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The future of regional journalists revealed

Elly Mackay

2 July 2020: The social media boom and a lack of resources have been identified as two of the leading culprits of journalist frustration in recent years.

New research – Australian Regional Journalists: What they need and how they see the future – from the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra has found that the jobs of regional journalists have been impacted heavily by increased demands but decreased support.

Unsurprisingly, 95 per cent of the journalists surveyed say the influence of social media in their profession has become stronger, while visual story elements (80 per cent) and competing for audience attention (76 per cent) also increasingly play a part in how they do their jobs.

Lead author of the report, Associate Professor Caroline Fisher, says regional reporters have faced a multitude of challenges in recent years, and the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated the issues.

“While the study was conducted prior to COVID-19, the challenges identified by the journalists have simply got harder,” said Dr Fisher.

“Though we can’t predict how well the regional news industry will recover, we do know that reliable local news in times of emergency is essential. The dedicated reporters in regional newsrooms will need more support than ever to meet the needs of their communities in a time of ongoing transition and uncertainty.”

That support might come in the form of digital skills training, which 28 per cent of senior journalists said they would benefit from. Mid-career journalists felt the need to improve their audio and video skills (19 per cent) and digital skills (19 per cent).

While journalists identified the need for accessible training, they were also mindful of their available time to participate.

Dr Fisher said this balance can be difficult to achieve, with journalists working in high-pressure environments where they often have to multitask.

“It is particularly hard for journalists in single person newsrooms because there simply isn’t anyone to replace them if they want to take time off work to do training, and there often isn’t enough money to pay them overtime,” she said.

Overall, the report found regional journalists enjoy their jobs, but are less happy about demanding hours and low pay. The report also discovered that delivering impartial information, educating the public, and scrutinising local government and business were seen as the primary roles of the job.

Regional journalists were also more likely to report a strong connection to their communities than their city counterparts, however the geographic isolation they faced was raised as an obstacle in their jobs.

That isolation was also found to negatively impact the wellbeing of regional journalists and resulted in poor communication with city-based editors and managers.

“This was especially true for younger reporters who had moved away from home for the job. They have little social support and feel their city-based editors don’t understand their working conditions and appreciate how hard they work,” Dr Fisher said.

“These reporters thought it would boost morale if communication between head office and regional newsrooms improved.”

The results of the study are going to be presented at a regional summit in partnership with the Google News Initiative, alongside research that reveals regional communities are willing to pay to keep their local news.