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How New Zealand's community newspapers are bucking the trend

Ellen Irvine with husband Campbell and daughter Penny.

Across the country, regional and community newspapers are being cut to the bone or closed down. Are they doomed? Not according to enterprising new owners, who are breathing life back into their local rags. Venetia Sherson reports.  

The newsroom of the Papamoa Post is a quiet place. Outside, late-summer cicadas are making a racket. But inside, there are no clacking keyboards or screams for stories on deadline, no queues for coffee at the espresso machine. There’s a knock at the door, but that turns out to be a man delivering a golf club. “For my husband,” says Ellen Irvine, Papamoa Post editor, reporter, sales rep, distributor, production editor, photographer, layout sub and mother of Penny, aged six.

Irvine, 41, has been a journalist for all her working life, bar spending five years in PR. She began as a cub reporter on the Wairarapa Times-Age, armed with a journalism diploma and a BA with first class honours in French language and literature. Her first bylined story was about a private school’s new auditorium. She also covered the trial of two women charged over the death of Wairarapa toddler Hinewaioriki Karaitiana-Matiaha, nicknamed “Lillybing”, which still ranks as one of New Zealand’s most shocking child killings. Her work caught the eye of metropolitan newspaper editors and landed her a job at the Evening Post and later the Sunday News, where she staked out celebrities and rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. She flew to Sydney to interview Harrison Ford for the News. “Nice man. More pleasant than I had been led to believe,” she says.

It was a heady life for a single woman in her late 20s, but the pursuit of scandals and the hamster wheel of hard news lost its appeal. When she met her future husband, Campbell Irvine, they moved to Tauranga, where Campbell established a golfing business and Ellen joined the Bay of Plenty Times. Award-winning journalist Keri Welham, who was deputy editor at the time, says she was a “rock-solid” journalist, “well-researched and fast”.

The return to a smaller provincial paper reminded Irvine what had drawn her to journalism. “For me, the buzz has always been writing stories about ordinary people who have done something extraordinary, or had something extraordinary happen to them.”

The couple built a home in Papamoa, the Bay of Plenty’s fastest-growing suburb (population 26,000), 15km down the coast from Mt Maunganui. They had a baby and Ellen began work for a local PR firm. Six months ago, she had a lightbulb moment. She looked at Papamoa with fresh eyes and saw a prosperous community with four primary schools and a college, a refurbished $20 million central shopping centre, a population of young families fleeing the stresses of big city life, and retirees lured by the charms of a white-sand beach at their back door. “It struck me we should have our own newspaper.” Then she thought, “What a great idea.”

The first issue of the Papamoa Post rolled off the press at the end of March and was delivered free to 10,500 households. It’s a 24-page, full-colour monthly publication, slightly smaller than a tabloid, with an advertising-to-editorial ratio that would please an accountant. The stories are sharply written, focused on parish-pump snippets and larger community concerns, such as the campaign for a new surf-rescue base. Irvine believes there’s a huge hunger for hyper-local news. “People want to read about what is relevant and important.”

But isn’t it a risk to start a newspaper in an online world? “I consume a lot of international and national news online – but none of it is about the community where I live. There’s a gap and I want to fill it. If I don’t, someone else will.”

Long-time local newspaper editor Rob Drent sometimes hand-delivers copies of the Rangitoto Observer. Launched in February, it is a sister paper to the Devonport Flagstaff, which Drent has owned and edited for 22 years.
It’s no secret newspapers all over the world are in trouble. Unprecedented structural change and technological disruption over the past 15 years have led media companies to cut staff, outsource services, or sell or close underperforming titles. In New Zealand, Stuff (formerly 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.

The shutdowns have come as no surprise. Last year, when the New Zealand Commerce Commission blocked Stuff and NZME’s bid to merge, the companies warned there would be casualties. Sales of printed newspapers have collapsed in the past decade, with some dailies halving their circulations. 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.

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Overseas, newspapers are faring no better. In the UK, a quarter of the country’s regional and community newspapers have closed in the past decade, and the number of journalists working on local news has halved. While readers may mourn the loss of familiar and long-serving mastheads, there is a deeper concern: that smaller communities no longer have a local watchdog to hold power to account. In a just-released report into Britain’s declining press, British economist and former journalist Dame Frances Cairncross 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.

Certainly, the arrival of the internet caused a major disruption for newspapers, which once had a monopoly on their audiences and had adapted to compete with radio and TV. 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.

However, some say media companies must share the blame for their own demise. They reckon newspapers made a tragic mistake when they devalued news by providing it free on the internet. They also say corporate owners, who had conditioned shareholders to expect profit margins of up to 30%, were too greedy and moved too quickly to slash newsroom staff, while turning a blind eye to their readers’ needs.

