What's good about the Ballarat Times?

By Matthew Hall

By starting in the very job she trained for, Edwina Williams defied a trend for journalism graduates. In less than five years since, she has worked her way up to be the senior journalist at the Ballarat Times, a free community weekly serving her hometown.

Image: Edwina Williams. Supplied.

“Not many people who study newswriting at university then go straight into a newsroom. A lot of people go into PR roles, and they never come out.”

There’s data to support that anecdote: a 2018 Mumbrella analysis of graduate outcomes found that four months after graduating, only a quarter of journalism graduates were employed in the media industry. That stood in stark contrast to 72 per cent across other fields of study.

But Edwina’s career path is even more striking considering she started a career in regional print media, a format seen to be fighting for its existence. And her newspaper first had to get off the ground itself.

Just as she was winding up a bachelor's degree in journalism from Swinburne University, the independently-owned Times News Group was inking a deal to acquire both the Ballarat Miner and Golden Plains Miner, to be relaunched as two new mastheads: the Ballarat Times, and the Golden Plains Times. Both would be free, printed locally, and supported by advertising spend. Building on their experience running community papers on the Surf Coast, the new owners looked to take a bold stake in the future of print, sensing there would always be demand for community-centred journalism.

Stories for both outlets were to be produced by a local team, based in Ballarat. Spotting an opportunity to work back home, she reached out.

“I just said to them, ‘I’ve seen this in the market, and I’m just wrapping up my degree, so if you need any support with freelance stuff, let me know.’”

“Within days I was put on part time, and within a few weeks, I had a full-time role.”

There are some grim parallels between the prospects for journalism graduates and new business ventures in general. Not least for a new print masthead. The ad-supported free community newspaper is a tried-and-tested business model, but has faced serious headwinds from the ongoing decline of print advertising spend. The situation for local newspapers was dire through the pandemic. But Edwina said that in the last six months, her team had been working increasingly hard to fill pages with stories, putting out “more 48-page books than we ever [had] before”. How had both she and the Times bucked these trends so convincingly?

In the beginning, starting out on a team of three, Edwina said she had to hit the ground running. She wrote about nine stories a week.

Her early coverage showcased a range of community issues, including the regional road toll, local sports and racing events, and grassroots fundraisers.

“I was probably left to my own devices a bit, but in a good way. I’d given the editor some work samples, so I was trusted to do my own thing,” she said.

“If I had any questions or concerns, I could get some support and mentorship there.”

“It was always a really, really tiny office of people, so it would be a very different experience to someone starting out as a cadet at a Melbourne newspaper.”

It’s hard to envisage a more challenging time to launch a media venture than in the direct leadup to the pandemic. But the Ballarat Times seems to have weathered the storm, finding a unique voice in the region and pushing circulation above 15,000 copies a week.

Edwina said the paper had tapped into an unmet demand for journalism that actively builds a sense of community. The team had embraced a mission to gather and showcase positive news, picking up on stories that larger newsrooms might not consider newsworthy. This commitment, she explained, had set the group apart.

“Our tagline, and it goes across the whole Times News Group, is ‘what’s good about where you live’,” she said.

“The feedback we get is that people love reading our paper, because it’s full of really great community stuff that otherwise readers would have missed.”

This focus on positivity doesn’t come at the cost of serious community issues. Edwina’s job includes writing for Ballarat Times’ separately printed sister publication Golden Plains Times, which she said serves an important civic role in what might otherwise be a news desert.

“We go to all the council meetings, and we cover those issues. Particularly for that market that straddles Ballarat and Geelong in the Golden Plains Shire, from Smythesdale to Bannockburn, if we don’t cover that, no one will.”

She seems to be right. Search ‘Golden Plains Shire’ in Google News and you’ll see a number of stories covered by the Times that’d you might have missed if you weren’t tuned into council press releases. In the past month, a $5 million dollar council budget deficit, a new sharps disposal initiative, and a community meeting discussing the future of a major music festival were all only reported in the Times.

Most significantly for the future of regional print, Edwina said her news group’s experience challenged the idea that there’s no longer an appetite for hard copy newspapers. The Ballarat Times hasn’t shied away from digital offerings, with a non-paywalled online edition, direct-to-email PDF flipbook, and a prolific social media presence. But Edwina said a huge number of locals still wanted a paper they could hold in their hands.

“The print demand is definitely really big. In the last six months we’ve started to completely – I’d say sell out, but we’re free,” she said.

An initial offering of home delivery proved extremely popular, but too costly. The newspapers are printed in-house in Torquay each week, and delivered to strategic drop-off points around town. 

“Sometimes if we need to restock what we’ve got in our office, which is a community hub, we quickly duck out to supermarkets and service stations to see if there are any stacks left. Even then, it can be hard to find copies.”

Having now advanced to the role of senior journalist, Edwina works with a Ballarat-based editor and two juniors, and writes about four stories a day. She said the team still feels small and dynamic, and everyone has to be multiskilled in telling a good story.

“Photography [in particular] is key because the journalists are doing everything … and you don’t have to have an amazing camera to take a good photo,” she said.

Two journalists in the newsroom grew up locally. She said that while it wasn’t essential for success, coming back to your hometown could give you a big head start on knowing what the issues were, and how to reach people involved.

“Even just getting contacts, saying to someone you know: ‘Can you help link me with someone involved with this?’ … Coming back to where you’re from, generally you can find a way to contact someone pretty quickly,” she explained.

Ballarat is a large regional centre with a certain richness of community life. Strategies that might have worked to reinvigorate print here wouldn’t necessarily work everywhere. But that hasn’t stopped Times News Group applying their model to much smaller communities. In late-2022, the group acquired Heathcote mainstay The McIvor Times, which Edwina said was at risk of closing after almost 160 years.

There's obviously a deep faith in the product Edwina has helped build.

“It’s definitely an alternative people have wanted for quite a while,” she said.

Related: 'It’s about proximity to you, the reader'

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