Time to heed warning signs on regional press

The disclosure that Stuff is to drastically reduce its regional newspaper local reporting staff came as a shock, but I fear that worse is to come for this sector of the media.

Our regional newspapers are following a path which, for counterparts in Australia, Britain and North America, has quite literally led to nowhere.

The pattern established here by both Stuff and NZME – staff cuts, shared content, reduced frequency, and closures – has a familiar ring to anyone in the regional media in other English-speaking countries.

But first, let’s recap on what emerged last week.

Radio New Zealand reported that the Manawatu Standard, Nelson Mail and Timaru Herald would each have their reporting staff cut from seven to three while the Taranaki Daily News and Southland Times would each keep four reporters. All regional news director roles would be disestablished, and the editor of each title would be expected to be a working reporter. A centralised 14-person regional news team (an editor, four news directors – effectively sub-editors – and nine reporters) will be set up to counterbalance the cuts.

A comment to RNZ by Stuff’s chief content officer Joanna Norris that the changes “are a proactive step to strengthen our local reporting…and our local and regional news operations” was dismissed as ‘spin’ by newly elected Nelson mayor Nick Smith. On RNZ’s Morning Report he noted that, when he first became a member of Parliament in 1989, the Nelson Mail had a reporting staff of 23.

“The reality is that this proposal hugely reduces the number of journalists on the ground,” Smith said. “I can’t believe that journalists who are based in Wellington or Christchurch are going to be as connected and provide those important local stories.”

He makes a good point, although the regional team will, in fact, be spread around the country. Nonetheless, a spot news ‘flying squad’ is not the same thing as a local reporter who regularly chews the fat with councillors, school principals, and the local barber.

Overall, Stuff will reduce its budgeted editorial staff by 10 full-time equivalents but, because it has vacancies in other parts of its operation, Norris is hopeful that none of the affected regional staff – apart from a few who have opted for retirement – will be without a job. A number of the vacant positions can be undertaken remotely, meaning the affected staff members may not have to move location.

She told me that all affected staff were spoken to – in group and individual Zoom meetings – in advance of a regular Stuff all-of-staff Zoom meeting. However, the news did come as a shock to their colleagues.

This gives some context to a New Zealand Herald report that said Stuff staff were “offended and horrified” by the way the plan had been announced to them, claiming the restructure occupied only three minutes of a much longer all-staff meeting. The Herald story quoted unnamed Stuff staffers as saying management said meetings with local staff would take place later. The affected staff had, in fact, already been informed of the moves.

NZME’s flagship title should take care not to poke too much borax at a rival newspaper chain: Its regional titles are subject to the same ill winds as the good ships Nelson Mail and Timaru Herald.

One of those troublesome gusts was highlighted last week on RNZ National by the chief executive of the Beacon Media Group in Whakatane, Aaron Bruist. He said that newsprint prices increased by 25-30 per cent in the middle of this year and expected to see similar rises next year. New Zealand must buy its newsprint on the international market, following the closure of Norske Skog’s New Zealand mill last year. That was a disastrous move that a more united and more financially stable newspaper industry would not have allowed to happen.

Newsprint does not represent the only price rise. The cost of printing ink and other production materials, along with fuel, have also risen sharply. This cost inflation is becoming harder and harder for regional newspapers to absorb as revenue from advertising is under constant strain.

These factors, of course, affect all print media, including the metropolitan titles on which Stuff and NZME rely for the bulk of their print revenue. However, the increasingly marginal economics of regional and local titles make them far more vulnerable. And it is not just a New Zealand problem.

Last Wednesday, the Poynter Institute in Florida reported that the effect of price increases in newsprint, other production supplies, electricity, fuel, and labour have been “truly terrible”. Newspaper chains also saddled with high debt have been forced into multiple rounds of deep cuts to their operations. The Poynter Institute (an educational foundation) owns the Tampa Bay Times. In March 2020 it shifted to a twice-weekly print schedule and subsequently outsourced its printing. Even so, it is now cutting back on free distribution, consolidating delivery routes and reducing pagination.

A new report by Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school estimates 360 newspapers have gone out of business in the United States since just before the Covid pandemic struck. Since 2005, 2500 titles – a quarter of America’s newspapers – have ceased publication and within three years a third of its newspapers will be gone. The report found that investment in local journalism – and for that you can read what is left after swingeing cuts – is mainly focussed on larger markets which leaves other markets either under-served or unserved.

“What that does is it feeds into a nation that is divided journalistically, and when you have a nation divided journalistically, it exacerbates our political, cultural and economic divisions,” the report stated.

That is a sobering prospect, but the United States is not alone in facing it.

UK Press Gazette has calculated a net loss of at least 271 local British newspaper print editions since 2005. This number, however, is deceptive. It is offset by start-ups, but many established regional dailies and biweeklies have gone in what the Charitable Journalism Project described as “the catastrophic financial collapse of the local news industry over the past two decades [which] has destroyed the business model of local newspapers”. The study, reported in The Guardian, found that local Facebook groups had become the default source of information in many British towns, which had become ‘news deserts’. Facebook groups were a source of disinformation, not professional journalism.

