Up Country: The Waikato Times’ Jonathan MacKenzie on ‘keeping the buggers honest’, gigantic audiences and content being more important than platforms

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. Here’s what Jonathan MacKenzie, Waikato editor-in-chief for Fairfax, had to say.  

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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?

Yes, the appetite for hyper local news is increasing exponentially and as the local paper we are well placed to serve that growing audience. Excluding pagination and other resources, I don’t see a lot of distinction between the regionals and the mets in this country. It’s not like we have a national daily paper. If you look closely at any of the mets you’re easily into local news by page three on most days.  If anything I think regional papers have an advantage over mets because reader expectations are easier to define and act on.

How important is The Waikato Times to the region—and the region’s businesses? And have you benefitted from the booming Waikato economy?

All In: Growing good people through rugby

#Watch: For two months we closely followed Hamilton Girls’ High School’s first XV rugby team, New Zealand’s back to back national girls rugby champions. This is All In, a documentary about success on and off the field. #AllIn

Posted by Stuff.co.nz on Wednesday, September 9, 2015

#WATCH “If you are all all in, everyone has their head in the game and you achieve great Follow the #Allin journey here.

Posted by Waikato Times on Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Rebel: Roimata Roberts #Allin”If I was a boy, yeah, she’d be there, but because I’m a girl, it’s a ‘no’. I use that as fuel to thrive off, because I’ve achieved heaps through rugby and I can tell she’s, she just doesn’t want to admit that she’s wrong.”

Posted by Waikato Times on Saturday, September 5, 2015

In my view it never been more important to the region. I’m not talking about the physical product, I’m talking about having battle hardened journos on the ground reporting the news, seven days a week. That’s crucial in any democracy and no less crucial in a regional area such as Waikato. It’s cliche to say that ‘we keep the buggers honest’, but it’s true. Governments, local bodies, health boards, regulatory authorities and courts are not falling over themselves to be transparent or to be exposed when something goes wrong. That’s where we come in. We ask the tough questions on behalf of our readers and sometimes we have to poke our audience. Yes, give them a good old poke to wake them up and show them something that perhaps they didn’t want to see. I know that sounds lofty but I honestly believe that. If we were not here to do it, who would? Bloggers? Fat chance. 

Waikato’s economy is tracking pretty well and of course the Times does benefit form this. Real estate is going great guns so there’s a direct spin off for us there, but as well as dairy Waikato has a booming manufacturing heart that pumps us along too.      

It’s a tough market for newspapers at the moment, both here and around the world. And there’s a fair bit of competition from other publishers in your area. How is The Waikato Times faring?  

We used to see ourselves in competition with the Herald and to some extent we still are, but these days I see both papers in binary terms. We each serve our own markets with local news. But our success is about overall audience growth across the entire region. So that’s digital and print, Stuff, Facebook, Twitter and our 11 community titles. We’ve got more than 60 journalists working across the region and the combined digital and print number for Fairfax in the Waikato is 242,000 (73.3 percent reach of Waikato). That’s some serious muscle. And if we choose to, we can run with an issue across the entire region using all those platforms and the 11 community titles to pack a potent punch on any issue that affects Waikato. It’s a powerful combination and we can do that because we operate as one Waikato-wide newsroom.

Sir Martin Sorrell recently said advertisers should re-evaluate the effectiveness of traditional media. And Michael Wolff’s new 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? Why should advertisers stick with them? 

I think advertisers, particularly national advertisers, have misjudged how effective regional papers are in their own communities. Maybe they should ask powerful people such as electorate MPs, mayors, DHB top brass and police chiefs how effective we are. Those who have a lot to lose have an awful lot to say when we run their picture big on page one with the word “Botched” in the heading. In Waikato we stood up for the community’s right to reduce licensing hours for off licences, particularly supermarkets. The big chains didn’t see it that way and some outlets pulled our newspapers off the shelves on the days we ran those stories. Surely that’s an acid test of relevance in local markets?  

What’s your favourite newspaper? And why?

My favourite newspaper is The Waikato Times because I know how damn difficult it has been to fill it most days. By difficult I mean journalism is a hard job. Normal people are burnt out after five years so it’s only the tough nuts and freaks of nature who make the long haul. There’s blood, sweat and tears mixed with the dead trees and ink in every edition. My second favourite paper is The Telegraph in London. I’ve got an online subscription and a lot of nostalgia for that rag because I worked there for a while.  

Which stories or campaigns stick out as the best examples of what The Waikato Times does best?

Naturally, our best work is done when the community wants us to act on their behalf. A good example is getting legal highs banned. We ran a lengthy campaign on this and put a lot of pressure on individuals who can effect change. That’s one of my favourite techniques. Finding an individual who has the power to make a decision and shining a bloody big spotlight on them. We did that with Peter Dunne and presto, we got change. The community and in particular the business community were very grateful. We tracked down the owners of the shops and ran their pictures big on the front, we spoke to the customers, found one was a nurse off to start a shift and we staked out the shop for a whole day and ran pictures of all the customers in the paper. It was enormous fun.

We’ve also recently had a close look at midwives after a series of bungled births in the region. After a damning Coroner’s report following the death of a mother and her child we followed up the Coroner’s recommendations. There were tons of them and they all involved various institutions, bodies or people. So, again, we narrowed it down to the individuals who have the power and made sure our readers knew if the recommendations were going to be implemented. Most were. 

How would you characterise your typical reader?  

In the paper our typical reader is aged between 55 and 75 but many are older than that. They are a fair minded, practical bunch who don’t mind giving me the lash when I need it. 

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?

I think in five years it’s unlikely that we will have the Times running six days a week, but that’s okay because our online audience will be gigantic. My vision is simple. To keep on keeping the buggers honest. Technology will drive further innovation and therefore our stories will have greater impact, but the one thing that won’t change is human nature. 2000 years ago the Roman chronicler Tacitus was reporting on political shenanigans that would not be out of place today. Content, not platform, is king.

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

We like to connect with our youngest demographic across various social media platforms like Snapchat and judging from comments left on our Facebook page many of those people are young too. 

What are the benefits of being part of the Fairfax network? Is it possible to be both local and national simultaneously? And are the recent changes where editors focus on a region rather than a masthead working out?

At Fairfax we have always been highly interwoven with each other but recently we have taken that to a new level. Our Modern Newsroom programme has unleashed the potential in all our newsrooms across the country. We publish stories in real time as we write or shoot them and that makes our content available to everyone across the business at all hours of the day or night. As I mentioned earlier the regional newsroom concept is a winner. It doesn’t make any sense to be tied to a masthead when it’s the combined audience that matters so I reckon we’re in a good place at Fairfax.  

Give us your most impressive stat about Waikato and/or The Waikato Times?

Sadly, in terms of impressive stats the Waikato has the most dangerous roads in the country.

You’ve already got a statue of Riff Raff in Hamilton. Who (or what) should be next? 

A quick newsroom poll puts Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui out front with the ladies, with Kimbra a distant second, but for me it’s stories all the way so I’d go for that great Hamilton man of letters Frank Sargeson. He spins a good yarn. 

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

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