Up Country: The Northern Advocate’s Craig Cooper on bucking trends, understanding responsibilities and ‘new media’ arrogance

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. And for the final instalment, The Northern Advocate’s editor Craig Cooper offers his $0.02. 

Image via nzherald.co.nz

Do you feel like the ‘hyperlocal’ approach is coming back into vogue as news becomes increasingly commoditised? And does this put newspapers like yours that focus on a specific region in a better position than some of the larger metros?

Hyperlocal has never been out of vogue. It’s the only reason readers buy a regional newspaper. That unique selling point puts regionals in better positions than metros, especially when it comes to arguments as to why people should pay for content on websites.

How important is The Northern Advocate to the region—and the region’s businesses?

We sometimes have to remind people that we are one of the region’s largest employers. Our parent company NZME employs 130 people in Northland, so we are a major local player. It goes without saying that businesses benefit through our advertising and marketing reach. As far as our importance to the region goes, we are the primary provider of local news for Northlanders, and we have an advocacy and “champion” role as well. We understand the responsibility that goes with all of the above.

It’s a tough market for newspapers at the moment, both here and around the world. And Northland has had a rough time of it economically in recent years. But The Northern Advocate improved readership and circulation in the latest survey. What do you put that down to?

We have a great team of people who understand why we are here. We’re not doing God’s work. We exist solely because of our readers and advertisers and we respect that.

  • See if you know heaps or stuff all about the regions by doing our ‘how regional are you?’ quizzes here and 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

Sir Martin Sorrell recently said advertisers should re-evaluate the effectiveness of traditional media because the pendulum had swung too far towards digital. And Michael Wolff’s latest book says if digital media was going to kill traditional media it would’ve done so by now. Do you think there’s a misperception in the market about the viability of regional newspapers and the important role they play in the community?

A huge misperception, including an arrogance from some so called ‘new media’ companies who view newspapers as “old school’’ and dying. That lack of respect is dangerous. The mode of news or ad message delivery is irrelevant. The product/content and your audience, and understanding them is what is key. If newspapers vanished tomorrow because of a newsprint shortage we would still dominate the market because we gather relevant material and content well. How we deliver it matters less and less each day.

The paper was originally launched at Whāngārei in 1875. This photo, via Te Ara, shows its offices, probably in the 1930s.

Why should advertisers stick with regional newspapers? And can you give us an example of a time when an advertiser benefitted from being in your paper?

Advertisers benefit from being in our newspaper every day, so of course they should stick with us! Despite the consumer outlets for news increasing, regional newspapers remain the dominant local news and ad vehicle provider. We have hundreds of local businesses each week that rely on us for their businesses to be successful.

What’s your favourite newspaper? And why?

My favourite newspaper is any newspaper that is engaging, and also demonstrates that it respects the fact it exists solely for its readers.

How would you characterise your typical reader?

Uncharacterisable. Subscribers tend to be 35/40 plus, casual readers are whoever we attract off the news stand that day, and online, kids like my 12-year-old snack away when it interests them.

With the rise of branded content and native advertising, there’s been plenty of talk about the boundaries between editorial and sales blurring. Has it become a necessary evil that erodes trust? Or can brands help fund good journalism?

There is a place for branded content as long as it is clear to the reader that it is essentially advertising. A disingenuous newspaper will erode its audience, and that of the brand it is promoting.

What is your vision for the newspaper, the website and the company as a whole? What do you think things will look like in five years?

In five years we may not look that different but we will be delivering more content online, faster and the NZME brand will dominate the media landscape. Radio, print, online and events – along with our host of sub-brands – is a very powerful combination. Nothing will change in regard to our relationship with readers and advertisers. We need to continue to understand who we work for, and deliver a product – news and advertising – that is effective and flexible.

Younger readers are increasingly getting their news online and through social channels. How are you engaging with that audience?

Paihia tunes

Just over a year ago people power turned a Paihia carpark into a waterfront park which buzzes with locals and tourists every day and where beautiful things happen … like this guy, Craig from London, who was one of a bunch of random, talented people who sat down at the public piano and started playing this evening. (In case you can’t place the song, it’s Turning Tables by Adele)

Posted by The Northern Advocate on Saturday, January 17, 2015

We use social channels like Facebook to push people to our website and newspaper, as well as engage in informal surveys. Facebook is a great place to find a “real” person to help tell an institutional story. We don’t supply news on Facebook, otherwise why would you need a website or newspaper? 

Newspapers—and particularly regional newspapers—have the ability to galvanise people around an issue (and, from time to time, push their own agenda). You hit a nerve after writing an editorial about your daughter being bullied in Whangerei. Which stories or campaigns stick out as the best examples of what The Northern Advocate does best?

There are two stories. About eight years ago we highlighted that our local regional council was giving our district council annual permission to dump up to 19,000 cubic metres of raw sewage in the Whangarei Harbour annually. Rather than fix the problem, the district council had legalised what many people considered to be an environmental crime. The upshot of our publicity was the district council fixed the problem. The Whangarei Harbour is cleaner because an Advocate journalist cut a regional council public notice out of our classified section, looked at the phrase “permission to discharge 19,000 cu m annually and and said “this can’t be right?’’.

The paper also ran a graffiti campaign which led to a major reduction in vandalism in the town. Whangarei has a huge graffiti problem, it tends to be seasonal. What is sad about it, is that there some things we could do to prevent it, that are long term stakes in the ground. But as a town we don’t. Newspapers shouldn’t have to run short term reactive campaigns responding to social issues if a town has its “s**t” together. Whether it’s graffiti or violence.

As far as pushing your own agenda goes, the only agenda a paper should push is one that is relevant to its readers.

What are the benefits of being part of the NZME network? Is it possible to be both local and national simultaneously?

The benefits, are massive, pure and simple. We can take an advertiser’s message globally, not just nationally, through the advent of online advertising. The national and regional benefits are huge too, and what we have that new media don’t have is a track record of understanding our market, and how to match it to an advertiser’s market or demographic. Advertisers taking advantage of our combined packages across print, radio and online are getting results that their competitors are not. We are aligned with the NZ Herald, a large, powerful news and advertising machine. And six regional dailies, a stable of community papers and many radio brands, including the iHeartRadio brand. We know people do not simply pour advertising money into newspapers any more. And we don’t want them to. We want them to invest wisely in conjunction with their desires and our expertise, so we get results, and we build long term relationships that get results. And evolve with the changing media landscape.

Give us your most impressive stat about The Northern Advocate?

The Advocate has experienced circulation growth in the past two years that few regional newspapers can match. That and the fact that the judges at the 2014 Canon Awards decided we were “rowdy’’ when it came to local issues and in touch with our readers and gave us the Best Newspaper award for regionals.

Is the Duke of Marlborough in Russell the best pub in the country?

Quite possibly. I once sat outside the Duke with a beer and watched a man (not a local) make a great show of removing a live crayfish from his expensive boat, and wade back to shore holding it above his head. A waiter collected it and took it to the kitchen to be cooked. I thought ‘wow, that’s great service’. I also thought ‘there is a certain age when hairy men should stop wearing speedos, and mate, you’ve reached it’. Part of me had also hoped that he dropped the crayfish.

  • This story is part of a content partnership with News Works. 

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