TravelGuides – Regional Australian media outlets granted millions in federal support still slashed journalist numbers | Australian media
Some regional Australian publishers that won multimillion-dollar government grants designed to protect local journalism jobs sacked staff and closed newsrooms before the ink was dry on their grant agreements.
Guardian Australia can also reveal that the government conducted a federal seat analysis of the Public Interest News Gathering (Ping) grants to determine which seats would benefit from the $50m program. The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, did not respond to questions about the analysis.
Documents obtained under freedom of information suggest the government’s rhetoric about the importance of the Ping grants to regional media companies to maintain or increase employment was not matched by reality.
The grants were announced in June 2020 in response to the crisis in regional media brought on by the pandemic. Hundreds of small regional newspapers had been suspended and regional television was warning of mass job losses in their newsrooms.
At the time Fletcher described local papers as the “lifeblood” of many towns and said the government was providing support because Covid-19 had triggered “catastrophic drops in advertising revenue leading to many newspapers suspending operations and threatening the sustainability of regional broadcasters”.
But the FOI documents reveal a number of recipients had their grants reduced before the first payments were made, and two of the three regional networks announced plans to dramatically reduce bureaus and services within months of receiving the funds.
The documents show Australian Community Media, whose parent company is Rural Press, was awarded $10m but shaved back the frequency of publication of many of its mastheads, making some digital only and folding others, despite Fletcher’s claim that the grants were designed to return suspended rural publications to print.
News Corp decided not to take any grants and pursued a strategy to take many of its regional newspapers digital.
The government has not explained why a federal seat analysis was relevant when determining which businesses got part of the $50m handout, but the Ping grants overwhelmingly benefited National and Liberal seats.
Because of the limited nature of the FOI request, it is not possible to say whether outlets in Labor seats missed out.
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Money comes in, staff kicked out
The Ping grants used funds from a previously unspent program designed to support regional media and were designed to get publishers to either restart newspapers or keep producing local news bulletins for TV and radio.
The scheme focused on maintaining capacity for “public interest news-gathering” which was defined as news directly relevant to the local communities served by the regional outlet.
“Public interest journalism is critical to keeping communities informed,” Fletcher said. “Ping will provide direct support for the continued provision of local and regional journalism, which has never been more important than in recent times when communities across Australia need access to trusted sources of news and information.
“Through this program the government is providing $20m for television, $18m for publishing and $12m for radio, with funds to flow from July.”
The FOI documents show that many of the key conditions for eligibility were not developed until after the grants were announced.
One email, soon after Fletcher announced the program on 29 June, shows the department’s bureaucrats pondering the definition of “a journalist” under the grants program.
There was no requirement to maintain the quality of the service. Another internal department note shows the conditions were so flexible that recipients only had to account for the number of journalists employed, not their seniority, so employers “could drop high profile journo and replace with a cadet”.
There were also overlapping tests for compliance, such as maintaining headcount and maintaining outlets. These soon became a problem as grant recipients continued to cut staff and services.
The documents show that in some cases the government paid out 90% of the grants upfront and withheld only 10% to ensure performance, with the result that there were few consequences for recipients that continued to shed staff.
Neither the media companies nor the government responded to questions about the penalties, if any, for shedding staff and cutting services.
But the documents reveal there were no restrictions on shedding staff immediately after the grant period ended.
‘Exceptional circumstances’ invoked
Although many small independent media companies received assistance, the lion’s share by value – more than $40m – went to major television, radio and print outlets.
Those who received $500,000 or more included Nine Entertainment ($4.2m), Win ($4m), Southern Cross Austereo ($10m), Prime ($4m), Seven Queensland, ($1.8m).
There were also some large recipients in print, notably Australian Community Newspapers, which received $10m, and Seven West Media, publisher of the West Australian.
Nine Entertainment and Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) each applied for Ping grants to help fund their jointly operated regional television network.
Nine owns a TV network which operates stations in Newcastle and the New South Wales Northern Rivers region and at that time also operated several newsrooms under its affiliation agreement with SCA, during which it provided an hour-long regional news bulletin in Queensland, southern NSW and Victoria, with Nine taking a share of the revenue in return for running the newsrooms.
The documents show that almost immediately after applying for Ping funds, Nine had to revise its application when it cut the regional news bulletins to 30 minutes and reduced staff. This decision, announced in July 2020, led to a dozen job losses.
The documents show that the department reduced Nine’s grant, but do not say by how much. Nine eventually received $4.03m in September 2020.
This was on top of the $15m it received in JobKeeper during 2019-20 and 2020-21. Its disclosure to the ASX shows it has since chosen to return $8.8m of JobKeeper voluntarily.
By March 2021, there was more bad news for journalists in the Nine/SCA regional newsrooms.
Nine announced on 1 July 2021 it was moving back to an affiliation with Win, and as a consequence was axing the three SCA statewide television news bulletins in regional Queensland, Victoria and NSW.
The change in affiliation meant that 15 new regional newsrooms it created with SCA closed. More than 60 staff in regional newsrooms lost their jobs.
On 6 May the department wrote: “Just wondering if you were able to provide any further clarification on the affiliation agreement and impacts on the Ping agreement?”
Nine confirmed it would not be providing news bulletins in southern NSW, regional Queensland and regional Victoria, as Win had its own news service in those areas. It said it was looking to redeploy staff or transfer them to Win.
