Tucked away on page six of The Collarenebri Gazette of Wednesday, December 19, 1962, a brief single-column news item appears between the weekly cricket match report ("In a very sociable match at Hebel on Sunday, the home team were defeated by Collarenebri outright ...") and the church notices.
Under the headline "Improved Telephone Service", the newspaper dutifully informs its local readership in north-west NSW of an exciting development:
"The Postmaster-General (Mr. Davidson) has advised Mr. A.I. Allan M.P. that following the erection of new wires, two additional telephone channels will be provided between Collarenebri and Pokataroo on the 4th January, 1963.
"As a result an improved telephone service will be available between those centres."
Almost 60 years later it is difficult to comprehend connectivity so precarious and precious.
Not just those extra telephone lines between tiny villages less than 15 kilometres apart (New wires! Two additional channels!), but also the way news of this technological advancement is communicated to the people of the district: words painstakingly typeset by hand and printed in black ink on processed wood pulp, the pages folded into a few hundred copies distributed in person by the newspaper's husband-and-wife proprietors and their young children.
Five editions of "the gazette of the golden west" - as its front page masthead grandly proclaims - are the last remaining tangible reminder of the three years my late grandparents, William and Patrica Moloney, spent running The Collarenebri Gazette in the early 1960s.
Those tattered, yellowed pages, now treasured family keepsakes, tell of the process that newspaper people sometimes call the "daily miracle": glimpses of the civic, social and sporting life of a community, its rituals, events, achievements and ideas, history, heartbreak and hopes all chronicled and collated into some semblance of order, printed onto pages bundled together and delivered to your door - for sixpence a copy.
Today, of course, the term "daily miracle" doesn't tell the half of it.
But regional newspapers are not giving up without a fight. In some places where a paper has folded in recent years, another will spring up. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, ACM established new publications in areas where News Corp had closed its newspapers.
We have also launched new mobile apps for our daily titles and a redesign of our websites. We have expanded our storytelling capabilities into video and audio, and invested in training and new equipment for our journalists. We have expanded the political bureau at The Canberra Times so that it can serve our local news network with accurate, balanced, independent reporting from the press gallery at Parliament House. And we have hired a small team of property reporters to drive audiences to our realestateview.com.au property portal with the aim of growing it as a longer-term source of revenue to sustain our journalism.
Optimism may sound strange given the bleak picture often painted of regional papers. And, certainly, newspapering in the Age of Netflix is an almighty challenge (Netflixing in the Age of Netflix, as we've seen recently, is not all plain streaming either).
But there is hope. As the University of Canberra's 2022 Digital News Report shows, digital news subscriptions are slowly but steadily growing, with 18 per cent of news consumers saying they paid for news in the past year, up five percentage points year on year and an increase of eight percentage points since 2016.
This has certainly been the experience at ACM. In 2021, barely five years after our first testing of online subscriptions on two small local news websites on the NSW South Coast, ACM reached a major milestone of more than 100,000 digital subscribers across 40 of our websites, with year-on-year growth of 49 per cent. In 2022, that number has crept past 120,000 - the test for us coming out of (hopefully) the worst of the coronavirus is to parlay the appetite for daily Covid case numbers and public health updates into equally compelling news and information that makes a more meaningful difference to people's daily lives.
There's a hint of this post-pandemic consumption pattern in the report's finding that news consumers in regional Australia who access regional or local newspaper websites have declined in 2022. As life has gone back to more or less normal, the need to stay plugged into the saturation - and largely free - online reporting of essential Covid-related updates has reduced.
On the bright side for regional news publishers and another hint that we may be getting back to what used to be everyday life, the 2022 Digital News Report shows the consumption of printed newspapers is rising, with almost a quarter of regional Australians (24 per cent) saying they read regional/local newspapers - a seven percentage point increase since 2021.
Also cause for optimism: that almost half of news consumers who use print as their main source of news (45 per cent) say they paid for online news in the past year - twice as many as in 2020 (21 percent).
This is the path for regional journalism to survive and even thrive: converting people's valued connection with their local newspaper into the willingness to pay for immediate, convenient online news from credible and trusted sources; from knowledgeable professional local journalists willing to swim against the tide of untruths and government and corporate spin flowing through your social media "feed".
Granted, for many of us opening an app on our iPad will never have the same tactile pleasure as opening the morning paper. But digital subscriptions are helping to sustain the same journalism that is still connecting us to our neighbours, our fellow ratepayers, taxpayers, voters and consumers, and to the collective memory of our community.
Your favourite local newspaper is, and has always been, worth far more than the paper it's printed on. The true value of a local newspaper is in the news.
Footnote: The Collarenebri Gazette ceased publishing years after editor Bill Moloney, who began his career as a cadet journalist at the (now digital-only) Manly Daily, packed up his family for Mount Isa where he helped launch the (now digital-only) North West Star as its founding managing editor.
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