Academic journal article Rural Society

Defining Decline in the Newspaper Press: Local Responses and National Narratives in New South Wales Country Towns 1945-2006

Academic journal article Rural Society

Defining Decline in the Newspaper Press: Local Responses and National Narratives in New South Wales Country Towns 1945-2006

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In 1988 The Land Magazine ran a story on the small New South Wales town of Ashford, which had been fighting for survival since its tobacco industry began to decline. The town lost its motor registry and hospital, its post office was downgraded to an agency and its local council had been amalgamated with another shire. But, under the headline 'Ashford sees hope as the smoke clears', the story was positive. Local tobacco farmer Barry Meale philosophised that 'Australia has always been noted for its great adversity and fluctuation in fortunes' ('Ashford sees hope', 1988, p. 29). Yes, the town had experienced decline but it had a bright future.

Throughout the twentieth century a prolonged courtship was taking place between the idea of decline and the ideal of country towns. Despite the fact that country town population growth had slowed or stagnated since the turn of the century, the end of World War II brought renewed expectations for rural progress and confidence that the pastoral lands of the nation would experience a revival of their prospects and wealth. It did not last. By the 1970s the association of decline and the country was a settled image in the public's imagination. The country town provided the most tangible evidence of this physical deterioration. The empty buildings of Main Street spelt decline in ways that the bush could not. In mainstream press the terms 'decline' and 'country towns' were used synonymously and their relationship became a popular narrative. By the 1980s and 1990s, it was almost as if country towns had been courted and rejected by progress, and they turned their attention back to the past and found new prospects in their old suitor: decline.

Newspapers dealt with country town decline and progress in a variety of ways. While they understood decline and progress in terms of population growth, services and viable industry, they could also, as we will see, portray country town decline positively as a contrast to sprawling urban growth, a moral haven for a good, healthy life and as a romanticised narrative helping communities to deal with change (or lack thereof) by associating decline with continuity. This article surveys coverage in the newspapers The Australian, The Land, The Bulletin, The Canberra Times and The Sydney Morning Herald, the magazine The Australian Women's Weekly and local newspapers in five representative country towns: Gilgandra, Gundagai, Mudgee, Uralla and Young. It identifies three ways the story of decline in country towns was represented in newspaper coverage from World War II until the beginning of the twenty-first century. These three versions of decline can be found in images of population, of the good life and of the past. It is argued that the decline of country towns has never in this period been seen as simply a rural issue; that aspects of decline have not always been reported negatively and that local communities develop their own interpretations of decline and progress.

METHODOLOGY

This research forms part of a broader study into the ways in which New South Wales country towns have responded to the narrative, threat or experience of decline. Local and regional newspapers are one way to explore this. A survey of five local newspapers from 1945 to 2006 was undertaken. For each newspaper all issues of a selected year in each decade were viewed and dominant patterns in discussion of progress and decline identified. A further survey explored the coverage of major events or commemorative years unique to each town. The newspapers surveyed are the only or primary local newspaper in the New South Wales towns of Gilgandra, Gundagai, Mudgee, Uralla and Young during this period. It should be noted that in Uralla and Young, the local newspaper either amalgamated with another paper or had been absorbed into another paper several times. The survey of the local press was complemented by a survey of state and national newspapers which represent a range of urban to rural perspectives. …

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