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Inside the newsroom: Murray Bridge News

Image: Supplied

Image: Supplied

Journalist Peri Strathearn started Murray Bridge News — a news website and weekly email newsletter — when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the local paper he was working for. In less than two years he built a strong subscriber base by delivering community-focused news for readers in South Australia’s Murraylands.

We caught up with Peri to find out more about Murray Bridge News, its audience and his plans to reach a larger, more diverse audience.

How did Murray Bridge News get started?

I’d spent eight years with the local ACM-owned newspaper when, in 2020, its publication was suspended due to COVID-19

I’d toyed with the idea of launching an independent local news service that would be more responsive to the community’s needs. ACM’s decision to shut down the newspaper proved to be both the last straw and the opportunity I needed.

I launched Murray Bridge News four days after being stood down, hit my initial goal of 250 paying subscribers in nine weeks, and never went back.

How many editorial staff members work on Murray Bridge News?

It’s just me at the moment, but I’m currently advertising for a part-time journalist thanks to a grant from the Facebook Australian News Fund, administered by the Walkley Foundation.

What can you tell us about your audience?

I write for people who live, work or have ties to the Murray Bridge district and Tailem Bend. That area has a population of about 25,000 people. We’re a growing regional community, an hour from Adelaide, where the food processing industry is the main employer but primary production, tourism, retail and health care are also big.

Interestingly, although Murray Bridge News publishes online, its biggest cohort of readers is people aged in their 60s. I’d like to find better ways of reaching younger people and those at the lower-income end of the spectrum, who are a significant part of the local population.

My email newsletter went out to almost 2,400 people this week.

How often do you publish and what sort of stories do you cover?

The best thing about being a regional journalist is that you get to write about everything! I cover local government, elections, events, the arts, community programs and groups, I write about social issues, crime — you name it.

I get to sit down for cups of tea with so many wonderful local people.

I publish stories online through the week, and roll them into an email newsletter every Thursday at lunchtime.

What are some of the stories you’re most proud of?

Just recently I wrote about the 50th anniversary of former premier Don Dunstan’s failed plan to build a city at Monarto. The whole thing quickly became a white elephant and a bit of a joke in political circles, but for the local families who were driven out of their homes to make way for it, there are still hard feelings.

I experimented with a citizens’ agenda approach during the recent state election campaign, focusing on issues readers wanted to know about rather than candidates’ announcements, which I think was a success.

In January I was able to do a deep dive on Murray Bridge’s tacky and beloved animatronic bunyip. I love being able to shed new light on topics that local people care about.

How do you fund your journalism?

Reader subscriptions are the most important pillar of Murray Bridge News’ revenue strategy.

I’ve been lucky to secure two grants which have helped me during this start-up phase: the one from the Facebook Australian News Fund I mentioned earlier; and one from Substack, the web platform I use.

A condition of the Substack grant was that I forego any advertising revenue for 12 months, but I foresee that — and/or business sponsorships — becoming part of the mix in future.

What’s your advice to would-be publishers who want to set up a hyperlocal newsroom in their community?

Know your mission, make it central to everything you do … and then be the right person in the right place at the right time.

Much of Murray Bridge News’ success has stemmed from its mission to create community, empower local people and be positive, local and sustainable. My publication deliberately aims to do things differently to a chain-owned outlet, and to learn from the experiences of local publications around the world. But I also owe my success to my existing reputation in the community, as a journalist who has tried to do good work for local people.

Hyperlocal news is about building a relationship with a community. So, to be honest, the work starts well before you get to that launch phase. You’ll need to figure out what local need you’re addressing, how you’ll do it differently to anyone else, and why you’re best placed to do it. Then: go do it! You’ll smash it.

You were involved with the development of the new Local and Independent News Association. What sort of impact do you hope LINA will have?

New Local and Independent News Association supports hyperlocal news industry
Until this point, there has been no industry association that online publishers like mine have been eligible to join. Working together will allow smaller publishers to share their successes and failures; learn from each other; pool their resources on projects which might benefit them all; and to have a united voice, a seat at the table with some of the bigger players in Australian media.

Big, established corporations have tended to benefit most from federal interventions such as the PING program and the Facebook/Google code. I hope LINA will go a way towards correcting that.

Are you happy with the recommendations made in the Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts’ report on the future of Australia’s regiona newspapers?

They’ve made some great recommendations. An Australian version of the BBC Local News Partnerships program would be transformative for local news in this country.

I’m grateful that the committee adopted my suggestion that the threshold for registration under the News Media Bargaining Code be lowered from $150,000 to $75,000 in annual revenue.

But — and it’s a big but — I have little optimism that a federal government will respond to the report in any meaningful way in the shadow of an election. I hope it’s not forgotten about, because it’s a good bit of work.

What resources do you need to promote your journalism better?

As an online publisher, Murray Bridge News’ growth will depend on better promotion of its content in the real world.

I might not start a newspaper, but I’m experimenting with a digital display screen in a local shopping centre, I’m about to open an office, and I’m game to try anything else that will give my publication more of a physical presence. A great many readers aren’t on Facebook, or aren’t online at all. Local news is for everyone.