Spanning from Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs all the way east to the NSW border, the Gippsland region covers a whopping 41,556 square kilometres and is home to some 270,000 people. But while Gippsland makes up a significant chunk of Victoria, it’s also significantly misunderstood.
Over the past few years stories from the region had tended to focus on the negative with the Hazelwood mine fire in 2014, and the subsequent announcement in 2016 that Hazelwood power station would be closing. These knocks to the Gippsland economy left a sense of uncertainty and fear about the future for many in the community.
It’s fair to say that the region had a bit of an image problem. And for a trio of local business owners and family men, the outside perception of the region wasn’t reflective of the richness and diversity of the Gippsland experience.
To bridge the chasm between the perception and reality of life in Gippsland, Michael Duncan – along with designer John Calabro and magazine editor Tim Leeson – decided to take the narrative into their own hands and, in 2016, they founded Gippslandia.
Whether it’s publishing stories about a young local maths wizz, rural LBGTQ advocacy and diversity, a death doula, the intersection of climate change and sports, the mental health benefits of going for a stroll, or taking a deep-dive into the importance of regional publishing, Gippslandia brings curiosity, creativity and compassion to everything it covers. “Gippslandia is just our contribution back to the community,” says Michael, “and a gateway for many others to be able to contribute too.”
True to the publication’s ethos of championing local, Gippslandia launched the ‘Meaningful Post’ project in late April, which aims to help local farmers who were impacted by the devastating 2019/20 bushfire season. “We found that there were over 5,000 kilometres of fencing destroyed in the bushfires,” says Michael. “That’s a lot of fencing – and a lot of people out of pocket. Everyone was posting offerings of support on Facebook and we thought, well, ‘Why don’t you make a meaningful post?’"
With the help of a local manufacturer – who sold them the posts at cost-price and offered free delivery – the team have sold close to 1000 fence posts through the Gippslandia website to date.
Michael admits that it’s not easy to be a publisher at any time, let alone in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic. Among other casualties to Australian media, News Corp announced the end of 100 regional print newspapers in May while the ABC cut 250 jobs and made $84 million worth of budget cuts the very next month.
What’s interesting about Gippslandia is that it’s structured in such a way that it should be immune to the pitfalls many other publishers face – including the pandemic.
With its first issue printed in December 2016, Gippslandia is now 15 issues deep, and is made possible thanks to subscribers and supporting partners – such as Bank Australia – and the time, dedication and passion that Michael, Tim, John (all of whom have full-time jobs) and their contributors are able to commit to it. It’s a passion project in every sense. “At best, Gippslandia covers the time of our key staff and our expenses, but everyone involved treats it as their contribution back to the community,” says Michael.
But he’s not complaining – Michael explains that the Gippslandia business model, and the fact that the publication is registered as a not-for-profit, means that it will be able to continue even if the team’s personal situations change.
“We know the world will change for us at some point,” he says, citing that all three team members have young families and an ever-increasing shortage of time. “But being a non-profit helps protect Gippslandia because it’s not led by financial directors as such, it’s led by board members. And increasing the size and capability of our board is one of our strategic directions for 2020. Those people are the custodians of it. Nobody owns Gippslandia – it’s owned by the community.”
With international travel halted for the foreseeable future, if you needed any extra encouragement to get out and explore the many wonders of Gippsland, you need only pick up a copy. “There’s not many people talking about Gippsland as a destination to visit, or place to work, live, or to raise a family,” says Michael. “We’re definitely doing that.”