Suburban newspapers are the free weekly publications delivered to letterboxes throughout the suburbs of Australian cities. They are distinct from regional and rural publications serving a particular town or location, such as the dailies in Newcastle, Wollongong, Albury, Geelong, Cairns, Townsville and Launceston, and regionals such as the Northern Star (New South Wales), the Wimmera Mail-Times (Victoria) and the Geraldton Guardian (Western Australia). Suburban newspapers have a diverse history and have provided training for many significant journalism careers. Taken together, suburban newspapers have a weekly readership of more than eight million. But there has been a determined move towards the term ‘community newspapers’ to denote a more inclusive approach to the papers’ readership and to distance the industry from the pejorative implications of ‘suburban’.
As Michael O’Connor wrote of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, which made its first appearance in 1803: ‘The newspaper was written for a small number of people living together in a tiny place.’ Contemporary suburban newspapers fill much the same role. While this observation is true of most newspapers around the globe, the Australian example is somewhat distinct: the growth of our major cities, with their extensive suburban hinterlands that boomed during the 1960s and the vast distances between each city, has created a newspaper industry that is not only predominantly city-centric (rather than national), but also offers significant scope for suburban newspapers to establish a durable foothold in those communities.
There is an argument that modern Australian newspapers are actually built on the 19th- century foundation of what effectively were suburban titles, such as the Sydney Gazette and the Port Phillip Herald. The reality is that the early colonial newspapers reflected their settlements’ concerns, activities and interests in a way that contemporary suburban newspapers strive to emulate. They also contained significant advertising content, reflecting the rise of the business class around the young cities.
According to Community Newspapers of Australia (CNA), suburban newspapers started in 1843 with the Parramatta Chronicle and Cumberland Advertiser in New South Wales. This publication is seen as the first iteration of the Cumberland-Courier newspaper group (now NewsLocal), which produces 22 suburban titles for News Corp Australia across Sydney. The first Victorian suburban publication was the Williamstown Chronicle in 1854, followed by the Brighton Southern Cross and the Footscray Advertiser. The Parramatta and Williamstown papers both emerged from discrete communities built around thriving ports and settlements, separate from the main settlements in Sydney and Melbourne. The Williamstown Chronicle was established by J.B. Stephens, who sold it to Robert Neale and his two sons. The paper survived until 1964. The important distinction between the suburban newspapers of the 19th century and their free contemporaries is that the first suburban titles came at a price, either a penny or halfpenny.
The pricing model remained popular until some owners started to break away and establish free papers in the 1920s. The suburbans were caught between the two war-induced newsprint shortages and slowly embraced the free model. By the 1960s, most suburban newspapers were free and hand-delivered to letterboxes throughout the Australian suburbs. This became a significant point of difference to the paid-for metropolitan dailies, but it also planted the seed of what became a resilient image of ‘free’ being interchangeable with a lack of quality—both in the news content of the publications and their design, which was often dictated by the demands of advertisers. This commercial imperative was seen as a potential taint on the independence and reliability of the news, especially when a suburban’s advertiser was the subject of a news story.
One of the key developments in helping to deal with such suggestions was the steady growth in professionalism of the industry, boosted by the interests of the Murdoch, Fairfax and Packer families. In the years after World War II, suburban newspapers became more disparate and titles were brought together in uneasy commercial alliances. Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Cumberland Newspapers chain in 1960 signalled his first major investment in suburban newspapers and reshaped the suburban landscape. Alarmed, the Packers and the Fairfaxes responded by forming a joint venture, Suburban Publications Pty Ltd. Eventually, the two ‘competing’ companies reached a territorial agreement, carving up the Sydney suburban market. John Fairfax & Sons acquired the Packer stake in 1985; with the purchase of the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987, Murdoch gained control of the Leader suburban newspapers chain that started with one newspaper in 1888, along with Messenger Newspapers (est. 1951) in Adelaide and Quest Suburban Newspapers (est. 1985) in Brisbane.
