The Scottish island of Bute’s quintessential community newspaper The Buteman could claim it had provided its readers with ‘trusted news since 1854’. That was up until last week when it was pronounced dead by its owners, JPI Media, publisher of The Scotsman.
For 14 years, its last local editor, Craig Borland was proud of the paper’s track record, including his own impassioned editorial in 2015 that, in welcoming refugee families fleeing the war in Syria, allayed fears and paved the way for their successful integration into the community .
The paper, he said, was at the heart of the Bute community, reflecting its values, triumphs and challenges. “Lately though, it had simply ceased to be a community newspaper.
“The owners decided to withdraw their entire editorial presence from Bute so that it was in the bizarre position of being written and edited by two journalists in Edinburgh.
“The coverage devoted to local news and events diminished each week until it was being swamped by a homogeneous service that left many of its pages indistinguishable from those on other titles.”
The demise of Buteman is not a solitary tale of a local paper struggling to survive. After decades of cost-cutting by the handful of large companies that own the bulk of the UK’s local press, many publications have closed or are down to just a few staff. Yet such papers still hold an important role. A recent Oxford study found that regional and local newspapers are more trusted than all national print titles bar the Financial Times.
This week, New Zealand’s quietly thriving independent Community Newspaper Association’s annual conference will ask Kris Faafoi, New Zealand’s Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media what role his government sees for local independently-owned community newspapers and how important they are, especially at a time of issues with social media and Australian-owned corporate newspapers divesting publications gobbled up over decades.
Questions for the minister will include what the government might like to see more of in local newspapers – a key issue since Independent Newspapers Ltd and the New Zealand Herald plundered the CNA of its central government advertising in the 1990s – and also what it might think of an overseas trend towards funding print journalism.
On a level playing field, community newspapers are actually a growth industry. The hostile takeover and subsequent tax-breaks for the Herald and its community newspaper stable by Irish magnate Tony O’Reilly and the 49 percent Murdock stake in Independent Newspapers Ltd were mandated in the 1990s.
Most New Zealanders of the day (slow to pick up on the downstream effects of big-is-best ideology of Rogernomics) would have expected both sales to be a no-go area under formerly-stringent Overseas Investment Office scrutiny. Neither were; quite the opposite.
And neither conglomerate played nicely, the NZCNA, until then a golden goose for national advertising, never regained the revenue. Nor did we as an industry fare well when the same competing offshore media empires broke the 131-year-old New Zealand Press Association in 2011, claiming they would “deliver news differently”.
The laissez-faire sales of our biggest and most established news media was a political decision. No-one has their hand out to government at this point and independence is and should be a fierce imperative for newspapers.
However, many of the present government’s priorities – not least a kinder and more caring society – cannot be delivered by government alone.
But nor can they be delivered without it, at least while Wellington holds so much of the tax purse.
The number of titles in the NZ Community Newspaper Association has doubled in recent years, with many more hyper-local papers serving local interests, sometimes in the tiniest of hamlets where government money no longer circulates after everything from hospitals to post offices and government agencies has been withdrawn.
The money has gone elsewhere. There is a press release on my email about fish quotas about which the Ministry of Primary Industries expects me to print a story that will, by the end of next month, have garnered feedback from citizens on new (but unspecified) quotas due to turn up round the country in October as a faite accompli.
A proper government budget for more durable print advertising to appear in the new breed of local newspapers would be better spent than the mountains of money currently pumping out government press releases, mostly to tick the ‘consultation’ box.
Political decisions were part of the problem. Reversing out of the vacuum left by wholesale profit-taking and starved of genuine news and informed citizen debate must also be a political choice. • Liz Waters