Bauer has announced the closure of Paperboy, its acclaimed ‘freemium’ Auckland magazine. Former Metro editor Simon Wilson laments the passing of a brave experiment and wonders why its publisher let it fold.
What sad news, that Bauer Media has pulled the plug on Paperboy, and especially sad that it comes little more than a year after the title was launched. After several years of planning. With a multi-million dollar launch budget. Bauer is far the biggest magazine publisher in the country, but in case anyone ever doubted it, its pockets are not inexhaustably deep. Paul Dykzeul, then CEO of the NZ Bauer operation, made that very clear in his speech to staff when the new magazine was approved. This is a “really really exciting” new model, he explained: a free premium title, a “freemium”, but make no mistake, “if it doesn’t work we will kill it off.” Editor-to-be Jeremy Hansen, as I recall, was at that moment looking at his shoes.
(By the way, I don’t claim to offer an impartial analysis: I was an editor-at-large at Bauer when Paperboy was greenlit, and made redundant shortly after, and will soon start work at NZME, publishers of the NZ Herald. More disclosure details at the end of this.)
Dykzeul championed Paperboy and he was a long-time proponent of the freemium model. But, he told the staff that day, his deeper commitment was to trying new things and backing what works, not hanging on with projects that couldn’t pay their way. Dykzeul is now CEO of Bauer in Australia and New Zealand, and technically the person responsible for putting Paperboy permanently to bed.
But Bauer is a private, family-run company, experienced in trash publishing and little else. (Its NZ mass media titles are better than their counterparts overseas and it has no current affairs titles other than those in NZ.) Famously, even quite low-level decisions get made during, or after, the family’s Sunday lunch in Hamburg. Killing off the freemium Paperboy – an experiment for the company internationally – is likely to have been decided in Germany, not in Sydney and certainly not in Auckland. Bauer New Zealand, like many Auckland “corporates”, is only a branch office.
Which doesn’t make the news any easier to swallow. Auckland has lost a very fine media champion and Aucklanders have lost a valuable guide to many of the best things happening in this city. We’re all the poorer for it.
It’s worth taking a moment to salute Jeremy Hansen, because his achievements with Paperboy have been remarkable. In other hands, the mag could have been junk. A freebie, filled with snippets about openings and awful personalities in the worlds of entertainment, hospitality and fashion; designed to appeal to advertisers merely by looking good; sloppily written; editorial decision-making shunted aside by advertising imperatives.
That, after all, is exactly what happens, almost always, with every media outlet, in print or online, that purports to be your discerning guide to the best stuff around. There are glossy titles in Auckland right now that define the awfulness that can result.
Paperboy, however, like Viva at the Herald, went at it differently, and a lot of that is down to Hansen. As a former long-time editor of Home magazine he has a good eye, a comprehensive understanding of how design works and a deep commitment to the value of all things cultural in a city. That sensibility made Paperboy a reliable weekly showcase of the quality and excitement of Auckland’s arts and urban design. As a former staff writer at Metro magazine he has strong practical experience of the way Auckland works and the impacts unusual individuals have on it. That showed up in his use of Paperboy as a regular vehicle for interviews and features on the people and issues looming large in the city.
He attracted excellent staff and contributors, a stimulating mix of youth and experience, and led them, in his habitual manner, by quiet inspirational example. People like working for Jeremy Hansen and the work was all the better for it. The mix of talents he brought together translated every week on the page, in their coverage of food, fashion, design, the arts and entertainment and urban affairs, into a heady mix of new discoveries and old favourites. Hansen and his team told us what to watch out for and who to celebrate. They knew who was new and worth knowing about; they also knew who was not new but still worth knowing about.
And in all this Hansen retained a higher purpose: Paperboy tackled political and social issues like homelessness and transport planning, and did so with a resolute commitment to a progressive view of the city. Invariably witty, often joyful, immensely stylish, the magazine embodied the rich, diverse, enthusiastic energy of the new Auckland. This is who we are and this is how we live now, Paperboy told us, and it even came up with a magnificent way to symbolise its intent: straight white men, ubiquitous elsewhere, almost never appeared on its covers.
