Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In praise of countrymindedness Part 1

The back of the Wallumbilla grain shed (Derek Barry)
What lessons do Australian country newspapers offer to the wider industry? Rural newspapers are the poor cousins and the entry rung to the profession. Numbers of staff, audiences, resources, profits and influence are all small compared to the national and metro dailies. Their digital imprint and reach is also tiny compared to the big metro companies (Nguyen, Ferrier, Western, and McKay, 2005). Many regional papers (like the the Western Star until recently) do not have a content based website[1]. Practitioners in rural journalism tend to be new to the industry, most are young and inexperienced and low paid. Academically the sector is under-researched. 

Yet there are subtle differences in media practices in country areas that warrant closer attention.  Some of those differences are cultural. Though urbanisation has been the dominant experience for a majority of Australians since the 19th century (Glynn 1970, pp.76-77), Ward's classic The Australian Legend (1958) argued the Australian bush has always informed the national character through its notions of egalitarianism. In the US, Putnam has shown country areas, small town and rural people are more altruistic, honest and trusting than their urban counterparts (2000, p.205). Australian studies show similar findings with more community involvement in non-metropolitan areas (Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics 2005, p.xix).   

There is also a strong bond between Australian country papers and their audiences (Bowd 2010). That bond was initially formed by, as Kirkpatrick (1999) put it, “countrymindedness” which was born of the isolation of country areas - “the tyranny of distance” (Pretty 1993, p.77). Newspapers loudly articulated their editorial support for the country lifestyle. Writing four years after Ward, McLuhan (1962) [2]) predicted a move away from 20th century individualism and fragmentation towards an inter-connected global village. Today’s Internet, fast broadband and social networks are enabling McLuhan’s global neighbourhood where Ward’s sense of bush egalitarianism and country trust could turn out to be useful assets.

Kirkpatrick’s countrymindedness also has other global parallels, particularly with development journalism in non-western countries where newspapers still thrive. Development communication sees mass media as agents of social change (Stevenson 1994, p.232) based on a foundation of respect for local knowledge (Loos 1994, p.2). Country journalists live and work closely among their readers and are impacted by them.  Readers know their local journalists and are in a position to form bonds of trust for mutual gain. In this situation, journalists are not neutral observers but communicators who change themselves as much as what they effect (Loos in Bowd 2003, p.126). The news is still reported fairly, but the newspaper is clearly on the side of its community than in urban areas and the community is on the side of the newspaper. Readers can and do still find fault with rural publications. But no matter how bad the papers are, they will always belong to the readers.

Part 2 will look at the international scene.

[1] The Western Star is now online with fellow SW Qld papers at www.suratbasin.com.au. However a Google search for the Western Star online will return an APN (publishers of the Western Star) website with information about the paper but no editorial content.
[2] The Gutenberg Galaxy was originally written in 1962.

Bowd, K. (2003), “How different is ‘different’? Australian Country Newspapers and Development Journalism”, Asia Pacific Media Educator, Issue No 14, December 2003.
Bowd, K. (2010) “’Did you see that in the paper?’ country newspapers and perceptions of local ‘ownership’”, Australian Journalism Review, 31 (1) pp. 49-61.
Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (2005) Focus on regions no. 4: social capital, Department of Transport and Regional Services, Canberra
Glynn, S. (1970) Urbanisation in Australian history, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne
Kirkpatrick, R. (1999) “House of Unelected Representatives: The Provincial Press 1825-1900” in A. Curthoys and J. Schultz (eds.) Journalism: Print, Politics and Popular Culture, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.
Loos, E. (1994) “Teaching development journalism in the reporting of cultural diversity”, Australian Journalism Review, 16(2) July-December 1-10  
McLuhan, M. (1971 edition - originally 1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
Nguyen, A, Ferrier E, Western, M and McKay, S. (2005) “Online news in Australia: Patterns of use and gratification”, Australian Studies in Journalism, v.15   
Pretty, K. (1993) “Dusting off the grassroots: A survey of Australian country journalists”, Australian Studies in Journalism, Issue No 2 75-123.
Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, Touchstone, New York.
Stevenson, R. (1994) Global Communication in the 21st Century, Longman, New York 

Ward, R. (1958) The Australian Legend, Oxford University Press, Melbourne

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