Journalists on sinking ship writing about it while it is sinking

Karl du Fresne writes

From Monday, May 1, the Marlborough Express ceased to exist as a daily newspaper. After 150 years of publication, 137 as a daily, it’s now published on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

The paper’s editor, Nicola Coburn, put on a brave face in a statement last October pointing to likely changes. “We are proud to have been an integral part of this region for so long,” she said. “But now it is time to start securing our future.

“Let’s be clear the Express isn’t going anywhere. We are here to stay. We love this province and its people. But, equally, we cannot deny that the time has come to change. Digital audiences are growing rapidly, people are slowly moving away from print and advertising revenues are declining. At some point in the future we will not be able to sustain a daily newspaper.”

In a media world buffeted by unprecedented turbulence, the changes at the Fairfax Media-owned Blenheim paper (circulation 5600) are an infinitesimal blip.

Some might argue the damage to society by the disappearance of regional papers is actually more severe as it shuts down a community communication channel.  But it is also replaced by local Facebook groups.  People are finding different channels to connect.

But the reduction in the paper’s publishing days was symptomatic of a deep and possibly terminal malaise in the New Zealand print media, and pointed to the likelihood of a similar fate for other long-established provincial newspapers.

Already the Nelson Mail, another Fairfax-owned paper with a 150-year history, appears to be setting off down the same path. In a recent announcement that repeated almost word-for-word what Coburn had said six months before, editor Victoria Guild said the Mail too would be “exploring a potential new publishing model”. Industry observers saw the announcement as the prelude to a downsizing similar to that undertaken by its neighbouring stablemate.

No one can predict with any certainty whether even the bigger metropolitan papers will survive in print form, or for how long. It’s an industry that appears to be dying a slow death by a thousand cuts as readers stop buying papers and as advertisers, the industry’s main source of revenue, abandon the print media for digital platforms such as Facebook, Google and Trade Me.

I think it is fair to say that the physical platform, the paper one, is not going to survive.  Nobody gets their letters on papyrus or clay tablets either.  It’s simply a shift in medium.

The interesting thing is that the move to digital appears to also happen at the same time as a reduction in print media audiences.

CRUCIALLY (some say fatally), both Fairfax and NZME embraced a “digital-first” strategy that prioritised online content over the companies’ printed newspapers, to the detriment of the latter. Critics say the digital-first policy merely served to give readers even less reason to buy newspapers.

Making online content available free of charge compounded the problem. Wellington lawyer Hugh Rennie QC, a close observer of the newspaper industry for several decades and a founder of The National Business Review, argues that New Zealand’s big two media companies got it badly wrong.

Rennie recently told the NBR: “[Newspaper publishers] are now busy basically tearing their print media apart by putting the content on the internet immediately, so that you read it on one or other of their websites and you open up the paper next day and there’s the article you’ve already read.

“It’s a business model that makes no sense at all – I mean, it’d be like a baker giving away free bread today so you can buy stale bread tomorrow.”

Also, the overheads of the print media are astounding.  Whaleoil reaches an audience larger than that of the Marlborough Express or the Nelson mail – combined even.   The medium shift has changed the basic production cost.

Some commentators shrug their shoulders and argue that the decline of the print media is just another example of creative destruction – the constant cycle by which old ways of doing things are overtaken by innovation and new technologies. Just as the cassette tape and the typewriter have been rendered obsolete, so newspapers have also reached the end of their natural lifespan – or so the argument goes.

Even some journalists find this process exhilarating. Something better will emerge from it all, the optimists insist. But in the meantime, something of inestimable value may have been lost. As Joni Mitchell famously sang in Big Yellow Taxi, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Calligraphy and book binding are also lost arts.   As are stage coach repairs.  You may choose to mourn their demise.  You may consider those that keep the arts alive to be heroes.  But in the end, this is a business, and the market is increasingly looking for something that paper news does not provide.

Change hurts.   But that doesn’t mean it is inherently good.  Or bad.  It just… is.

 

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.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.

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