New respect for ‘the local rag’

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

Thousands will no longer refer to the community newspaper that appears in their letterbox as “the local rag”.

They have a new-found respect because they either realised what they had missed during the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown or were grateful that publishers had continued to supply local news in those challenging times.

When the Level 4 lockdown was declared, community newspapers (and magazines) were inexplicably omitted from news media deemed to be essential businesses. There seemed to be an outdated belief that community newspapers were only delivered by vulnerable children. Days after the ban, there was a partial loosening of the rule to allow publications in remote rural areas and ethnic communities. Many titles, however, could not print or could not make letterbox deliveries. Digital editions continued and local residents expressed their gratitude for continuing local coverage but, for many older readers, that was no compensation for the loss of the local newspaper.

In the Waikato, the Cambridge News and Te Awamutu News merged for the duration but continued to print issues for bulk delivery to dairies and supermarkets. An elderly man made an emotional call to their office after receiving his first copy of the combined paper. It was his only source of local news and ‘human contact’.

Allied Press, with a stable of community titles in the South Island, received calls asking it to resume publication during the Level 4 ban. It was prevented from meeting those requests but some of its titles such as North Canterbury News, had permission to publish throughout, delivering first to supermarkets and later including delivery in remote rural areas.

In Marton, four readers of the Rangitikei District Monitor (which did not stop publishing and missed only one week of home delivery) posted on Facebook that they were unhappy to see it in their letterboxes during the lock down, worried by largely dismissed fears that newsprint could carry Covid-19. However, another posted: “…our household will be very grateful to see it arrive in the letterbox. We can always wait till a bit later in the day to read it, if we are worried about contact with the paper”. The Monitor also provided a digital edition throughout the lockdown.

Many community papers received calls from  readers asking if they could collect copies when home delivery was suspended.

The newspapers made sacrifices to maintain operations. Many offered advertising discounts. Some staff worked without pay during the lockdown. Gulf News (given a dispensation to publish) cooperated with the local health board to deliver an issue containing essential pandemic information free to all letterboxes on Waiheke Island in the first week of Level 4 and suspended its $2 cover price for the remainder of the lockdown as a public service aimed particularly at older residents without Internet access.

Many titles, such as the Devonport Flagstaff and  Rangitoto Observer on Auckland’s North Shore were ready to move from  digital-only back to print the moment the level dropped. They distributed an issue through supermarkets and dairies at the end of April and last week made their first letterbox deliveries.

A survey by the Community Newspaper Association suggests most are now back in print but some monthlies, such as the Whitby Newsbrief  north of Wellington were able to wait for yesterday’s Level 2 announcement before deciding when to resume print publication (the June issue of Whitby Newsbrief will be back in print).

Urban community titles owned by Stuff and NZME are reappearing. These publications have in recent years been  characterised by a large amount of content shared across titles in regional groupings in the name of cost-cutting. Stuff’s Auckland titles, for example, mainly carry supercity-wide stories and columns that are common across the publications. There is little, if any, truly local news. The reactions of readers of independent community newspapers that concentrate on local – some would call it hyperlocal – news might send a message to these group owners. If they want  readers and advertisers, they may have to find ways of returning to the days of local news in local newspapers.

The eight-page Central Leader that reappeared in my Lynfield letterbox last Thursday carried a commendable front-page editorial exhorting reader to support local businesses – “Backyourbackyard” – but not one story related to my suburb or even my part of Auckland.

I looked back over a bedraggled scrapbook and stories I wrote as a 21-year-old editing the Central Suburbs Leader (under the able guidance of editor-in-chief Michael Heard and a canny Englishman, Dennis Chicken, who ran Suburban Newspapers for New Zealand News). The content was all local and I would have been called to account if it was not. Councils were a ready source of copy of all shades and the scene of more than one donnybrook.

leader

And the clippings showed that, within the Leader’s circulation area there were a lot of interesting people. Like Mrs O.G McLean of Fowlds Ave in Mt Albert who survived not one but two tornadoes ­(one in 1948 and the other, shortly before I interviewed her, when the roof was torn off the Caughey-Preston Geriatric Hospital injuring nine people). Or Ernie McCarthy, who began hand-cranking a film projector in 1915 when the nitrate film had a nasty habit of exploding (he was still operating the projector at matinees in Sandringham’s Mayfair cinema in 1968). Or Mrs Daisy Spragg, the legal owner of Punga Street (which the Mt Eden Borough Council had diligently maintained for 30 years thinking they owned it).

