The little Kiwi newspaper that could - and still does

by Ryan Keen / 23 February, 2018

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Regional newspapers should be first in line for the axe, writes one former editor. Photo / Getty Images

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This week Stuff (formerly Fairfax Media) announced it was calling time on 28 regional newspapers. Are community newspapers doomed to fail? Ryan Keen was editor of Queenstown's Mountain Scene for five years. Here's his take on the state of regional news.

Back when Bill English’s vast Clutha-Southland electorate boundary shifted to include the Wakatipu and along with it New Zealand’s tourism capital Queenstown, he would frequently drop into the offices of Mountain Scene newspaper unannounced for a chinwag.

The man who once sent the paper a Christmas card made out to “the only media outlet in NZ which treats me like a celebrity” was always good company – with humour as dry as toast. We used to enjoy teasing him that the boundary change meant he finally had somewhere in his electorate he would enjoy visiting. During one drop-in as he leafed through the pages of the latest edition of Queenstown’s free but feisty tabloid community weekly he looked at me, leaning back lazily in his chair, with that big goofy grin of his, and said: “Why is this paper so bloody good each week?”

Yes, Bill could be a charmer. But he also wasn’t prone to hyperbole so I took it as sincere and couldn’t help but share his view, even if I had a slight bias being editor at the time. Mountain Scene was bloody good - every single week. Still is.

“Two reasons mainly,” I told him. “Firstly, this place is so bloody interesting to write about. Secondly, two of the guys on our staff have been here doing this for about 60 years between them.”

Not too many people came, went or got ripped off in booming Queenstown without the late Frank Marvin - Mountain Scene’s godfather, former part-owner, editorial tone setter, commercial brains and fearless watchdog journalist – or the mercurial editor-at-large Philip ‘Scoop’ Chandler finding out about it.

They knew everyone and everything that moved in that town. At the time I arrived, they were nearing three decades each at Mountain Scene. Time had not diminished one iota their enthusiasm for covering the good, bad, ugly and – at times - completely irrelevant comings and goings of the place.

Their testament is a proud history shining a light on whitewater rafting cowboys in the 1990s, guarding against potential privatisation of community assets in the 2000s, railing for an equitable slice of health funding more latterly, and giving any timeshare peddlers who were scamsters hell regularly.

Scoop loves to break an exclusive – it is sport to him and he does it weekly without fail. From the first interview with Queenstown bungy pioneer AJ Hackett after his near-fatal North Island car crash a few years back to big leaks from the local council, he never missed. Among his biggest was from a tip-off about the arrest of a local lawyer and councillor - predicted by some to be the next mayor - on charges of accessing and paying for child porn online.

The accused later plead guilty in court to two counts of importing objectionable material through the internet, but not before Frank had called him up and published his intended plea of guilty in single quotes on the front page the week after Scoop’s exclusive.

Scoop also once pitched up a photo he had taken of three local women who intriguingly all shared the same first and last name – Rach Rose. From memory, we stuck that delightfully ridiculous picture story on page three. For Scoop, who is as passionate about getting in a community brief on some local upcoming charity event to a ball-tearer on the front page, it satisfied him as much as any story he’d ever done.

I remember when I first arrived in 2004. I spent about three months trying to find out something Scoop didn’t know. I failed. I almost gave up when one of my best friends from Auckland emailed me to say he’d moved to Queenstown and inquired if I was there. As I read the email at work, I yelled out to Scoop – and this is a true story – that one of my best mates had arrived a few weeks back and was working in a local bar.

“Yeah, James,” Scoop replied. “Met him the other night, lovely guy, he said he knew you from uni.”

Alongside Scoop and Frank was a great team of hardworking journalists, professional, tenacious ad sales staff and a front office crew without peer. Former editor Garry Ferris and designer Orlagh Allcorn oversaw a dramatic makeover in the mid-2000s which dragged its look and production into the 21st Century.

Locals lapped it up. Frank’s annual readership surveys throughout the 2000s revealed some obscene penetration figures with percentages consistently in the mid to high 90s. That is unheard of.

For every man woman and child in town, more than nine out of 10 were picking it up and reading. That’s unreal – but that’s the power of community news done well and done boldly.

Frank, who understood the hyper-local beast as well as anyone I've met passed away a few years ago, but Scoop continues to fight the good fight under new editor Paul Taylor, a solid English journalist I hired whose sense of humour rivals Bill’s for its dryness and also wit.

Importantly, he’s got balls too as evidenced by the fact he’s continuing recent editor Dave Williams' controversial move to name and shame the town’s drink drivers each week in a bid to arrest its appalling record on that front. I wished I’d thought of doing that. Frank would have cheered that one.

For 40 years, the paper, founded by accountant and Skyline tourism giant big cheese Barry Thomas, was independently owned. A year or so before I departed in 2014, Thomas sold it to Allied Press, the owners of flagship Dunedin paper Otago Daily Times, among many other publications.

I was dismayed at the time – the independent ownership of the paper was something I personally was a major fan of. And I liked and admired Thomas a lot – in large part because about the only thing he ever ordered me to do whilst editor was “get a haircut”.

I also enjoyed it when we gave Thomas – the best kind of arms-length newspaper owner - or his company Skyline some stick in print, treating them just like everyone else.

But Allied and its Dunedin blue-blood owners, the Smith brothers, actually proved to be good new stewards. One, they recognised the paper had its own style and flavour and there was no point subsuming it into how they did things editorially, given the longstanding success of what some locals affectionately referred to as ‘the Mounting Scream’.

But on top of that, they supported the operation with some of their resources without impacting its unique style and voice. Not an easy balance to pull off because the tendency of bigger companies is to impose their way of doing things on the smaller company they have just acquired, which often results in the stripping away of the reasons they wanted it in the first place.  

I still remember Allied’s Julian Smith walking into the Scene offices for the first time after the deal and casually noting he’d better increase the company’s libel insurance (in truth Mountain Scene was only ever successfully sued once but the paper does have a reputation).

Thank Christ, it didn’t get bought by Fairfax – which a few years earlier had snapped up Mountain Scene’s bold but ill-fated attempt at a Dunedin version of Mountain Scene, called D Scene. D Scene’s execution and operation had its flaws but its purchase by Fairfax, seemingly its saviour at the time, proved to be its death warrant. They closed D Scene about two years later.

The news of the pending demise of 28 of their community mastheads across New Zealand is certainly sad to hear about though not a shock.

It is heartening to read about the sale by NZME of the Wairarapa Times-Age into local ownership in mid-2016. A rare bright spot on the print landscape of late, it is the best way for the local print publications to go – if you can find the right type of owner. Someone like a thick-skinned, shrewd bean counter like Barry Thomas who trusts you to do your job and limits their involvement in the editorial operation to stocking the beer fridge and funding defamation lawyers, there is still hope.

There's no doubt print is doing it tough but the last bastion really should be the hyper-local rags – they shouldn't be the first cab off the rank for axing in the face of the online onslaught. Mountain Scene, whilst thriving in part because of the engaged, energetic, entrepreneurial, village-esque nature of that amazing town, remains an example of how a watchdog weekly freebie can be sustainable and worth putting out.

The paper is still proving that with smart, targeted editorials such as the drink-drink name and shame commitment – I mean, who wouldn’t want to pick that up?

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