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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Rural Australia has stories to tell that will interest the world. Here’s how we’ll report them | Gabrielle Chan

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Fifteen years ago I took a job at our local newspaper in my southern New South Wales town of 2,000 people.

The eight-page paper had a circulation at that time of about 900 and one journalist. Me. Despite my experience in national and state political reporting, I had never worked for a small-town paper.

As a reader, I knew what I wanted. Plain unvarnished facts, explainers, occasional opinion pieces and moments of joy.

So I wrote and commissioned stories that I thought were important for my fellow residents. I wanted to hear locals tell their stories to increase engagement and emotional investment in the place.

Those reports included government changes that impinged on our lives, controversial developments, Indigenous knowledge and history, policy ideas for the town and local perspectives on larger issues.

The thing I learned is that editing rural and regional content is a highwire act, a balance between two cartoonish models at the extreme ends. One is dominated by a tumbleweed, “we’ll all be rooned’’ narrative, and the other is what I would call the plucky little battler, salt of the earth model.

In my reporting I have tried to walk the line and write the nuance of rural and regional Australia in between those two extremes.

Which is why I am so cock-a-hoop about Guardian Australia’s rural network.

This project will build a network of writers who know their regions. The rural network will nurture local talent, share local stories and build a bridge between metropolitan and country communities. It will scrutinise rural and regional policy seriously.

I hope our audience will stretch from remote, rural and regional places all the way into the metropolitan centres. I think rural Australia has stories to tell that will interest the cities and sometimes the world. That projection is what Guardian Australia can offer.

Perennial issues are worth chasing precisely because they are endemic, unresolved issues for our communities.

We begin as we mean to continue. Our new rural and regional reporter, Natasha May, has been looking closely at the effect of the pandemic on the coming harvest.

In a cruel twist of fate, a portion of farmers have been enjoying the best season in years after drought and bushfires. But the very real threat looms for them to lose some of that income due to lack of seasonal workers and state border restrictions.

Katharine Murphy reports that Ernst & Young can see a clear path for farmers to net zero emissions by 2040 – without shrinking Australian agriculture, including the current livestock herd.

The key thing is that it doesn’t need any particular whizbang technology, but rather scaling up good practice inside a decent climate policy framework.

But these first stories are just a taster for what’s to come. I must pay tribute to Guardian Australia’s editor, Lenore Taylor, who has long talked to me about the need to reimagine rural coverage. In her piece today, she has described how this project and its architecture will work.

That local newspaper I edited all those years ago no longer has an office on my main street. The hard copy ended with the onslaught of Covid-19. The masthead has been subsumed into a larger news website that is filled with mostly syndicated copy from further afield.

We can’t be on every main street but we do hope you follow our content and engage with us, including via our rural network Facebook group.

I also hope you sign up for my fortnightly newsletter, highlighting our best content and rural stories from other media that are worth reading.

Most of all, I want to hear from you, our audience of rural and regional readers, as well as metro readers with a keen interest in the people, places and spaces outside the city limits. We are nothing without you.

Readers and rural writers can send story tips and pitches to australia.rural@theguardian.com.

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