The real attraction of community newspapers lies in that description. They need to be about the local community, the people you know, or the people you recognise and to whom you can now put a name.

The closest I have is produced by my neighbours Kerrie and John Subritzky. The Beacon is a modest publication, a newsletter more than a newspaper, and has just had its fourth anniversary. It is printed in Whakatane and was caught out by the lockdown. The April issue was delivered last week. It is unashamedly “parish pump news and all the little things that go on in our community”.

That describes hyper-local news. Pippa Stevenson, publisher of the digital Tamahere Forum in the Waikato, defines hyper-local community news as “news that directly affects people where they live – at home, in their pocket, in their neighbourhood. It includes local events (social, markets, fundraising, anniversaries, congratulatory), calls to action (oppose/object, support), material changes (roads, plan changes, rate rises) and so on as well as the people stories that show who lives locally and what they do”.

How each publisher defines community news will be influenced by the extent of the circulation area but the most engaged never lose sight of street level. They need to be enthusiastic champions of their own area, which makes local ownership a major advantage. And, as we are gripped by global pandemic, they need courage.

The first-ever issue of the Valley Profile in the Thames Valley was published last week. In an email the publisher said: “Some people have said publishing the first issue of my newspaper during the shutdown was ‘bad timing’.  However, I think launching a news publication amid the biggest news story in the past century has got to be a good omen and it’s certainly working out well so far!”

That is commendably courageous. And in the uncertain economic times we now face, that is a quality all media will need.

Bamboozled

In the news business you learn to accommodate uncertainty. Plans made in a morning news conference bear only a superficial resemblance to what is eventually printed or put to air. The news website you looked at an hour ago has now completely changed (apart from that piece of clickbait about a part of Kim Kardashian’s anatomy that was registering rather well in the real-time analytics).

Nothing quite prepared us, however, for the uncertainty that attended a plea yesterday by NZME for the Commerce Commission to authorise a quick marriage to Stuff. It was followed in short-order by a quickie divorce petition from Stuff’s Australian owner Nine Entertainment Group. One suggested the parties were on course for a deal. The other suggested the exact opposite. The fact that both parties made statements to their respective stock exchanges suggests each believes its position on merger talks to be correct.

The commission merely acknowledged receipt of the request. The Minister of Communications, Kris Faafoi, said nothing about the letter seeking his support. And the Prime Minister batted away questions, citing “commercial confidentiality”.

Surely, as the day progressed, clarity would emerge? No, it did not. The sun left Auckland, passed over the Tasman and told Nine’s executives they could finish for the day.

Had it been able to penetrate the depths, it might have revealed a kink in the submarine cable linking the two nations. That seems to be the only plausible reason there could be such profoundly confused communication between NZME and Nine.

The reversals that have attended the protracted on again-off again merger talks have the makings of a movie. In  1967 Peter Cook and Dudley Moore wrote and starred in a very funny retelling of the legend of Faust. It was called Bedazzled. We might call this one Bamboozled.

 

 

9 thoughts on “New respect for ‘the local rag’

  1. Nice piece Gavin. Thanks for the mention, which is appreciated. For your information, after yesterday’s ‘go ahead’ from the PM, we will be back to normal for June issue with printed issues, delivered to letterboxes issues and the same pages available online attached to our website. , From Geoff Mowday, Whitby Newsbrief, Porirua, Wellington.

