In the past month, many have been shocked by the announcement that numerous regional newspapers across Australia will be closing or changing to a digital format. For regional communities, this is big news. Although it is not unexpected.
Newspapers have, for a long time, been an important source of information about what is happening in a town or local area. The papers report on issues and stories which matter to the local community. These are often connected to local council projects or decisions.
What this means for local councils
Local councils have also traditionally used newspapers to give notice of development applications, draft planning documents, Council meetings and other important decisions. During the early days of COVID, the mandatory requirement for notices to be placed in local newspapers was removed from the legislation. Some see this as a welcomed reform given the declining popularity of the local paper and ongoing cost to advertise in this medium. However, the reality is that there are some segments of communities which rely upon this traditional notice method to stay informed.
With this method soon to be gone, councils will need to think about how they can support social participation in council related activities and how they will stay connected to this part of the community. Typically, this is the older generation who may not be as digitally savvy as younger generations.
Shift to digital engagement
For many councils, there will be an increasing move to digital engagement platforms to keep communities informed. During the COVID lockdown, councils were forced to quickly adapt, with meetings held virtually and livestreamed. At the same time, many of the community have been forced to upskill their digital expertise and are embracing new technology. As such there is no doubt that digital engagement is here to stay.
The digital shift places increased pressure on the council website as an accessible ‘source of truth’. Information needs to be easy to find and webpages easy to navigate – especially for older members of community. Think fonts, colours, layout for readability as well as search logic. Council’s could also provide their own “newsletter” like section to fill the gap when newspapers go out of print.
Engagement options following the close of newspapers
However, there can be digital barriers which stop people being informed or involved. For example, there are often connectivity issues in regional areas. It may also not be accessible to all stakeholders or be a method which all segments in the community feel confident about. In the current times, there is also likely to be some digital fatigue – with communities now craving real life connections and opportunities to build relationships.
Apart from digital methods, there other opportunities to explore:
1. Community notice boards – once a staple in every community, the community notice board is a simple and effective way to reach community members who are unlikely to view things online.
2. Locally made papers or news – some communities are creating their own bespoke community news to share local stories. A great example in our home town is Woopi News. There are opportunities for councils to team up with these papers to provide direct information.
3. Building relationships with community groups – many communities already have existing groups and networks which can help distribute information to the community quickly and efficiently. Local councils could partner with these groups to disseminate information whilst also building trust and relationships at the same time.
4. Local radio – Community, commercial and the national broadcast (ABC) radio are weathering the digital changes and can provide an opportunity to share notices and updates in a local area. They can also help bridge the gap between offline and online by targeted promotion of information sources.
With the demise of regional local newspapers and recent changes to the legislation which no longer make it mandatory for councils to advertise in the paper, it is time to get creative about staying connected to your community and think about how council’s digital footprint gives the community the information they need in a way they can access.
If you would like to discuss ways to engage with your community, or how this change might impact your Council, please contact Steve or Emma: