Why small town papers are worth saving

Public media in New Zealand would be better served by pumping money into institutions that already exist, rather than inventing a new TV station, argues Alex Braae.

The ANZ branch in Taumarunui is closing down. I know that from reading it on the front page of the Ruapehu Press, picked up at a petrol station.

Despite reading a lot of news to compile The Bulletin, and despite that paper being part of the wider Stuff stable, there’s no way I would have stumbled across the story without picking up the hard copy.

The story about the ANZ branch was written by Taumarunui based Frances Ferguson. She contributed seven stories for the March 28 edition of the Ruapehu Press, as well as a photo from the Ohura Medieval Market.

One line of the story jumped out, symbolic of all that is wrong with how New Zealand’s media treats forgotten parts of New Zealand: “The announcement has left locals shocked that another business has turned its back on a once thriving town.”

This column is not meant as a criticism of ANZ, a business that has made a business decision in the interests of its bottom line. Taumarunui was once one of the most important stops on the main trunk line. Those days are long gone now, and yet the town steadfastly remains.

Nor do I mean to criticise the nationwide news platforms – Stuff, the NZ Herald, Radio NZ, Newstalk ZB, TVNZ, Newshub. It is ridiculous to expect them to try and cover stories in areas where they have few reporters, or even no reporters at all. They too must make majoritarian decisions about what parts of the country they cover.

But the fact is, what constitutes news in New Zealand takes place in fewer than ten cities. And apart from a few honourable exceptions, like the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin, the vast majority of news resources are concentrated in Auckland and Wellington.

There’s a general assumption that topics that are of nationwide importance matter equally to everyone in the nation, but to put it bluntly, they don’t. For the people of Taumarunui, a bank branch closing down will affect their life far more than who Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran has an ill-advised breakfast with. Anything that focuses on politics, as most public service media does, is particularly prone to this delusion.

That’s not to knock the lives of people in small towns either; rather it’s an acknowledgement that what matters in their lives is just as important as what matters in the lives of people in big cities. The overwhelmingly urban readers of The Spinoff – and I include myself in this – can find it all too easy to forget that these people and places exist.

Which brings us to the question that all of this rests on. Where is the money to fund journalism, made in and about places like Balclutha. Stratford. Te Awamutu. Masterton. Some of these places have good local papers that service their community, and are just managing to stay afloat. Others have recently, or are about to have their papers closed down. I highly doubt anyone in management at Stuff actively wants to offload or close 28 rural and community papers, but business decisions are cold.

One of those publications on the list is the Ruapehu Press. The reasoning given by Stuff – that by closing down smaller titles, they can better focus on digital news – makes sense as a business decision. But it doesn’t make sense at all from the perspective of all New Zealanders being well served by media.

Right now, $38 million in extra spending is sitting on the table to fund public media. It’s currently earmarked to perhaps towards one of the least valuable uses of that money – a pie in the sky TV channel attached to Radio NZ, which not even the bosses of Radio NZ seem to want. It is the pet project of a minister who doesn’t seem to understand that such a figure is a pittance for high quality TV. The only conceivable way to make it work would be to concentrate resources in one or two centres, and that would only deepen the lack of regional service highlighted above.

There really isn’t much money to go around for relative luxuries like publicly funded media, when compared against the proverbial schools and hospitals. So any extra money should go where the infrastructure to spend it effectively already exists.

What if instead of a TV channel, Radio NZ was given the money on the condition they rebuilt and massively expanded their network of regional reporters? What if Stuff or NZME was given public funding, on the condition that it went towards keeping their small town papers printing? What if the NZ Herald Local Focus project, which had funding for four regional video reporters, was able to make that forty reporters, each based in a different town? You could probably come close to achieving all three options with $38 million, and yet they don’t seem to be on the table at all.

A possible model exists in Britain, where the BBC has funded more than 100 journalists to report on Councils and public meetings. These positions were secured by small media organisations who bid for the funding needed to create the roles, and their stories will be shared among 700 media organisations who are part of the Local News Partnership scheme.

Journalism is an essential part of what constitutes a community. It gives a shared sense of experience to those who are part of a place, and a shared context by which they can make decisions that affect their lives. Small town papers, which are in some cases the entire local media ecosystem of those small towns, are already struggling to survive. It would be a tragedy if more were to die.


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