Can newspapers based in tiny towns be profitable? A publisher based on the sparsely populated West Coast believes it can, and is expanding as a result.
As the so called death of journalism gathers momentum, media companies are increasingly looking to consolidation for survival. More content syndication, covering a bigger geographical area with single titles, downsized papers, even attempted mergers between media giants like NZME and Stuff. But one small player is finding going local to be a more sustainable – and even profitable – approach.
The publishers of the Greymouth Star are expanding, snapping up the Kaikōura Star from Stuff, who are currently slashing their portfolio of community papers. It’s completely counter-intuitive that a newspaper in Kaikoura, population between 2000–3000, could be profitable. But that is exactly the hope of John Goulding, general manager of Greymouth Evening Star Ltd. The Greymouth Star’s ownership is an interesting aspect of their story. They’re 49% locally owned, and 51% owned by Allied Press, who publish the Otago Daily Times, the largest newspaper outside of the NZME and Stuff stables.
In terms of the potential of their new acquisition, Goulding says Kaikōura “is a good little community. I don’t say the paper was necessarily good, but it’s a good self–contained community.” He believes the paper had been neglected by Stuff. “There are no staff there currently, so we’ll be employing locally, and that will give it that much more local connection. And I believe it could grow,” says Goulding. The plan at the moment is to take on a journalist and a sales rep, to be dedicated employees of the paper based in Kaikōura. They’ll work out of the council offices, in the rooms once used by employees of the Star a long time ago.
That’s been welcomed by Stephanie Lange, who manages the Kaikōura Museum. She was quoted in a story on the Marlborough Express when Stuff’s community cull was announced, calling for it to be gifted to the people of Kaikōura rather than closed. But she’s happy with the outcome, saying the paper is now in the good hands of people who get what local media is about.
And that’s a theme that most people who talk about local papers keep coming back to – that people want to know what’s happening in their patch, and don’t much care for what’s happening in someone else’s. John Goulding said he was in Kaikōura recently, and people there told him that “they don’t want Blenheim’s news.” From a distance, especially from Auckland, it would be easy for that to sound ridiculous – surely two towns in the same general region can’t be that different? But to locals it is immensely frustrating.
Aside from the recent earthquakes, which garnered national attention, Kaikōura doesn’t really get coverage. Local MP Stuart Smith noticed that when the earthquakes struck Kaikōura, reporters from around the country swarmed in. He said while locals welcomed that, “national news organisations don’t necessarily have the local knowledge that reporters already in the community have.”
Stephanie Lange said recently the Kaikōura Star had been “just publishing Stuff stories, and not really our own news.” And she said there are local issues (like the referendum on Māori wards and the council’s annual planning) that are hugely important to the town, but weren’t really being reported. Lange believes such issues desperately needed impartial journalistic oversight, “because otherwise you’re just getting people’s PR and comms.”
Mark Ebrey, who runs the Taumarunui Bulletin, has strong feelings about that. His independent paper is within the patch of the soon to close Stuff-owned Ruapehu Press, a paper that he says covered an area far too large to be relevant to each individual town in the region. “It cannot meet the needs of the competing communities of Taumarunui and Ohakune/Raetihi,” said Ebrey, and the Taumarunui Bulletin was more attractive to advertisers in the town as a result.
Ebrey also hit out at the heavy use of syndication in the Press, particularly in terms of localised stories based on general media releases. Major media companies, such as NZME, publisher of the NZ Herald, Wanganui Chronicle and Hawke’s Bay Today, have editorial units based in their major newsrooms who do turnaround stories based on things like Stats NZ data, localising them for each region with a paper. Having said that, those papers also have staff based in the regions, which is key to maintaining links with the communities they serve.
But how can these small town papers actually break even?
John Goulding says it’s pretty simple – get people to pay for news that matters to them. At the moment New Zealand’s nationwide news is dominated by free platforms. The two giants, NZME and Stuff, charge for their newspapers, but give pretty much everything else away for free online. The major 6pm news bulletins are on free to air TV. The big news radio stations are paid for through advertising or government funding.
That simply doesn’t wash with Goulding. Two of the papers papers in his stable, the Greymouth Star and the Hokitika Guardian, are both paid papers – there’s also a free weekly paper put out. Goulding says between them they have a circulation of up to 15,000, with about 4000 sales. He says the Greymouth Star is the most read per capita paper in the country, and they’re numbers any publisher would envy.
“For an advertiser, it’s a no-brainer about where you’re going to advertise, and I see the Kaikōura Star exactly like that. They may only have a 1200 circulation, but the population is about 3000. So to the advertiser, they’re going to be seen and it’s going to work for them.”
The Kaikōura Star is a paid paper too. And for those who want to read it for free online, you’ll soon be out of luck. The format for the website is going to be the same as the Greymouth Star, which has tantalising headlines, a top line, and then a subscription box. As a non-subscriber, it’s both an intriguing and frustrating experience to visit the site.
Goulding’s final word is one that could be cause for both hope and consternation in print media. Hope, because it shows people still value news when it’s written for their community. And consternation, because hundreds of thousands of news consumers around New Zealand have now been conditioned to never pay for media, and may not ever want to go back.
“My view is that you can’t make money if you give away what your key product is, and that’s journalism.”
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