As democracy advocates and journalists around the world did their best to acknowledge World Press Freedom Day on May 3, in regional Australia, The Northern Star was dimming.
One of the country’s oldest newspapers, The Northern Star was in print for 144 years until last year; now it doesn’t even have its own website.
Instead, as of the first weekend in May, subscribers and anyone else looking for The Northern Star or Tweed Daily News were redirected to The Daily Telegraph.
The old regional masthead logos appeared as tiny stamps on pages titled ‘Lismore News’ and ‘Tweed News’.
Conglomerate and conquer: the Murdoch way
Four years after buying up most Northern Rivers’ newspapers and practically all those published in regional Queensland, NewsCorp stopped printing The Northern Star and most of its sister papers in the region last year.
The first papers to go were the smaller weeklies and bi-weeklies, including The Byron Shire News and The Ballina Advocate, along with a few jobs involved in their production.
Former Byron Shire News Chief Journalist Christian Morrow declined to comment for this article, saying he hadn’t worked for NewsCorp for years.
But a former editor within the news group said, ‘this is rock bottom for the local papers in the Murdoch stable, from Lismore to the Tweed’.
The former editor wished to remain anonymous and continued: ‘I thought The Star running Andrew Bolt’s column was the low point but now subscribers have to submit themselves to the entire right-wing propaganda rag that is The Daily Telegraph’.
The change comes less than six months after a report published by esteemed Australian journalist Wendy Bacon showed The Daily Telegraph was one of NewsCorp’s worst four major media outlets in terms of climate change denialism and scepticism.
Federal government needs to support regional journalism, says union
‘This is another example of local communities losing their voice and identity,’ said Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance Media Regional Director for Victoria and Tasmania Adam Portelli.
‘Northern Rivers locals will have to pay for the privilege of reading local news and be forced to read Sydney-centric stories that may not speak to their lived experiences,’ the media union director continued.
‘It’s sad to see these well-known mastheads retreating from their communities, and it highlights the need for the federal government to provide additional support to regional journalism.’
Regional mayors reiterate importance of local newspapers
Back on the Northern Rivers, elected political representatives expressed their dismay at the erosion of local regional news.
‘It is so important for our community to have local newspapers and local news coverage rather what our big corporations want us to hear,’ said Greens Tweed Shire Mayor Chris Cherry.
Councillor Cherry represents an area with a large population of seniors and said local papers were one of the only ways to communicate with them.
‘It’s incredibly important that we keep independent news coverage in the shire,’ Cr Cherry said.
In Lismore, Mayor Vanessa Ekins said she preferred independent local papers like The Echo and Nimbin Good Times and encouraged others to read them too.
Murdoch no friend of journalism, says Ballina MP
In the state electorate of Ballina, where at least three local regional publications have been conglomerated and effectively conquered by NewsCorp, the elected Greens member said she wasn’t surprised.
‘The Murdoch press is a gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it?’ Tamara Smith asked with a hint of sarcasm.
A federal senate inquiry into media diversity in Australia was ongoing, after former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd failed to win his bid for a Royal Commission into NewsCorp’s power here.
Ms Smith said NewsCorp was ‘all about the bottom line and nothing to do with journalism’.
The members for Tweed and Lismore didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Regional uni lecturer distressed at loss of ‘long-standing icon’
‘It’s deeply distressing that the NewsCorp has further reduced its coverage of regional news and current affairs,’ said Southern Cross University Lecturer in Media and Journalism Jeanti St Clair.
The Lismore SCU campus was home to a course in media communications but aspiring journalists there won’t be visiting The Northern Star’s newsroom any time soon as it was decommissioned during the pandemic in 2020, with a downsized team told to work from home.
Ms St Clair said the disappearance of The Northern Star as a separate media entity was ‘a great loss of a long-standing icon of the Northern Rivers’.
But the educator remained positive about journalism in the region.
‘We’re really fortunate to have a rich and vibrant landscape for community communication on the Northern Rivers,’ Ms St Clair said, ‘there are pathways for local news and issues to be debated’.
Expect more clickbait stories on ‘house prices, celebrities and wacky protests’ from Murdoch merger, says Echo GM
Despite representing one of Murdoch’s few regional competitors, The Echo General Manager Simon Haslam also expressed disappointment at the diminishing presence of other media players on the Northern Rivers.
‘After continual cost-cutting that reduced the quality of their papers, NewsCorp shut them altogether in June last year and this seems like a further worrying development,’ Mr Haslam said.
‘Democracy requires proper scrutiny by the press, not lifestyle glossies, and an increasing lack of media diversity means that there will be even less serious reporting of our local issues,’ he said.
‘Not only is every one of Murdoch’s local stories now surrounded by the often dumbed-down content of The Daily Telegraph, but those local stories selected will tend over time towards topics with mass appeal such as house prices, celebrities and wacky protests.’
Mr Haslam said the further concentration of media also had political implications.
‘Even fewer voices will be heard in a Murdoch press that, according to former PM Kevin Rudd, has viciously campaigned for the LNP in the last 19 of 19 state and federal elections’, he said.
*Mia Armitage has previously worked for NewsCorp via The Northern Star (and loved it!)