News deserts and how New Zealand can avoid them

I felt like the Grim Reaper when I was talking to community newspaper folk last week about news deserts.

News deserts are communities lacking a news source that provides meaningful and trustworthy local reporting on issues such as health, government and the environment. Their communities were once served by local news outlets but these have died.

The term emerged more than a decade ago and I showed the attendees at the Community Newspapers Association conference in Auckland a map of the United States where it had first been encountered. In the US, traditional owners have closed a quarter of the country’s titles – more than 2500 mastheads – since 2005. They have also divested themselves of large numbers of their regional and local titles, and new owners have undertaken massive consolidation, hollowing out local news production in the process.

The map, contained in a report last year by the Medill School of Journalism, showed that 200 counties have no local newspaper and more than 1500 have only one paper, usually a weekly and often an emaciated one. Those 1700 territories represented more than half the counties in the country. And within those counties live 70 million people.

A similar survey in Australia found that, as of April last year, 34 Local Government Areas had no print or digital local news outlets. Across the country, rural and regional areas have been the worst affected by declines in local news.

The two largest regional news publishers, NewsCorp and Australian Community Media dramatically reduced their print titles, through merger or closure. These actions were part of a nationwide reconfiguration of the news business, which disproportionately affected regional areas.

Britain has a been similarly affected by contraction of the regional media market. Three companies control most of the UK regional market. Since 2005 there has been a net loss of at least 270 local newspaper titles.

I have not seen a similar study in this country to determine whether we have any news deserts. It should be done because I have no doubt that Covid and market forces have reduced access to local news. Both Stuff and NZME cut titles between 2018 and 2020 and regional resourcing has been downgraded.

Why is local news important? I should not need to explain but there is strong evidence that reduction or elimination of local journalism has serious civic and social consequences.

The findings of the Medill School study were chilling:

“The loss of local journalism has been accompanied by the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation, political polarization, eroding trust in media, and a yawning digital and economic divide among citizens. In communities without a credible source of local news, voter participation declines, corruption in both government and business increases, and local residents end up paying more in taxes and at checkout.”

A study by the Charitable Journalism Project of seven news deserts in the United Kingdom found that social media had become the primary source of ‘information’. However, they were, to quote the report, “causes of local social division and sources of disinformation”.

In Australia, as elsewhere, researchers have found lack of local news has undermined community resilience and the accountability of public institutions.

Access to local news – and, by that, I mean right down to neighbourhoods – is not just something that is nice to have. It is a necessity. In January, a British parliamentary enquiry into the sustainability of local news released its report. It began by saying:

“Evidence we received for this inquiry was consistent in emphasising the importance of local journalism to democracy. A key aspect of this is the oversight and scrutiny provided by its reporting of local government, courts, and other public services. The decisions of these institutions can often have more immediate and obvious impact on people’s everyday lives than those made at the national level. Local journalism allows communities to hold those in power to account for these decisions…”

After drawing the conference’s attention to those studies, I threw off my Grim Reaper shroud and started to talk about ways their operations could look to a sustainable future.

Before doing so, however, I discouraged them from fulfilling death wishes by making cuts under the guise of makeovers, or consolidating content across titles to the point where page after page of shared content rendered their publications irrelevant.

On a more positive note, I examined ways in which local media in other countries had diversified their revenue to reduce reliance on advertising.

A study of independent publishers in the UK – half of which were small local news producers – showed that advertising now represents only 43 per cent of their income. Almost a quarter comes from philanthropic or government grants, plus a minuscule amount from Meta and Alphabet (for plundering by Facebook and Google).

I encouraged the publishers to seek ongoing government support to replace the now-spent Public Interest Journalism Fund. I also exhorted them to push for far greater financial contributions from the social media platforms that have undermined the economics of journalism around the world without compensatory resources.

I called for a turnover tax on transnationals like Meta and Alphabet, which use every legal device in the book to avoid paying domestic taxes. I think it is a disgrace that digital-only advertising (the bulk of which is taken by multinationals) last year amounted to almost $NZ1.8 billion but tax on profits was far less than that paid by our newspaper companies that collectively gathered $335 million in print and digital advertising.

A one per cent tax on the transnational platform owners’ turnover would generate around $18 million a year, which is almost exactly the annual amount provided under the three-year PIJF scheme. Specifically (and irretrievably) ring-fenced for media support, such a tax would be unlikely to cause retaliatory action by the United States government against our international traders. In any event, there are three Bills before the US Congress aimed at curtailing the power of Meta and Alphabet so they would not have too many avenging allies on Capitol Hill.

