All is not well in the southern seas of journalism. It has taken a while, but the money-munching monsters that have chewed up and spat out so many newspapers in the US in recent years have finally started creeping in to New Zealand, chomping off readers and advertising revenue in equally alarming measure. Convinced that online newspapers aren’t going to be the industry’s savior in the deep south, one man is setting up the country’s first community-supported journalism project.
Bernard Hickey, former Reuters reporter and now investigative journalist at interest.co.nz, is establishing journalism.org.nz in what could be seen as a last-ditch effort to preserve public-interest journalism in the face of hostile economics. Hickey is basing the not-for-profit venture on American news services ProPublica, Texas Tribune, and The Bay Citizen, all of which sell memberships to loyal readers and supporters, and partner with major news organizations such as the New York Times.
Hickey also served as head of digital for Fairfax Media in New Zealand, where he was responsible for news site Stuff.co.nz. He says New Zealand newspapers enjoyed surprisingly profitable times through the 1990s and the early 2000s, thanks to a publisher duopoly that concentrated profits among a few major newspapers that dominated their respective cities. The two newspaper companies that rule New Zealand’s print media landscape – Fairfax and APN – are both Australian.
But while the lack of competition kept profits artificially high, the papers weren’t ultimately immune to the digital trends that had gutted newspaper revenues abroad. A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts newspaper advertising revenue will shrink from $603 million in 2011 to $483 million in 2016.
Hickey says that while working for Fairfax between 2004 and 2008, he could “see the brick wall coming from a distance.” Newspaper costs were too high to sustain a business that was fast shifting to the Web. “All it took was a small decrease in revenue and your profits dried up pretty quickly,” he says.
As a result, New Zealand newspapers have been preoccupied with churning out what Hickey calls “high sugar, low protein” journalism, while hard news reporting has fallen by the wayside. The type of high-quality, high-investment investigative journalism that Hickey values became unaffordable. The shift to the mobile era only further undermines the price of Internet advertising because mobile ads are smaller and more intrusive and therefore cheaper.
Meanwhile, across the ditch in Australia, the situation is looking even worse. In that country, editorial independence has recently been facing down one of its biggest threats in the form of the world’s richest woman. Mining magnate Gina Rinehart now owns 15 percent of Fairfax, which is one of Australia’s largest newspaper groups and owns the influential Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age.
In a huge public spat with Fairfax executives, Rinehart failed to win a seat on the board after refusing to sign an agreement guaranteeing the media group’s newspapers complete editorial independence.
This confluence of events was enough to convince Hickey that the time had come for community-supported journalism in New Zealand. “It has occurred to me increasingly in the last year or two that journalism has a problem,” says Hickey. A few specific types of journalism, such as financial news and perhaps celebrity news, could be supported by advertising and offered for free online, he says. But he lost faith that public-interest reporting could survive on its own.
There’s a need in New Zealand for better reporting on health, education, social welfare, and government, Hickey says. That’s where journalism.org.nz will come in. He’s looking at building the site on the open-source Armstrong content management system, which allows publishers to set up a membership structure. It’s the result of a collaboration between the Texas Tribune and the Bay Citizen.
On the journalism.org.nz’s current homepage, Hickey has a poll asking readers if they’d be prepared to pay NZ$50, NZ$95, or NZ$195 annually for the ability to comment on articles and editorial policy as well as receive invitations to events. He also plans to syndicate the organization’s news to other media in the country, including radio and television, and to host money-earning events.
Hickey’s goals are initially very modest. He hopes only to attract enough members to the service to be able to pay “two or three” reporters. New Zealand has only 4 million people, so to expect any more from such an early effort would likely be asking for disappointment. To expect anything less, on the other hand, would be a surrender to the status quo that would ultimately harm the small country’s ability to report on itself. Not only would that not be great for democracy, but it would also open the door further for people like Rinehart to try to buy the news they want, at a time when the media industry is at its most economically vulnerable.