Friday, June 10, 2016

Will newspapers become the new craft breweries?

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 daily 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.

Oddly enough, the only Australian proprietor ever to show respect for New Zealand was the much-maligned Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch had a controlling interest in INL but after one or two early attempts to impose Australian ideas on his New Zealand papers – most notably the ill-advised conversion of The Dominion into a tabloid in the late 1960s – he wisely left things to trusted New Zealand managers such as Alan Burnet and the late Mike Robson.

A defining characteristic of that era was that New Zealand newspapers were run by people who understood and were totally committed to the business of newspaper publishing. That couldn’t be said of the new generation of decision-makers who took over with the arrival of the Australians.

Of course it’s hardly their fault that the industry was brought to the brink of collapse when the online revolution plunged newspapers into turmoil and destroyed the traditional business model. Nonetheless, hard questions can be asked about their response to the crisis.

Both Australian-owned companies dived headlong into a rushed digital-first strategy which effectively required the cannibalisation of their print products. Resources were shifted from print (which made money) to digital (which didn’t, and even now pulls only very modest revenue).

Websites took priority over print. Journalists were required to become “platform-agnostic”. To put it simply, the owners hollowed out their papers to the point where many readers could see little point in buying them. 

Would a New Zealand publisher such as Robson or former New Zealand Herald owner Michael Horton have reacted in the same way? I’m not so sure.

I would like to think that their belief in newspapers, and their realisation that newspapers occupy a unique place in New Zealand life, would have made them more determined to protect and preserve their print products.  I believe they would have explored every possible means of ensuring newspapers’ survival, including putting content behind paywalls instead of making it available free.

Just look at the Otago Daily Times, the sole surviving New Zealand-owned daily. The ODT has 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.


Brendan McNeill said...

I imagine newspapers were once written by journalists who reported the facts with a minim of interpretation. Commentary was largely confined to Editorials, or articles that were clearly opinion pieces.

Newspapers were monopoly gate keepers of news and information, but in NZ at least the journalism was for a very long time relatively apolitical.

However, over the years newspapers have succumbed to sensationalism, become unashamed advocates for a range of identity groups and causes, and in many instances self-appointed public moral guardians. Sugar in your tea anyone? Or perhaps a sherry?

On balance, we can be thankful that their monopoly has passed, largely because they have been defunded by the very public they were supposed to serve.

Andrew Denholm is a brave man. If he is investing his own capital, then some would say foolish. I’m very surprised that anyone would invest in this business with a view to obtaining a reasonable return on their capital. I’d love to see him explain the commercial value proposition.

That you Karl would take a subscription is understandable. However, I doubt that anyone under 35 will bother, and for that reason alone (as they say on dragon’s den) I’m out.

Karl du Fresne said...

CORRECTION: In the original version of this post I wrongly referred to the Times-Age as a Monday-Friday paper. In fact it publishes six days a week. I have now corrected it.

Bogo Mipps said...

Isn't the Gisborne Herald also a privately owned daily newspaper? Or did something happen while I wasn't looking ...

Karl du Fresne said...

You're right. I should have stuck the word "major" in there. The Gisborne Herald still describes itself as family-owned. It has traditionally been associated with the Muir family (Jeremy Muir is editor), although for a long period it had a tie-up with the New Zealand Herald stable (indeed may still do - I'm not sure). From what I see of it on my occasional trips up that way, it's an excellent paper that understands the importance of local news. Papers like that thrive and survive by being making themselves an indispensable part of the community.

Richard McGrath said...

Great to see a local take control of the Times-Age. I wonder if another local enterprise, Webstar, could take over the printing job?