  2. Great to see attention being paid to a relatively thriving media sector at a time when there is justifiable angst over other parts of the media scene. What you have reported here is very heartening. UK journo Nick Davies makes clear in his analysis of the media slide in his book Flat Earth News that the loss of community papers as feeders to national media is a real tragedy. So, to still have relatively flourishing community news in NZ is somewhat reassuring for the future of journalism. Only somewhat because, as you point out, the duplication of content across some titles is a worry and in some publications the actual local news is non-existent.
    Thanks for including my definition of community news in your round-up. From my experience, such news – community/hyper-local – is extremely popular. If the MSM that circulates in my part of the country had the equivalent circulation to my humble reach they would be rapt … and a whole lot more profitable.
    It also suggests that those of MSM who think people aren’t interested in news or are dependent on Facebook and other social media may just not be serving up enough of the kind or news that people need. And I don’t blame the journalists. I’m old enough to remember attending endless local body meetings and, later when that was axed, combing through local body agendas for stories – stories that directly affected people in their homes and back pockets.
    Why have all media seen an upsurge in readership during the pandemic? Same reason. It directly affects people. I do hope anyone investing in media in the future will truly invest, not in (hoped for) profit centres, but in journalism.
    If they stop clinging to their old ways and get more fleet of foot I am sure it will pay off.

  3. Be very careful placing all of the importance on journalism. Another crucial part and one that has always been there but ignored is the role of the media sales person. Have a look at some of the industry leaders and they are not run by journalists but people with a strong sales background. This is so apparent with the slow desolving of Stuff and the constant begging emails for donations. Its not Rocket science.

    1. Media organisations are an amalgam of many roles: editorial, sales, production, distribution/transmission, finance etc. Each role has a vital part to play. We should not lose sight, however, of the fact that without journalism, We have no news media.

  4. Thanks for acknowledging the role of the local paper Gavin. As managing editor of the Waitomo News (who didn’t get a chance to respond yesterday) we went from twice a week to ‘Thursdays only’ during April. We went back up to Tuesdays and Thursdays last week. The response from our North King Country readers has been overwhelmingly one of appreciation and excitement to see the latest issue. People were so grateful to be able to read news that was theirs, see people they knew (even if it was a file shot), and receive important notices from one of our two local councils, as well as essential businesses re hours and services etc. We also published, under a little stress I might add, our all-important annual and much-loved ANZAC Day feature in our April 23 issue. Keeping LOCAL information/communication going is so important in times like this and what we have just been through. It was valued immensely, especially those living on their own. Our country communities have always had generous, giving spirit. Long may that continue as we now rally everyone through the paper to ‘Love a Local’ and support what’s in their neighbourhoods first! Cheers Sue White

  5. Interesting piece Gavin. But I’m not so certain about the “cover the patch and they will come” notion.
    Yes, it obviously still works well enough (commercially) in defined areas where there is that sense of community or commonality. Ponsonby, Devonport and Waiheke in Auckland, for example, and of course in rural towns and patches where there’s a stronger feel for “we’re in this together”.
    But even in the good times it must be a bloody hard slog sustaining the ad ratios and margins these days.
    In wider Auckland, the Stuff communities are a joke when put alongside examples of their proud pasts. The Central Leader is no longer delivered to our street and I pick it up occasionally for the ads. There is no local content, as you’ve noted. Instead, we’re lumbered with a handful of tired stories we’ve already read online from across the super city. If they died tomorrow (as they surely will), Jacinda won’t have to worry about mourners breaking the 10-strong grieving bubble.
    It just seems to me that, in Auckland anyhow, getting access to interesting and trusted community news is not front-of-mind. Facebook rules (helped by the rumour and innuendo of Neighbourly). I think if you asked Aucklanders about community news, many would say they get what they need from Facebook etc.
    So while I admire Rob and Liz for what they continue to achieve in Devonport and on Waiheke (and Pip for her online commitment in the Waikato), I do wonder if there’s the reader appetite in many other parts of Auckland for a print advertising community model. Or any other model for that matter.
    All rather despairing really.

  6. Good thoughts on local newspapers. However, I see the merger of NZME and Stuff raising its ugly head again. I remember journalists back in the 80s thinking things were bad when INL and New Zealand News, with the odd foray by Wilson and Horton, went around the country buying up all the provincial city newspapers. At least back then, they were all NZ-owned. Many defunct titles later, and with the additional of a broad stable of NZ’s commercial radio stations, they disappeared into the ownership of two Australian-owned companies. What could be worse? How about one overseas owner?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.