A big challenge with running a newspaper these days is that many people don’t want to pay for news. And now Meta, the owner of Facebook, doesn’t either. Meta claims that news makes up less than three per cent of what people around the world see in their Facebook feed and that news is a small part of the Facebook experience for the vast majority of users.

This three per cent figure is impossible to believe. It may be that Facebook only serves up three per cent of news content to users because they control the algorithms, and the content people see.

And this three per cent is now the basis for Meta not renewing agreements for Australian news media businesses like mine. By contrast, two recent studies found that 45-50 per cent of Facebook users go to Facebook to access news. Go figure. It is clear that Facebook doesn’t want you to see trusted and credible news on its platform.

News isn’t free to produce or distribute, and it’s only getting more expensive. So, who pays for that?

Newspaper publishers can’t charge $10 per weekly edition because few would buy the product, but that amount is quickly becoming a fair assessment of the costs involved.

Print is still the preferred product in regional areas. Something held dearly by communities – it’s their paper – we are just the caretakers.

But here’s the catch, more and more it seems to be someone else’s responsibility to support the newspaper through paid advertising. But whose fault is that?

The reader because they can only value a weekly digest at a few dollars, the small local business which is also suffering from increased costs and consumer downturn, or the big businesses and governments who have walked away from local print media…??

Or is it the publisher’s fault for not ‘moving with the times’ – except that multiple sources and surveys say our audiences don’t actually want us to.

Now we have a situation where the online audience frequents a small handful of social platforms, such as Facebook, that drive traffic to hyper local news sites and mine users’ data for advertising gain.

The rivers of gold that were the classifieds have flowed to social media and quickly following is the dissemination of free advertising dressed up as ‘news’ and ‘community service announcements’.

Former newspaper giants also let community advertising move into the ambiguous position of being ‘native’ or mentioned in the editorial text. Seemingly newspaper readers are confused – why should I have to pay to promote my community event when other titles used to or still do give the promotion away for free?

Some of our best supporters are our own community groups like Red Cross or Country Women’s Association branches. They gladly pay their $15 for a classified ad because they value us for the service we provide, and they understand that their $15 is part of a bigger picture.

A picture that keeps people employed, provides great opportunities for young journalists, and promotes the cohesion and celebration of a community through the newspaper.

Facebook on the other hand, builds you your very own personal echo chamber. You only need to stop scrolling for a second or so and it’s profiled you.

Combined with your cookies spread across devices and search history on your phone, your social media feeds know more about you than you do about yourself. Your phone knows you’re pregnant before you’ve told your father. And companies are making millions from the targeted use of that information. What will be left of democracy in regional areas when people only access information which has been curated from their search history or interests on social media. Facebook doesn’t create content, rather it is a cesspool of misinformation which is largely unchecked.

The only professionally written, balanced, and credible news on Facebook is supplied by media outlets like mine. And now they don’t want to pay. If regional and local newspapers disappear, media literacy and diversity will be long gone, and our communities will be the big losers.

And yes, before you ask, poor print media scraping at the heels of the great disruptor because they didn’t get on the front foot of digital. Perhaps that is a fair comment – but we have a website with hyper local news and guess what – not many paid advertisers. Our websites – a soon to be launched site for The Nyngan Weekly – are all grant funded.

Publishers have been encouraged and almost bullied into the digital bias with grants and initiatives designed to ‘support digital transformation and long-term sustainability’. That is kill print and move online which our communities don’t want. But yet where are the digital ads? If governments still don’t want to buy ads on our local websites, even ones they technically funded, what’s the point?

I can’t see how the government can continue to feed tech giants advertising with one hand and reprimand with the other. Continuing to advertise on Facebook while trying to take them to task with the News Media

Bargaining Code is just a further hit to the country’s locally owned and produced media outlets.

Our content appears on Facebook whether we put it there or not. I often see pictures of articles in our print editions posted – mostly in thanks – by those people or groups featured. That too, is technically a copyright infringement – but I don’t have control over what other people do online – but the platforms do. Our news articles help social media and digital outlets target our audiences and they generate revenue from our content – more revenue than we ever will.

The News Media Bargaining Code was designed to correct a market failure where huge financial gains were being made from our content.

That’s why you’re hearing a lot about Meta this past week and the potential second ‘great unfriending’ of Australian news outlets.

As a regional publisher, we are constantly told how important our role in society is. Well, the time has come to support the industry in a meaningful way that will provide long and short-term sustainability to the industry – that is to advertise now …

The perception that our regional audiences have no value is rubbish – regional Australia is the land of opportunity and it’s about time that was properly recognised.

I moved to country NSW as a rookie journalist over a decade ago. I have met two former and one serving prime minister, marched to Sydney with the 2015 Coo-ee March Re-enactment, interviewed some of the most interesting and genuine people (often in times of great need), met lots of celebrities and politicians, met the premier, and met the governor-general twice.

Now I own a small print site and four regional newspaper titles. I don’t call that a token career in journalism; that was just the opportunities that living and working in the regions presented me with.

We are still the lucky country and I know our audiences and the people will back the under-dog in the fight for setting a precedent with Meta. Otherwise, what have we got legislation for if it can’t be enforced?

Somebody’s still got to pay for news, maybe the answer is that we all need to.

Lucie Peart,
President, Country Press NSW

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