I suggested the turnover tax because I have no confidence in the deals that individual publishers have done, or might yet do, with the transnationals. They are on Meta’s and Alphabet’s terms and either will walk away if and when it suits them. And what they offer is petty cash to them. Imagine what could be done with a two per cent turnover tax.

Remember, I was talking to community newspaper publishers. I urged them to not only lobby their local MPs to support a turnover tax but also to ensure that they got an equitable share of the proceeds – based not on something arbitrary like the loudest voice or even annual turnover but on a formula that recognised the civic and social importance on locals’ access to local news and the scrutiny of power at local levels.

I also told them they should be talking to their local MPs about changes to the tax status of their companies. There is now undoubted evidence of the vital role their publications play in civic life so why cannot this be reflected in a special dispensation from tax?

The governments of the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia either have in train or are considering special support for their media down to hyperlocal level. Similar support should be forthcoming from the New Zealand government – whatever its political stripe.

The future of local media does not lie solely in putting out the hand for grants or special treatment. There are numerous examples offshore of ingenuity and innovation that is bearing fruit. Sure, reader donations and membership programmes have become significant sources of revenue but publishers are finding new ways to use digital delivery to supplement their earning capacity.

Digital newsletters are providing an increasing source of revenue, particularly for publication with lower frequency and seem to be having more success than placing paywalls on existing websites (which is why the New Zealand Herald put its paywall on enhanced premium content and why Stuff has ‘regionalised’ paywalls on new digital sites for its metropolitan daily mastheads). In the US, replacing long-established local print publications with digital start-ups has also had limited success.

Bernard Hickey, who also spoke at the conference, has shown the way here with paid subscription newsletters – tied to his Kākā platform on Substack. It is a different animal to the daily newsletters produced by mainstream media outlets to showcase their online content. The newsletters to which I refer are self-contained ways of informing subscribers willing to pay for what they receive. They are delivered via email, which makes the accessible even to those who may not be computer literate. They are designed to be read on mobile phones, which have reached near saturation level in this country.

And they can be pitched at various levels depending on the ability of the buyers to pay. I gave the example of Block Club Chicago, a non-profit initiative to provide diverse and often poor neighbourhoods with local news. Subscriptions range from little more than $US1 a week to $5 a week. They also carry advertising.

In the US, lack of access to high-speed digital services has inhibited the growth of local news initiatives in rural areas. I drew the publishers’ attention the initiatives by mobile providers to reach full geographic coverage in this country. One New Zealand will introduce satellite-based full-country coverage next year. 2 Degrees has announced a satellite trial with Lynk for Low Earth Orbit coverage, and no doubt Spark will do likewise. I suggested publishers should be ready to roll out subscription-based email newsletters when the telcos start their Total Cover hoopla.

The core messages I hope I imparted were to innovate but to remain true to purpose – stay local.

When I returned home from the conference, I began leafing through the pile of community publications the organisers had given to me. They ranged from tri-weekly tabloids to monthly magazines, from high-production-value to the homely. The content – from news that directly impacted locals’ lives, through name-laden reports on community activities, to advertisements that told me that Mike is available for building work and Dave has a dinghy for sale – represents the threads that knit a community together.

For the sake of the country we need to ensure they continue to do so. Like climate change, news deserts signal significant danger.