Paperboy, it’s tempting to say, for a crisp, delirious year, defined the city. So why did it fail? We’re told there wasn’t enough support from advertisers, and this presumably is true, given that the magazine was free and therefore had no other source of income.
Shame on them. But, really? What did they not understand? Paperboy was the model of what we’ve been told for years is the future of magazine publishing: native advertising. Advertising that you can’t always tell is advertising. When I was at Bauer, advertising execs used to say that readers don’t care if it’s editorial or advertising, they just want it to be good. I thought that was scary, but I realised I couldn’t prove they were wrong.
Paperboy was dedicated to making that proposition a commercial reality. Thus you will find in any given issue material that is obviously an ad, and material that is surely straight editorial, and some material where you might not be sure what it is, or, more likely, more to the point, you don’t even stop to think about it.
Paperboy didn’t invent this and nor did Bauer. But Paperboy was New Zealand’s first really good freemium: the first free publication to offer advertisers the chance to get their native content into a vehicle whose tone was impeccably well judged and which was highly valued, across the board, by the practitioners, the consumers and most of all the opinion-makers in the worlds of culture, retail, hospitality, lifestyle, making the most of living in the city.
You don’t get that very often. It’s remarkable – and a scathing indictment of their lack of imagination, frankly – that advertisers didn’t lap it up. Didn’t want to be part of inventing that particular future. What morons.
Maybe it’s a good thing: in the case of Paperboy, advertisers did not actually have the wit to subvert the integrity of the publication. But in that it led to the death of the publication, maybe not so much.
The fact advertisers did not support the title is not an answer in itself. Why didn’t they? What could Bauer have done – what could Paperboy have evolved into – that might have made them support it? The most remarkable thing about the magazine’s folding is that it ran for just over a year with, really, no discernible changes to its makeup, and then stopped. If it was failing, why, in the spirit of trying new things – the spirit Paul Dykzeul proclaimed so proudly – did they not modify their approach?
For all that it did do, there is one thing Paperboy didn’t do: it didn’t carry reviews. In fact, outside of its current affairs interviews and features, it didn’t criticise anything. Paperboy selected what it wanted to write about, because it thought they were good, and/or because advertisers paid it for the selections, and then everything it said about those things was positive.
The value of this, as an editorial MO, in theory at least, is that advertisers will flock to you. They want to be part of the good-news machine. But it turns out that’s not true, and Paperboy is the proof of it. So why persist?
Because there is a downside: while relentless good news might be valuable, it’s not as essential, let alone as entertaining, as you might think. Critical opinion engages readers.
Think of it this way: you’re waiting for your train and there’s the Paperboy stand, and you think, oh yes, more great new cafes and actors doing actory things. Will I walk over and pick up a copy? Yeah, I might.
But what if it was, oh yes, there’s Paperboy, I wonder what they’ve got to say about that new cafe, that new TV show or play? The last review I read was really funny, I want some more of that.
It’s the difference between nice to have and need to have. Publicity and point of view. Information, however attractively packaged, and vibrant stimulating ideas.
I’m told the failure to carry critical commentary was a company decision from the start, not one made by the editor. In my experience at Bauer, the advertising managers on the whole did not understand that critical commentary is part of the lifeblood of magazines – all they saw was criticism, which they believed advertisers did not want to be associated with. And Paperboy, despite all Hansen’s skills, make no bones, was always a creation of the advertising department.
So, really. Why didn’t Paperboy carry not just the news of a new restaurant or bar opening, but the must-read review of it? And who, ffs, is going to give us back an excoriatingly funny gossip column about all the goings on in the city’s incestuously self-obsessed retail/celebrity/entertainment sectors? Why didn’t Paperboy absolutely own that gig? Why didn’t it give us fabulous – not routine like most everyone else, but actually fabulous – little capsule reviews of the new music, film, TV, theatre, books, you name it, with the best of them expanded into longer form online? Where were the clever on-the-spot reports of the summer’s big festivals and shows?