Publisher Andrew Denholm and son Riley.

One who agrees is Andrew Denholm, who three years ago bought the Wairarapa Times-Age, a daily paper based in Masterton, with a paid circulation of 5164. Denholm, 45, who has a commerce degree from Massey University and has worked for accountancy giants Ernst & Young (EY) and Deloittes, was the newspaper’s general manager for five years when it was owned by APN (now NZME).

He pestered the owners “a dozen times” to sell it to him, believing the business was weighed down by unnecessary head office costs, especially inflated salaries. When they agreed, he applied his accountant’s eye to the bottom line, but remained committed to the paper’s core business – local news.

The Wairarapa Times-Age employs an editor, five general reporters, a sports reporter and a journalist who looks after Wairarapa Midweek, delivered free to every house. The news is focused on court (“Everyone wants to know about the bad guys”), the council (“How is our money being spent?”) and local sport. “Conversely,” Denholm says, “Fairfax has unwound those things. They took out all their local content and got rid of their local sports reporters.” Reporters on the Times-Age attend every council meeting. “We believe it is the business of newspapers and in the interests of the community we service.”

Denholm is also out of sync with the current thinking that digital comes first. “Digital comes last here, unless it’s breaking news. Stories first appear in the paper and in three days they might go up online. Why would I want to put content online free?” He has no interest in migrating any advertising to the internet, and is critical of media companies’ belated moves to introduce online paywalls. “The horse has bolted. The guy who made the decision to put news on the internet free should be shot.”

Real estate firms make up a high proportion of advertising. And property stories – what he calls “property porn” – feature high on the news agenda. “Everyone wants to know the value of their property and what prices are doing.”

Readers are mainly older and hugely loyal. An eye-watering eight out of 10 are subscribers. Casual buyers are attracted by breaking news, but Denholm isn’t interested in wooing them with “clickbait”, a term used pejoratively to describe online headlines sensationalised to attract attention. He also can’t abide in-vogue media terms such as “content” and “audience” (in old-speak “news” and “readers”). When he wrote a submission to accompany the Wairarapa Times-Age entry into this year’s Voyager Media Awards, he nailed his colours firmly to the mast: “We are in the business of selling newspapers.”

The Midweek was a finalist for Community Newspaper of the Year and Wairarapa Times-Age was a finalist for Best Editorial Campaign/Project.

David Mackenzie, NZ Community Newspapers Association president.

David Mackenzie, president of the New Zealand Community Newspapers Association, an organisation of 80 independently owned newspapers, understands better than most the fluctuations in newspaper fortunes. He began his own love affair with print as a paper boy at the Nelson Mail, which at the time had a circulation of 20,000 (now 7584). The boss liked his work ethic (“and that I cleaned his car”) and gave him a job in distribution, where he was eventually promoted to circulation manager.

When the Mail was bought in 1993 by INL (Independent Newspapers Ltd) Mackenzie saw the power of hefty capital investment. There were radical changes in technology and the quality of journalism. His own work benefited and he was sent first to regional daily the Manawatu Standard as a trouble-shooter, then to the Christchurch Press. In his early 30s, he was appointed general manager of the Waikato Times, then the country’s largest evening paper, and later the Sunday Star-Times and Sunday News, by then owned by Fairfax, who bought INL’s newspapers in 2003. He quickly learned the language of corporate boardrooms and the cut-throat nature of the competitive media business; he also learned the most valuable lessons about newspapers were to be had over a beer with colleagues at the end of the day.

After a stint in the UK working for eBay, he returned to New Zealand and was appointed general manager of a stable of New Zealand newspapers owned by NZME: the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua’s Daily Post, plus 10 community papers. But after seven years, he was exhausted, and the overarching reach of head office had taken some of the thrill out of his job. “I was 45, we had two children by then [now three], and I was looking for something to ignite my passion.” He bought a real estate business. Then he bought a newspaper.

There are two weekly newspapers based in Cambridge, a pretty Waikato town with a village green, an abundance of antique shops and a reputation for attracting world-class athletes (think equestrian Sir Mark Todd, cyclist Sarah Ulmer, rower Mahe Drysdale), plus the rock band The Datsuns. The population is expected to double to more than 30,000 in the next 30 years, largely because of the completion of the Auckland to Waikato Expressway. The Cambridge Edition, owned by Stuff, was established in 1981. The paper Mackenzie bought – the Cambridge News – was launched in 2008 by local businessman Mark Nogaj. Initially, it was regarded as a cheeky upstart, but under Mackenzie’s watch it has gathered steam and kudos. It commonly runs to 40 tabloid pages, fat with ads and stories about local people and the issues that interest them. Mackenzie says the formula for success is simple: provide stories that will interest readers whom advertisers want to reach. “If we have an audience engaged with us and advertisers that want to talk to them, we can build a successful business.” Like Andrew Denholm, he says when you take out head office overheads the model works. “We don’t have a flash office or computer system; we use the BNZ business centre for meetings; our payroll and IT systems are handled by local firms. We work together as a community to make it work.” Another essential, he says, is to work in the business and be part of the community you serve.

