A decline in the number of journalists covering local news in rural and regional areas means the public is less well informed about and connected to their communities, and is more easily manipulated, a new study has found.
Conducted by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, the study found that the decline of the traditional media model had seen advertising dollars flowing to search engines and other online platforms rather than media outlets that employ journalists.
Shrinking newsrooms means less coverage of local issues and key regional institutions such as local councils, hospitals and business.
‘The picture that emerges is of a sharp and worrying decline in the amount of local news available to Australians,’ guest authors, Margaret Simons and Gary Dickson wrote.
‘Given that numerous pieces of research worldwide indicate a close relationship between journalism and the broader civic health of communities, this decline has serious implications for the agency, power and health of citizens in Australia’s regions.’
Simons and Dickson surveyed media managers employed by councils in metropolitan, regional and rural areas.
Almost half of respondents noted ‘some decline’ or ‘significant decline’ in local news coverage over the past five years.
‘If we look at the basic news media function of reporting on local government, more than a third of LGAs reported that no journalists attended local government meetings,’ the authors said.
‘Although the figures suggest that some journalists follow up without attending the meeting, the indications are that a large part of local government business goes entirely unscrutinised and unreported.’
Fewer journalists also meant less public accountability of interest groups and institutions.
‘Media is likely to become more partisan and selective, and increasingly controlled and manipulated by those who have the skills and interest to do so,’ the authors said.
‘This, in turn, is likely to lead to less social cohesion.’
The study forms part of the 2019 State of the Regionsreport released last week by the Australian Local Government Association.