That's the Spirit: Lucie Peart - Gilgandra NSW
Lucie Peart’s journey to Gilgandra, and to the owner-editor’s chair of the town’s 110-year-old newspaper, has been a series of happily serendipitous events. The industry isn’t without its challenges, but Lucie says the value of “the local rag” in holding the community fabric of a small town together can’t be overstated.
Lucie: I was born in Canberra but left at 21 to live in London – I’m a dual citizen. I was there for nearly two years but I met my husband, who is from Gilgandra, there and we came back here for a while before going to Brisbane for nearly four years, then settled back on the family’s farm at Curban in 2013.
Jen: You’re now the owner and editor of the Gilgandra Weekly. Do you have a background journalism?
Lucie: Sort of but not really (laughs). When I left school, I’d had enough of study so I didn’t want to go to uni. I went to work at Southern Cross Ten in Canberra, with a job doing data entry to start off with. Then I went into commercial production for two and a half years until I went overseas for six months, which was just before the GFC (Global Financial Crisis).
I went off thinking, “I’m an Australian, I work in TV and I can get a job anywhere!” It was pretty hard going and I ended up doing other things.
Jen: Tell me how the gig with the Gil Weekly came about?
Lucie: When we first came back I wanted to work here initially, but there weren’t any jobs available at the time. I would have been happy to work in the office or do whatever because I thought it would be a good fit with my media communications background.
I’d been doing some writing in Brisbane, so I saw that as my number one option but at that time there wasn’t anything available. Then we left again, and when we came back the journalist who was here had given notice, although I didn’t know it at the time. The owner/editor approached me to see if I wanted the job, and I started the next week.
Jen: So, it was meant to be.
Lucie: It really was. It was something I really wanted to do. I guess when you’re not from a country town and you’re not trained in one of those really established roles like teaching or nursing, it’s really hard. I knew I was going to have to try hard to find my purpose here, because I didn’t know anything about farming. I could have learned if I’d had to, but when the job here came up it was pretty serendipitous.
Jen: When the opportunity came up to buy the paper, what was your motivation to say “yes”?
Lucie: I honestly don’t know. It’s a strange thing, but it was a quick, off-the-cuff conversation with the previous owner-editor. She was saying one day about how she wanted to retire but that probably no-one would want to buy the business because of the state of the industry and so on… and I said, “Well, you know, I probably would…”
Lucie Peart, Gilgandra NSW
Jen: And the rest is history.
Lucie: The rest is history, yes. I rang my Dad and said “I think I just bought a newspaper!”
I guess they call that buying yourself a job, but it made sense to me. I liked doing the job as a journalist and I know how important the role of a community newspaper is for a town. I guess I just thought, “Well what else am I going to do here that will make a difference?” In terms of finding my purpose I thought, well, I’d like to keep working here for another 30 years and if no one else is going to buy it, I need to step up.
Lucie Peart, Gilgandra NSW
Jen: That vision of working here for another 30 years, and to buy the town’s newspaper – that shows great faith in both the town and the region.
Lucie: Absolutely. But I think I learned pretty quickly when I got into the job as a journo that Gil has that sense of community ownership of their paper. It’s their paper. As much as it is a business, it’s a different entity for locals. It’s more than just a business. Gil was very supportive of the paper.
Jen: There really is a sense of engagement and ownership of a town’s paper, as much as locals like to criticise the local rag.
Lucie: Oh, that’s absolutely right! They are your first point of reference for gauging whether you’re doing a good job or not – you base that on the feedback you’re getting from the community. They’re not shy in letting you know! If we’ve had a problem, or when there’s a negative story, they’ll soon tell you if they’re not happy.
Jen: Are you conscious of the positive role that a small local rag or community newspaper has?
Lucie: I guess everything you do all the time is trying to help and promote the town, and to protect your community. Gil’s pretty lucky that, in my time at least, we haven’t really had to go to bat for something that’s been a really terrible issue for the community. We’ve been a bit lucky in that sense, but we’re always there as that forum to distribute information.
The paper is very much a part of the fabric of community, even though it’s been diluted more and more with people getting their information from different sources. I think people still go, “Oh well if it’s in the Gil Weekly it’s true and it’s trusted”, whereas if you see something online or somewhere else it may not be accurately reflecting what’s happened, the coverage may not be as good or fair.
Jen: It’s a big responsibility being an editor of a local newspaper, isn’t it?
Lucy: Yes, it is. It’s really hard, but with a weekly paper you get to reset every week. Once you’ve done the paper you’re looking forward to the next week and what is going on in the town and region. Sometimes it’s really hard to control that responsibility because it’s snowballing each week and we are running a really short team at the moment because of various circumstances – drought and the overall state of the industry, for instance – so it’s hard for us to watch and make everything completely perfect. Sometimes I look at it and think we could have done that better or this more thoroughly or whatever. Yes, it’s a big responsibility and we take that responsibility very seriously.
