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May 30, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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RIP NZPA

On 6 April, an article entitled ‘News Agency Under Review’ was published on Stuff.co.nz. It simply stated that Fairfax Media had decided to withdraw its share in the country’s principal domestic newswire, the New Zealand Press Association.

According to this article, the decision to cancel Fairfax’s subscription was a straightforward one. Chief executive Allen Williams explained that the company had “made a choice to concentrate on development of its unique content” because a tailored service was not forthcoming.

So far, so sensible—but what the article understated was that Fairfax held a majority share of NZPA, and without its support the organisation would be forced to close. NZPA wasn’t so much “under review” as abandoned without funding or resources. Sure enough, it was later announced that its operations were to be wound up over the next four to six months. David Farrar of Kiwiblog was not exaggerating when he titled his blogpost on the decision ‘Fairfax kills NZPA’.

Moreover, Fairfax would have us believe that NZPA was gone to a better place, rather than hit on the head with a shovel. Williams even insinuated that the move would benefit all providers and consumers of news in New Zealand, but few agreed with him. As freelance writer Karl du Fresne wrote after the announcement: “Try as I might, I can’t see this as anything other than a seriously retrograde step.”

‘News agency under review’ embodied the kind of ‘churnalism’ that NZPA, as a reliable and prolific source of raw news, worked against. The irony of this was not lost on media commentators: as Farrar noted, the article read “like a Fairfax advertorial”, and gave no comment from outside that organisation. Even the 40-odd journalists that work for NZPA were not permitted to cover the decision that justified their redundancies.

Why did Fairfax decide to withdraw from the association?

The truth is, the closure of NZPA will only benefit Fairfax— which already dominates New Zealand media. It publishes 79 newspapers, including The Dominion Post, The Sunday Star-Times, The Press and six regional dailies, as well as 25 magazines and Stuff.co.nz. According to a Nielsen National Readership Survey, Fairfax reaches 2.9 million New Zealanders across its multimedia platforms.

Put simply, Fairfax is a force to be reckoned with. Its closest rival is APN News & Media, publisher of The New Zealand Herald and second major shareholder of NZPA, which holds sway only in Auckland. Fairfax’s extensive portfolio of regional dailies and community papers means its influence extends far further across the country.
Media analyst and former New Zealand Herald editor- in-chief Gavin Ellis says Fairfax forced the closure of NZPA to further increase its advantage over APN.

“[Fairfax] believed its better geographic distribution of publications would give it an advantage over APN,” he says. “This is all about competition.”
Alan Samson, a lecturer in journalism at Massey University, says Fairfax has spent several years “steadily building up what is effectively its own group news agency”. This means that instead of subscribing for non-exclusive content from NZPA, the company will develop its own stories, which APN’s publications will not have access to.

“If you see the world in financial terms, it was good sense to Fairfax to pull the plug,” says Samson, “even if it brought the news agency crashing down.”

When was the decision made to close NZPA?

Though the official closure of NZPA was announced just last month, Samson maintains “there’s been an air of inevitability to Fairfax’s withdrawal” ever since the association became a commercial service in 2006.

Before then, NZPA had acted as a nationwide co-operative, where member newspapers had exchanged their local content for free.

du Fresne said this arrangement helped bring the nation together: “New Zealanders had ready access to news and information from beyond their own regions… creating a sense of national cohesion in place of the narrow, regional parochialism that previously prevailed.”

The commercial shift came about in the early 2000s when New Zealand’s two major newspaper publishers came under the control of Australian companies, Fairfax and APN. In his excellent master’s degree thesis on the demutualisation of NZPA, Ellis pointed out that the executives in charge of Fairfax and APN in New Zealand “saw the game in zero-sum terms, and the consequences for a cooperative-based NZPA were almost terminal”.

The aggressive rivals were unwilling to share content with each other as part of NZPA. In fact, when APN launched The Herald on Sunday to compete with Fairfax’s Sunday Star-Times and Sunday News in January 2006, Fairfax threatened to withdraw from the service altogether.

NZPA was forced to restructure to overcome this threat to its existence. It abandoned the cooperative model in favour of becoming a commercial service responsible for the gathering and production of its own news. These reports were then provided to subscriber newspapers, who paid an annual fee based on their readership figures.

“It was a pale shadow of the old service, but at least the restructuring bought a stay of execution,” wrote du Fresne. “And in hindsight, that’s exactly what it was—because as radical as the 2006 upheaval was, it probably succeeded only in postponing the inevitable.”

Samson states that, despite the changes made in the restructure, “no-one in the know was surprised by [NZPA’s] failure to make enough money to survive when Fairfax chose to quit the fold.

“In a competitive world, Fairfax’s actions were, from their own perspective, financially (and possibly strategically) sensible.”

What role did NZPA play in the national media sphere?

Even demutualised, NZPA provided an important service, distributing stories of national and international relevance to newspapers nationwide. This served to somewhat lessen the impact of the duopoly of Fairfax and APN, ensuring that both companies had access to the same no-frills reportage to offset the flashier stories written in-house.

