When it was announced at the end of May that over one hundred local newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch were no longer going to be printed, my feelings were mixed.
Firstly, it hurts like hell to close a newspaper. One is bad enough (RIP, beloved Tweed Echo), but more than a hundred? How dare this American billionaire destroy so many vital community assets in Australia for the sake of saving a fraction of one per cent of his fortune.
Not only are jobs lost when a newspaper stops printing; the reporting and examination of police, court and government matters are also lost.
A good local newspaper informs and connects people to each other in their community; it also connects them to the past, acting as a communal memory so that history does not endlessly repeat itself.
On second thoughts, it’s not so bad. Not just because some competition will be removed from The Echo, but because Murdoch’s influence will be reduced in our area.
In recent years, his organisation has become more like a far-right political party than a purveyor of news.
Its papers are spattered by the venom of tosspots and bigots, whose views were apparently formed in South Africa in the sixties, and its television is produced by angry racists, for whom apologies must be made to visitors when their shouting heads appear on the screens of airport lounges.
Less of Murdoch should therefore be a blessing, although the Sydney Daily Telegraph is now distributed in a ‘regional’ version, which includes a couple of pages of Northern Rivers news, along with its hysterical tirades against the ABC.
To be fair, it is only News Corp’s rabid metropolitan tabloids and The Australian, home of ancient white male privilege, that deserve our contempt.
The free printed newspapers in our area and elsewhere, now crippled and down to online subscription only, were usually written by professional journalists without any trace of Murdoch’s Fox News slime. Losing them is a genuine blow to the communities concerned.
Must it be a permanent loss? It is arguable that clearing out the old publications will give new ones room to grow. Even now I suspect most of the towns that have lost corporate newspapers have groups of citizens busy planning to start up community ones.
Yes, yes, the future lies in the digital realm, printed newspapers are a soon-to-be-extinct species targeted by the social media meteor – all that Cassandra commentary may be true, but outside of the main dinosaurs, News Corp and Nine (Fairfax), newspapers have been faring reasonably well, provided they have a strong identity based on their local community. Print is not dead yet.
However, the journalists thrown out of employment by Murdoch are not all local to the area they worked in. We cannot expect many of them to stay and help launch new community papers.
But without professional journalists who know how to sniff out and write the stories that someone doesn’t want to be written (the short definition of journalism), there is a danger of new titles becoming mere lifestyle glossies, advertising vehicles without serious news; printed yawns.
We have seen enough of those in our area already, most of which have succumbed to the advertising holocaust caused by COVID-19.
All of which proves that the future is unknowable.
Perhaps News Corp’s newspaper massacre will lead to a rejuvenation of the medium; perhaps it will remain one of Rupert Murdoch’s many dark stains on the fabric of Australian society.
In the meantime, the massacre is being given a particle collision level of spin. It is the start of a new era, say some of the doomed titles on their last front pages, as if their long-active and low-traffic web sites had only just popped into existence.
And yet, these last editions are full of sad retrospective features, unwittingly acknowledging what has been lost.
Here are some of the print titles that have disappeared from our region.
The Northern Star
When The Echo was launched in June, 1986, the Northern Star was still a locally owned entity. The paper had been founded in 1876, and although conservative in politics, it disdained to confuse comment and news.
In 1988 Australian Provincial Newspapers was created out of the wreckage of Provincial Newspapers Queensland (Murdoch was also involved in the demise of PNQ) and the new entity later acquired the Northern Star. PNQ had been owned by a group of conservative newspaper families; APN’s major shareholder was the belligerent Irish ex-footballer Tony O’Reilly, whose business methods were more robust, particularly in the pursuit of advertising.
In 2016 Murdoch reappeared on the scene and purchased APN’s newspapers, promising that none of them would be closed. APN dwindled to some radio stations and billboard advertising, and then signalled a death wish by changing its name to HT&E, which stands for, absurdly, ‘Here, There and Everywhere.’ Four years after the takeover from APN, News Corp stopped printing the Northern Star.
The Byron News
The Byron News was founded in 1971 and was initially a quaint family-run business.
The content was largely supplied by its readers – a sensible plan – and if the editor did not have enough copy he would fill the empty columns with quotes and proverbs from a reference book he kept handy on the typesetting machine.
When the family sold the paper to a Sydney-based investor who was only interested in its bottom line, the News went through a period of decline before being acquired by APN and regaining its balance.
Like the other APN titles, the Byron News was acquired by News Corp in 2016, and the appointment of a series of professional editors saw the paper become a genuine resource for Byron Bay.
The Ballina Advocate
The Advocate was initially a Mullumbimby publication. When its long-time editor Jim Brokenshire retired, Mullumbimby was left without a newspaper at all until the start of The Echo.
Then, for some time, APN ran the Advocate as a regional weekly, spreading across the shires of Byron and Ballina. With APN’s acquisition of the Byron News, the Advocate’s wings were clipped and it became solely the Ballina local.
Unlike the News, the Ballina Advocate did not seem to improve under the ownership of News Corp.
The Tweed Daily News
The Tweed paper did not have anything to learn from Rupert’s news slanting. It was a paper indelibly stuck to the arse of the National Party, and its favourite trick was to print fake news the day before an election, defaming candidates who were not aligned with the good ol’ boys, and then of course printing the correction and apology two days later.
The Lismore Echo
Founded in 1991 by the owners of the Byron Shire Echo, the paper started out strongly with Jenni Dell as editor, Mac Nicolson as advertising manager and Graham Askey as head of distribution. It was sold for a nominal sum to its employees in 1993, after an intensification of the struggle to defend two newspapers against O’Reilly’s business methods drained us of energy.
APN’s first strategy of launching their own weekly (Lismore Happenings) had been quickly seen off, but when advertisers in a fledgling weekly are threatened with editorial boycotts by the local daily, you know you are in a no-holds-barred newspaper war.
The staff of the (renamed) Northern Rivers Echo succeeded in attracting Lismore’s progressive readers and the paper survived intact as an independent voice, until it was sold out to APN in 2008, and subsequently sold off to News Corp in 2016. Along the way it reverted to its original and more accurate title, the Lismore Echo. This is the newspaper that is not even going to get the ghostly afterlife of online existence. It has been destroyed, just short of its thirtieth birthday.
♦ David Lovejoy is an Echo co-founder