The author of the research, Dr Steven Barclay of City University, said a common complaint in ‘news deserts’ was that local journalists on mainstream outlets were no longer based in the towns they covered.

The same fate has befallen Australia. In the decade up to 2018 there were 106 news closures. However, in the wake of the Covid pandemic, there were 182 “contractions” (masthead and newsroom closures and mergers) and 68 per cent of them were in regional Australia. A University of Canberra survey estimated one in five people in regional Australia had experienced a closure. Those who experienced local news closures in their community reported a decrease in information about the community (46 per cent), and a reduced sense of belonging (23 per cent).

This led to a federal parliamentary enquiry that reported in late March. It made sobering reading that has significantly implications for this country, too.

The report stated newspaper closures had led to a decline in both information and a sense of belonging for local news consumers, particularly in smaller areas with populations under 30,000 and important community issues were going unreported. Older residents have been hardest hit.

In a comment starkly familiar to the British and American examples, the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA) told the enquiry the closures had created Australian “news deserts”. JERAA said communities were missing out on opportunities for local debate and deliberation, and that “conventions that inform journalism, such as balance and fairness—may be absent”.

“They have led to lower standards of journalism, fewer news media staff, uniformity of content across regions and less specific and targeted content for towns and regions – where local news and information is available at all. This results in less informed communities and has considerable impacts on citizens’ engagement with democracy.”

That may have an uncomfortable ring in New Zealand and, even if it is not an accurate reflection of the situation today, it could well foretell our future if nothing is done to protect regional journalism.

Its biggest problem is that none of the regional titles (and I exclude the Waikato Times which should be considered a metropolitan paper given Hamilton’s population) has anything approaching the scale needed to weather ongoing storms.

NZME’s regional titles have not had circulation audits since 2019 and the last audit of Stuff’s regional titles was 2021. However, it is probably safe to say that none (with the possible exception of Hawkes Bay Today) now has a paid circulation above 10,000 copies a day and some are selling as few as 3000. While they were being audited, many were losing circulation at a rate of seven per cent or more a year. Some were facing much steeper drops. The Southland Times lost about 40 per cent of its net circulation between 2018 and 2021.

With numbers heading inexorably in. the wrong direction – costs up and circulation down – the prospect of an end to print editions can’t be discounted.

In the shorter term that would be a hammer blow to older readers who are wedded to a paper edition and who, particularly in rural areas, sit on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution or magic bullet. Certainly, the Australian enquiry did not find one. Its principal recommendations were for more investigation – and I hope there are regional titles left by the time that is completed – but it did take heed of suggestions in some submissions.

Australia already has a number of state subsidy schemes for local and regional journalism but there are doubts – as there are here – about its use as a long term solution.

One hope on the horizon lies with local and hyper local news sites. They do not overcome the problem of disenfranchising hard copy readers, but they do offer the prospect of preserving professional local journalism.

A good example in New Zealand is Peter Newport’s Crux website covering Queenstown and the southern lakes. The community-funded operation has a very small staff, but Newport has a wealth of experience in New Zealand and international news operations. Its news editor, Kim Bowden has a print and broadcasting background. They bring established professional standards to their operation and it would be important that other hyper local sites do likewise.

Unfortunately, hyper local is not a necessarily a recipe for success. Tamahere Forum, a lively local website run by veteran journalist Pippa Stevenson, was archived in August after 14 years of keeping a Waikato community well informed. In her farewell post, Stevenson told readers: “My deepest regret is that a business model for local journalism eluded me because it is the only way of ensuring continuity of service. That it also eludes some of the world’s biggest news organisations is some consolation.”

She is right. A local business model is elusive. Given the fate of chain-owned titles in other countries, I wonder whether a more secure future for regional titles here might still lie in local not-for-profit ownership. The Australian enquiry noted the possibility of providing special tax provisions if news publishing became a locally run charitable activity. I canvassed such moves in my book Trust Ownership and the Future of News.

 If the investment of local social capital could improve prospects, so too could local investment of conventional capital. Masterton businessman Andrew Denholm bought the Wairarapa Times-Age from APN (now NZME) in 2016 and began a process of bringing ‘home’ numerous operations that had been contracted to other regions. His paper, and its sister publication Wairarapa Midweek, are portrayed as fiercely local and it has paid off in stable circulation and local support. The newspaper was named Best Regional Newspaper in this year’s Voyager Media Awards.

Doubtless there are several ways in which our regional journalism can be preserved but I am certain the answer does not lie in cuts. Our newspapers will, I have no doubt, disappear at some point but it is vital that the journalism does not disappear with it.

Pippa Stevenson ended Tamahere Forum’s epitaph with “a last message from a career journalist” that is worth repeating.

Value journalism. Journalism is a society talking to and reflecting itself. If you don’t like what you are seeing look in the mirror.

Respect journalists. The ability to dig, delve and deliver a coherent story is a rare skill. Not every journo is a polished diamond. Learn to sort the wheat from the chaff; train your eyeballs on those who work hard and deliver most of the time. Put your money where your eyeballs go. This stuff doesn’t come easily or cheaply.

When in doubt imagine a world where the only messages were official communications.

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