Newspapers in Australia's southern states which have battled floods, bushfires, COVID-19 and the economic downturn this year now face a new challenge: News Corp fighting them for their audience.
The Murdoch-owned global publishing giant has identified three towns in which Australian Community Media publishes newspapers - Ballarat, Clare and Port Lincoln - for the first of more than 50 new digital-only mastheads it plans to launch, mostly in the territory of ACM or family-owned publishers.
Staff in Ballarat, where ACM owns the 153-year-old Ballarat Courier, have just heard that colleagues in the printing works are to lose their jobs, with work likely taken over by a new News Corp plant.
Now News plans to fight for their audience, having recruited three journalists to work on this and two other new titles. It is looking for another 12, who must be "embedded in their community - living and working in the communities they're serving".
Ten more towns - four of them with long-established privately-owned newspapers - are to be targeted, according to a report in News Corp national daily The Australian announcing the development.
Gippsland, where the Bairnsdale Advertiser belongs to the Yeates family;
Latrobe Valley, where the LV Express is owned by ACM with a private partnership;
Mildura, where the Lanyon family-owned Elliott Newspaper Group's Sunraysia Daily - which was to have celebrated its centenary this year - was among the first to suspend print editions when COVID-19 hit in March; and
Shepparton, where the daily Shepparton News is the flagship of a stable of central Victorian country newspapers owned by the McPherson family, and headed by Ross McPherson since the death of his brother Chris from cancer in 2016.
Seven towns in NSW and Victoria in which ACM has print mastheads are also on News Corp's immediate 'hit list'. They are: the 'twin cities' of Albury-Wodonga - currently struggling in the face of a pandemic-driven border closure - Bendigo, Dubbo, Hawkesbury, Port Macquarie, Orange and Tamworth.
One further digital masthead is to be launched, in Melbourne where News wants to appeal to the "village atmosphere" of parts of the inner-city such as Yarra and Richmond, which it claims to have done successfully in Adelaide and Sydney.
Approached by GXpress, Country Press Australia president Bruce Ellen questioned the welcome the new News Corp digital mastheads will receive.
"Following News Corp's sudden exit in Queensland, abandoning its regional communities, it will be fascinating to watch any community support and commitment they make to local journalism in the regional areas where they are proposing to start a digital platform.
"Many of the regional communities targeted are serviced by local independent publishers, some for more than 100 years. These local publishers are an integral part of their local communities, employ a team of local journalists, as well as being key supporters of commercial activity in their towns."
News says its first 15 digital mastheads will be up and running by the end of September, with the balance over the remaining three years.
They will be based on "grassroots journalism", and cover local crime and court, plus planning and development in the area, schools, health and lifestyle, according to national community masthead network editor John McGourty.
Content will also come from News' new internal wire service, formed after News and Nine said they were withdrawing from news agency Australian Associated Press and put it on the market. Subscribers will have also access to News' metro mastheads including the Daily Telegraph, Herald-Sun, Courier-Mail and The Advertiser, all of which operate under a rigid paywall.
McGourty says News has identified "50-plus sites where we think there's an opportunity to grow new audiences" and will develop there over the next three years.
"We want to do this at a scalable, sustainable pace," he said.
The announcement comes only weeks after News killed the print editions of more than 100 regional and community newspapers in Queensland and NSW, putting hundreds of journalists out of work.
McGourty says News now has 92 digital-only mastheads including 16 set up over the past 18 months. He claims "close to 50 per cent" of its subscriptions come from hyperlocal content, which "readers can't get anywhere else". Subscriptions will account for "as much as 90 per cent" of revenue with the rest from advertising.
News will subsidise the potentially loss-making venture, with mastheads "expected to break even" after about 12 months. "It really is just grassroots journalism, the ways (sic) it's always been and our audiences connecting with that in better and bigger ways than ever before."
What success News will have - and what damage it will do to journalism and already-struggling local publishers - is open to conjecture.
"Whether a New York based company with an Australian head office in Sydney can understand the individual needs of these diverse communities across regional Australia remains to be seen," says Bruce Ellen. "Perhaps this question should be asked of the hundreds of communities across Queensland which have recently been left without a local newspaper."
Pictured: A new 'digger' arrives in the gold town - Ballarat's Sovereign Hill tourist attraction (Photo visitmelbourne.com)
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