The Perrottet government has defended the way it currently promotes NSW government services on "media platforms targeting regional audiences" but offered no assurance that local newspapers serving regional communities will see guaranteed advertising spending that supports local journalism and jobs.
The Liberal-Nationals government is also standing by its decision to allow local councils to remove or reduce the public notices about development applications and other council decisions traditionally advertised in local newspapers.
In a statement released on Thursday by the office of Deputy Premier Paul Toole, a government spokesperson said: "We want a strong regional media".
The 179-word statement failed to mention newspapers once.
The local newspapers of publisher ACM have joined together this week to ask Premier Dominic Perrottet and his challenger at the March 25 election, Labor's Chris Minns, if they will help protect the future of local news in NSW by following the lead of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and pledging a guaranteed page of government advertising in every regional paper every week.
The newspapers have also called on the next NSW government to reverse legislative changes in 2020 that allow the state's local governments to bury public information about development applications and other council decisions on their own websites.
Together with industry group Country Press Australia, which represents hundreds of small newspapers, publisher ACM has warned that higher prices for newsprint, rising costs of newspaper production and distribution and aggressive competition for advertising revenue from foreign-owned digital giants are putting local papers in peril.
They have welcomed the newspaper advertising policy of Mr Andrews as "an elegant way" for state government to support the local news sources that regional communities rely on to keep them informed and connected.
The two questions that ACM's NSW newspapers have splashed across their front pages are addressed to Premier Perrottet and Mr Minns. They ask:
Mr Perrottet, during a visit to Dungog on February 9 to announce funds to build a toilet block, among other community projects, was asked directly by editor Anna Wolf, of ACM's Port Stephens Examiner, whether he would make the Dan Andrews pledge.
"This is something we are doing and looking to do more," the Premier said. "In fact Bronnie Taylor, the deputy leader of the National Party, regularly raises this with me and the Deputy Premier. I was in a meeting probably two weeks ago where this issue was raised and the assurance that we received from the department is that we're doing just that."
After a week of daily follow-up phone calls and emails to the offices of the Premier and Ms Taylor requesting further information about Mr Perrottet's comments, the office of the Deputy Premier released a statement on Thursday.
It said the government recognised "the importance of regional media".
"That's why NSW government agencies are required to spend at least 26 per cent of their campaign media expenditure on media platforms targeting regional audiences for advertising campaigns of relevance to regional and remote communities," the statement said.
"This ensures important government messages for regional NSW are targeted to the communities they are speaking to."
What share of current spending goes to long-standing regional newspapers versus social media giants and other digital platforms was not disclosed.
The government spokesperson said the $3million Regional Media Fund recently announced by Mr Toole showed that the government "recognise the importance of regional media".
"This fund will assist regional media outlets to drive innovation, tell stories in new ways and ensure that our communities have access to the news and information they need about the issues affecting them."
ACM managing director Tony Kendall said the government's reponse was disappointing and paid lip service to its claim to want a strong local media serving the state's regional communities.
"Short-term grants and programs like the new Regional Media Fund are certainly welcome if they help a small local newspaper do a podcast but it does not address the fundamental question of meaningful support for regional newspapers so that an industry employing hundreds of local journalists can secure a viable and sustainable future," Mr Kendall said.
"What we've seen in Victoria is a smart and simple policy that provides value for the taxpayer, useful government information for people living in the regions and certainty for local newspapers that in many cases are the only credible, independent source of local news available."
The government's response indicates it is standing by its decision in 2020 to allow local councils to remove or reduce public notices openly displayed in their town's local paper and instead run information on development applications and other council decisions on their website.
The legislative amendment came at the height of the COVID-19 emergency but was the only permanent measure among a range of temporary regulatory changes to help council finances through the pandemic lockdowns.
"The 2020 changes give councils greater flexibility in the way they publish certain notices, recognising changes to the media landscape and allowing individual councils rather than government to make the decision on how to communicate most effectively with their communities," the statement said.
Mr Kendall said ratepayers forced to trawl cumbersome council websites to find out what's going on in their street or neighbourhood deserved transparency and accountability.
"We have a number of councils across NSW who partner successfully with us as the trusted voice of their community because they recognise the value of supporting independent local journalism," Mr Kendall said.
"Transparency and accountability matter in regional communities and state and local governments have a role to play in supporting the regional newspapers that ratepayers and taxpayers trust to ask questions on their behalf."
Contacted for comment on the two questions asked by ACM's newspapers in NSW, Labor leader Chris Minns, whose electorate of Kogarah in Sydney counts ACM's St George and Sutherland Shire Leader as its local newspaper, did not respond.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.