Two hundred candles on the cake

The Guardian has celebrated its 200th birthday and the London-based title is optimistic about its future. Can any New Zealand newspaper expect to reach that milestone?

Our oldest surviving masthead, the Whanganui Chronicle, has another 35 years – or more than 10,000 editions – before it can reach its double century. The Taranaki Daily News is a year behind and a further eight dailies – including four metropolitan papers – would celebrate it in the subsequent decade.

To meet that milestone, they must weather a perfect storm of technological, financial, and demographic challenges.

They will be in good company. Every news media outlet in the country faces those same storm fronts that threaten the bicentennial of some, the centennial or golden anniversary of others, and the ability of the remainder to move beyond their childhood or teenage years.

One prediction is easy: None of the 19th century start-ups will remain in print by the time its Big Birthday comes around. Maintaining printing presses and distributing ever-diminishing numbers of newspapers will be uneconomic well before the 2050s.

A little harder to predict is which of the media brands will be around when the bicentennial of the country’s first locally-printed newspaper ­– the New Zealand Gazette – is celebrated in 2040.

Some will be subsumed in the process of company mergers. Despite the Commerce Commission’s refusal to allow the merger of NZME and Stuff, other potential couplings still exist. MediaWorks, now minus its television operations and Newshub, could well seek an alliance with Stuff to create an entity whose assets mirror those of NZME. In the process, names will change. Stuff MediaWorks, for example, would be singularly unfortunate.

Others will be the victim of the technological determinism that gave them their name in the first place. Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand (which we can assume will have been replaced by a single state-owned entity) will be anachronistic when they are no longer broadcasting but serving on-demand multi-media markets. Perhaps their names will reduce to abbreviations and, like the BBC or CNN, the full title will be almost forgotten. Others will become casualties of the changing use of technology. Will generations brought up on social media see talkback radio as serving any purpose? Will NewstalkZB and Magic Talk continue to have a place?

Some will fall victim to money or, more precisely, the lack of it. Economics have shaped the way media brands come and go, beginning not long after the first copy of the Gazette rolled off a press in Petone. Ian Grant, author of the newspaper history Lasting Impressions, estimated that between 1840 and 1860 a total of 31 newspapers had come, and mostly gone (the Gazette among them). At that point advertising became the financial driver that determined the fortunes of private sector media births and deaths, and recent advertising revenues point to a bleak future for some. Traditional media revenue has, at best, flatlined and newspaper advertising looks to be in terminal decline. Only digital revenue is rocketing, mostly out of the country.

Shareholders continue to demand a return on their capital despite declining revenue. The result is cost-cutting, and that produces casualties. The demise of Radio Sport is a recent example as NZME sought to satisfy its Australian private equity fund shareholders. It is a fairly safe prediction that there will be much more bloodletting across the industry as traditional revenues continue to fall. Regional and community newspapers, plus less popular radio brands, are particularly vulnerable. We have already seen reduced production schedules for some Stuff regional/community titles. If overseas experience is replicated here, future regional markets could be decimated.

Australia has already reached the tipping point. Last year there were at least 33 permanent closures of mastheads, stations, and newsrooms, while more than 100 newspapers permanently ended their print editions. That was the sort of decimation that had occurred over the previous decade. Our tipping point will come. It is only a matter of when.

Then the question will become one of whether the brand will survive in digital form. When Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia stopped printing 112 newspapers last year, 76 became stand-alone digital mastheads. However, Guardian Australia reported that by April this year more than 20 had been quietly merged with its metropolitan mastheads, meaning the 160-year-old Northern Star in Lismore simply disappeared. Here, the supremacy of over-arching news brands (the likes of stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz ) suggests it would take little for other mastheads to simply be replaced by geographic breakouts.

However, an even larger issue exists beyond that point: The survival of any New Zealand news brands as we currently know them. In other words, will mass-reach professional journalism pass its ‘use by’ date? If the various trust-in-media surveys are anything to go by, one might think it had already passed its ‘best before’ date.

Much will depend on whether the news brand is more important and more enduring than its proprietor. The various forces ranged against today’s mainstream media suggest the structures under which journalism is practiced will change significantly before mid-century. Return-on-capital investment may disappear as the industry moves from a profit-making to sustainability phase. Already, the publicly-listed shareholder model is all but dead. Only NZME remains on the New Zealand Stock Exchange. Stuff and the Otago Daily Times’ Allied Press – together with start-ups Newsroom, Businessdesk and The Spinoff – are privately but locally owned while the various components that formerly made up MediaWorks are foreign owned either by private equity funds or by the American multimedia tv company, Discovery Inc.

Return-on-capital investors will not stay with an industry that doesn’t fulfil their financial expectations so we can expect to see new structures that reflect that migration. Their replacements could be not-for-profit entities akin to the Guardian, which was placed in a trust in 1936. Already in this country we have the Queenstown-based Crux Media Trust that publishes a local news website. A more dystopic scenario would be massive consolidation down to a single private sector provider that co-existed in a state-private duopoly or, worse, we could be reduced to a state-owned enterprise with a monopoly on mass distribution of news.

Whichever way one looks at it, today’s New Zealand news brands will become endangered species. However, conservationists have proven that endangerment does not necessarily mean extinction. And it does not really matter whether or not the organisations or mastheads or news brands survive. What matters is the journalism that they came to represent.

When the Guardian turned 100, its editor C.P. Scott wrote a centennial essay that has long out-lived him. In it he set out the principles that guided his newspaper and which should guide all independent journalism. They were invoked again last week by the current editor-in-chief Katharine Viner: “Scott listed the values of the Guardian as ‘honesty, cleanness [integrity], courage, fairness, a sense of duty to the reader and the community’, and emphasised that the Guardian must be editorially led, and the journalists free from commercial or political interference. He set the terms for pluralism, so crucial to a news organisation without a proprietor: ‘The voice of opponents no less than of friends has a right to be heard. It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair’. He stressed the primacy of fact with the line ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.”

The ability of news brands to survive beyond the structures in which they are currently housed will depend on how well they discharge their obligations to journalism and, in particular the journalism that is embodied in another quotation from Scott’s essay: “[A newspaper has] a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces. It may make profit or power its first object, or it may conceive itself as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function.” If news brands see themselves as fulfilling this higher function they may well have a better chance of survival.

When Katharine Viner was appointed editor-in-chief in 2015, she was given one instruction: to carry on the Guardian ‘on the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore’ (as were her predecessors). She has assumed that to mean that ‘fidelity to principle is to be put before profit’. Her 200th anniversary essay stated: “Times change. Technologies change. Principles don’t”. Under her leadership, the Guardian has added five new principles to Scott’s list:

  • Develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it
  • Collaborate with readers, and others, to have greater impact
  • Diversify, to have richer reporting from a representative newsroom
  • Be meaningful in all our work
  • Report fairly on people as well as power, and find things out

A news organisation that adheres to the sum of the Guardian’s principles stands a better chance of reaching a significant birthday than one that measures its success by real-time analytics. Striving for that higher purpose may be the only way that journalism as we know it will celebrate its New Zealand bicentennial.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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