5 thoughts on “News deserts and how New Zealand can avoid them

  1. There is some good material here Gavin, but I think you are underestimating the enormous potential for corruption and political capture in your proposals especially in projects claiming to be working in the interests of local communities while simultaneously working towards gaining funds from massive multinational corporations or central government.
    Funds that will be spent on the journalists themselves.
    Don’t forget you are advocating for the interests journalists. That’s your profession, your clique and you yourself.
    Consider this, if you believe that local democracy requires local reporting and if local reporting requires tapping the funds of foreign corporations then you have admitted to a belief that foreign corporations are essential to local democracy.
    What. quite frankly, the heck kind of democracy is that ?
    Any type of foreign support even if it’s given with the noblest of intentions and ring fenced with the tightest of regulations will change that community and move it towards the direction of that funding. Plants send out their roots towards water, it’s as natural as the sun and moon. If it’s not literally foreign funds but central government funds the problem is essentially the same, it becomes a central government project instead of a local one and will inevitably move in the direction of central government policy.
    “I sing the song of whose food I eat” is a very old and very true saying. Even with the most honest people in the world, if the Lord of the manor sets a fine table and invites some fine musicians and singers to dine, then very soon many fine songs will be sung about what an excellent gentlemen that particular Lord is.
    No dishonesty or corruption required.
    You are out fishing for golden sovereigns and doubloons to pay for work that can be done for copper pennies and cents. What does a community, a real natural human community do if they truly need a service that can’t be provided by the free market ?
    They do it themselves.
    If there is no money for a professional full time fire department the people form a volunteer fire brigade. If the people are being attacked and threatened by bandits and Vikings, but the army and navy is not to be found then they form a citizens militia.
    Armies are not created for the benefit of soldiers, nor hospitals for doctors or universities for professors. Newspapers and media outlets if they are to be considered a benefit to the community should not be run for the benefit of publishers and journalists. The profit motive corrupts the public service motive, and so they should, and indeed MUST be run on a non profit basis.
    Consider how much valuable local reporting could be done if a tiny fraction of the funds you hope to gain were spent on ” back office” support services for citizen reporters and local bloggers.
    Are you aware of the concept of the Umarell / Umari ?
    These are basically retired men with an interest in watching construction sites. Italian municipalities have used Umari in a semi-official capacity to monitor work sites for theft and waste.
    That’s the sort of concept that can be the basis for effective citizen journalism at a hyper-local level. There is a vast underground army of retired, unemployed or semi-employed people and they have foot soldiers in EVERY community.
    Retired or disgraced/struck off barrister or solicitor ? He’s your local court reporter.
    Kid’s rugby coach ? Local sports reporter.
    Local hairdresser and beautician ? Hyper local version of celebrity, style and society reporter.
    High school drama teacher ? Arts and entertainment reviews.
    In my old hometown (Masterton, Wairarapa) I personally knew a retired geography teacher, who, although often a tiresome old crank was also a very intelligent and well read man. I later learnt (from another party) that he had carried on a correspondence with Fidel Castro for thirty odd years where he was kind enough to provide his advice on the correct running of Cuba. He could have written a dynamite political column, in fact it would have been difficult to make him stop.
    All these people need to be part of an effective news system is a support network, not central funding.
    Some resources will be required but most of this work could be done for the price of a cup of coffee and a bus pass.
    No doubt there are many problems with this sort of journalism, there always are, but I don’t see any problems that can’t be overcome with an application of both time and effort.
    No doubt there will be a lot of criticism of this sort of amateur journalism, probably it will mainly come from professional journalists. Some of this criticism would be well founded. Like a professional soldier criticizing the military skills of a citizen militiaman. But the question here is not whether local communities should be serviced by professional journalists or amateur bloggers but rather whether there will be ANY local journalism at all.
    Professional journalists have either partially or totally abandoned local communities, that’s why we have this problem in the first place.
    For example, what is stopping YOU personally, from right now reading a bunch of minutes from the Masterton district council and then Skyping or Zooming a long call with the Mayor and councilors about next year’s budget and their plans for the future ?
    The answer is obvious, you have more lucrative and prestigious projects to pursue. If you and journalists like you are waiting for Meta or Alphabet corporation to cough up $18 million, or for Wellington to squeeze it out of them before you are willing to do that sort of work then you will be waiting for a long time.
    Chicken feed like that just isn’t worth the sweat of your brow, but for my cranky old communist buddy it very well might be. And he’s the type of guy who (if he gets his broadband sorted) would do it for a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
    In summary, just as you should never ask a barber if you need a hair cut, never ask a journalist if there should be more money for journalism.

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
      Gavin Elliu says:

      I’m not sure comments should be almost as long as columns, Jacob, but I appreciate the time and thought you have put in here.
      I agree on the use of all available resources to inform the public. In fact, I told the Community Newspapers conference that they should be looking to retired journalists to fill roles that they cannot fill with young journalists (who seem unwilling to take up remote jobs).
      To the point on support for journalism:
      1. A turnover tax on Meta and Alphabet would be compensation for damage done to the public interest by plundering our news industry for years. The one per cent was plucked out of the air (but I was conscious of the need to avoid a tipping point on US govt retaliation). I said two per cent would be even better. Five per cent would provide an extraordinary reserve of funds.
      2. Corruption and coercion only exist where funding schemes can be manipulated. I called for a rigid formula under which grants would be made and I do think they should be overseen by an entirely independent body.
      3. I think suggestions that NZ journalists can be easily bought does a disservice to the many, many principled and hard-working women and men in the profession.
      4. As I said in the commentary, circumstances demand that forms of support are available to sustain journalism that is in the public interest. The US, UK, Canada and Australia are all recognising the need. Last time I looked, none of those countries had communist administrations.
      Thanks again for the thought you put into your comments.

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
      Gavin Ellis says:

      Media companies have never been very good about reporting on themselves. I agree that Stuff should be more open about its finances, although I read nothing sinister into them exercising their rights as a private company. I think it’s healthy for media companies to put their mouth where their money is, so to speak.

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