Up Country: the Otago Daily Times' Barry Stewart on the enduring power of local journalism, people power and the joy of Super Rugby victory

  • Up Country, brought to you by News Works
  • October 2, 2015
  • StopPress Team
Up Country: the Otago Daily Times' Barry Stewart on the enduring power of local journalism, people power and the joy of Super Rugby victory

In conjunction with News Works, the Up Country series talks with some of New Zealand's top regional newspaper editors about the performance of their titles in print and online, the role local news plays in regional communities, where they see the industry going and why advertisers should stick with them. First up, Barry Stewart, the newly appointed editor of the Otago Daily Times. 

The Otago Daily Times has always focused intently on its region. Do you feel like this ‘hyperlocal’ approach is coming back into vogue as news becomes increasingly commoditised? And does this put regional newspapers like yours in a better position than some of the larger metros?

Well, from our perspective, the concentrated coverage of events, issues and the people in our region has never gone out of fashion. Our 'hyper-local' approach is certainly working for us and has been for more than 150 years. You know what you are getting when you subscribe or purchase a copy of the Otago Daily Times – focused coverage of the issues and people in the South. We have won industry awards on the back of our strong local coverage and it’s a formula that consistently gets results in our market and that is reflected today in our strong circulation and readership figures.

So, yes, I believe we have a significant advantage over some of the larger metros. Nothing beats local news. New technologies, social media and other methods of delivery are transforming the media environment – and the Otago Daily Times and the www.odt.co.nz site are embracing these opportunities – but it is the exclusive hyper-local coverage of events that readers value and gives us a significant point of difference over other media outlets. Good journalism will prevail on whatever platform it’s delivered. But there is a cost to that, of course, and that is the challenge in an environment where advertising revenues are shrinking.

How important is the Otago Daily Times to the region—and the region’s businesses?

Newspapers obviously have a vital role in the democratic process, challenging central and local government and holding them to account over issues that impact on their communities and readers. But of equal importance is the role newspapers can play in celebrating excellence - on the sports field, in the community and in business. Newspapers are often accused of dwelling on the negative, and we have had our fair share of job losses and business closures. But newspapers are also a powerful unifying voice. 

It’s a tough market for newspapers at the moment, both here and around the world. But the Otago Daily Times increased its readership in the latest figures and circulation has held steady. What do you put that down to?

We respect and understand our market. The quality of our journalism has endured and we are a trusted and authoritative voice in the South. It’s all about being relevant and that's what we do best and that’s why our readers support us like no other paper in the country. We are slightly old-fashioned in the sense that we still cover every court sitting and city and district council meetings. We are covering the issues that impact on people's daily lives and it is to the newspaper that people look for the answers to what is happening in their community.

Do you think there’s a misperception in the market about the viability of regional newspapers and the role they play in the community? Why should advertisers stick with them?

Regional newspapers are bucking the trend of falling circulation and readership. The Otago Daily Times is clearly focused on its region and that is valued by readers. Just have a look at our market penetration, it’s outstanding. Advertisers get great value and reach and it is delivered by a respected and trusted brand.

  • See if you know heaps or stuff all about the regions by doing our 'how regional are you?' quiz here
  • To find out more on specific regions, check out News Works' mix of interesting facts here.
  • And check out the most recent newspaper circulation and readership results here

Which stories or campaigns stick out as the best examples of what the Otago Daily Times does best?

Photo: Craig Baxter

The cause of saving neurosurgical services in the South in 2010 was a no-brainer for the Otago Daily Times and former editor Murray Kirkness [who is now weekday editor at the Herald]. At the heart of the issue was the proposal to remove neurosurgery from Dunedin Hospital and relocate it to Christchurch. The campaign, 'It's a no-brainer: Neurosurgery - keep it here', generated an extraordinary response as Otago and Southland spoke, wrote and marched in unison. And in an unprecedented show of purpose, two fierce rivals, the Otago Daily Times and The Southland Times, joined forces to launch a petition across the Southern region, calling on the then Health Minister Tony Ryall to retain neurosurgery services in Dunedin. More than 40,000 signatures, gathered in a mere two weeks, were presented to Parliament by the editors of both papers.

The Otago Daily Times produced a form letter in the newspaper and online in the early part of the campaign and the enthusiastic response to this from readers added considerable weight to the argument. More than 31,000 forms landed on the desk of Mr Ryall. There was also lively and passionate debate in the letters columns of the paper and also online.

It proved a touchstone issue. The Otago Daily Times played a leading role in organising a street march, which attracted up to 10,000 people. And while it demonstrated how effective newspapers can be in mobilising such a campaign, the momentum and strength was in its overwhelming claims to natural justice and fairness, not to mention patient safety and economics.

