The digital divide between Australians is set to deepen and widen as local councils across NSW remove their public notices from local newspapers and force elderly and low-income residents to search for essential community information online.
That's the worrying diagnosis of the Centre for Social Impact's Dr Chris Wilson, one of Australia's leading digital inequality academics, who has described removal of the traditional requirement for council notices to be advertised in local newspapers as "kind of anti-democratic".
Under amendments to local government regulations announced last month by NSW Minister for Local Government Shelley Hancock, the state's councils will only have to put notices about their activities and decisions on their own websites.
The move, which Ms Hancock said would "provide councils with the flexibility to adjust to rapidly shifting circumstances", is believed to be the only permanent measure among a number of temporary changes to the Local Government Act intended to financially support councils through the COVID-19 outbreak.
Publishers like ACM, the owner of this website, have warned that the loss of council advertising revenue will compound the difficulties of local newspapers which have already been forced to suspend printing and stand down employees as a result of the economic impact of virus control measures.
For Dr Wilson, who studies the social and economic impact of digital inclusion, the change to how local councils are legally obliged to communicate with ratepayers, threatens to erode the public's right to know and deepens civic inequality.
'Erosion of civic rights'
"This is not unusual for governments is it?," Dr Wilson, a Research Fellow with the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne, said. "To take advantage of a crisis to make changes that extend beyond the crisis. People are suspicious of that and I think rightly so.
"The real concern here is that this leads to an erosion of civic rights and that is fundamental. If you're a local council and you are not producing information that can get to all of your citizens, that's kind of antidemocratic."
Ratepayers in NSW will now have to trawl council websites for information on development applications and planning decisions with no guarantee on how long they will be accessible. Unlike Facebook, there's no standardised design for council websites, so where information might be clearly displayed on one, it can be difficult to find on another.
Dr Wilson said the changes would disproportionately affect those without internet access, especially the elderly and low-income households.
"We've seen an erosion of local media already which has damaged our country communities," he said. "We shouldn't be making moves to erode that further. It's not about the councils propping up local newspapers but if we want the community to have civic, social and cultural information is there not a responsibility of the council to ensure that?
"There's a real inequality here I think. Unless we solve the digital inequality issue or go some way towards having a strategic and coordinated approach to the problem, you can't just exclude people from the information."
In the New England region Tamworth Regional Council has moved quickly to withdraw notices about planning issues from ACM's Northern Daily Leader and smaller independently owned community papers like the Manilla Express.
Small newspapers affected
Editor John Martin, who owns the Manilla Express with wife Jane, fears older residents will be excluded from council processes.
"It will have an impact, we are an ageing population and that's our customer base," Mr Martin said.
"One example is the water restrictions. We have a standard ad in the paper and if it's not there people might go helter skelter. People aren't going to go to a website before they water their garden to find out if they can or not."
Mr Martin said his small business - the Manilla Express has been in the family since 1964 - had already felt the effects of COVID-19 after ACM temporarily suspended operations of its Tamworth printing site.
"It's a hard slog but you do it because you enjoy it and you do it for the town," he said.
An Office of Local Government spokesman said councils still had the discretion to advertise in local newspapers but the suspension of printing of a number of NSW titles meant some were not able to comply with the traditional requirement to publish notices in newspapers.
"In some cases, this has forced councils to advertise notices in major metropolitan newspapers, which carry higher advertising costs," the spokesman said.
"Allowing councils to publish notices on their web pages recognises that council websites are now the principle interfaces between councils and their local communities.
"The reforms do not prevent councils from continuing to use newspaper advertising where this is the most effective medium for communicating with their communities."
While Tamworth Regional Council could expect to save about $75,000 a year in advertising costs, other councils have vowed to continue supporting local media and jobs.
Wagga City Council has said it will extend its existing advertising arrangements with ACM's The Daily Advertiser for another 12 months.
"We appreciate the vital role that newspapers play for our communities," Mayor Greg Conkey said. "It is important to have a newspaper's presence and the service it provides for the whole community. It is one small way that we can assist in these trying times."
Who's scrutinising councils?
Elsewhere there are fears that independent scrutiny of councils by local newspapers is being undermined under the guise of the virus crisis.
Goulburn Mulwaree Council's recent decision to pull advertising from ACM's Goulburn Post prompted a letter to the editor from former councillor Robin Saville recalling a previous council attempt to set up its own rival newspaper.
Councillors voted on April 21 to air ads on radio summarising council news and deliver a monthly newsletter to households.
"Not one of those lily-livered councillors had the intelligence or backbone to stand up and defend the local paper and the jobs that go with it," Ms Saville wrote. "A local newspaper should always be supported for its independent voice."
The Goulburn Post, which began in 1870 as "The Goulburn Evening Penny Post", is one of a number of ACM non-daily titles covering essential local news online while printing of the newspaper is temporarily suspended until June 29 due to the pandemic.
News Corp Australia has also suspended the printing of about 60 of its community titles.
ACM executive chairman Antony Catalano said the NSW government's decision was "disappointing" because regional people relied on local newspapers for information about government decisions.
"Governments, whether they be federal, state or local, inevitably bring in new legislation and it's up to those governments to ensure people have easy access to that information about the rules and laws that affect our lives," Mr Catalano said.
"You can't have changes to laws and be asked to obey them if you don't know they exist."
Many community newspapers were home delivered, so there was "no need to go online when it's free to your door".
"It's certainly up to us as publishers to demonstrate to councils the value we bring," Mr Catalano said.
The NSW government's revised rules on how councils advertise tenders and other business come as Victoria's Labor government pledges to support regional newspapers with spending on a health-focused advertising campaign.
"We ask all state governments to follow its lead and keep their communities well informed," Mr Catalano said. "Our titles are very well read in regional communities and regional cities. They play a crucial role and are the best source of information for those communities."
NSW Minister for Better Regulation and Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson said his state's measures were designed to support struggling local governments.
"Every time a measure is put in place there's a counter measure, and unfortunately that is the advertising spend on regional newspapers and independents who rely on that," he said.
"It's an integral part of the way our community gets their information so it's something I'm acutely aware of."
'Kick to regional journalism'
Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party leader Robert Borsak took aim at NSW's Coalition government for damaging the regional newspapers that often asked it tough questions.
"This was an astonishing decision to kick regional journalism while it's on its knees," Mr Borsak said.
"Last week, we had Nationals MP Wes Fang crying crocodile tears over the decline of newspapers. But now, his government lands the final blow.
"What's worse, his impotent party leader and Deputy Premier Barilaro stood by and allowed it to happen. We all know many of these regional papers have been a thorn in his backside and his government's, having exposed many of their shortcomings and lies over many years now."
Orange MP Philip Donato, deputy leader of the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party, said the government should be advertising more in regional papers to help make up for the shortfall in regular local advertising revenue.
"The small independent newspapers in our country towns and villages run off the smell of an oily rag at the best of times," Mr Donato said.
"They're the bush telegraph, and essential to keeping their communities connected. We need to do all we can to keep businesses afloat and people employed."