For the past 4 years or so my mate Glenn Morrison has written the Heartbeat column for the NT edition of the Rural Weekly. This is his last column, published yesterday.
This is how rural and regional journalism dies, one modest masthead at a time.
Heartbeat by Glenn Morrison
The Rural Weekly NT printed its first edition on 3 April 2015 – today marks the newspaper’s last, some 186 editions and a few months shy of four years later. Heartbeat pays tribute to its passing.
Early in 2015 I received an unexpected phone call from Queensland journalist Toni Somes.
At the time, Somes was group editor of a family of newspapers called the Rural Weekly, with editions in Queensland and NSW all produced by a news and media company then known as APN.
She asked whether I’d be interested in helping start a Northern Territory edition of the paper.
Somes was young, smart and enthusiastic, and we ended up chatting for quite a while.
Bang in the middle of several projects of my own, I didn’t really have time for the role.
But I knew someone who might and suggested my colleague Mark Wilton in Darwin.
Not long after, Wilton came on as senior journalist to report news, sub-edit and lay out the NT pages of the paper.
Meantime, Somes had agreed to my suggestion of a column called Heartbeat, about the history, people and issues that mattered in Australia’s centre, occasionally reaching out to its bustling north.
Soon enough, the first edition rolled off the presses.
“Rural Weekly NT was started in order to fill a gap in the rural newspaper market in northern Australia,” says Somes.
“The plan was to rival existing agricultural publications like Queensland Country Life, which had something of a foothold in the northern cattle industry.
“But with the Rural Weekly NT we also wanted to deliver some of the cracking good human-interest yarns that had made our other Rural Weekly editions so popular.
“I had to do a bit of sweet talking initially to get some of the NT’s best writers on board given our rather slim budget!”
Soon enough the Rural Weekly NT appeared online as well as in print and for a while the paper flourished.
Readers welcomed its fresh attitude, friendly layouts and longer story format than was generally offered at the time.
“From the start the paper found favour with rural and remote NT readers,” says Somes, “despite a few initial hiccups with delivery and distribution.”
“The writers did an outstanding job of pulling together the best Territory yarns and columns on rural characters, bush families, outback innovators and offering us all an invaluable insight into the Red Centre.”
Over its four years, Rural Weekly NT emphasised news and views from the pastoral, mining, agriculture, land management and conservation sectors.
Politically, it covered the 2016 election loss of former Chief Minister Adam Giles and the rise of Labor’s Michael Gunner.
But other issues also rose to the fore, matters deeply affecting those in the bush, including health services, especially mental health and youth suicide, as well as the wind-down of the Inpex project, the impacts of climate change and the potential hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) of the Territory’s gas reserves.
Starting a print newspaper in 2015 was, however, always going to be a fraught business.
Newspaper advertising revenues were down worldwide and much of the action in news had migrated online.
Somes left APN in November 2015, making way for a fresh face: Candyce Braithwaite, who is still group editor today.
Wilton ended up being called the editor for NT but left in December 2016.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Rural Weekly,” Wilton says, “and was immensely proud of the publication that was produced.
“It covered the issues and told the stories of the rural Territory like no other publication had ever successfully attempted.
“It is a shame that a publication that truly was the Territory’s rural voice cannot be sustained.”
But uncertainty in the industry was forcing changes.
Earlier, in June 2016, news had broken that APN had sold its Australian Regional Media (ARM) business holdings to one of its shareholders, Newscorp, for a bargain $36.6m.
APN was shedding its traditional media but holding onto radio and AdShel divisions.
News Corp already ran the daily NT News and bi-weekly Centralian Advocate newspapers in the Northern Territory, which in itself cast a long shadow over the future of Rural Weekly NT.
Wilton returned briefly in May 2017 to write news stories, which had been lacking in his absence.
But he left for good in July 2018 and wasn’t replaced.
Many news outlets are closing their doors in Australia and across the globe.
APN News and Media morphed into Here, There and Everywhere, concentrating on radio, outdoor and digital.
Rural Weekly’s ongoing group editor Candyce Braithwaite says the NT edition was special.
“With the Territory being a leader in agriculture, the stories were not only important to the NT, but the whole country.
“We will still aim to cover the best NT stories via our website and our other publications in Queensland and New South Wales.”
The final word from Heartbeat and the Rural Weekly NT is, by rights, from Somes, who started the project in 2015.
And she says: “The Rural Weekly NT may not have had a long history, but it’s stories and columns made a lasting impact.”