“Nine can ensure that compliance with the conditions under the grant agreement will continue as it has until July 1 2021.”
Nine then invoked the “exceptional circumstances” clause in its grant deed.
“Given Win’s own significant commitment to regional news and employment of local journalists, it does not require Nine to provide a regional news service, comparable to that provided to Southern Cross. This combination of events is an exceptional circumstance which justifies the change in our journalist numbers from 1 July 2021.”
“Nine’s stipulated use of the funding was to support its owned operations in Northern NSW and Darwin, and it has used the funding for those purposes, to continue providing news services in those locations and to expand the number of staff employed in Darwin. Nine intends to maintain that increased level of employment after expiry of the Ping funding in September. This demonstrates that the purpose of the Ping program has been satisfied, where it is within Nine’s control to do so.”
The department accepted Nine’s argument and has not sought return of any funds.
A spokesperson for Nine said the grant in relation to the SCA newsrooms was provided to SCA, not Nine, and that its Ping grant was used to support its operations in the NSW Northern Rivers and Darwin, which is counted as regional newsroom.
SCA received $10.2m in Ping grants. The freedom of information documents revealed no correspondence with SCA about the announcement in March 2021 and it appears no one was penalised for the job shedding.
SCA also announced a restructuring of its radio network in August 2020, resulting in the loss of 38 jobs. The FOI request did not include information on radio operations.
SCA told Guardian Australia it received $10.27m, which was evenly split among its 78 regional radio stations and its regional television network.
“Since applying for the Ping grant in July 2020, SCA has increased its full time regional journalism workforce from 47 to 58 and our total regional journalism workforce from 62 to 69,” SCA chief executive, Grant Blackley, said.
The money was spent on paying journalists and sales staff, buying equipment, and technology licensing and support costs.
“The grant funds enabled ongoing local delivery of audio news services across SCA’s regional footprint despite local area lockdowns, and team member absences due to Covid test/case exposure isolation periods,” Blackley said.
“The funds also enabled regional journalists to up-skill in digital audio ranging from best practice podcast creation to education on digital audio analytics. As a result, SCA has launched Local News daily podcasts in 17 regions … five Local Sport News weekly podcasts and 33 Local’s Guides podcasts offering weekly local event and community information.”
SCA said it replaced the bulletins produced by Nine with 130 news updates each weekday.
“These updates provide relevant local content into 16 regional markets across the country including NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, and Northern Territory. A team of 12 people produce the material which equates to 175 minutes of content Monday to Friday. This material is generated by SCA team members across the country and collated in SCA’s Hobart-based news hub.”
A windfall for Win
Regional journalists at Win, Nine’s new affiliate, have also faced job losses.
In May 2021 Win announced cuts to its regional television services, despite receiving $4.46m in Ping grants.
In July Win dropped nine local TV bulletins, the biggest drop the television sector has seen since the beginning of the Australian Newsroom Mapping Project in January 2019.
The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance estimates up to 20 journalists and camera operators lost their jobs that month. But Win and the department say there was no breach during the grant period.
The department withheld from Guardian Australia all documents relating to its discussions with Win, saying: “There has been no confirmation that they reduced staff, bulletins or mastheads at the commencement or during the PING grant period.”
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young called on Win at the time to hand the money back because the funds were granted to keep journalists in jobs and newsrooms operating.
“The Morrison government should be making sure recipients uphold the intent of the program and do the right thing with taxpayer money,” Hanson-Young said. “Minister Fletcher needs to be asking Win to return the millions it has received.”
The department told Guardian Australia discussions with Win had indicated there were no changes to services and staff which would affect the grant period.
“The department accepted Win’s six-monthly and final acquittal reports, which showed Win had met the requirements under their funding agreement,” officials said.
“Any changes made by WIN following the completion of their PING Grant is a commercial decision for WIN.”
Prime, the Seven network’s regional affiliate, has not publicly indicated any job losses that would affect its grant of $4.7m.
However, the documents show Seven Network Queensland faced questions about staff reductions between the announcement of Ping and when it signed the agreement in September 2020 which resulted in its grant being pruned to $1.87m.
The documents reveal several email exchanges with the then-general manager for regional Queensland, Ben Roberts-Smith, about whether there had been further job losses.
But the documents do not reveal how many jobs were ultimately lost.
Seven Queensland explained the discrepancies by saying it was hard to keep staff in Queensland because they often left for the city for career advancement.
Fletcher has defended the operation of the Ping scheme.
A spokesperson for the minister said: “Among the conditions attached to the grants was the maintenance of the activity for which they were awarded. If any of those activities were withdrawn, then the grant was adjusted.
“The $50m PING program provided vital support for media outlets in regional and remote areas of Australia at a time of unprecedented challenges. This well-targeted program made an important contribution to sustaining public interest journalism through the pandemic.”
The chief executive of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, Paul Murphy, said the union was uncertain how many jobs were lost.
“Any support for public interest journalism is welcome,” he said.
“The problem is the design of the support and the government doesn’t listen to our or the communities’ concerns. At the moment the government money doesn’t guarantee outcomes for the community, it only seems to deliver to private companies.”
TravelGuides – Regional Australian media outlets granted millions in federal support still slashed journalist numbers | Australian media