It shrunk its weekend edition back in 2000 and it joined an exclusive club when it implemented a paywall late last year. Now The Ashburton Guardian has continued to forge ahead and made the switch to a compact format for its Monday to Friday paper after 134 years in broadsheet.
Editor Coen Lammers says the reaction from readers has been overwhelmingly positive, but being a small community paper with a lot of interaction with its readers, he was fairly sure that would be the case anyway.
When the weekend paper changed to the compact format, he says subscribers lauded the approach. Lammers had wanted to switch the weekday paper to the same format for a number of years but struggled to convince advertisers to get on board with the idea.
Following The New Zealand Herald’s switch to compact last year and the generally positive response that followed, the Guardian’s advertisers gave the idea the all clear, even though their advertising space would likely diminish.
Lammers told StopPress that being independently owned and catering to a small community meant the paper could force through the creative move more easily than the big players like APN and Fairfax. However, he also says that APN and its general manager Laura Franklin gave them a lot of support and help with the move to the compact format.
“You have one owner and a hundred-plus key advertisers, and if they’re all happy about it then you just go.”
He says being able to easily gauge what its relatively small number of readers thought about the proposed switch to the compact format reinforced the decision.
The format change is accompanied by a design revamp, including a new masthead logo that combines the paper’s initials.
Lammers says although the paper is now smaller, its story count is in fact probably higher because it is encouraging its contributors to write more concisely to allow for more content and photos.
Today’s edition contains over 40 photos, an addition which Lammers thinks is special for a community paper.
The switch follows the Guardian’s implementation of a paywall for all online content in November. The cost for subscribers is included in their print subscription, and there are about 100 non-print subscribers paying solely for online content.
Despite murmurings that this model couldn’t work, the mid-Canterbury community has been largely supportive of the move.
“I’ve been quite surprised. There’s hardly been any negative feedback at all.”
The New Zealand Herald unsuccessfully tried to charge users for premium content a number of years ago, and most large publishers are currently exploring the options for paid content as online advertising is failing to make up the shortfall from lost print advertising, but Lammers thinks the fact that The Ashburton Guardian caters to a small community means the move has been a successful one.
“I think having a paid subscription model in a smaller market where you dominate is much easier than when you are a big metropolitan where people can go to six, seven other different websites to get the same information.”
So what’s next for this ambitious little independent paper? Lammers says its freedom gives it the opportunity to play with ideas that other papers may be too timid to tackle, so it’s not afraid to make big moves.