Death of a newspaper

March 27, 2013 § 5 Comments

capital times edit

The presses are to stop rolling for Wellington’s Capital Times and it is a moment for reflection. For as long as I have been a Wellingtonian, the free weekly newspaper has been taking the city’s cultural and social pulse. After 38 years, it more than qualifies as an inner city institution but there’s little room for sentiment in the economics of the digital age.

In matters of the life and death of a small, hard scrabble newspaper, nostalgia makes little difference if advertising revenue is tanking and last week, the owners of the Capital Times announced they had decided to call it a day. They could see no glimmer of an upswing for the paper and they are right.

The newspaper’s editor, Niels Reinsborg, says rival community publications owned by APN and Fairfax are slashing advertising rates by up to 50 per cent. While advertising remains steady at the Capital Times, revenue is down and costs are up.  The owners think the situation is not sustainable and the prognosis is not healthy. It simply doesn’t make sense to keep going.



The news has sadden many of its contributors and readers. Its long standing film reviewer, Dan Slevin, is disappointed. He thinks there’s a few more years left in newspaper that has carved a niche for itself as a metro giveaway with a heavy focus on the arts and entertainment scene. But even he agrees that the end will have to come – if not sooner than certainly later.

The end of the Capital Times – which has a circulation of 20,000 and a staff of eight – is another signpost on the breakneck road between traditional news business models and the increasingly digital, mobile, touchscreen, app driven world of publishing. Advertising is shifting online or being divided between the old and the new, making for a smaller pie from which all newspapers are trying to take a bigger slice out of. Caught in an advertising war for fewer dollars, the Capital Times was becoming increasingly vulnerable.

Factor in a wider business environment characterised by recession, job insecurity, redundancies, cautious consumer spending and a retail and hospitality sector that is, by and large, also pinching, and it all makes for a confluence of gloom for newspapers.

Advertisers are less reliant on newspaper advertising. They are learning that it is free to use social media and peer to peer sharing through online social networks. All of this makes it extremely difficult to keep a marginal, independent community publication going for longer when doing so would be postponing the inevitable.

While many publishers are attempting to future proof their publications by moving their content to the web, they are still baffled by how to make money from their online publications. Newspaper and magazine publishing is currently trapped in a kind of limbo between hard copy and digital and it is going to take deep pockets to persevere until the online rewards are realised.  The business model that works for a 24 page free community paper isn’t the same as for a local community news website that relies on volunteers, subscribers and donors to keep its costs down and augment any advertising it can attract.

By and large, the bells are tolling for the newspaper industry. It has been in a sunset phase for some time now.  It joins CD shops, postal deliveries, video game parlours, travel agencies, book and video shops in the endangered category. In the years ahead, we will be mourning the extinction of many animal species as habitat loss and poaching take their toll on the last wild Sumatran tiger or black rhino. To this melancholy list, we are also seeing the end of days for many brick and mortar businesses – to which I add newspapers. And that is cause of reflection.

The last edition of the Capital Times will hit the streets on April 10.


The Ten Commandments for journalists (or are they?)

May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

For those of you who are interested in what’s happening at the intersection of social media and the news, there’s an interesting new guide for journalists from the American Society of News Editors that makes interesting reading.

ASNE has surveyed 18 news organisations and the result is a paper entitled 10 Best Practices for Social Media: Helpful guidelines for news organisations.  The study was commissioned by ASNE’s ethics and values committee and the author is James Hohmann, a decorated journalist from the American Politico website.

Given the input from media organisations such as Bloomberg, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and The Washington Post and others, we can assume that its recommendations will have credibility and heft within the industry.

In its executive summary, the report says social media platforms continue to emerge as essential news gathering tools.

“Putting in place overly draconian rules discourages creativity and innovation but allowing an uncontrolled free-for-all opens the floodgates to problems and leaves news organisations responsible for irresponsible employees.”

The one issue that has caused some reaction via Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab is whether news organisations should break news on their website first and not on social media platforms.

“In a news climate that values speed, there are great temptations and added incentives to break news on Twitter or Facebook instead of waiting for it to move through the editorial pipeline. This underscores one of the main values of social media for news organisations, which is to drive traffic and increase the reach of high-quality journalism”.

Cory Bergman on Lost Remote says while editors are important, reporters should be empowered to report in whatever way possible, should the need arise.

“I can see ASNE’s point, but the recommendation is more destructive than helpful for a couple reasons. First, as a news organization in a new distributed world, everything shouldn’t be about driving traffic to yourself — it should be about providing the best possible news service on any platform. And second, the idea that reporters must always work through their editors — even though social media allows reporters (and the public) to self-publish — is increasingly out-dated.”

Another US journalist Joy Mayer, a fellowship scholar at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, says if reporters had to wait until there were links, too many people would already know what the story was.

“I was horrified when I saw this line, but the post goes on to say that there are indeed times when getting news out there, is more valuable than waiting to have a link to share. In general, though, I think journalists, and this set of recommendations, undervalue being a relevant, quick part of on-going conversations.”

Joy Mayer’s advice is to go for it.

“My recommendation would be for reporters to quickly tip their newsrooms first and tweet second – without waiting for the story to appear on the site. First is first, regardless of where it’s posted. Then follow up with a tweet with a link when the story is posted.”

But overall, the reaction to the ASNE guidelines is that they are essentially an endorsement of the need to be professional and ethical, something every journalist should be conscious of in both their professional and personal use of social media.  The One Ring that rules them all is Number Two – “assume everything you write online will become public” (and this includes Facebook because privacy settings could be changed in future).

For what it is worth, here are the ten key ASNE points:

1. Traditional ethics rules still apply online.

2. Assume everything you write online will become public.

3. Use social media to engage with readers but professionally.

4. Break news on your website, not on Twitter.

5. Beware of perceptions.

6. Independently authenticate anything found on a social networking site.

7. Always identify yourself as a journalist.

8. Social networks are tools, not toys.

9. Be transparent and admit when you are wrong online.

10. Keep internal deliberations confidential.

If you have a view on any of these guidelines, make a comment below. There are many ways to skin a cat and to report a story. Do these guidelines cover them all and are they the definitive Ten Commandments of using social media for journalists? Let us know.

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