When we’re bombarded almost weekly with depressing news about the slow death of the media, and especially the print media, it’s a tonic to report a positive development.
My local paper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, announced this week that it’s now being printed locally again instead of at Hastings, nearly three hours’ drive away.
The Times-Age has done a deal with Webstar, a big Masterton printer that was once part of the old Government Print. It’s the first time in nearly 15 years that the paper has been printed in the region it serves.
It’s good news for a number of reasons. It generates more work for a big local employer and it should mean the paper will be able to bring forward its editorial deadlines, thus enabling it to cover later-breaking stories (although I haven’t been able to confirm this).
I imagine it saves money, too. Trucking papers 210 km every morning can’t be cheap.
But most of all, it’s a vote of confidence in the paper’s future. It continues a turnaround that began in 2016 when the Times-Age reverted to local ownership after 12 years as part of the old APN (New Zealand Herald) stable.
The Times-Age was a distant outpost of the APN empire and its future didn’t look promising under owners who were misguidedly ploughing all their resources into online content and running down their print products.
The decommissioning of the Times-Age presses was a particularly black day. Printing was originally moved to APN’s Whanganui site and later to Hastings in a cost-cutting exercise that was duplicated at many other regional papers as the two big corporate media groups, Fairfax (now Stuff) and APN (now NZME), pursued each other down a blind alley.
Centralising printing operations in distant cities saved money, but reduced papers’ ability to serve their local readers and inevitably accelerated the decline of the provincial press. I wrote at the time that shutting down presses sent a damaging message to readers and advertisers. After all, if the owners didn’t have enough belief in a paper to keep printing it locally, why should readers and the firms that supported it commercially?
I also wrote that if any papers could survive in the new media environment, it would be those that specialised in local news. Not only is local news important to people because it directly affects them in their daily lives, 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.
It doesn’t surprise me, then, that the Times-Age appears to be thriving under the ownership of Wairarapa-born Andrew Denholm, formerly the paper’s general manager, who took a punt on it two years ago. Denholm had more confidence in the paper than his bosses and could obviously see potential for growth where they couldn’t.
As with most papers, circulation is in decline, but not to the same extent as provincials owned by the two major media groups. The latest Times-Age circulation figure of 5185 is down 4.2% on the previous year, but the bleeding is far less ominous than at titles such as the Southland Times (down 12.8%) and the Timaru Herald (12.3%).
But circulation figures are only one indicator of a paper’s health. As a subscriber, I can report that the Times-Age is a lively, smart, busy and relevant paper with an energetic editor and an excellent team of reporters who give the impression of enjoying their work. It’s a paper that connects with its readers and appears well supported by local advertisers.
And it does what’s most important in a local paper – namely, reflect the character and the concerns of the region it serves. If you want to know what's going on in the Wairarapa, you can't do without it.
As corporate-owned regional papers grow ever more bland and generic, with increased emphasis on shared content and less on local news, the Times-Age stands out as truly local – a distinction that can only be enhanced by being printed locally.