12 May 2024

Bid to backstop local news in tight times

From Mediawatch, 9:08 am on 12 May 2024
The front page of the final edition of the Wairoa Star published last week.

The front page of the final edition of the Wairoa Star published last week. Photo: Wairoa Star

Local newspapers are under pressure and some places have already lost their local news outlets. The Wairoa Star closed last week, but journalists want to keep going. A bid to re-start the Star online could be a guide for others to survive.

This week New Zealand Herald political correspondent Audrey Young gave her weekly brickbat for the week to Green MP Julie Anne Genter “for traveling to the Chatham Islands instead of fronting up about her aggressive behaviour in Parliament.” 

“Not a great look, even if it was a pre-arranged trip,”  she said. 

Genter’s Rongotai electorate includes the Chathams - and she was there this week for a stakeholders meeting. 

Genter was under pressure to open up after confronting National MP Matt Doocey in Parliament last week. 

Newshub subsequently reported Genter had also put her hands on a florist in her electorate, who claimed Genter was angry. Another Wellington retailer alleged Genter had aggressively grabbed her arm once in her store.

TVNZ political editor Maiki Sherman tracked Genter down at Wellington airport on the way out. She got exclusive responses from Genter which led 1 News at Six on Tuesday, pushing the hunt for the Ponsonby Road gunman down the bulletin. 

Heading for the Chathams might seem like an extreme way of dodging the media, but would a politician under pressure find a media-free environment  800km away where less than 1000 people live?   

Last month RNZ’s daily podcast The Detail - a co-production with Newsroom - visited Aotea/Great Barrier Island and found a similar population served by two community papers, two radio stations and online outlets run by locals as well. 

But it’s not the same in the Chathams. 

A bit of online research turned up a monthly publication - The Chatham Islander - dating back to 2019, which had visiting government minister Peeni Henare on the cover. 

In February this year Chatham Islands mayor Monique Croon urged people to sign-up for the Council’s e-newsletter

"The loss of ‘The Chatham Islander’ has left a large gap for our Island communications, and I thank Rosemary for her contribution to our community. Sadly, the magazine was no longer viable despite advertising, subscriptions, and the offer of local support," she wrote.

The Chatham Islander was edited and published by Rosemary Graham in Christchurch, who this week told Mediawatch the monthly shut down for good during the Covid close-downs.

A council-run email bulletin might be better than nothing, but it would be far better to have journalism independent of the council informing Islanders about what it’s up to. 

Last week Wairoa in Hawke’s Bay lost its local daily paper after 102 years in print. 

The Herald’s owner NZME and The Gisborne Herald - which was acquired by NZME recently - both had had big stakes in the Star

Eleven jobs will go in total - including three dedicated reporters covering local news.

“We hope somehow a phoenix may rise,” business manager Sam Jackman told Mediawatch last week.

It seemed a bit late for that when the Star shut up shop last week - literally. 

The paper is headquartered in a shop on Marine Parade that’s also a copy shop and sells stationery - and that’s closing too. 

But the staff of the Star still want to keep the local journalism going. 

Former RNZ Hawke’s Bay reporter Peter Fowler is keen to make that happen too. 

Peter Fowler

Peter Fowler Photo: RNZ

“Local news is still very valuable. We were doing a lot of work with the Westport News on the West Coast and we've learned a lot about what the small newspapers are facing,” he said.

“What we developed is a way for that small newspaper to expand into a digital subscription service. And that also helps them expand into audio, as well as their traditional print and photographs.” 

Fowler is not just a journalist. He’s a digital media innovator and entrepreneur. 

Back in the 1990s he set up one of the first online New Zealand news sites - Newsroom - and when smartphones took off he developed VoxPop - an app media outlets can use to get high quality audio and feedback from people via their phones. 

His company Kinga Voxpop has also developed speech-to-text platforms to connect media outlets and audiences - and they are used by broadcasters in the US public media network NPR.  

“The first thing to deal with would be eliminating the cost of printing the (Wairoa Star).  But what’s not changing is the demand for local news. Newspapers are struggling to put out the product with the staff they've got.” 

Westport News turns 150 - The Westport News team: Front from left: printer Debbie Daniels, reporter Ellen Curnow, advertising manager Ray Curnow. Back from left: reporter Raquel Joseph, typesetter Brett Evans, office administrator Joanne Lavery, co-owner/chief reporter Lee Scanlon, proof reader Robyn Callaghan, manager Vanessa Neighbours, printer/driver Sharna Johnson, typesetter Ellen Herbert. Absent: drivers Jan Berry, KerriAnne Fussell, Kevin Vuglar

The Westport News team Photo: Supplied / Sheree Cargill Photography

“What we did with the Westport News  - through the Google News Initiative - is a way of incorporating a digital news service into the production process of the newspaper. Our software converts (stories) and images all into a digital app on iOS and Android.

“We want to encourage the existing small town newspapers to do it before (they) collapse.”

“If the Westport News is anything to go by - the town has a small population but 25 to 30 percent subscribes to the newspaper.

“First you need to determine the structure of the new business. We do a lot of work with public radio in the US, and donations and community input drive a huge amount of the revenue. I would recommend the community step up and build a not for profit trust with donations being tax deductible.

“Then you've got to raise funds for the initial months, even the first year, to hire three journalists, an editor and a business administrator.” 

Fowler said it was essential to convert as many existing subscribers to the Wairoa Star as possible - as well as those who paid $1.50 over the counter for a copy.

“You offer all the former newspaper subscribers a two-week free trial. If they want a trustworthy local news service that's going to reflect their community, we really want them to support this.”

“The journalists are part of the community ... and they report on things that directly impact the community. If you go to the local newspaper, (they) will raise it with the local powers for you. In the main centres, they don't give a damn about your pothole down the road.

“It can still pay its way, particularly if you add in sponsors. We've approached Rocket Lab, which has a launch pad in Wairoa. There's a huge opportunity there for them. Also, philanthropists and even local government.

“Local government spends a huge amount of money ... to interact with people. They could divert even just a small amount of that towards this and it would make life a lot better for everyone.”

Peter Fowler has also worked with local community access broadcaster Hawke's Bay Radio and has created an app that's also part of the region’s emergency information system.

“There are about 14 local access stations around New Zealand. They are a really valuable resource. But during Cyclone Gabrielle, they simply weren't resourced to mount coverage of the disaster.

“Thirty years ago when I started in journalism, Bay City Radio in Napier had a newsroom of five journalists, an editor and even a rural reporter. That infrastructure has completely gone.

“What we're doing now with Radio Hawke's Bay can tie in with the Wairoa Star and all local media. Our application enables people to make a recording and send it and then it's transcribed to text.

“If we could expand that, by drawing in local media and cooperating with each other, then that sort of model could be expanded to all the community stations nationally.

“This is an essential public service - and a not-for-profit is a good way to go because if it becomes successful, the owners aren't just going to flick it off to a bigger company or shut it down during a downturn which is what's happening to a lot of our old newspapers.”