Hurricane in the neighbourhood

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

Community newspapers

News is like a hurricane: The closer it gets, the more important it becomes to you.

Right now, it feels like we are in Tornado Alley, staring down a twister dangerous enough to cut a path of utter destruction through our own community.

Our hurricane has been designated Covid-19 and we face it without our most locally focussed media.

The hurricane simile was coined by a former community newspaper publisher in North Carolina. Jock Lauterer’s newspapers served two communities with populations of less than 8000 and he parlayed his experiences into a book called “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local”.

Our hurricane made landfall with the Level 4 edict. However, for many it still looks like a symbol on the weather forecast: It’s headed our way, but it could change track.

That feeling was dispelled for a friend of mine a few days ago. He found himself living a few doors away from three people associated with a large Covid-19 cluster. Suddenly the twister was no longer a glowering cloud on the distant horizon but a distinct shape, and the wind was rising.

Just as the effect of the hurricane changes as it gets nearer, so our information needs change. Our news media have begun to reflect some of those distinctions associated with looming proximity. For example, the Northern Advocate yesterday listed the flights on which each of Northland’s six confirmed Covid-19 victims took to New Zealand.

But, like most countries, our media is layered. Television and state-owned radio are national in their focus and our daily newspapers in Auckland and Wellington tend to have a similar approach. Our other daily newspapers attempt to reflect their regions but both NZME and Stuff titles are hampered by the cost-saving practice of sharing nationwide pages around their respective groups. Commercial radio’s most popular networks are just that – networked – although there are regional and ethnic stations that have varying amounts of local content. Digital start-ups like Newsroom and The Spinoff attempt to serve the whole country. Local digital endeavours like Queenstown’s Crux serve their communities’ needs but they are by no means spread throughout New Zealand.

Community newspapers are the vehicles that get closest to home and they were banned for the duration of the lockdown.

These publications are spread throughout the country. Stuff, NZME and Allied Press publish almost 70 community titles between them and there are another 70 independently owned publications.

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged at her Monday post-Cabinet press conference, they are where people get local information.

So it beggared belief that the Ministry for Culture and Heritage should decree that they are not within the Covid-19 Level 4 essential business category of news and broadcasting. MCH regards them, as “not considered essential”. They are wrong.

Today the Minister of Communications, Kris Faafoi, is expected to ‘say something’ about the ban on publication. The only sensible thing to say is that the government recognises they are essential components of the news media landscape.

Their role is now all the more vital. They can provide information at a neighbourhood level and they are distributed free to most letterboxes in those neighbourhoods. This means that even those people who ‘don’t really do news’ will have access to material that could quite literally save their lives.

There is, however, a caveat. Some titles – Stuff’s Auckland communities are a case in point – are largely filled with the same content to save costs and truly local information is at a minimum. That has to change if content-sharing titles are to live up to what is now expected of them. They have to roll back the shared material and replace it with actual local content. If their publishers do not have the staff to gather and process local news, they can turn to the community they serve.

That is not a new concept. The Alhambra Source, founded in 2010 in a suburb of Los Angeles, is a digital news site with an editorial staff of three and dozens of community contributors mentored by professional journalist volunteers. And the Alhambra Source publishes stories in English, Spanish and Mandarin. On the site is a form which carries this preamble: “At the Alhambra Source we believe that all members of the city have a story to tell – and can tell it themselves given the chance. So, if you’re interested in writing or shooting photography or video, we will help you make that happen. Simply complete the form below.” In other words, there is a small army out there that can gather and assemble information under the right guidance if required.

Stuff may point to its Neighbourly site but that is social media, not news media. Its content is not scrutinised by journalists, nor is its information prioritised. It could, however, be a rich source that community newspapers could put through the editorial process as it moved to put ‘community’ back into some of its community newspapers.

