Independent draws last breath, Fairfax looks on the bright side

The Independent newspaper is on its death bed and, as of 1 July, will cease to exist. But the newspaper’s owner, Fairfax Media, seems surprisingly upbeat about its passing.

It’s been a slow death (some would say a prolonged life) for The Independent, which was launched in 1992 and purchased by Fairfax in 2006. One business journalist spoken to says it was once a credible alternative to the National Business Review, which certainly had to up its game in response to the new competition. But it’s been a long time since the “plucky little rag” was seen as a legitimate challenger.

The figures certainly bear that out: as of December 2009, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation figures, the NBR had 9198 paid subscribers for its print edition, about three times as many as the The Independent (and that’s before factoring in the NBR’s paid online subscribers).

In fact, the Independent doesn’t really even have a web presence (it did have a website for a while but that didn’t last long), just a subscription page that, despite the news of its demise, is still live today. And, in what could be seen as a sad indication of the publication’s current health, there’s also a banner that reads: ‘the Independent is sponsored by The Independent’).

The newspaper did represent something (especially during the Wine Box enquiry) and the dedication of the “hack’s hack” Warren Berryman, who died in 2004, and his wife Jenni McManus, meant that it tried to live up to the name on the tin (Rob O’Neill has a good summation of the man and the editorial environment at the paper and here’s another goodun’ from Russell Brown’s Mediawatch show on Radio New Zealand). But, in case you hadn’t noticed, the times have changed considerably and given the increased competition in the business media marketplace as a result of online news services and improved coverage by the dailies, its closure was always a distinct possibility.

“Well, you’ve got to say that this was about 15 years in the coming. The paper never looked healthy, even in its heyday. Without Berryman as its driving force and a passionate and wealthy backer in Tony Timpson, it was bound to die. The merger with Fairfax was a lifesaver but economics prevailed. It was a noble experiment but that revealed how New Zealand cannot sustain multiple business newspapers,” says Vincent Heeringa, StopPress publisher and past employee of The Independent.

One has to wonder what this decision by Fairfax means for the future of some of the other titles within the Fairfax Business Media stable, which is made up of IDG’s remaining publishing assets and is run as a self-contained operation that’s separate from Fairfax Media. Unlimited, for example, doesn’t really seem to fit into the BusinessDay strategy and, with circulation decreasing steadily, down to 6775 as of December last year, compared to 8153 at the end of 2004, it’s not looking too healthy. Of course, that’s not a particularly unusual situation for magazines in this fair land.

But there doesn’t seem to be any mourning from Fairfax Media. It sees the closure of the Independent as a positive thing (the title of its press release was ‘Best in the business at business’), claiming that it is a major expansion of its business journalism offering, both in its daily newspapers and online, and is “in line with its integrated, multi-media business model” (it’s also in line with Fairfax’s Australian BusinessDay model).

Some are wondering if writing off the value of these print publications to create Stuff’s online mega, meta-news service is a wise business strategy, while others seem to think the logic of the aggregation site has finally prevailed, because New Zealand simply can’t sustain this many newspapers.

Fairfax already has New Zealand’s largest team of business journalists and their work appears in the BusinessDay sections in The Dominion Post, The Press and the Waikato Times, as well as in the Sunday Star-Times business section and on Businessday.co.nz. Now it will have the eight more journalists from the Independent in its Auckland business newsroom to provide more content to the Fairfax brands.

Despite the pooled journalism talent in Auckland, Fairfax says local business content will remain paramount for the Fairfax Media titles, with regional business teams remaining in place and the BusinessDay newsroom being freed up to deliver “strong journalism from Auckland with a national focus”.

But is this mere semantics from Fairfax? Plenty of Independent stories already went up on the Stuff website before this announcement. So, aside from the addition of the Chalkie column and a weekly feature that will be included in the new incarnation, not too much seems to have changed.

“Readers can look forward to us focusing more on breaking news online and then moving those stories on in our daily and weekly print editions,” says Fiona Rotherham, current Independent editor and recently appointed Fairfax Media managing editor – business.

Fairfax group executive editor Paul Thompson says it is now more important to provide stronger business coverage online as that is where most readers of business news go first. Businessday.co.nz is already the most popular business site in New Zealand and a finalist in this year’s Qantas Media Awards. And Fairfax says the online expertise of Businessday.co.nz editor Kate geenty, formerly the managing editor of Australian Financial Publications magazine group and the business editor for news.com.au, has helped it claim the top online business spot, as measured by Nielsen Netratings. The site had more than 579,000 domestic unique users in May, 44,000 above nearest competitor nzherald.co.nz and also recorded 4.1 million page impressions for the same period, compared to 3.7 million for the nzherald.co.nz.

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