It’s also a responsibility to take the temperature of the community and be a reflection rather than generate the news ourselves.
Jen: How do you see the role of mainstream media in the bush?
Lucie: I think it’s pretty diluted, sadly. Look at the number of people who read the daily papers even out here, not many. They get all their daily news online, where once upon a time most of that was in the paper.
Traditionally, the Gil Weekly has tried to stay away from that national level news. It’s not our thing, unless we can tie it into something here at community level.
We used to be part-owned by Fairfax and when we cut ties with them, people thought it was great that we were going independent. More and more, people are looking for that independent voice. They want to come in here and know they’re speaking with locals whose actions and opinions are not controlled by Sydney, although that was never the case here, it was just a perception.
Jen: Does that make the role of the local paper even more important during times of adversity, when a town is trying to hold onto the fabric of community?
Lucie: Yes absolutely. When you open our paper, there’s so much local content. When I first started working here, I would send the paper to my parents in Canberra and my mum, who was a pre-school teacher, thought it was amazing that there were two full pages of school news.
You just don’t get that in the city, that reflection of the community. That’s really important in a small town. Junior sport, local sport, local social news… no-one else is going to cover that, but to locals, it’s really important.
Jen: That’s a really good point. The Gil Weekly is not the New York Times but then, the New York Times doesn’t have the capacity to keep and bring this community together.
Gilgandra Weekly newspapers, Gilgandra NSW
Lucie: Exactly. Whereas, we do have that capacity and to us, everyone matters no matter who you are or what you do, or what your role in the community is. There’s a place for you in the paper. And there’s always something in the paper for you. The paper can connect all those different parts of the community.
Over the past little while, we’ve tried to feature more of the community from a different angle than just telling the news. All our stories are local, but we started featuring a “person of the week”, which can be anyone. It’s just a little Q&A, but we find that people really want to see others and themselves reflected in the paper, so it’s a good little section for us.
Jen: What are some of the misconceptions that people have about a local community newspaper?
Lucie: I think sometimes we’re just seen as a community service, not a business – and that comes from all levels, including government. It can be very hard to explain to your readers that you’re not there as a free service, that you’re a business and you can’t survive on community spirit alone. We employ people in the local community, in a highly skilled sector, particularly in the printing.
Sometimes you have to disconnect yourself a bit and say, “I’m not trying to offend you, but we have policies about the way we do business, and we need to stick to them”. Sometimes people do forget we’re a business, and see us simply as a community service.
Jen: I do think people in small towns are conscious of the importance of the local paper, even if they forget that it’s a business, but in the wider community, I think the local paper is seen as a quaint little curiosity. What would you say to people who dismiss the value of small regional newspapers?
Lucie: The challenge for community and independent regional newspapers is to maintain that engagement with their community. If you’re not engaged, the community won’t engage with you, and they’ll look elsewhere for their local news, and increasingly, we’re having to compete with digital platforms.
That’s a big challenge in the community news sector at the moment – to work out where to go in that space and how to deliver that digital offering but continue to make it work for you as a business while you try to reach that section of community that doesn’t subscribe to a printed copy.
When I was a kid, I remember my dad opening the Canberra Times and I just thought that’s what everyone did. Maybe not everyone had that tactile experience as a child.
The hard copy of a newspaper used to be an everyday thing, but not now. So the challenge is to try to reach those people who have lost that connection to a printed newspaper.
Jen: And what about the importance of the paper to the community?
Lucie: As far as the importance of a paper like the Gil Weekly to community goes, I don’t think you can overstate it. It’s the one thing that can represent everyone, in some way, in the community.
It might not be doing that every week for everyone – you might not be engaging every section of your community on a weekly basis – but eventually, you get around to everyone for one reason or another.
There’s a weird dynamic with large organisations and government and politicians who often overlook us as the most appropriate vehicle for getting information out into the community, and that’s weird.
I do think there’s a perception that smaller newspapers are coming back into their own, though, and therefore something worth holding onto. We get a lot of tourists through the town and if we have the front door to our printing room open, we often get people popping their heads in and going, “Oh my gosh! What are you doing?” and when we tell them we’re printing a newspaper or something else, they always say that’s really cool.
It is a curiosity, I suppose, but what we do here is pretty distinct – virtually no-where else prints their paper as we still do. So yeah, that’s pretty cool.
It’s also pretty cool that when city people see our paper they realise their own Sydney papers aren’t reflecting them or their community like we do here.
Lucie Peart, Gilgandra NSW
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.