‘Not everybody can go on a computer’: Why this outback newspaper’s new delivery fee has angered locals

‘Not everybody can go on a computer’: Why this outback newspaper’s new delivery fee has angered locals

For more than 60 years, Lyn Farquharson has relied on the local paper landing on her doorstep to bring her the important news of her town. 

While many regional and rural papers were forced to discontinue print editions or close entirely as news moved online, Broken Hill’s independently-owned newspaper has kept up its 125-year-long legacy.

But for the first time in the Barrier Truth’s history, rising costs have forced the newspaper to introduce a delivery fee, sparking anger among some long-time subscribers. 

According to a letter sent out to subscribers earlier this month, the paper’s owner — the Barrier Industrial Council — said delivery would now incur a $1 fee.

Mrs Farquharson says seniors rely on the paper to keep up to date with births, deaths and marriages.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

Mrs Farquharson said the new fee had come after price hikes to the cost of the paper and she was worried it would impact readership, particularly among the older demographic.

“I think a dollar per paper’s a little bit steep … I know petrol’s dear, and they have trouble with deliveries [but] I just feel they’re going to lose a lot more people,” Mrs Farquharson said.

“I can understand [costs going up], but what about the loyalty to the older generations who have been paying [for] it for years and rely on that for their content, especially with death notices?

“Not everybody can go on a computer and see who’s died or what’s going on around their local town.”

Newspaper survival in the digital age

The new fee has been described as a symptom of a broader issue affecting many regional print media outlets, and something customers may have to stomach to ensure the future of their town’s newspaper.

A re-enactment photo of a couple collecting their paper, taken for the Barrier Daily Truth’s 75th anniversary.(Supplied: Gavin Schmidt )

Deakin University communications professor Kristy Hess said despite the transition to an increasingly digital world, there was still a hunger for print media.

“A recent study that we conducted at Deakin basically ascertained just how important a printed newspaper is to a lot of audiences in rural and regional areas especially,” Professor Hess said.

“Of course, [newspapers are] important for people aged 60 and above, more so than younger readers, but even then, we noticed a trend of those readers [aged] 30 plus, having a real passion and seeing great value in a printed newspaper.”

Kristy Hess says cost cutting has become an unfortunate reality across the local media sector.(Supplied: Kristy Hess)

Strong community roots

Since 1898, the Barrier Truth — once the Barrier Daily Truth — has been Broken Hill’s community noticeboard, where residents have learnt of community news and vital world events, as well as local births, deaths and marriages. 

The union-owned paper is the industrial mining town’s longest ongoing news provider and has printed more than 33,000 editions.

After beginning life as a weekly news sheet for miners at a time when conditions underground were dangerous and inhumane, the publication’s role was to spread the message for workers’ rights.

A year later in 1899, its format evolved to a proper newspaper.

The Barrier Daily Truth used to be delivered by paperboys on pushbikes in the 1950s.(Supplied: Gavin Schmidt/ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

In 1908 during an industrial strike, when miners refused to accept a pay cut after mineral prices dropped, the paper became a daily. 

That tradition continued until the pandemic, when the Barrier Daily Truth was hit by the financial hardship that saw regional newspapers across Australia suspend — and even shut — operations altogether. 

While the Barrier Truth ultimately survived, when it returned after a brief pause, it was as a bi-weekly. 

A strong union town 

The union movement was so powerful in Broken Hill that from the 1960s onwards, working in the town in any capacity, not just at the mines, required a mandatory subscription to the Barrier Daily Truth. 

“You had to pay the Truth before you got your union badge, and everyone had to be in a union back in those days,” Mrs Farquharson said.

“Some households would get two or three through papers because they’re all in the union.”

Mrs Farquharson worries a new delivery fee for the paper may have a detrimental impact on readership.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

While mandatory newspaper subscriptions for workers in Broken Hill were phased out decades ago, the newspapers continued to be delivered for free until recently.

The Truth currently prints 2,300 Wednesday editions and 2,470 Saturday editions, delivering 1,300 copies on both days, with the remainder sold in stores.

Barrier Industrial Council president and Barrier Truth board chair Rosslyn Ferry said the union had kept up the free service for as long as possible, but the current economic climate had made it “more and more difficult to absorb the cost of delivery”.

The newspaper’s budget had been further stretched by a drop off in subscriptions in the last couple of years, she said. 

Rosslyn Ferry (right) wants to ensure the paper is still around for future generations.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

“We do hope to keep this paper going and we will have to make some hard decisions from time to time, and unfortunately, that cannot be avoided,” Ms Ferry said.

Readers not wishing to pay a delivery fee could still purchase the paper from resellers, she added. 

The new $1 fee comes after the paper’s price was increased from $2.50 to $3 in July, meaning subscribers like Mrs Farquharson will now be charged $8 a week in total for delivery of the bi-weekly newspaper. 

“I think some of the older people may decide it’s not worth buying if they’re going to be up for $8 a week,” Mrs Farquharson said.

The Barrier Daily Truth became the bi-weekly Barrier Truth during the pandemic.(ABC News: Declan Gooch)

A difficult balance

Since 2020 more than a hundred of the 435 regional and community newspapers that existed in 2019 have ceased printing, continuing as digital-only publications or being merged with other mastheads.

While the Barrier Truth is one of Australia’s few independently-owned regional print newspapers still running, those with a long-time connection to paper say that survival has come at a cost. 

Retired printer John Bacich spent his career in newspapers and 30 years at the Truth.

He believes the paper is not “as good quality as it used to be”.

An academic says communities may need to help fund their towns’ papers to keep seeing local news in print.(Supplied: Gavin Schmidt)

“I agree that they have to get some money for delivery, [but] I think overall, they need to improve on the quality of the paper,” he said.

“We can get what’s in the Truth now on the radio.

“I think they would have sold a lot more newspapers by [continuing to] have it delivered [for free].

“I think they’ll find out now that it’ll drop off [in subscribers] because a lot of people are not going to pay that.”

Fund it or lose it

Professor Hess said mounting costs continued to have a dramatic impact on many newspapers’ subscriber bases, but until government funding for print media improved, customers would have to absorb them if they wanted to see the continuation of their local papers.

The Barrier Truth has been a Broken Hill institution since the 1880s.(Supplied: Gavin Schmidt)

“Given the sustainability of public interest journalism more broadly is in a bit of trouble … there’s no other way than to ask the consumer to help cover the cost of delivery of the printed paper,” she said.

“So, an increase of $1 in order to do that, it’s either that or it’s a digital platform only, and I know I’d take a copy of the printed paper any day.”

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