Whatever our national print media duopoly is asserting about the future of print media, the view of the industry on the ground is pretty reassuring.
Last weekend, we as the country’s independent small newspapers held our annual conference in Christchurch. It’s a lively body, our newspapers reaching millions of small and medium-town readers every week. Focussed and hyper local, almost every word of their content is relevant to their readers.
As independent newspaper owners, we share problems and solutions, update ourselves on law changes and build on friendships that, for me, go back more than 20 years to the seminal conference in Wairaki when INL (now Fairfax Media) and the NZ Herald pulled their extensive stables of gobbled up smaller and weekly newspapers out of the New Zealand Community Newspaper Association whose lucrative national advertising clearing house brought in enormous revenues to member newspapers. The ‘big boys’ didn’t want to share the pot.
In the years since then, the wrong turns and sacrifice of staff and content to bottom line ambitions have told a dismal story. Last year, the largely self-inflicted wounds led to demands for approval for a mega merger from the Australian-based corporations that now dictate NZME and Fairfax.
The rhetoric spoke more of ambitions to meet what was described as the existential threat to their owners’ revenues online from Facebook and Google, but the companies, and commentators, thought the desperate state of print newspapers like the New Zealand Herald, Dominion Post, The Press, Waikato Times and Sunday Star-Time would see the argument for merger prevail.
However, the Commerce Commission hinted it would be using criteria including ‘quality’ and ‘accuracy of journalism’ and indicated they faced what it described as a rare challenge in considering the role of the Fourth Estate in society.
It has subsequently declined what had come to be known as the ‘StuffMe’ merger.
Without the one mega media firm, the future of 90 percent of our newspapers, half the commercial radio market and, crucially both the biggest news websites – Stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz hang in the balance. In the meantime, the future of useable, relevant and properly researched journalism is devolving on smaller newspapers.
All this against the backdrop of Christchurch in 2017, which is simultaneously deeply disturbing and, at the level of ordinary citizens, inspiring and optimistic.
I went looking for the city centre but, well, there still isn’t one. There’s the fretted stone ruin of the cathedral, the fenced off armistice statue with a single, dying wreath that nobody can remove, the weedy demolition sites with the ghosts of the lost buildings that locals tell like beads.
And then there are is the folklore developing. A colleague from the local Star newspaper toured us round the chimeric city where six years ago he and colleagues emptied out of their quake-struck offices to find themselves watching cars swallowed up in sudden sinkholes in the car park.
They were allowed to retrieve their desks and ran the paper for several years from the premises of a row of cricket clubhouses in Hagley Park. In the mess of jurisdictions and bureaucracy, people negotiated to rebuild collectively and the eyewateringly abundant Tannery complex sprouted and flourished in an unpromising industrial zone.
That the Star in Christchurch took out the overall best newspaper award at the conference dinner seemed eminently satisfactory, judge Vanessa Sherson describing their entry as “bold in design and bold in attitude”. Advocacy for its community leapt off its front pages, said Sherson, and “the Star urges its readers to engage in debate and reflect on the issues it deems important to the community. Strong, grass-roots reporting and tight writing are the hallmarks of the paper. It tackles big subjects with a sure hand and features a good mix of civic issues, crime and community stories.”
The Whakatane Beacon – whose presses also print Gulf News, our Waiheke Weekender and a variety of their own and other community newspapers from around the country – won the under-15,000 circulation class for a compelling new livery and news stories ranging from gangs to traffic hassles.
Our Waiheke Weekender was awarded best front page lifestyle publication, judge Mike Blake saying its compelling photographs – which included our 7 July 2016 cover picture of Kaleidoscope dancer Oliver Wilson by island photographer Peter Rees – “that lead into a paper that promises a guiding hand to those who grab a copy about what’s going on around the island.”
Having looked and talked about our own vital and ambitious little community in this closeknit fraternity, I can only thank everyone in our team, our advertisers and every one of the readers who pick up the our papers so faithfully every week for the privilege of being part of the process. – Liz Waters