I don’t think Fred Tulett got the better of me when we were both newspaper editors but, in death, he has achieved something to which I could never aspire: He filled the front page of his old publication with news of his demise.
I doubt that I will merit a page three brief when I head for the great newsroom in the sky, let alone sole occupancy of the front page of the New Zealand Herald.
Last Wednesday the Southland Times relegated a story about a drink-diver being discharged without conviction (despite being caught driving at double the legal alcohol limit) in order to celebrate the life of the man who had been at its editorial helm for 15 years. On Saturday the paper marked his 50-year career again with another half-page story in the obituaries section.
The author of both pieces, Michael Fallow, observed in the weekend obituary that Fred would have ‘gone crook’ about hogging the front page. And he would have done so with gusto. The man who I described on Facebook last week as “a hard bugger but a good bugger” did not mince his words and the front page was hallowed turf. He would have wanted the drunk driver ‘up front’, or maybe the story of a trainee doctor missing meals to pay her rent.
Fred Tulett certainly had his unique qualities – a voice made for radio that was sentenced to echo off the walls of a newspaper office – but he also represented a class of journalists with two distinct and seemingly mutually exclusive qualities – bloody-minded independence and the willingness to champion a cause.
He wasn’t quite a Southlander –he was born in South Canterbury – but, when he became editor of the paper in Invercargill, he acted like one. He wouldn’t join the local Rotary club (that bloody-minded independence precluded such associations and like many of his newspaper contemporaries he came from an unprivileged background) but he wouldn’t hear a bad word said about the region…unless it was justified and was published in his paper.
Fred Tulett knew the role of a regional newspaper in its community. While metropolitan skills and perspectives, honed earlier in his career, served the Southland Times well in holding local power to account, the newspaper was a fierce champion of the region.
Of course, he would never admit to a regional paper being in any way inferior to its larger contemporaries. The roles and skill sets were the same and the only difference was scale. That attitude, coupled with a clear belief that a newspaper is a participant in its community, remains a good model for newspapers.
However, despite a vital ongoing role for regional newspapers, their future is by no means assured. Financial pressures have already resulted in economies such as group page sharing that detracts from their local purpose. So, too, do the cuts that have been made to staff and other resourcing.
Advertising revenue across the country has dropped but the effect has been particularly felt in the regions, and some more than others. If current trends continue, we may see regional newspaper closures. It has happened elsewhere.
Even editors like Fred Tulett cannot win against the slings and arrows of outrageous economic fortune. That is particularly so when a regional title is subject to not only its local market pressures but to the overall financial health of a publishing group.
Doubts over their future begs the question: What will replace them? When their print editions go, will remaining websites have the power and standing of the newspaper masthead? Will those websites survive, or will they simply become a minor subset of a larger news platform?
The danger is that the strong voices that regional mastheads have represented will be lost. This has negative implications on at least three levels.
- The community will no longer be reflected to itself with the same breadth and depth.
- Local authorities will not be held to account – certainly not at the micro level that regional newspapers provide.
- The ability to champion causes both within and beyond the region will diminish.
The likelihood is that we will see regional newspapers replaced by the digital equivalent of newsletters that serve local rather than regional audiences. They may or may not be the work of professional journalists but, if they are, they will barely offer a subsistence living for the publisher.
The ugly alternative is that regional community access to local information will be via local authority ‘official’ platforms ultimately controlled by the powers that were previously held to account by the region’s newspaper.
The fate of regional newspapers is just part of the conundrum that is the future of news media in this country. However, they may be the canaries in the coalmine.
What we witness happening to regional communities that no longer have a meaningful news outlet – what the Americans call ‘news deserts’ – will demonstrate what can and will be replicated on a wider scale as larger outlets contract or fail.
The solution will not lie in struggling to keep producing words on paper. The medium, contrary to what Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan said, is not the message. The solution will lie with ingenuity and a clear understanding of community needs. It will also require the sort of tenacity that editors like Fred Tulett exhibited.
In 2016 Fred and I joined nine other former editors in opposing a merger between NZME and Stuff – our former employers – because we believed it would result in an unacceptable aggregation of media power. Someone asked what the collective noun for a group such as ours would be. Thinking of people like Fred, I suggested a bastard of editors.
I wasn’t being critical: Those people were good bastards. And between them they passed on their wisdom and journalistic DNA to the next generation of good bastards.
In the years that lie ahead, the media industry will need a lot of good bastards and in some of them the spirit of Fred Tullet will live on.
To Chris Knox and his New Zealand Herald colleagues for revealing the shortcomings in the counting of votes in the general election. Their work points to a clear need for the Electoral Commission to take a long hard look at itself. A similar shout-out to Whakaata Māori for its investigation of electoral issues in Māori electorates.