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Toilet paper crisis shows value of citizen journalism

Australia lost more than 100 local newspapers between 2008 and 2018 and that number is growing. Only last month, News Corp announced 92 local papers across the country would stop being printed and would be digital only.

Councils that used to regularly see reporters at their meetings and face questions that held them to account now find this is rarely the case. You might imagine, therefore, that having a local outlet like In the Cove eager to fill that gap would be welcome to any council committed to accountability and transparency.

Jacky Barker, who founded In the Cove.

Jacky Barker, who founded In the Cove.

The reality is more complicated. In October, the council wrote to Barker and said while it valued the role of In the Cove in keeping the community informed, she was asking too many questions – at times up to one or two a day. General manager Craig Wrightson asked her to limit her questions to no more than two a week. She could expect to wait up to 14 days for a response after that.

I contacted the council to object. They assured me they admired and respected Barker and In the Cove and the two-question recommendation didn’t mean council wouldn’t still answer other questions, but their “rule of thumb” had helped “manage expectations”.

It has indeed. Questions from In the Cove have fallen from about 50 a month to about 14. Residents contacting In the Cove have been told they’d have to take their issues up with council, as In the Cove weren’t able to ask any more questions.

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This feels like watching democracy unravel before your eyes. No journalist would ever accept being told by government how many questions they are “allowed” to ask. Governments can choose to answer or ignore reporters’ questions but they can’t control the process if we want democracy to work properly.

Barker is also a journalist and deserves the status and protection of one. Wrightson told me that “as far as I am aware, In the Cove is not a registered media outlet, it is not staffed by journalists”. But Australia, thank goodness, doesn’t “register” media outlets.

Hyper-local organisations like In the Cove are springing up around the world as media business models collapse. Civic-minded locals are demonstrating how much they need strong local journalism by doing it themselves. The best models endure and fill a vital role for us all.

The media industry needs to support and work with these groups and the community needs to seek out those that value accuracy, engagement and the public interest. Councils need to understand that they don’t get to decide how many questions need asking.

Alan Sunderland is a former editorial director of the ABC. He advises and writes on issues of journalism ethics.

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