newspapers’ is declining. About one and half times more people read major mastheads digitally than in print.

Where people get their news

Stories are now instantly available and the pace of the 24 hour news cycle has increased exponentially. Online readers flit between story links across a range of publications through social media and media aggregators like Apple News and Reddit. Social media and search engines are now the main channels for news. Only about a third of readers go directly to a digital news site.

Not surprisingly, advertising has migrated online. In Australia, Facebook (47%) and Google (24%) get the lion’s share of the $9 billion online advertising revenue without paying for original news content.

With the decline of the old media model, the quality of content has become more variable. Social media and blogs have plagiarised and cannibalized news. As journalist positions disappear, content is hoovered up from other places and regurgitated. New content providers have filled the vacuum.

Bloggers, think tanks, public relations companies, social media companies, governments, corporations, educational institutions, charities and advocacy groups all generate stories in competition with one another. Some of it is investigative, research driven and fact based. Much of it is advocacy driven, values-based opinion. A lot of it is ‘click bait’ – cat videos, celebrities, quizzes and astonishing ‘facts’.

The advertising shift to social media, the fragmentation of content sources and the chase for eyeballs and clicks has had a profound impact on the quality of the news we consume.

Just about everyone has been caught sharing stories that are contrived, self serving or false. Outright distortion and lying by major institutions and public figures, once thought shocking, has become common place.

On the other hand, the new world of distributed digital discovery drives diversity and voices that were never heard get air play. New opportunities are opening up for delivery of local news.

National and regional news platforms are emerging. The major ‘newspapers’ are now increasingly digital and many are moving to subscription models. The RiotACT digital regional news service for Canberra and the ACT shows what can be done regionally. The ABC continues to provide public interest news for national and regional audiences.

But new models for local news are only in their infancy.

A new approach for local community news is needed

Local social media groups can fill part of the gap for local news and information. Local social media has become a source of rapid, short, sharp information sharing that is highly interactive. But it is difficult for social media to provide more in-depth, organised and detailed local news and information.

Local digital news services have the potential to fill the gap left by the older local print papers. They sit between social media and print. They cost less to run. News and information can be put up rapidly. Other services like events calendars and directories can be included. They are easily read on smart phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. They can provide a virtual public square for local communities. If costs allow, they can be supplemented with print distribution as well. But they might need some help to get going.

Local news is important, particularly for small rural communities, but scale and revenue make it hard to generate sustainable business models. New models, including community controlled, not for profit community news services could be explored. But they will need some encouragement.

Since 1932 Australia has supported independent, public interest media. We spend around $1 a week person on national and regional public broadcasting, but nothing on local public interest news. Another 10 cents per person per week would go a long way encouraging local community controlled, digital public interest news services. That might not be a high price to pay to protect local news services.