“NZPA was an honourable [news media] voice, not tainted with the universal pressure to be sexy and… make lots of money,” says Samson.

NZPA editor Kevin Norquay says NZPA’s services enhanced those offered by Fairfax and APN, rather than competed with them: “Its closure will mean those organisations will have to replicate some of the services NZPA provided.”

The association’s strength was in “providing fast, accurate copy” without a political agenda, says Newspaper Publishers’ Association chief executive and former Dominion Post editor Tim Pankhurst.

As Ellis puts it, NZPA “provided an independent source of news and a third news filter” that complemented those of Fairfax and APN—and in such a duopoly, the loss of a ‘third filter’ must have repercussions.

How will its closure affect New Zealand’s news industry?

Regional newspapers are expected to feel the loss of NZPA the most, as many relied on the association for content.
“Each of those newspapers will have to make arrangements with APN and Fairfax to fill their pages,” says Norquay.

“Some have already indicated they will cut when and how often they publish as a result of the newswire closing.”
Ellis believes this to be a great loss.

“NZPA was the means by which newspaper readers learned about happenings in other parts of the country,” he says. “In this way, [it] helped to contribute to the sustaining of a national identity and a broader understanding of the needs of each community.”

As du Fresne put it, as a cooperative, NZPA “provided the means by which readers in Whangarei and Timaru could be informed of a murder trial in Invercargill or a plane crash in the King Country.”

Now, says Samson, “the ground will be covered much more thinly. Even a relative giant like The Dominion Post will only have a few reporters in Auckland.”

The loss of NZPA’s Parliamentary service is also predicted to affect political coverage. Norquay points out that NZPA’s reporters “scrutinised the passage of legislation… and the roles of MPs in the law-making process, listening to every minute of every debate”. He doubts that politicians will be held so accountable in future.

Ellis says NZPA retained much of the ‘agency of record’ approach to political reporting that large areas of the news media have sacrificed in favour of covering personality politics. “[NZPA] was also often the only means by which news outlets in the smaller population centres learned about political events that related to their own communities,” he adds.

For these reasons, Samson expects the lack of a national newswire to result in an even greater homogenisation of news.“Today, except online, there is almost no escape from the duopoly [of Fairfax and APN],” he says. “The loss of any honourable news media voice is a loss for democracy.”

Who will be most affected by the closure of NZPA?

The closure of NZPA will also affect the career paths of aspiring journalists, for, as Ellis points out, it has been their “primary training ground”.

Norquay says NZPA regularly provided tertiary and secondary students with work experience, and often employed first-year graduates.

“As a workplace, NZPA’s concentration on national news stories means its journalists—even the less experienced ones— dealt with news at the highest level, interviewing politicians, the All Blacks coach and heads of industry, which would never be the case on a regional or community newspaper,” he says.

“Its double-edged focus on speed and accuracy acted as a kind of pressure cooker for young journalists, with both attributes very much valued throughout the industry.”

“Agency journalists are highly prized because of their ability to quickly summarise often complex or wordy or dull subjects and turn them into copy of interest to readers,” agrees Pankhurst. “Sadly, NZPA’s closure does mean an important avenue for junior journalists is closed off. We have had some great young reporters through here and did our best to encourage them.”

Pankhurst is quick to point out that “there are some positives” for the current staff of NZPA who face redundancy.
“A number of our journalists are considering job offers… APN is expanding its national footprint in alliance with the independents… and Fairfax has advertised for staff as well.”

However, Samson doubts that this will offset the loss of “one more significant employer of journalists.
“The two big newspaper owners might argue they’re taking up the slack, but it would be a brave man or woman to predict their employment levels will continue on an upward trend,” he says.

Where to from here for national news?

Even though most agree that the loss of NZPA will affect New Zealand’s news industry, it seems unlikely that another newswire will be established to take its place. Even if, as Ellis suggests, Radio New Zealand decided to offer a state-owned service, it would be “unlikely to be highly successful” without the support of Fairfax or APN.

In any case, as Samson points out, “the big papers can still afford to pay for the services of international agencies like Reuters and Australian Associated Press—The Westport News cannot!”

Having said that, as Samson points out, all news media are “facing huge resource pressures”.

“The reaction of many papers has been to go the entertain- ment route, eliciting scorn from numerous commentators,” he says. “I can live with this as a reality as long as these papers and television channels still function by fourth estate ideals and have the courage to report the big news and fractures in our society.

“And so far, [Fairfax and APN] have not let us down. Witness the Louise Nicholas reporting. Or even the reporting of Parliamentary misspending.”

What Samson is suggesting is that, even with NZPA gone, we can count on Fairfax and APN to report on the issues that matter. But when two companies dominate the media landscape, we should be concerned when the third—no matter how small or superfluous—is lost. Now that the nail is in NZPA’s coffin, the country’s newspaper industry will become even more of a two-player game, and this is bound to have implications for the standard and breadth of new we consume.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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