March 27, 2013 § 5 Comments
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.