These grassroots publications were not the only casualty of the ministry’s misguided determination. Magazines were also ‘not considered essential’. Apparently daily news is important, but considered weekly analysis is not. And if there are concerns about mental health during the lockdown, why don’t they recognise the role of magazines like Woman’s Weekly, Women’s Day and Lucky Break in providing welcome diversions from the grim realities of the crisis?

Magazines like New Zealand Listener have a heavy subscriber base and their delivery systems continue to operate. The weekly women’s titles sell significant proportions of their issues through supermarkets, which are accessible to the public during the lockdown. Production is not an issue. Their production systems are configured so that much of the process up to the printing press can be carried out remotely. And modern printing presses can be operated by about three people ­– practising social distancing. Magazines can, therefore, be produced and distributed with little danger of subverting the aims of Level 4.

Kris Faafoi should also have something to say about magazines today. And he should say they are essential components of the news media landscape.

  • On Tuesday afternoon Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that community newspapers serving non English-speaking groups and remote locations would be granted essential business status on a case-by-case basis. The announcement precluded the use of young people to home deliver the publications, as is the case with many community titles. It also apparently will not apply to community titles in areas already served by daily newspapers. In these circumstances there is a renewed onus on daily publications to provide more local coverage than normal. Let them forego form for substance and include a whole page of briefs covering the districts and neighbourhoods in their circulation areas. It may not be pretty, but it will be sought-after information.
  • Magazines continue to be prevented from publishing.

Radio Sport

Untitled

Yesterday NZME announced it had taken the axe to its Radio Sport network and would be cutting staff in a restructuring of its overall sports undertaking. It blamed Covid-19.

That brought back memories of 9/11. No, I’m not comparing the destruction of sporting commentary with the attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon. I’m reminded of the actions of an aide to one of Tony Blair’s ministers on September 11, 2001.

Jo Moore (who worked for the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions) sent a news management email to her colleagues which read: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury.”

NZME chief executive Michael Boggs also sent out an email to staff announcing the closure amid the coronavirus crisis. In it he said: “The impact of the cancellation and suspension of events, along with the overall impact of Covid-19 on NZME revenue, has been significant.” The New Zealand Herald website was even more direct: “Radio Sport is a casualty of Covid-19”.

There is no doubt that media companies – like all New Zealand commercial enterprises – will be hard hit by the Coronavirus crisis. However, the skids were under Radio Sport before the first case was reported on our shores.

More than five weeks ago, before major leagues announced suspension of their seasons,  NZME announced it had chosen not to renew the rights to broadcast live commentary of New Zealand Cricket’s domestic and international matches played in New Zealand) next summer. That suggests that, at the very least, the future of the network was being questioned. Could you imagine Sky’s Summer of Sport without cricket? I can’t imagine Radio Sport without it, either.

If NZME is finding it difficult to sustain Radio Sport and wishes to axe it, that is a commercial decision they are perfectly entitled to make. However, I find it hard to accept that all this is the fault of Covid-19. Yes, it will have been a factor, but other forces must also have been at play. To suggest that the network is a victim of the virus looks like spin. Spin embarrassed Jo Moore and it may also embarrass NZME.

Dylan Cleaver, in a commentary on the New Zealand Herald website, spoke of the commentators who “gave sport currency and vitality” on the network over the years. “The voices went quiet today,” he wrote. “Sport is much poorer for it.”

I agree.

The demise of Radio Sport leaves a gap that must be filled. If no other broadcaster steps up to the plate to provide a purpose-built radio sports service (unlikely), NZME should be required to relinquish the Radio Sport frequencies. They should be offered, at minimal cost, to Sky TV so that Sky Sport commentaries can at least be simulcast. That would be better than nothing.

Gavin Ellis

 

 

 

One thought on “Hurricane in the neighbourhood

  1. Totally agree Gavin… and with the collapse of local advertising because local businesses are closed, so the community papers themselves will inevitably be forced to close making our communities and our profession harder and poorer. I enjoy your commentary, from Geoff Mowday, Owner and Editor, Whitby Newsbrief, Porirua, Wellington

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