WIN, Australia’s largest regional TV network, is planning to slash five newsrooms across the country as the business rationale for local reporting increasingly comes under the spotlight and fears grow over the impact the decline in such journalism will have on public debate.

WIN Corporation, the affiliate of CBS-owned Network Ten, broadcasts in 29 markets across Australia. The closures will affect up to 40 staff, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Regional broadcasters have fought an uphill battle for several years to keep their ad-revenue business model viable as viewing figures have fallen sharply in some areas, and the headwinds facing local TV are likely to increase as audiences continue to fall.

Australia’s government unveiled a A$60.4m package last year to bolster regional journalism and smaller publishers, but many media experts say more money is needed.

The newsroom closures come as the recent State of the Regions report, by the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), warned that 68% of metropolitan and 45% of regional and rural local government authorities had observed a “very sharp decline in local news”.

More than a third of local authorities said no media attend local government meetings, Government News reported, with absence in danger of creating a vacuum that would be filled by PR agencies’ spin and groups with vested interests.

The decline is blamed on the collapse of an ad-supported business model and the rise of social media as a conduit for local information. As many as 3,000 journalists are believed to have lost their jobs in the last five years.

According to Genevieve Jacobs, Group Editor for Region Media, a digital media platform, local print brands have responded to the tightening market by centralising production, using syndicated content and hiring less experienced (so cheaper) staff. The effect, she said, has been broken trust, bewilderment and a sense of abandonment among communities.

The study also warned that, as the public becomes less well informed about local issues concerning local government, hospitals, schools and local business, they are at risk of being more easily manipulated.

“The picture that emerges is of a sharp and worrying decline in the amount of local news available to Australians,” guest authors Margaret Simons and Gary Dickson wrote.

“Given that numerous pieces of research worldwide indicate a close relationship between journalism and the broader civic health of communities, this decline has serious implications for the agency, power and health of citizens in Australia’s regions.”

Sourced from Sydney Morning Herald, ALGA, Echo; additional content by WARC staff