The day the news didn’t die

Newspapers, according to the latest readership and circulation figures, are still holding on and, in some rare cases, adding readers. So why, when the commonly held view is that newspapers are dead—or at least dying—does New Zealand appear to be bucking an international trend?

Tim Pankhurst, chief executive of The Newspaper Publishers Association, says the latest figures are in line with what was expected. He admits it’s a tale of two trajectories at the moment, with readership and circulation remaining fairly stable and ad revenue decreasing substantially, to the point where it was overtaken by TV as the most popular medium for the first time last year according to the ASA figures.

That decreasing revenue is obviously a big problem for the newspaper industry, and it has led to plenty of cost-cutting, job losses, occasional closures and soul searching here around the world (check out a very detailed report on the state of the US newspaper industry here).

In New Zealand, newspapers lost $42 million of ad revenue in 2011 and came in with a total of $582 million. And it has lost around $250 million in ad revenue since 2005, although the ASA notes “newspapers advise the figure reported is not a comparative measure with other main media which derive the majority of their revenue from national and retail advertising sources”. But Pankhurst says the industry doesn’t expect any dramatic dips and “it’s going to be around that level this year”. And, while he says very few publishers in New Zealand would call it the lucky country, newspapers were overtaken by TV a long time ago in many overseas markets, so it’s probably not a bad lot in comparison.

Unlike the UK and the US, New Zealand doesn’t really have a national newspaper and he says there are quite distinct markets, which means regional newspapers are still very strong, as evidenced by the spike in readership for the regional dailies.

Pankhurst says a paper like the Otago Daily Times, which has long been unashamedly parochial, has been “rock solid” in terms of readership and circulation because it knows its audience so well and, like many other papers serving their regions, it is still the best place to get a helping of local news.

Pankhurst says the industry—and the industry body—is getting its act together and the recent ‘Newspaper Works’ campaign by Special Group aimed to show it is “still a very strong medium and newspapers still have a very important role to play in New Zealand” (one of the messages in the campaign is that 1.6 million New Zealanders over 15 read a newspaper every day, which is more than the audience of TVNZ TV1 and TV3 combined).

In addition to this trade campaign, the NAB and NPA are becoming one, the Canon Media Awards have been given a spruce up, there’s a new website in development, and the newspaper ad of the year awards will be taken up a notch this year.

Convincing a generation that has grown up with tablets and free online content to pay for an actual paper will be a massive challenge, foreign online news sites are alluring for many Kiwi readers, and a big chunk of the classified, local and recruitment ad revenue that newspapers once controlled is now firmly locked up online.

On the other side of the coin, $582 million of ad revenue is “still a hell of a lot of hay”; some—but certainly not all—of the ads are migrating to the paper’s online news sites, which aren’t counted in the newspaper revenue category; and unlike free-to-air, radio and most other media, newspapers also get revenue from paid sales (copies of newspapers purchased at over 30 percent of cover price now count as circ for newspapers, compared to 50 percent for magazines).

Media is a tough game, no matter what sector you’re in, but adversity often forces publishers to innovate. And, as Pankhurst says, looking at the medium term, despite the pervading beliefs of some, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom.

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