Country newspaper publishers are concerned that funds allocated to small and regional publishers may be diverted to "large and powerful" media conglomerates such as News Corp and commercial broadcasters.
Last week federal communications, cyber safety and the arts minister Paul Fletcher announced the government was releasing $50 million for its Public Interest News Gathering (PING) programme as part of a package of measures.
But only $13.4 million of this is new money, while the remainder is repackaged and partially redirected funds from the 2018 Regional and Small Publishers Jobs and Innovation Package agreed in order to get independent support for media reform laws.
Now Country Press Australia - on behalf its 140 independent regional and local newspaper members - has been in touch with the minister the allocation guidelines for the PING programme producing "unintended outcomes".
It says the 2018 fund was established specifically to counter the media reform laws that favoured the large public companies and help sustain diverse media in Australia.
"Last week's announcement to expand those funds to potentially allow large media companies to access those funds does the complete reverse," says president Bruce Ellen.
"It has become clear that regional and small publishers could be sacrificed to the more powerful voices of the commercial television and radio networks and media conglomerates such as News Corporation unless careful consideration is given to the funding framework."
He says it is unfortunate that the conglomerates "seem to have the ear of government", and that News could now share in a funding programme "specifically targeted to regional and small publishers and concocted to push through changes to media ownership rules of massive benefit to them and other media conglomerates".
Regional and small publishers will suffer, "to the detriment of society and the varied media voices in this country".
Country Press Australia has urged that the original turnover cap of $30 million should be maintained to ensure the continued integrity of the fund. "The primary purpose of the Regional and Small Publishers Journalism and Innovation Programme, the "production of public interest journalism as the primary purpose of a recipient" must be retained as part of the funding criteria.
"The ACCC's Digital Platforms Inquiry final report also identified the continued support of public interest journalism in regional, local and remote communities as an area deserving particular attention and funding," he says.
Funding criteria should include a clear correlation to the direct resources applied by entities to the original production of locally generated public interest journalism in regional and local communities.
• State government support to help regional print media survive has followed consultation with the Victorian Country Press Association. The state's $4.7 million package - in the form of a page of print advertising and digital advertising in more than 100 outlets each week for six months - was announced on Tuesday.
Bruce Ellen, in his capacity as publisher of the Latrobe Valley Express and Gippsland Times, congratulated the Andrews' government on "an important initiative".
He said it would not only keep local communities informed in a time of great uncertainty and need for trusted news, but would contribute to sustaining newspapers such as the Express in providing communities with their primary source of local news.
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