Why, in short, didn’t it build up a stable of critics, in hospitality and the arts and entertainment, whose views we just could not wait to read again?
Sadly, and it truly grieves me to say this, I think the answer is Metro. Those are things my old magazine tries to do (or used to, with the gossip), so maybe Paperboy was meant to be different. But come on. Metro is now a bi-monthly magazine. In terms of goings on, openings, what’s new and what’s hot, what you need to know about right now, it’s profoundly untopical. Paperboy, meanwhile, a weekly needing to instill in itself a greater sense of urgency, was a natural home for such material. (See Jeremy Hansen’s response, below.)
But Bauer has never seen it like that. Another related example: the festivals. The Auckland Arts Festival, Comedy Festival, Writers Festival and Film Festival all offer splendid opportunities to a weekly magazine supposedly dedicated to celebrating the best of what’s on in town. And yet Bauer has largely limited its critically engaged coverage of those events to Metro (and the Listener, for the Writers Festival). Why?
And what about some of those “properties” Metro has developed over the years? Cheap Eats, Best Cafes, maybe even Best of Auckland? Shock news, but none of them create best sellers for the magazine. So why are they still in Metro and not in Paperboy? Metro was right to keep its Best Schools analysis and Best Restaurants, both of which are proven best sellers and which have a strong Metro feel. But Cheap Eats? Even from an advertising point of view it was always awkward. That word cheap, you see.
Cheap Eats is a heaven-sent concept for Paperboy and it could have been serialised, with best dumplings, best donburi, best kebabs, best pizza, best sushi rolled out through the year and culminating in a grand countdown in a special issue. I didn’t make this up, by the way. Time Out does it in every city they publish. Time Out also does indispensable reviews and is absolutely stuffed full of opinion.
I kind of admire that Paperboy is not Time Out, but I’m also really surprised that with its own model failing, Bauer did not seem to think there was anything to learn from the world’s leading publisher of freemium weekly city guides.
From the start of Paperboy, it was clear the company intended to keep Metro afloat while they tested the water with the new mag. But an innovative strategy to create complementary new roles for both titles would have helped. Metro did not need to stay largely the same magazine it used to be when it was monthly, pretending not to have gone bi-monthly and pretending Paperboy didn’t exist. Bauer says Metro sales are at their highest level since 2008, which is good, but surely an entirely predictable function of the reduced publishing frequency. The “double issues” of the past were almost always the best-sellers.
Why has Paperboy died? How about: because the company couldn’t see past the very considerable strengths of what Paperboy was, in order to deal with its even more considerable weakness: it could not persuade advertisers Paperboy was essential reading, because, in all likelihood, it wasn’t.
And why was that? Because Bauer, despite what would have been the best efforts of some to save it, lacked the flexibility, the courage and the wit to adapt a really good but failing idea into something commercially sustainable.
The lesson, although I’m not holding my breath it will be learned, is that in publishing, editors should be required to innovate, and advertisers and advertising sales departments should never be allowed to run anything. Paperboy, RIP.
Jeremy Hansen responds: Thanks for this – very kind. I just wanted to clarify two things. We had a policy of labeling paid content with a ‘(brand name)+Paperboy’ label. It wasn’t huge, but it was there. And the decision not to run reviews – of food, culture, etc – was mine. I wanted to create a mag that wasn’t striving to be definitive about all those things in that way. (The online space is already full of such reckons.) Fine if you think that was the wrong call, of course.
Simon Wilson worked at Bauer Media (formerly ACP Media) from 2007 to 2016, where he was a senior staff writer at Metro magazine, becoming editor in 2010 and five years later becoming editor-at-large in the company. In late 2016 that role was disestablished when Bauer announced the launch of Paperboy and the conversion of Metro from 10 issues a year to bimonthly. Wilson worked at The Spinoff for most of 2017 and is shortly to join NZME, publishers of the New Zealand Herald, as a senior writer.