There's no denying that in this digital age, where, as the famous geek saying goes, 'information wants to be free', the print media industry has suffered. Many publications have died and some are only just holding on, but others have stuck to their guns, adapted where necessary and managed to maintain their audience—and their advertisers. And North & South, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary in March, is one of those publications.
ACP's business position is unequivocal: information is definitely not free. It prides itself on being a content provider and believes consumers will pay for this quality content, whether it be in print form or, increasingly, with the recent arrival of tablet computing on the scene, electronically (North & South was the first New Zealand magazine to release an iPad app). And, while the decline of the weekly magazine segment is a global phenomenon that doesn't look likely to change anytime soon, many special interest magazines, as well as those with an investigative bent, continue to perform solidly and, in many cases, grow.
North & South's editor Virginia Larson says the fact that the magazine's readership is increasing is a tribute to the investment ACP makes in quality writers and photographers and also suggests there's still "a real appetite for long-form journalism and lengthier investigative stories", something the magazine has focused on from the outset.
"In the current market, we're one of the only magazines doing in-depth pieces," she says. "But people are time-poor these days, so we try to give them some big grunty stories and some short pieces."
Sending staff "far from base" so they can get their hands dirty means the travel budget is always stretched to the absolute limit, but the ability to reach "every corner of the country" is something Larson believes is crucial to North & South's continued success.
She says it would be fair to say the glory days for New Zealand publications were in the 90s when there were far fewer titles and far fewer choices for entertainment. But a lot of the doom and gloom, she says, seems to be more relevant to newspapers than magazines.
"People still seem to like the tactile experience of a magazine. That has some value in itself," she says. "And if a teenager will spend $1.79 for one song, you can see there is a model where people will pay for content. The reality is that it costs to have the top journalists and photographers."
The digital realm is certainly proving convenient for the readers, but she believes it also offers amazing opportunities for advertisers to show off their wares and create added value, as the amazing Wired iPad app demonstrates clearly.
"I would say there is pressure on circulation for many titles," she says. "But our message to advertisers is if the readers trust the editorial, if the magazine has integrity, then we believe that is reflected on your product."
In these more frugal times, editorial and advertising seem much happier to cuddle up, as evidenced by the rise of the 'promotional feature', both in North & South and in many other titles. But for Larson, it's still all about storytelling. And while bloggers may have opinions, few of them are investigators. And, as such, she thinks the arts of storytelling, investigating and editing, an important filter when there is so much information now available, can't be underestimated.
"Computers still can't write. For good journalism, you have to send people out into the field to do the research."
When North & South was born in 1986, it was intended to be something of a regional companion to the Auckland-centric Metro, which was established in 1981. And while Larson says it is still slightly better represented in regional areas, it appears as though the son is gradually eating the father because Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show Metro, which had a bit of a horror run with bad covers and bad newsstand sales after Simon Wilson took over as editor last year, is perilously close to falling under the 10,000 net circulation mark. While its legacy has meant advertisers still seem to be willing to shell out to be seen there, more than a few observers are wondering when the tipping point will be reached.
The pages of North & South, on the other hand, are regularly filled with ads for 4WDs, expensive coffee and swanky wine and, despite questions about how it would cope in the post-Robyn Langwell era, total net circulation is currently at 28,800 (this is down from a high of 38,343 in 2005, but circ has been fairly consistent over the years and hasn't slipped quite as far as many other titles) and readership is hovering around 300,000 (and judging by the letters Larson receives, most of the readers are "pretty bloody smart").
While the editorial content of the magazine aims to capture life in New Zealand (back in the formative, slightly more agrarian days, there was plenty of what Larson refers to as "horsey stuff" featured), the ads also offer an interesting window into Kiwi culture. The evolution of coffee ads, she says, starting with Inca coffee substitute and moving on to the likes of Robert Harris and Allpress, shows how New Zealand's attitudes to coffee have changed over the years. And the same goes for our growing penchant for quality food and wine.
As for Larson's highlights over the years, there are plenty, from the controversial columns of Rosemary McLeod "("the letters!"), to the beginnings of Jo Seager's culinary career in the magazine's pages, to the story about Arthur Allan Thomas, to the many interviews with playwright Roger Hall, someone "whose plays really reflected that middle New Zealand condition". There was even one story about car crashes that a judge made convicted drink drivers read as part of their rehabilitation.
The only major issue, she says, was a defamation case that was brought against the magazine by David Lange after an article by political scientist Joe Atkinson described him a lazy prime minister. In a 1998 judgment, and on appeal in 2000, the courts affirmed a new qualified privilege for the media to discuss politicians when expressing the criticisms as the "honest opinion" of the author (Larson believes the case "changed the course of defamation law in [the media's] favour").
It's certainly been an interesting first 25 years for North & South. And only a fool would dare predict what the industry will look like 25 years from now. But, at a time when the journalistic mantra often seems to be 'first is better than right', the magazine seems to have its priorities right. And, in a just world, it will still be here telling New Zealand's stories for a while yet.
- For the marketers out there, North & South is on booking and material deadline this week for the March issue. And, even though the timeframe for advertiser involvement is really tight, there are still some really good advertising positions available for brands hoping to get involved in the celebrations.