If a council’s ‘good news’ website costs only $5000 a year to operate, a few regional publishers would no doubt like to know how they can replicate the trick.
Bundaberg Regional Council has come under fire from a number of directions since it launched a busy news-style bundabergnow.com website, which mimics mainstream sites but only carries positive news about the council.
Among critics have been Australian communications minister Paul Fletcher, who said he had “serious concerns” about the website and – according to The Australian – the “misleading impression it might convey to some of the tens of thousands of ratepayers in the region that it was a proper source of news”.
To Tom Sayre, chairman of the new Bundaberg Regional Ratepayers Association, it’s “incredibly one-sided”.
And of course, it’s a ratepayer-funded thorn in the side of struggling regional publishers, among them Today News Group’s Bundaberg Today, which has a regular print edition launched after News Corp Australia closed print editions of the long-established News-Mail.
Origins of the News-Mail – which was bought by News in 2016 – went back to the nineteenth century, but currently online visitors are redirected to a partly-localised page of metro masthead the Courier-Mail.
The Australian says the council competitor – which mayor Jack Dempsey told them “does not purport” to be a legitimate media outlet – uses a news template and runs articles written, produced and moderated by council staff.
It quotes a letter Fletcher wrote to Queensland Country Press Association saying it was “troubling” the website was “presented to give the impression of being an independent news organisation, when in fact it is fully funded by the Bundaberg Regional Council, and its coverage of the mayor and the council verges on hagiographic”.
Dempsey disagrees, describing the council website as an antidote to ‘fake news’, and claiming other media outlets in the region “did not have the resources, the capacity or desire” to publish all the information it publishes.
Country Press Australia estimated the council site’s monthly reach at more than 70,000, with 30,000 Facebook followers.
As president Andrew Manuel, staff lack independence, and fail to hold the council or mayor to account. “The council are making it look like a news service when indeed it’s just a council run and funded news service,” he said, concerned that more councils across Australia will follow the example.
Today News Group director Damian Morgan said the council’s argument they established Bundaberg Now to ‘fill the gap’ left by the demise of local news media was “plain wrong”.
So is Bundaberg Regional Council misleading ratepayers and others about the cost of its website – a little ambitiously estimated by the Courier-Mail at “millions of dollars” – or can you match it for $5000? You be the judge.