The end result has been that News Corp Australia, through its network of state-based community newspaper subsidiaries, produces free tabloid papers in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and the Northern Territory. In a rare example of commercial bipartisanship, the Community Newspaper Group is owned jointly by News Corp Australia and Seven West Media, which also publishes the West Australian. Fairfax retains its strength in Melbourne and Sydney, but News Corp Australia still outnumbers its main print rival in those markets. The Australian Suburban Newspapers Association was formed in 1968; it became CNA in 2002.
The absorption of most suburban newspaper titles among the larger metropolitan media companies—News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media and Australian Consolidated Press—has added to the debate about the ownership dominance of News Corp Australia in particular, with the company controlling more than 100 suburban titles across the nation in addition to its metropolitan newspapers and pay television interests. Such market dominance has not extinguished the growth of independent local newspapers, some of which have managed to continue with a small readership sustained by generous local businesses and a dedicated editor. International research suggests that the future of local content—online and in print—is strong, and more opportunities for locals to contribute as citizen journalists providing words, pictures or video will help to nourish the existence of suburban publications.
Continued immigration and the steady expansion of Australia’s cities have given suburban newspapers greater readership opportunities, with new titles established between 1990 and 2005 to meet the demand in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. A critical element in this was a thriving real estate market, which has helped to underpin the advertising dollars that have sustained many of the suburban titles. The battle for this lucrative advertising market led to the proliferation of competition within suburban newspapers, creating markets where up to three local papers were covering one suburban area— usually a local government municipality. This made the suburban newspaper environment more challenging and robust for journalists and advertisers than the metropolitan newspaper markets, where only one morning paper has existed in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth for the last two decades.
Strong, independent suburban newspaper chains continue to exist: Perth Suburban Newspapers, proclaiming its proud independence, publishes five titles across Perth and Fremantle; the 94-year-old Torch Publishing has three titles based out of its Canterbury-Bankstown headquarters in Sydney; and the Star News Group publishes 27 titles in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Standalone publications, such as the South Sydney Herald, which was founded by local Trevor Davies and is now published by the South Sydney Uniting Church with a monthly circulation of 20,000, deserves to be considered alongside these publications.
While metropolitan daily readership figures continue to decline, the suburban decline generally is far smaller and the core readership seems more resilient. Print media sales figures released in August 2013 revealed a decline of 10.9 per cent nationally in sales year-on-year for metropolitan and national papers. It was a sobering figure, but the community newspaper sector—which measures its free products on readership statistics—was proving more resilient, with industry estimates of falls of less than 5 per cent.
However, the business model of suburban newspapers is still precarious. Broader economic circumstances have a direct impact on advertising revenue—particularly real estate—and the suburban newspaper networks are fighting for what appears to a slowly dwindling revenue basis. Unlike the metropolitan dailies, the suburbans do not have the luxury of a cover price to offset some of those issues. Similarly, suburban housing growth has continued, but the capacity for publishers to print more papers—it is not commercially feasible in some instances—and the difficulty of finding people to deliver papers to many of the new estates compromises the potential to expand readership.
Inevitably, the focus of suburban newspapers’ efforts is now on building an online audience that can overcome such pressures. Early indications are that many suburban readers are keen to read, and more importantly contribute to, their local news websites. This suggests that the concepts of ‘citizen journalism’ and ‘hyper-local’ may find their expression through the readership of Australia’s suburban newspapers. Yet this does not mean it will be followed by a similar boom in local online advertising support. In this, suburban newspapers are confronting their own version of the commercial threat to their business model.
REFs: G. Barila, ‘Hyperlocal: Really, Really Local’, in Life in The Clickstream (2010); N. Richardson, ‘The Virtues of Localism in the Digital Age’, in M. Ricketson (ed.), Australian Journalism Today (2012); Local Newspapers Report (2012), http://www.newspaperworks.com.au.