Proudly, this newspaper led the way and our headline after the panel's decision on November 10 in Wellington, said it all: 'YOU SAVED IT'.

How would you characterise the typical ODT reader? Do you think there are some inaccurate stereotypes in the major cities about the type of people who live in the region?

I'm not sure what those stereotypes are. If it is hard-working, loyal, generous and caring with mix of a canny business sense and outstanding sporting and cultural achievement, then I would settle for that. The people in the South are a special breed, where a handshake often seals the deal. The community spirit is a rare and special quality. The tremendous response when called on to save the neurosurgical services in Dunedin was a classic example of this. The Otago Daily Times provided the platform and encouragement, but it was our people who marched, signed petitions, wrote letters and protested. They did it because they cared. They cared about their family and friends, but most of all they cared about ensuring the community was safe. They then dipped into their pockets and donated money to ensure the service would be here for future generations. That's the defining spirit of Otago, and that's why we are proud to live and work in this region - it has special people. Oh, and did I mention the Highlanders are the Super Rugby champions. 

You’re new in the editor’s chair, but you’ve been with Allied Press for years. What is your vision for the newspaper, the website and the company as a whole?

The Otago Daily Times has fashioned an enviable reputation as a newspaper of record throughout its long and distinguished history, but clearly decisions and actions need to be taken now to secure and consolidate its future. With the endless upheaval in technology, reader habits and the entire business model, it has to pursue smart new strategies for growing its audience. Our numbers are impressive, so the challenge is to future proof the company and keep pace with a rapidly changing media environment.

I will be looking at establishing a more digitally focused integrated newsroom that can thrive in a landscape of constant change. That means rethinking our print-centric traditions, hiring and empowering the right digital talent and looking at other revenue streams for the company. The Otago Daily Times is not at a stage where it has to adopt a total digital first strategy, but we do need to reintroduce ourselves to the public. In fact, the industry as a whole needs to launch a campaign to highlight the reach and effectiveness of newspapers.

The ODT and its associated community newspapers have got the South covered, and that's a huge position of strength from which to launch. We are redesigning our online site at www odt.co.nz and will be introducing a long overdue mobile phone application to extend our reach in the market. But the million dollar question is how do we make online pay? Are paywalls the answer or will ad blocking applications bring it all tumbling down? So let's not write off print just yet. They wrote off the Highlanders last season and look what happened.

And what do you think the Otago Daily Times will look like in five years?

Well, I'm actually more concerned about how it's going to look in the next five months. We have been working on a number of design changes to provide a cleaner and brighter platform in which to showcase our journalism. Shorter stories, more fact and context panels and other changes to our storytelling designed to capture and engage readers. Watch this space.

Younger readers are increasingly getting their news online and there are quite a few of them in Dunedin. How are you engaging with that audience?

That’s obviously a real opportunity and challenge for us. We are investing in the future with our outstanding and award-winning Extra! newspapers in education programme. This initiative drives circulation but importantly gives children from years 5 to 10 a hands-on newspaper experience. We publish 11 editions of Extra! a year and run spelling and current events quizzes in Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin and Central Otago.

The Influx of students each year at the University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic is a more difficult nut to crack. We offer special subscription deals and target student related content online and on Facebook. We will also be looking at adopting some new strategies with the introduction of a new mobile application.

The Otago Daily Times is one of the few papers in the country that’s still independently owned. What advantages does that provide?

"Have you got a minute.” Yes, certainly, Sir Julian. That is a common call to the editor and a common response. It's not about editorial interference, rather it's a vital link in the decision-making process. The owners of Allied Press, Sir Julian and Nick Smith, are passionate newspaper men, and appreciate the traditions and requirements. This gives the editor remarkable and direct access to be able to push through ideas and projects. Our independence is an undoubted strength and point of difference in today's media environment. 

There’s always been plenty of competition among the newspaper publishers in Central Otago. Do you feel like you’ve won that battle now? And how does Allied Press make use of all the other regional and community papers it owns?

Let’s just say we have got the south pretty well covered. Most of our regional publications run independently under the direction of a Dunedin-based Communities editor. Reporters from these titles do, however, contribute to the Otago Daily Times when there is a gap in our coverage.

Give us your most impressive stat about Otago and/or the Otago Daily Times?

Of all the newspapers surveyed by Nielsen in the latest rundown, the Otago Daily Times was by far the standout performer, lifting its readership year on year by 9,000 readers. Across a week the ODT reaches 81 percent of home owners, 65 percent of the top three occupations, 70 percent of the top three socio economic levels. And an Otago stat. Did I mention we are the Super Rugby champions? 

Be honest, have you ever burnt a couch?

I plead the fifth. 

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