COMMUNITIES beyond Australia's big metropolitan capitals are in danger of "losing their soul" unless drastic and swift action is taken, according to Australian journalism icon Ray Martin.
The celebrated television journalist is the face of Save Our Voices 2020, a campaign by the regional media industry to highlight the value of local journalism and the urgent need for federal politicians to legislate to protect its future.
The campaign is a collaboration between Australia's largest regional media news organisations, WIN Network, Prime Media Group, Southern Cross Austereo and ACM, the publisher of this website.
As part of the campaign, Martin interviews news gatherers, newsroom leaders and regional media bosses from around the country about the importance of journalism that covers regional Australia.
Speaking in Wollongong where the campaign began filming, Martin said he was driven to join the initiative because he'd been "a journalist for 55 years and I love the business".
"I lament the towns and regions that have lost newspapers, television and radio stations," Martin said.
"As a storyteller, newspapers and television, honestly, give a town soul.
"They allow not just politicians and mayors and businessmen and women to have an identity, but they give ordinary people an identity. A lady who turns 100, someone who has worked 40 years in a women's shelter or done volunteer work for 40 years. We recognise, thank them and acknowledge them.
"Those stories make people feel good about living in Gunnedah or Wagga or somewhere. I think newspapers and television news programs give places identity.
"You take those away and no longer do we recognise, not just politicians, but also people who do good things."
Martin said it was time for politicians of all persuasions and all levels to actively protect local journalism and help ensure the survival of local news organisations in the face of global challenges.
Google has launched a public campaign to fight Australia's proposed News Media Bargaining Code, which is aimed at forcing global digital giants such as Google and Facebook to pay Australian media companies for the news content they run on their platforms.
If the draft media code becomes law, Facebook has threatened to block Australian publishers and users from sharing news on Facebook and Instagram.
Regional news organisations have also long lamented restrictive media ownership regulations, which multinational digital competitors like Netflix, Twitter and Youtube are not subjected to.
"The media regulations were made in the dark ages ... social media has changed all that," Martin said.
"The rules mean you can't own a TV station, a radio station and a newspaper in the one area - those sorts of things. Well the landscape has changed. It's no longer a level playing field.
"If any of the politicians or the Minister for Communications [Paul Fletcher] can tell me why they are sitting on their hands, I'd be enlightened."
During his stellar career, Martin has become one of the most popular and recognisable faces on Australian television.
He began his storied journalism career working at the ABC as a cadet reporter in 1965.
He went on to be an acclaimed reporter with 60 Minutes as well as host of A Current Affair and the Midday show.
More recently he has worked on a series of television specials for Prime7 looking at the regional impact of ice addiction and road deaths throughout Australia.
Martin highlighted the important role regional news organisations have played in their communities through 2020, a year dominated by fires, floods and the pandemic.
"We do criticise newspapers for having a political stance or getting up some local politician for the rent, but we do tend to forget how important they are," he said.
"There are stories about people doing extraordinary things as happened along this coast [the South Coast of NSW] during the bushfires.
"At the moment I'm doing a documentary for Prime on 'The Forgotten Heroes' and [newspapers] have already done these stories on the people who risked their lives during the bushfires.
"The stories aren't always negative; there are stories about people who do good things and people who make us feel stronger as a community."
Martin also pointed to the support local media organisations gave back to their communities.
"Regional television gives about $40 million a year in free advertising to charities and to local causes," he said.
"You lose that and charities that are hurting enough at the moment, lose their real force."
Martin said his hope for the campaign was "that people wake up".
"We are lesser communities without regional news ... I think we lose a bit of our soul if we take news businesses out of our regions."
- Julian O'Brien is editor of the Illawarra Mercury.