Reports of death of country papers greatly exaggerated

At 39 years of age, Andrew Manuel might just be the youngest regional newspaper magnate in Australia.

Now at the helm of two South Australian country papers, the award-winning The Plains Producer and the Two Wells and Districts Echo, Andrew has been a keen participant in the second biggest revolution in newspaper production ever.

Not since the Johanes Gutenberg revolutionised the printed word in the 15th century with the printing press has so much changed so quickly. Today, digital tools have changed everything again.

Digital pioneer

From the outset of his career, Andrew has been a keen student of, and participant in, the digital revolution.

‘While it was expensive in the early days, it was clear that the benefits far outweighed the cost. The Plains Producer was one of the first regional newspapers to switch over to computer-based production,’ Andrew said.

Today, both The Plains Producer and The Echo are also offered as a digital download, and boast their own facebook pages.

‘But what we do best is our print product; 99% of our revenue gets 99% of our effort,’ Andrew said. ‘And while the fate of metropolitan newspapers is increasingly precarious as they surrender to digital versions, country newspapers continue to thrive.’

A country pace

Andrew was 19 years old when he signed on to his father’s Balaklava newspaper, The Plains Producer, as a photographer. It was the year before his father’s death and newspaper production was on the cusp of massive change.

In 1994, photography still relied on film, photographers who knew how to process it to print-ready and a handy darkroom in which to do it. Computer typesetting was in its infancy and layout and paste-up were time-consuming. In those heady days, the photography deadline fell at noon on Monday, while the presses didn’t roll until Wednesday.

‘Country newspapers were not, and are not, hugely concerned with breaking news,’ Andrew said. ‘We see our role as reflecting on the previous week’s activities of our community.’

Even with the advent of computers and layout software, of digital cameras and despatching finished art to the printer over the internet, the pace of news gathering remains measured and thoughtful.

‘In 2008, we had a visit from the notorious “Bicycle Bandit”. He held up the Balaklava branch of the ANZ bank,’ Andrew recalled. ‘Within hours, our little town was swamped with city media, filing stories for that day’s news.

‘Because it was a Friday, our coverage had to wait until the following week to be published. Still, it was the most papers we have ever sold!’

The parish-pump

Country papers don’t enjoy the anonymity of city media.

‘We have to share the front bar with the people we write about, so we must be circumspect about contentious issues,’ Andrew said.

Stories might only appeal to 50 people, but that doesn’t diminish their importance.

‘Locals want to read about themselves and the people they know. So we must be careful about detail. Woe betide the journalist who spells a name incorrectly – stand by for a visit from an aggrieved citizen,’ he said.

Sport occupies a substantial portion of every edition. Whether it be the local A-grade footy or netball, all the detail – the injuries, the triumphs, the heroics – is faithfully recorded and pored over by the entire community of armchair experts.

All clear ahead

Andrew has long been involved with Country Press Association of South Australia – an industry body that represents 29 newspapers in SA and two interstate.

‘We have just recently invested in a survey that revealed country newspaper readership enjoyed 85% penetration into a local area. Twenty years ago it was 87%.

‘While city paper readership and circulation is declining, ours remains static at quite high numbers. From our peak, circulation is down about 10%, but this has been taken up to some extent by our online newspapers and Facebook pages,’ Andrew said.

The circulation of The Plains Producer remains solid at around 2,000 a week and The Echo is on an upward trajectory at 4,000 a month, giving Andrew good reason to be optimistic.

‘For local business, there is no better or economical way to get their message out. If they want a worldwide audience, then the internet would provide it, but if they want a local one the regional newspaper is the perfect vehicle – and the signs are that it will continue for years to come.

‘The difference is that our “parish pump” is an integral part of a loyal community, and it means something very special to those people.’

 

Photo supplied by Andrew Manuel.