NSW flood-affected towns turn to Facebook and WhatsApp after local news sources disappear | Australian media

The closure of local newspapers in many flood-affected towns in northern New South Wales has left some victims invisible and made residents increasingly dependent on local Facebook groups for information.

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire stopped printing the 160-year-old Northern Star newspaper in Lismore last April, 10 months before the worst floods in history hit the northern New Wales town from South.

The Star was one of News Corp Australia’s 20 mastheads that were absorbed into the capital’s mastheads. The Star also lost its own website, becoming a page on the Daily Telegraph website and moving behind a paywall.

Tweed Heads’ Tweed Daily News was to suffer the same fate, merging with the Tele in May 2020, as did the Byron Shire News and the Ballina Shire Advocate.

When floods hit Lismore in 2017, the paper had a relatively well-resourced newsroom, but now reporters on the digital-only mastheads are working with fewer resources after years of staff cuts. This week, as devastating floods reached residents of northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland, residents increasingly turned to local Facebook pages as news sources traditional ones have dried up.

While the remaining local reporters from News Corp and the ABC on the North Shore are covering the deluge well, they can’t be everywhere. The ABC’s regional office in Lismore has a chief of staff, six reporters and two presenters. When there is a major news event, they are also joined by television and radio reporters from the news division.

The chairman of the Australian Journalism Education and Research Association (Jeraa), Alex Wake, said the ABC’s coverage of the Lismore floods was “quite engaging”, but nearby towns were not getting the same attention.

“There were extraordinarily good reports from people on the ground and heartbreaking first-person accounts,” Wake told Guardian Australia.

“During the flood I spoke to someone in Murwillumbah who told me all the attention was on Lismore, and nothing on them. Even their postcode was not being read as eligible for payments from There are no journalists there, just local Facebook groups.

The slow disappearance of local news is being tracked by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative Australian Newsroom Mapping Project. Last month, the project found that 6.3%, or 33 local government areas, had no local print or digital media coverage.

“Facebook and WhatsApp groups can be great sources of very local emergency information from people who know about back roads and ways around problems,” Wake said.

“They have become absolutely vital during the bushfires and now the floods. But they are also not professionally managed and not always updated in real time.

“They can escalate into unseemly battles where mud complaints and personal grievances come out. They may also publish seriously outdated information or false information, which could cause bigger problems for the authorities.

In Kingscliff, which has a population of 11,000, the local Facebook group has over 30,000 members and is run by 30-year-old journalist and former Tweed Coast Weekly editor Tania Phillips.

Phillips launched Kingscliff Happenings in 2015 to fill the void left by the Weekly’s closure a year earlier, and “because she just can’t help it.”

This week has been busy, as Phillips has spent countless hours providing safety information, coordinating volunteers and answering many questions from locals.

It’s the same dedication that saw her named the Tweed Shire Council’s Volunteer of the Year in 2020.

At the time, she wrote on LinkedIn that the award was recognition “not so much for me but that we need journalism in small towns and regions, that it doesn’t need to be dictated by outside sources and to feature stories from elsewhere to complement it, but run by communities for communities. That’s how we survive – real journalists. I’m still working on how I feed my family!!”

But not every city is lucky enough to have someone as experienced as Phillips at the helm.

Wake says she wouldn’t want to be a local Facebook admin right now.

“Imagine someone announces they’re in a life or death situation and you’re just a mother sitting at a computer in a suburban area with no help. Administrators aren’t trained to deal with it. to really stressed people.

Jeraa vice-president Peter English told a parliamentary inquiry by a regional newspaper this week that many stories about the recent floods had “little added value from on-the-ground reporting”, with so few towns regions covered by journalists.

“People rely on social media for pictures, both real pictures and things that might not be real,” English said.

“It may have had an impact on [flood-related] decisions they have made in terms of whether to leave their home or stay.

“The employment of journalists embedded in local communities is essential,” said English.

“Only local journalists can understand the impact of local issues on their local areas, not someone trying to report from a distance.”

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