24 Apr 2016

Natural history out of the vaults and onto the net

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 24 April 2016

A local magazine and a TV production company have teamed up to take high-quality natural history content out of the vaults and onto the net. But will people pay to see it?

The editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine James Frankham

The editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine James Frankham Photo: supplied

Two years ago, bi-monthly magazine New Zealand Geographic marked the magazine’s 25 years in print by digitising the entire output and making it all available to subscribers for free. The Ministry of Education licenced it for schools, making the archive available to teachers and students for free and also to many public libraries.


Publisher James Frankham didn’t stop there. New Zealand Geographic has teamed up with Dunedin-based NHNZ (formerly Natural History New Zealand) and launched a new digital streaming video service.


NHNZ grew out of TVNZ’s Natural History Unit in Dunedin, after the state-owned broadcaster's drift to Auckland and Wellington in the 1990s. Guided by Michael Stedman, it made programmes and supplied pictures seen around the world. NHNZ has produced programmes for - and with - international broadcasters including the Dicovery Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic TV and the BBC. In 1997 it was bought by US-based Fox International Channel and it has since opened offices in the US and China.


Mr Frankham says the new site www.nzgeo.com contains hours of natural history and documentary programming from NHNZ, much of which has never been screened here before, as well as thousands of stories and images from New Zealand Geographic's archive.


But this time, its not all for free.

What's the deal?

The site has a metered paywall, which allows users to read or watch five items a month free. Subscribers must sign up to see more for $1 a week on “an auto-renewing digital subscription”.

Mr Frankham says this follows the lead of the New York Times' paywall and it means New Zealand Geographic can promote stories through social media channels too.

“The technology to build the platform barely existed a couple of years ago,” says Mr Frankham, “and our commercial approach has changed as we’ve constructed it. I expect the settings to keep evolving over time as we learn from users’ behaviour and get better at serving people what they want.”


Will it pay off?

NZ Geographic’s richly-illustrated magazine stories and NHNZ’s high-quality video are a natural fit, but will enough subscribers and new customers shell out for the extra online content? And if they do, won't that mean fewer subscribing to the magazine or buying issues off the newsstands for $14.95 each? 

"(The digital edition) is a 'weightless' product online. We don't have the costs of printing or distributing it,"  James Frankham told Mediawatch. "Some will go digital, including people from overseas who are paying more for freight, but there will also be people who upgrade their print subscriptions to take advantage of the streaming television content". 

New Zealand Geographic looks not just at flora and fauna, but also our wider environment and society. In 2014 each magazine was devoted to coverage of one major issue for New Zealand’s future: Important subjects like land use, water pollution and waste, but one which might be harder to sell to a digital audience expecting an even more visual product. 

James Frankham says they won't shy away from such issues. He cites an upcoming story on methamphetamine. 


"If you want an ugly subject, that's it," he says. "In a digital form stories have to be more relevant. It should drag us closer to the focus of public conversation."


New Zealand Geographic's illustrated stories and NHNZ's documentaries take months to prepare and illustrate, but live multi-media websites demand a constant supply of new material. Will this partnership create enough fresh "blue chip" content to keep subscribers happy? 


We are introducing departments they will be digital-first, says James Frankham. "We will put new content  out for the digital audience that will later appear in print - and vice versa. Both media will serve each other. It's changing how we produce media."