Media Management : The Web Is Not All

Conventional wisdom is that newspapers are doomed – going the way of the dinosaurs in brave, new electronic world. This belief is firmly fixed – as so many things are – on the American experience where newspapers, including illustrious and time-honoured titles, are crashing like pins in bowling alley.
But, as is also often the case, the American experience is of limited relevance elsewhere. Reasons why the daily press is in deep trouble in the United States include: ownership by debt-ridden conglomerates in largely self-inflicted financial straits; owners with little newspaper history much more interested in bottom-line than in quality journalism; regional and local TV stations that ‘deliver’ cost-effective audiences to advertisers; competing morning and evening dailies in markets where there is no longer room for both; poor management that has panicked over the internet while producing stodgy newspapers and slashing newsroom staff – their lifeblood.
Take global perspective, and the newspaper business is not on its deathbed. The World Association of Newspapers reported in late May 1.3 percent increase in newspaper circulation world-wide in 2008. While most of that growth was in countries like India, digital delivery was also increasing total readership in the developed world. The reality is that newspapers are going to have an increasingly symbiotic relationship with the internet.
How to compete or cooperate with website babble and blogger bedlam are continuing issues – but it’s matter of adaptation rather than surrender. It was, after all, not so long ago that television was going to bury newspapers. The Americans seem to have had no online strategy: they put everything on their websites, the public said ‘thank you’ and stopped buying newspapers. There is now an argument raging about whether online content should be paid for or free – long after that particular horse is happily grazing several paddocks away.
More relevant says Tim Pankhurst, former Dominion Post editor and newly appointed head of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, is how to manage the mix of newsprint and online content.
“Because radio and number of internet websites will be doing it, it makes sense to get ‘breaking news’ up on your site as quickly as possible,” says Pankhurst. “But it makes even more sense to hold onto exclusive stories no-one else has – investigative pieces or even local court and council reports – for the next print edition.”
How well are New Zealand newspapers surviving? Evening newspapers have largely gone and today, there are five main centre and 17 provincial dailies in country with population half the size of the Chicago metropolitan area, which has two dailies, both recently filing for bankruptcy. In 2007, New Zealand newspapers billed record advertising revenue of $827 million; although this dipped by $66 million in 2008, newspapers have clung to their lead with 32.8 percent of total advertising media ‘spend’. While the proportion of adult New Zealanders reading newspapers has shrunk over the past 15 years, total daily newspaper circulation is, depending on how it is measured, declining slowly rather than plummeting.
Again there are number of reasons: strong reading tradition and high literacy levels; small regional populations and parochialism that television can’t cater for cost-efficiently; and, until very recently, highly profitable sector not nearly as indebted as its US counterpart. Possibly most important, there has been time to watch developments in the United States, to not make the same blunders and be more innovative, as Fairfax demonstrated with its purchase of Trade Me. Certainly, critical employment and real estate advertising has plunged in recent months, but this is the predictable pattern in recessions.
The cacophony of noise – much of it prejudiced, self-indulgent and often inaccurate – emanating from the internet shows very clearly why newspapers and their journalists have future. Newspaper companies may increasingly ‘deliver’ information differently, but they will do so with the advantage of having, as well as long-established credibility, the largest, best-equipped staffs of content creators in the communities they serve.
But the leadership skills of those heading the country’s newspaper companies will be critical as they face current and future challenges. Alan Burnet, who transformed the Dominion into Independent Newspapers, still watches developments with sharp, analytical eye. His ability to pick key staffers and his determination to preserve sound balance sheet were critical back then – and he believes they are today. “I believe it’s going to be important for the two Australia media conglomerates to have New Zealanders heading operations here and they must keep close watch on indebtedness levels,” he says.
Tim Pankhurst agrees – there are definitely cultural nuances between the trans-Tasman neighbours. In the newspaper game at least, he says, you can’t simply import the Australian experience and expect it to work here. Or the American one, he might have added.

Ian F Grant was founding director of National Business Review and founded the NZ Cartoon Archive at the National Library in Wellington. He is currently researching his 15th book, history of New Zealand newspapers from 1840 to the present day.

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