The Area News has built a solid reputation for its activism on behalf of the Griffith community in the NSW Riverina district – a standing enhanced by its success in helping to raise money for a new hospital for the area.
Founded in 1923, the tri-weekly newspaper is an institution that unites one of Australia’s most diverse communities. With a readership of more than 15,000 in Australia’s foodbowl region, residents come from as far afield as Italy, India, Samoa and New Zealand, growing everything from wine, prunes and citrus fruits to walnuts and cotton.
Editor Monique Patterson leads a team of four journalists who work hard to not only inform the community but to enforce change, building on the legacy of former editor Daniel Johns – who went on to edit Tamworth’s Northern Daily Leader and most recently Wagga Wagga’s Daily Advertiser.
Part of that legacy was its strong support for a new private hospital in Griffith, something Ms Patterson said the community had wanted for more than a decade.
“St Vincent’s Health committed to building a private hospital if the community would raise one million dollars – which is a pretty significant target for a community like Griffith,” she said.
“Construction is about to start – it’s very significant for the community,” she said. “We’d been pushing for it for the best part of two years.”
The paper is something of a trailblazer. It was the first to roll out Fairfax Media’s NewsNow editorial platform and, after initial teething problems, has taken it in its stride. Ms Patterson says the new system, which provides templates for the print product and puts stories up immediately online, has made the paper’s operations faster to the benefit of staff and readers.
“It’s about giving our readers new content every time they come back to that website.”
Ms Patterson says the system has a benefit over a traditional newspaper setting, where editors hold off until close to deadline to decide the top priority stories and where they will be placed. “This system allows us to place stories when we’ve got them and makes it very easy to move them around.
“You have a front page story and that’s the biggest of the day – but if tonight there’s a house on fire, you can change it around and move everything back. There’s no deadline rush at the last minute.”
The rollout has also seen new sections appear in the paper, with more in the works. “We put together a content recipe for each newspaper, based on what our readers want to know about, which we’re still implementing,” Ms Patterson said.
So far, The Area News has welcomed a new weekly police column and a popular section called “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” where readers can share their own feelings about everything from pop culture and everyday life, to local events and causes.
Only a small section of the masthead’s audience crosses over between online and print, and making sure readers can get their news across a variety of platforms is one of the paper’s challenges, according to Ms Patterson. A digital schedule ensures a steady stream of social media posts, primarily on Facebook, connect readers with the News. “Keeping our readers engaged with social media is becoming more important every day,” she said.
Digital advertising is a key area of growth for the masthead, according to Fairfax Media group sales manager – South West NSW, Tom Power, while the print product offers a range of innovative advertising strategies that engage the community.
Griffith’s annual Wedding Fair, hosted by The Area News, is in its 23rd year and earned the paper a highly commended award in the 2014 NSW Country Press Awards for Newspaper Marketing and Promotion. A glossy magazine insert packed with ads was a key source of revenue from the event.
Special publications are a smart strategy that can bolster the paper’s revenues in an economy beholden to the dictates of nature, Mr Power said.
“The main industry in Griffith is agricultural and machinery dealerships and irrigation businesses,” he said. “It can be tough – because the MIA [Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area] region is predominantly citrus, irrigation and wineries. If they’re having a tough time in the industry it can have a bit of an impact on the revenue. You can’t control the seasons.”
On the flipside, there are a lot of small retail and family businesses in the area, Mr Power says, which can support special publications during these times. “We try to sort out a special publication, making sure there are really community based, so they attract our readers as well as appealing to our clients,” he said.
The paper builds on its community relationship through its campaigns and support for members of the community that may be in need.
Chris Brugger is one such local The Area News has got behind. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2008, he spent years working his way through drugs that didn’t work before arriving at Brentuximab Vedotin. Instead of delivering hope, the drug became a hurdle as Brentuximab was not yet on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Mr Brugger and his wife Naomi launched an appeal, dubbed My Name Is Chris, to push for the drug to be accepted onto the PBS.
The Area News backed his campaign, which seeks to raise funds for the hugely expensive treatment. Mr Brugger needs six rounds of treatment to fight off the cancer, at up to $46,000 per round, and says the paper has supported him all the way, covering his fundraising events and the couple’s fight to unlock access to the drug.
“They’ve been a really good help,” he says. “My wife works at the local council in communications, so she knows all the journalists and has a lot of dealings with The Area News. Initially we asked them for help – but now, they’re always chasing us up if we forget to tell them something.”
Mr Brugger and his wife, who have two young children, were on the front page last month when they took their case to a Senate inquiry into the availability of specialist cancer drugs. The Bruggers now plan to speak with the company that produces the drug to encourage it to submit another application, and The Area News will follow their journey closely.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I saw you in the paper – good luck’. “I had a check-up and it’s all looking pretty well – we’ll keep on plodding along.” The Area News, he says, “is always behind us – 100 per cent.”
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