The federal government has opened applications for a $50 million fund for regional newspapers and broadcasters following mounting pressure from embattled publishers and news organisations.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has released details of the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program and called on news outlets serving regional and rural audiences to apply for assistance.
The move follows weeks of delays and has come amid a collapse in advertising that has ravaged the sector, forcing dozens of titles to close at the cost of hundreds of jobs.
The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance estimates that 150 regional and community newspapers have been forced to shut down since the COVID-19 crisis struck.
"Many media companies are doing it tough right now, especially in regional areas, and the challenges have been amplified by COVID-19," Mr Fletcher said.
"PING will provide support to media businesses so they can deliver quality news to the communities they serve."
Under the terms of the program, organisations producing "public interest journalism with a commitment to accuracy, accessibility and broad relevance" will be eligible, the government said.
Funds can be used for a broad range of purposes supporting the production and distribution of news, including wages, training, technology and website upgrades.
The government had faced mounting criticism over its slow response to the plight of regional media outlets, including from Australian Community Media, which owns the Canberra Times.
Last month ACM suspended publication of non-daily titles and shut down four printing sites, while broadcaster Prime has revealed that advertising revenue plunged 38.1 per cent in April.
MEAA's media section director Neill Jones welcomed the announcement of the PING program.
"Regional newspapers, in particular, are the lifeblood of their community, providing their local communities with much needed information about local schools, local hospitals, local councils and other local news," Mr Jones said.
Although the PING could provide valuable short-term support, there are concerns that it fails to address issues regarding the long-term viability of regional news organisations, such as those raised by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in its digital platforms inquiry.
The ACCC found that media companies have suffered a sharp decline in revenue as advertisers have moved increasingly online.
The issue has come into sharper focus after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg directed the ACCC to develop a mandatory code of conduct to force digital giants such as Facebook and Google to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies.
In addition to the PING program, Mr Fletcher said the government had fast-tracked $5 million from the Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund and suspended content quota requirements for broadcasters and was provided spectrum tax fee relief for the next 12 months.
Applications for the PING program are open until May 29.
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