Mackenzie is an outspoken crusader for community newspapers and optimistic about their future. He believes a renaissance is on the horizon as people lose faith in giant online platforms. “Newspapers have prospered for one reason: the trust that comes from representing readers’ interests and giving them the news that’s important to them.”

The Westport News office is an old gold-receiving bank with a massive safe in the centre of the building and a thick concrete floor to deter tunnelling burglars.
Sinead Boucher, CEO of Stuff, wishes the new owners well. She says the decision to close or sell 28 newspapers last year was not taken lightly. Some were “well past being profitable”; others were in areas that were serviced by Stuff’s larger publications and news sites. “In the end, we have to have a good business model to sustain public-service journalism. The growth of new revenue streams allows us to underpin our news service.”

She says big news organisations provide the scale to investigate big stories and hold people to account. “But there is also room in the market for hyper-local news, which communities want and need.” She’d like to see more collaboration between them. “The threat is not coming from each other, but from multi-national platforms. It’s in all our interests to provide New Zealanders with a news service they can trust.”

Boucher can’t see a time when news is not Stuff’s core mission. “It’s embedded in our DNA.” No further newspaper closures are planned, she says. That may be optimistic. At the time of this interview, Stuff’s new owners, the Australian media company Nine, was preparing to offload its New Zealand assets.

Kevin and Lee Scanlon with general manager Vanessa Neighbours (right), when they took over the Westport News in August 2017.

Community newspapers that could

Westport News

Lee Scanlon

Newspaper editors work well under pressure. They rewrite poorly written stories, soothe angry subscribers when a crossword clue is missing, and hold the “neither fear nor favour” line when an advertiser threatens to withdraw their business. But when the press breaks down – and the nearest help is 300km away – they’re stumped.

On 12 March, Lee Scanlon, the co-owner and editor of the Westport News, was proud of the day’s edition. “The lead story was about a new mayoral candidate, a drought had been officially declared (even though the rain had started) and a local woman’s hemp cookies had been accepted into Countdown.” But then the press conked out. She gave subscribers a password (free) to get through the online paywall and assured them the News would be back the following day.

Scanlon has been a journalist at the Westport News for 46 years. She and her husband Kevin, who owns the local hardware store, bought the five-day-a-week broadsheet 18 months ago when it was facing closure. “We’re fourth-generation West Coasters,” she says, by way of explanation. The paper goes into about half the homes in Westport and as far away as Karamea 96km north, Punakaiki 56km south and inland to Reefton. Apart from Scanlon (who prefers to be called a chief reporter, rather than an editor), there are two other journalists; one delivers the News on her way home; the other doubles as a novelist.

Scanlon is regarded by her peers as a cracking journalist with a nose for hard news. The paper regularly breaks big stories, including long delays for West Coast orthopaedic patients, and concerns about a $300 million Chinese waste-to-energy plant planned for Westport. It prides itself in holding people to account. “Democracy dies in darkness,” Scanlon says, quoting the Washington Post.

The paper has a mix of local, national and international news. It also has a copy-sharing relationship with state broadcaster RNZ, fostered by RNZ CEO Paul Thompson, and similar to one initiated by the BBC to help resource-stretched newsrooms. There are 15 staff, but family also pitches in. Scanlon’s twin sons, Glen and Sean, and Glen’s wife Lucy Corry are Wellington-based journalists (Sean is now a senior adviser to Labour’s Damien O’Connor). Sean’s wife, also Lucy, is a lawyer and tax analyst. Son Troy and his wife Casey, who live in Westport, contribute business nous and help with health and safety.

Scanlon and her husband are in their 60s; she had reduced her work hours before they realised the paper could fold. “We couldn’t let that happen.” The team also goes to great lengths to ensure delivery – barring press mishaps. “When we had a cyclone last year and the runners couldn’t get through, the manager, plus her husband and kids, and I delivered papers to the flooded areas.” Along the way, she also did some sandbagging.

Readers are appreciative. Marie Elder, a former Wellington secondary school teacher who now lives at Punakaiki, has been a subscriber for 10 years, and says the newspaper provides her with all the news she needs (“including the scuttlebutt”). “It tells me what we wouldn’t have found out if it wasn’t for good reporting. It takes courage to run a newspaper.”

Editor Rob Drent delivers Rangitoto Observer newspapers, including to The Booklover in Milford, Auckland.

