Blurring the lines – journalism or council promotion?

In the wake of local news outlet closures, are some council-produced newspapers and news websites ‘masquerading’ as independent news sources?

Local newspapers have served a critical and important role in communities across Australia for decades. They put the work of councils under the spotlight, celebrate people’s achievements and provide something of a noticeboard for the community.

And as Australia prepares to go to the polls on May 21, it is worth reflecting on how the hard-working journalists at local newspapers have provided an impartial and independent source of information for people trying to decide who to vote for.

But what if the local newspaper is not quite what a traditional newspaper should be?

As local news declines, council steps in

PIJI has previously reported on the significant reduction in news production amid the development of online technologies and the rise of social media. Those factors have led to the withdrawal of news outlets in many markets, with the closures most pronounced in regional areas.

As a recent PIJI report showed, 31 local government areas have no print or digital local news outlets.

In response, some local councils have tried to fill the gap left by the closure of a local publisher.

This is what the Gwydir Shire Council did when Gwydir News owner Nancy Capel announced she was shutting down the newspaper after 33 years at the helm.

The council of the New England, New South Wales community stepped in as a caretaker while a buyer was sought. When none could be found, the council said in February 2021 the Gwydir News would be a council platform and be available as a monthly publication.

The monthly publication certainly looks and feels like a normal newspaper. A quick browse through the March edition yields stories about the local races, things to do over Easter and some local classifieds. The only obvious sign this is work of the council is on Page 1, which has the Gwydir Shire Council logo on the top left and bottom right, as well as a link to the council’s website. The website also has the shire logo, but no reference to the council’s website.

Cover of Gwydir News

Gwydir News

Bundaberg Regional Council’s “good news” website

Sometimes it does not take a market failure for a local government body to launch a new content website.

In February 2019, the Bundaberg Regional Council launched the Bundaberg Now website with a focus on providing so-called “good news”. There would be no reporting on court, crime or politics, Bundaberg Now said on its website, while investigative journalism and negative stories were also not welcome. The website was edited by members of the council’s communications staff and included a disclaimer at the bottom of the home page stating it was an “initiative of Bundaberg Regional Council”.

Is this a genuine attempt to highlight the positive aspects of life in the Wide Bay-Burnett region in Queensland, or propaganda masquerading as news, as one academic has described?

Bundaberg Now has built up a following of more than 30,000 likes on Facebook. Official figures show about 95,000 people live within Bundaberg Regional Council.

One interesting aspect of Bundaberg Now is that it was launched in a community that already had a number of media outlets, with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and News Corporation present in the region.

Bundaberg Regional Council mayor Jack Dempsey is standing for election an independent candidate for the seat of Hinkler at this year’s federal election. Cr Dempsey has taken leave as mayor to contest the seat.

These websites, and others of their ilk, do not appear on PIJI’s Australian Newsroom Mapping Project given the lack of independence from the subjects they cover. To illustrate the point, the Gwydir News has been listed as closed since it was taken over by the Gwydir Shire Council in 2019.

It will be interesting to observe whether these sorts of websites that are owned and operated by council become more prevalent in the period ahead, and whether there will be any effort to ensure disclosures are prominently displayed and conflicts of interest acknowledged.

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