Will local news media become like boutique breweries?

In 2012 I was invited to speak at the New Zealand Community Newspapers Association awards dinner.

I made my speech about how the future of publishing news was in their hands and they didn’t even know it.

As Fairfax and APN (then, NZME. now) got bigger they had ignored the local news. They concentrated more and more on Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch.

Those papers that did the basics well locally were actually able to grow if they just thought about it and got even more parochial. Even in Auckland there were opportunities, like the Howick and Pakuranaga Times…unfortunately they were at the time in the thrall of a couple of wide boys talking the big game in digital without even bothering to understand their audience or what they were even doing.

Karl du Fresne has a blog post about just those sorts of sentiments, that “boutique” is profitable and lucrative and perhaps the way of the future for local news.

It’s rare these days to hear about any development in the news media that’s worth celebrating, but the announcement that the Wairarapa Times-Age is reverting to local ownership is a tonic.

After 12 years in what is now the NZME (previously known as APN) stable, the Masterton-based Monday-Friday paper is being bought by its general manager, Andrew Denholm. My guess is that other local money is involved, although I have no inside knowledge.

The news is encouraging for several reasons. For a start, it represents a tiny reversal of a trend that has greatly diminished the relevance of local papers.

The process of agglomeration by which provincial papers such as the Times-Age were gobbled up in the late 20th century by the two big industry players of the time, INL and Wilson and Horton, was once overwhelmingly positive for the industry.

It gave small, previously family-owned papers access to capital with which to invest in vital new technology. It brought them into a nationwide career structure that lifted professional standards and it also meant that small papers were less likely to be captive to local parochial interests.

That all worked well while the two big companies remained in New Zealand hands. The turning point came when the Australian outfits Fairfax (which acquired INL) and APN (which bought Wilson and Horton) moved in.

Australian ownership has not been good for the New Zealand print media. Their disregard for the New Zealand way of doing things was never more obvious than when they dismantled the New Zealand Press Association, thus ending a system of news sharing that had lasted more than a century and ensured that newspaper readers in Whangarei and Gisborne knew about things of importance that were happening in Invercargill and Greymouth.

Sharing wasn’t the Australian way, so it was scrapped.

[…]  

[L]ook at the Otago Daily Times, the sole surviving New Zealand-owned daily. The ODThas survived the industry crisis in a far better state than any other paper, and it appears to have done so largely by sticking to its knitting. Its owner, Sir Julian Smith, is old-school. Evangelists for the online revolution may have sneered at him as a Luddite, but his refusal to panic and join the rush to digital now looks bold and far-sighted.

But back to the Times-Age. If any newspapers can survive in the new media environment, it will be those that specialise in local news. Not only is local news important to people because it directly affects them in their daily lives (the ODT understands that, too), but it’s also the segment of the market that has been least disrupted by the internet. If you want local news, you must get it from a local provider; you can’t read Masterton news in the online editions of the New York Times or the Guardian, or even on the Radio New Zealand website.

So there’s hope for the Times-Age. Getting the paper printed closer to home would be a useful step. Sadly the Times-Age press was dismantled long ago when printing was shifted to APN’s Wanganui site – a move that diminished the paper’s ability to serve its community because of the effect it had on editorial deadlines. In recent years the Times-Age has been printed in Hastings and even, on occasions, at the New Zealand Herald’s plant in Auckland.

I’m sure the bean-counters found compelling reasons for shutting down the paper’s press, but it had the insidious effect of eroding the sense that the Times-Age was an integral part of the local community. A similar fate has befallen provincial papers all over the country, sending a damaging message to readers and advertisers. After all, if the owners don’t have enough belief in a paper to keep printing it locally, why should readers?

Now Andrew Denholm (who is Wairarapa-born and raised) is not only taking over the Times-Age, but talking about employing more staff. Ironically, his purchase of the paper represents a step back to a time when local papers were locally owned. Who knows: perhaps the newspaper industry will go the way of the brewing business, which has seen a similar move away from nationwide conglomerates to small, often proudly regional operations.

I’m sure Denholm has no delusions about the challenges of bringing the paper back home. But I applaud him for his guts and his belief in the importance of local news, and I’ll be taking out a subscription because I think he deserves all the support and encouragement we can give him.

Devolution is going to become popular again. Niche is going to be king, but most importantly what will return news organisations to profitability will be reader engagement, and I don’t mean liking something on Facebook. I mean true and meaningful real engagement where the reader and consumer of news is treated with respect and not disdain.

Very often readers, commenters and consumers of news know more about the topic than the journalist who wrote the article. Commenters are smart, valuable and engaging by themselves. This site wouldn’t be the site it is without the commenters…it would be sterile and awful.

Any news organisation who understands this dynamic is going to succeed and eventually the click bait chasing, grandstanding, cult of personality type media organisations will wither and die under the onslaught of respect, accuracy and truth.

 

– Karl Du Fresne


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

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