Devonport Flagstaff and Rangitoto Observer

Rob Drent

Rob Drent doesn’t expect to be the Rupert Murdoch of New Zealand media. “More like Rupert Minnow,” he says. But he’s just launched his second newspaper in one of Auckland’s highly populated and fast-growing harbourside suburbs.

Drent has owned and edited the fortnightly Devonport Flagstaff for 22 years. The pint-sized paper (the same size as a stapled magazine), is an institution in the wealthy bayside village on Auckland’s North Shore, famed for its cafes, boutique businesses and naval base. In February, he launched a sister paper, the Rangitoto Observer, which covers the neighbouring area from Takapuna to Sunnynook. It was a logical move, he says. “The communities are served by the same local board, which makes decisions that affect them all. We are the public watchdog.”

He bought the Devonport Flagstaff in 1997 because he saw its potential, and because he was done with the daily press and a revolving door of editors. “You’d write a hard-news story about some massive injustice and get no feedback from the public.”

Today, if he goes to the post office, he meets five people who all have different views on what’s been published in his papers. “I don’t go to the supermarket anymore. I’d never get my groceries.”

The Flagstaff has a circulation of 11,000 and runs to 56 pages in full colour. The Rangitoto Observer, also fortnightly, has a similar circulation. Drent says the papers cover everything from ferry crashes to school fairs. Crime stories feature, but not excessively – Devonport has the lowest crime rate in New Zealand.

The Flagstaff has campaigned successfully against sales of synthetic cannabis in dairies and advocated for heritage protection. Drent won the best community reporter award in the Voyager Media Awards last year for an entry that included an investigation into rent hikes by a large property owner (he was nominated in that category again this year). The paper is fiercely local and tries to get at least 50 local faces in each issue. “People who live here trust the papers, even when they are divided on issues. With local papers, people feel they are part of something.”

He first thought about a second paper when he bought the Flagstaff in 1997, but the timing wasn’t right. Last year, Fairfax laid off 16 journalists on their Auckland communities, providing the impetus he needed. He thinks corporate owners have lost the plot.

He writes for both papers, covering local board meetings and sport. As well, he has one fulltime journalist and is recruiting for more. Both newspapers are online, but print serves his needs best. “Many people get very little in their letterboxes now. Readers like that it’s delivered. Advertisers like that, too.”

Matthew Farrell, editor of Ōmokoroa’s Lizard News. “It took me six weeks to get the paper off the ground and make a profit.”

Lizard News

Matthew Farrell

On a balmy March morning, the Beached on Blue Cafe at Ōmokoroa is a suntrap, filled with locals and holidaymakers enjoying good coffee and thumbing through the local paper. The editor, Matthew Farrell, is one of them, dressed inappropriately for the heat in motorcycle leathers. He and his wife have just bought bikes and are about to join the Ulysses Club; there’s an L plate on his rear fender. Farrell is enjoying a long black and looks pretty chipper. He launched his monthly paper Lizard News (the translation of Ōmokoroa is “place of the long lizard”) two years ago and is about to double its distribution. Ōmokoroa is a fast-growing Western Bay of Plenty seaside suburb, but Farrell believes his paper has relevance as far afield as Waihī Beach, 41km north. His new distribution plan will expand the print run from 5400 to 10,500 copies.

Farrell is an old-school, British-born editor with a view on everything from pokies (“no need for them here”) to the dangers kids face when they travel by bus to the nearest secondary school more than an hour away. He’s a spokesperson for the group “Fix the Bloody Road”. He believes editors should be the voice of their communities and, at times, should speak loudly. He may one day stand for mayor.

He began his career as a journalist in the UK, where he worked for Sky. When he and his wife Liz immigrated to New Zealand, he worked for radio stations in Auckland and later RNZ as their Bay of Plenty correspondent. He also edited the Stuff-owned Matamata Chronicle for a year. “Working on a community paper felt like putting on an old pair of shoes,” he says. “There was a lot of knocking on doors, going to A&P shows and standing on the side at rugby games. It was like being an amateur historian, recording events as they happened in the town.” He brought back court reporting and attended community board meetings.

He decided to launch his own paper after taking time out of paid work to be primary carer for his three children, one of whom is disabled. “When the credit card bill crept up, I thought I’d better do something.” Was he just buying himself a job? “It took me six weeks to get the paper off the ground and make a profit. I don’t cold-call to sell ads. Advertisers come to me.”

He won’t reveal his profit margin, but has paid off his debts and bought a new eight-seater car. He believes local newspapers are the glue that binds communities – and their time has come again. “It’s going back to the way it was in the old days when family-owned newspapers were run by people with ink in their veins, not dollar signs in their eyes.”

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of North & South.

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