“Regional media in Australia was already in crisis and the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the strain the sector is under.”
While the government has also faced calls to raid $40 million in a regional and small publishers innovation fund for the purpose of emergency support, Ms Rowland said the fund was to help publishers adapt to the digital media environment “rather than provide relief funding”.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young has called on the government to “urgently unlock” the regional publishers fund to help prevent the closure of regional papers.
“Right now the community needs good, local, accurate news and information and yet every day there is news of another regional paper closing their doors,” Senator Hanson-Young said.
A number of independent regional papers, including The Bunyip, Sunraysia Daily, and Barrier Daily Truth, have also been forced to stand down staff and shut doors indefinitely.
Acknowledging the News Corp printing suspensions, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the COVID-19 crisis had “significantly impacted hyper-local community newspapers” that relied on advertising from local businesses.
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“It is obviously very troubling for the people working on these publications and I welcome News Corp’s commitment to preserve jobs,” he said.
Mr Fletcher said the economic impact of COVID-19 had put the media sector under “enormous pressure” and amplified long-running structural challenges.
“The government is focused on getting through the COVID-19 period, by saving lives and saving livelihoods, so the economy can restart as quickly as possible on the other side,” he said.
Asked about government support available to regional media businesses and workers, a spokesman for Mr Fletcher pointed to the $130 billion “JobKeeper” wage subsidy package.
News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller said the media sector was “passing its tipping point” and he was not confident all of the company’s community newspapers would return to print editions after going digital-only during the pandemic.
“We’ll do as much as we can to limit the impact,” Mr Miller said. “But these mastheads have got to be a viable business, they can’t just be a community service which in some cases, sadly, they’ve become.”
Mr Miller has called on the government to force digital platforms Google and Facebook to pay for media outlets’ content. He said the company had “little confidence” in the voluntary code being developed to address the power imbalance between the tech giants and traditional media companies.
Mr Fletcher said the digital platforms needed to be more transparent about operations but the government remained committed to a voluntary code.
“The government has also made it clear that if the media companies and digital platforms cannot reach agreement by November 2020, it stands ready to step in,” he said.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.