Goodbye to the One-Newspaper State


It might be one of the biggest sub-national States in the world, but Western Australia can feel like a very small place indeed. Perth in particular, sitting all alone between the desert and the deep blue sea, can be the proverbial fish bowl. And nothing makes Perth feel more claustrophobic than the city’s only major daily paper, The West Australian.

The latest bid to break The West‘s hold has come from Fairfax, which last week launched, as a solely online newspaper. West Australian Premier Alan Carpenter, who attended the launch of the online paper, was unambiguous in his support, welcoming the "increased news diversity" as "unequivocally good".

In order to understand Carpenter’s enthusiasm, it is necessary to rewind. Perth might have one and a half million people, five universities, the famous V8 economy and a vibrant civic sector, but when The West is at its most parochially partisan, the towers of St George’s Terrace can feel suffocating.

Independent of both the Fairfax Media and News Limited groups, The West is owned by West Australian Newspapers Holdings Ltd. You can get The Australian and Australian Financial Review in Western Australia and the weekly Murdoch-owned Sunday Times operates a daily news website, Perthnow, but – apart from the Kalgoorlie MinerThe West is the only print local daily.

It is not uncommon for governments to engage in the odd brawl with newspaper editors from time to time, but things have reached a real low in WA.

There is a degree of one-sidedness to The West‘s editorial line that is simply unacceptable in a responsible daily paper. Earlier this year, a group of seven WA journalism academics told the paper that it "increasingly crossed the line into beat-up and misrepresentation".

The West‘s previous chiefs undoubtedly had their moments with both State and Federal governments. But it is under current editor Paul Armstrong that things have really exploded. Last year, Carpenter furiously described Armstrong as an "immature, dishonest, unethical person".

Armstrong has no doubt felt that in the absence of an effective Opposition, it falls to the media to keep the Government honest. This is the State, after all, where three bungling Liberal Opposition leaders have followed each other to political oblivion in quick succession. The incumbent is none other than the bra-snapping, chair-whiffing, testicle-grabbing and altogether less than endearing Troy Buswell.

But as Margaret Simons pointed out last year, The West‘s attacks on the WA Government have gone well beyond anything remotely defensible on the basis of a commitment to the democratic role of the Fourth Estate.

Armstrong, for his part, has remained largely unrepentant in the face of criticism, unfavorable press council reports and even calls for his dismissal.

In this poisonous and partisan climate and with falling circulation figures for The West, news that Kerry Stokes’s Seven Network, having acquired 20 per cent holdings in WA Newspapers, was interested in shaking up the paper were met with considerable encouragement. Seven even initiated a public campaign to "refresh the West".

The Stokes bid was publicly supported by both Carpenter and Attorney General Jim McGinty. However at an extraordinary meeting of WA Newspapers shareholders in April, various resolutions put up by Seven were defeated and Stokes’s ambitions were – for the moment – thwarted.

Now the arrival of Fairfax’s has put new pressure on The West.

The broader context of course is the question mark over what place local daily papers have in a world of instant global media in which The Guardian is as many clicks away as The West.

No doubt there will always be some hunger for local news, but with soft delivery mechanisms becoming ever more sophisticated, the future of the paper medium can’t be taken for granted. What Fairfax is betting with is that the appetite for local content can be met with wholly online delivery.

The upshot is that the giant State with the little daily newspaper feels that much bigger again.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.