Why we should all be worried by Stuff’s proposal to slash community news

Stuff has confirmed that 16 reporter and three news director jobs could be made redundant in community papers. And that’s terrible news, former Rodney Times editor Rhonwyn Newson writes for Newshub.

When I was a child my mum would occasionally pop into our local newspaper’s newsroom and drop off a photo of my brother’s water-polo team winning a series, or my Highland Dance accomplishments. Every now and then, one of her photos would get printed in the paper and my mum would always make a clipping, and send copies to relatives.

Community newspapers matter.

They matter to parents who still want to see pictures of their kids at the school gala, and they matter to residents with real problems who need someone to go in to bat for them. Local journalism celebrates communities, holds local government to account and provides an outlet for quirky, cool stories about real people.

Often these quirky stories would appeal to a national audience. The Stuff homepage with its audience of nearly one million is regularly led by community news stories.

On Tuesday, Auckland and Northland community staff members at Stuff were informed of a proposal to disestablish all 16 community reporter roles, and three news director roles across the 13 community newspaper titles. The proposal is that four senior reporter roles will be created, to be based in Whangarei, Albany, Henderson and Manukau. Content for the papers will be sourced by the wider Auckland news bureau, the proposal says.

If the proposal goes ahead, staff will be redundant just before Christmas.

It is sad news for those immediately affected.

The announcement follows Stuff (formerly Fairfax Media) and Herald publisher NZME’s repeated failed attempts to merge. In its appeal to the Commerce Commission in December 2016 then-Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood warned the commission that, unless the merger was allowed, “it becomes endgame”.

“We don’t have the capacity of deep pockets of private money to subsidise journalism,” Hywood said at the time.

In February this year, Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher identified 28 publications, including community newspaper mastheads, which would be closed or sold during the course of the year.

It is sad news for a continuing decline of local newspapers. These are the newsrooms where graduates go to cut their teeth. These newsrooms are where members of the public go with their concerns, without the jaded cynicism they have for national outlets.

And those cool, quirky stories won’t be told.

In the bigger scheme, some of the stories community journalists report on may seem insignificant. During my time as editor of north Auckland’s Rodney Times we campaigned for toilets to be built at a local playground and sports ground, for example. I recently took my children there and saw a toilet block being constructed – something that doesn’t matter much, except to the residents whose bushes were being used by busting park-goers, and to the parents who use the park. We highlighted the dangerous state of walkways in a neighbourhood with a big population of elderly residents. A woman in a mobility scooter hugged me when she came in to tell me the walkways were being fixed. Getting this solution for her meant she could get out of her unit and enjoy her neighbourhood safely – our reporting mattered to her.

There will always be a market for community newspapers. And these papers can flourish if they are run with the community at the heart of them. Community spirit is inherently part of human nature. Perhaps this decline in interest by national publishers will pave the way for independent operators to pick up the mantle and go in to bat for the little guy.

*Rhonwyn Newson was a former editor of the Rodney Times. She is now the features editor at Newshub.

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