21 Feb 2016

Is the writing on the wall for our papers?

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 21 February 2016

Most media bosses still say newspapers won't die during their lifetime, but do recent events mean it is time to reconsider? Mediawatch asks a former editor startled by slow sales at his local dairy just how long they will last here.

When Fairfax Media’s staff were told there would be an announcement on Tuesday this week, they feared the worst. New Zealand's biggest news publisher has carried out several restructures and rounds of redundancies in recent years, and three human resource officers were to take part in the teleconference announcement.   

The fears turned out to be founded for those working at the company’s offshoot Fairfax Editorial Services, whose journalists produce pages for Fairfax's New Zealand and Australian newspapers. Fairfax executives across the Tasman plan to outsource the Australian work to an Australian-owned company. The upshot? 70 New Zealand jobs could be cut.


Is the death of the newspaper closer than we thought? Photo: 123RF

The slumping bottom line 

It's all about saving money. Like many of today's news media companies, Fairfax in Australia is under huge financial pressure to cut costs. Fewer people are buying long-established papers like The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age in Melbourne. Advertisers - following the readers - are migrating to the internet, where plenty of news can be found for free and reaching a large audience is much cheaper. 

This past week, leaked documents revealed some radical proposals the Fairfax top brass across the ditch have been pondering.The News Corp-owned Australian - which likes nothing better than stories about its rival newspapers' problems - reported this: 

Fairfax Media has conducted detailed analysis to estimate how many staff could be cut if the publisher stopped printing its flagship metropolitan newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne."

Fairfax insisted this was merely blue-sky thinking put to them by consultants almost three years ago, which never went any further. But The Australian reckoned there is no smoke without fire 

"The news comes at a time when Fairfax is implementing its cost-cutting programme, with a major restructure expected this year," the paper reported. "It also comes just days after news broke that Britain’s The Independent would shut its print edition next month." 

 The Independent, which once shared owners with the New Zealand Herald, will become the first of the UK’s national daily papers to give up on a print edition and go online-only. It won't be the last.

Here, this week's announcement that The Dargaville & District News is to close made fewer headlines. It will be replaced by content attached to Fairfax's online local network Neighbourly.

Across the Tasman, Fairfax Media recently reported a small lift in profits, thanks in part to its online real estate website. but will digital developments really save the day for newspapers?  Not according to US media pundit (and biographer of Rupert Murdoch) Michael Wolff. In a piece for USA Today, called "Print’s dead — but so is digital", he said so-called legacy media companies couldn't compete with loss-making but well-backed, online-only media companies which are pulling in far more online traffic.

In a way, it might be good news to have at least clarified the point that digital is not the future of the news business. And to acknowledge that, in some farsighted new thinking, print might have some striking advantages — such that ads can’t be blocked. Of course, the bad news is to have realized this well after the digital promise has all but destroyed the business. But better late than never."

- Michael Wolff 

Does it make any difference if the news in on paper or online?

Former newspaper editor Roy Greenslade thinks so. He wrote in The Guardian this week:

In a world without newsprint, will journalists be able to carry out their central mission to prevent government, big business and the various institutions from doing as they like?"

It's a question we will have to confront in New Zealand too. 

Tim Murphy was the editor at The Herald for 13 years until June last year. This week he tweeted a forlorn photo of unsold editions of his former paper.

Photo of former new Zealand herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy

Former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy Photo: RNZ/ Dru Faulkner

"I asked (the dairy owner) about the Sunday papers. He said it was the same. It's not just The Herald or this market. It's the question of getting people to pay when they can get news online at all times without paying. Nothing new in that, but the pace of it is continuing to surprise," he said. 

Tim Murphy told Mediawatch papers here will still have readers for at least another generation and a half, but in just ten years from now they may not be be much like the papers we have now.

"They will need to be smaller circulation with more valuable content within them and more expensive per issue. The secret is the value. You can't just warm over stuff people have seen already," Mr Murphy said.  

It's also possible publishers will give up printing on some days of the week, he said, but that may not help cut costs by much.

How long left? 

So when will the printed Herald come to an end altogether? 

"2116," he says confidently, but with tongue in cheek. 

"To say the last one will be delivered to a house on Dominion Road in 2024 is specious. That sort of prediction has been found out time and time again down the years," he said.