Bundy council's 'news' website in the spotlight
FIGURES being used to justify Bundaberg Regional Council's move to start a public relations website have been queried, and the council is refusing to explain itself.
The dispute over "engagement" figures released to the ABC comes as a senior Newscorp executive warned residents to make themselves fully informed on how much they were paying out of their rates for "stories" to be written.
Yesterday the ABC published an article about the council-run Bundaberg Now website, using documents it requested from the council through Freedom of Information legislation.
It said that in the publication's first month, there was a period in which there were 6000 "engagements in a single week".
The council claimed this was compared to 5100 engagements from the NewsMail.
However, industry respected metrics from EMMA (Enhanced Media Metrics Australia) show the NewsMail is read by nearly every person in the region in one form or another.
In print, the paper reaches 59,000 per month, or 56 per cent of the population, and when you add in the website audience this increases to 158,000 per month - and while not all of the digital audience is in the local area, much of it is.
The NewsMail asked for the same documents released to the ABC, as well as more up-to-date data on the Bundaberg Now's readership numbers, but was told to make its own Freedom of Information application.
A council spokesman was also asked to explain what "engagements" meant on its website and how it measured them in comparison to the NewsMail. No answer was given.
In the wake of the ABC story, and revelations council spent $18,000 advertising its new site, News's executive digital editor, Bryce Johns, said residents should be wary.
"Bundaberg residents might just be paying the most tax in Australia for 'media services'," Mr Johns said.
"They are paying to run the ABC through their taxes, and as ratepayers they are now funding a Bundaberg fake news website.
"If I was living there and that money was coming out of my wallet it would concern me."
The Bundaberg Now's website does not identify as being owned by the council, which Mr Johns said was a transparency issue.
"We've (The NewsMail and other News titles) got very clear rules around conflict of interest and we declare the stories where there is potential for conflict of interest and this lack of transparency should, again, really worry Bundaberg residents," he said.
CQUniversity Director of Flexible Learning and Innovation Projects, associate professor Kate Ames, labelled Bundaberg Now as "corporate or brand journalism".
"It is a form of public relations where you use journalism skills to tell corporate stories," Dr Ames said.
"It has been happening for a while and I think perhaps local councils have been slower to engage in this particular area because traditionally you've had local media who might fill in that gap."
Newspapers were becoming increasingly competitive for space which meant that local corporations or councils could not guarantee their message would reach the public.
"A contracting media sector is always a risk democratically...this actually highlights the need for hyperlocal news.
"The issue is that really hyperlocal boring news is what people are actually looking for.
"In a place like Bundaberg which isn't big enough to sustain super local suburban newspapers you've got a bit of a challenge because you've covering the whole of Bundaberg...but then you've got the challenge of the syndicated news and working on a budget and all of those economic drivers, and at the end of the day the business is to sustain the newspaper."
COUNCILLORS SUPPORT WEBSITE AS WAY TO SHARE KEY MESSAGES
BUNDABERG Regional Councillors justify the cost of their "good news website", saying it serves the best interests of their ratepayers.
All the councillors were reached for comment and were asked: Are you comfortable with the amount being spent on Bundaberg Now and does that amount serve the best interest of the community and ratepayers?
The short answer from Deputy Mayor Bill Trevor was "yes".
"My community has a thirst for knowledge," he said.
"Newspapers have stories that they write but it's not always what the council is doing, whereas ratepayers have the right to know when that's happening.
"We're not trying to be the NewsMail but we have different things people are interested in and this covers it."
Mayor Jack Dempsey was in Gympie attending a meeting about regional development and unable to be reached for comment.
Cr Greg Barnes said he supported the concept of the publication if it supported the majority viewpoint of the council, but that he was unaware of the costs.
"I'm not aware of the amount, I've never been part of the decision to go down that track," he said.
"Having that said, it was through the period of 'slow time' when I was quite ill, so I might have missed the meeting that discussed that.
"It's quite popular and it's getting quite a few hits.
"As long as there are items put on there to reflect the majority feeling of council and with sufficient consultation with all councillors."
Cr Steve Cooper said the money was being spent "sensibly and wisely" on communication, which was something the community wanted.
"The community expects us to give out information for connection and that's obviously in the survey we completed previously," he said.
"That information is given freely to other organisations.
"There's no issue as far as I'm concerned. You guys do a job and we do a job and I don't see it as a conflict."
Cr John Learmonth said he wanted to research more on the costs before commenting further. "It's just keeping the public abreast about what's going on. It's doing a good job."
Councillors Jason Bartels, Wayne Honor, Helen Blackburn, Scott Rowleson, Ross Sommerfeld and Judy Peters were reached for comment but a response was not received by deadline.
Executive officer of communications Michael Gorey said the set-up cost of Bundaberg Now was about $2000, and that more than $21,000 was spent in marketing.
The council's advertising expenditure was under budget by $100,000.
"Local government is a major source of news and needs a free or high-reach outlet to distribute it," Mr Gorey said.
"The alternative to Bundaberg Now for Bundaberg Regional Council was to print and distribute its own newsletter.
"This would have been more expensive than Bundaberg Now, reaching fewer people, be out of date before it's read and have no interactive features or two-way engagement."