RIP Local news

We miss our weekly rag. Just when it seemed to be doing the job of our daily papers (there’s only the NZ Herald now) ours, like other print media died. Part of it is due to new ownership – allowed by National’s 1992 budget, which swept away overseas ownership restrictions on any news outlets and finally, the arrival of social media outlets and advertising which once went to newspapers, daily or local. But even before this perfect storm hit print media, the industry was in trouble, as journalist Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Atlantic:

‘These days, local news is withering in many places across America. The United States is dotted with “news deserts,” regions where no newspaper or other local news organization exists. In many other places, once-vibrant local outlets have become “ghost newspapers”—their name remains, and you can still buy a subscription, but their staff and ambitions are so diminished that they can no longer do the day-to-day reporting that allows citizens to make good decisions at the polls about their governmental representatives.

‘The local-news losses are startling: As I write in my new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, in the past 15 years, more than 2,100 local newspapers have gone out of business, according to the journalism scholar Penny Muse Abernathy at the University of North Carolina. And about half of American journalism jobs have gone away, too—either as a result of those closures or because of constant layoffs and buyouts in newsrooms—not only at newspapers but at digital-only nonprofits, and at television and radio stations. (These losses occurred before the coronavirus pandemic…)’

In New Zealand, Venetia Verson wrote in North and South that Fairfax New Zealand, the biggest newspaper publisher in the country, last year put 28 community papers on the block – more than a third of its mastheads. In December, publisher NZME closed the Bay News and Whangarei Report.

Last year, the combined circulation loss for the country’s four largest daily papers and 15 regionals was more than 20%. Revenue has followed the same downward trend. For the year to June 2018, Stuff reported a net loss after write-downs of $74 million. NZME reported a 4% decline in print revenue to December and has introduced an online premium paywall to try to stem the flow. But there’s more than statistics and declining sales at stake in these losses. It’s democracy, a significant concept from what seems to be a tiny loss. That has been summed up by British economist and former journalist Dame Frances Cairncross who says the collapse poses “a threat to the long-term sustainability of democracy”.

She lays the blame squarely at the feet of the giant online search engines and social media platforms Google and Facebook, which have created “distortions in the market” by taking much of the advertising revenue that used to subsidise reporting. She’s called for new codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms.

And according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, more than seven out of 10 people (nine out of 10 aged 18-24) now get their news online. Most (64%) receive breaking news from social media platforms, which have uplifted that content (free) from traditional media sites.

For former (and older) journalists, the world we inhabited was often adventurous but sometimes dull as we sifted through local body reports and covered major events like the Springbok Tour. As cadets we worked at pace in the smoke-filled Auckland Star newsroom. At the NZ Herald that pace was more sedate, for its deadline stretched far into the night. All of this was long ago, long, long ago. At one press function some years ago, I mentioned to a young reporter how we as cadets in the Star ‘ran copy’. “Copy? What’s that?”he asked, and I knew then how the print industry of our days, had all but vanished.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.