The most engaged community newspapers never lose sight of the street level, writes media commentator Gavin Ellis

Thousands will no longer refer to the community newspaper that appears in their letterbox as ‘the local rag’.

They have a new-found respect because they either realised what they had missed during the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown or were grateful that publishers had continued to supply local news in those challenging times.

When the Level 4 lockdown was declared, community newspapers (and magazines) were inexplicably omitted from news media deemed to be essential businesses. There seemed to be an outdated belief that community newspapers were only delivered by vulnerable children.

Days after the ban, there was a partial loosening of the rule to allow publications in remote rural areas and ethnic communities. Many titles, however, could not print or could not make letterbox deliveries. Digital editions continued and local residents expressed their gratitude for continuing local coverage but, for many older readers, that was no compensation for the loss of the local newspaper.

In Waikato, the Cambridge News and Te Awamutu News merged for the duration but continued to print issues for bulk delivery to dairies and supermarkets. An elderly man made an emotional call to their office after receiving his first copy of the combined paper. It was his only source of local news and “human contact”.

Allied Press, with a stable of community titles in the South Island, received calls asking it to resume publication during the Level 4 ban.

It was prevented from meeting those requests but some of its titles, such as the North Canterbury News, had permission to publish throughout, delivering first to supermarkets and later including delivery in remote rural areas. Southern Rural Life and Central Rural Life also resumed publishing during Level 4.

In Marton, four readers of the Rangitikei District Monitor (which did not stop publishing and missed only one week of home delivery) posted on Facebook that they were unhappy to see it in their letterboxes during the lockdown, worried by largely dismissed fears that newsprint could carry Covid-19. However, another posted: ” . . . our household will be very grateful to see it arrive in the letterbox. We can always wait till a bit later in the day to read it if we are worried about contact with the paper.” The Monitor also provided a digital edition throughout the lockdown.

Many community papers received calls from readers asking if they could collect copies when home delivery was suspended.

The newspapers made sacrifices to maintain operations. Many offered advertising discounts. Some staff worked without pay during the lockdown. Gulf News (given a dispensation to publish) co-operated with the local health board to deliver an issue containing essential pandemic information free to all letterboxes on Waiheke Island in the first week of Level 4 and suspended its $2 cover price for the remainder of the lockdown as a public service aimed particularly at older residents without internet access.

Many titles, such as the Devonport Flagstaff and Rangitoto Observer on Auckland’s North Shore were ready to move from digital-only back to print the moment the level dropped. They distributed an issue through supermarkets and dairies at the end of April and last week made their first letterbox deliveries.

A survey by the Community Newspaper Association suggests most are now back in print.

Urban community titles owned by Stuff and NZME are reappearing. These publications have in recent years been characterised by a large amount of content shared across titles in regional groupings in the name of cost-cutting.

Stuff’s Auckland titles, for example, mainly carry Super City-wide stories and columns that are common across the publications. There is little, if any, truly local news. The reactions of readers of independent community newspapers that concentrate on local some would call it hyper-local message to these group owners. If they want readers and advertisers, they may have to find ways of returning to the days of local news in local newspapers.

The eight-page Central Leader that reappeared in my Lynfield letterbox last Thursday carried a commendable front-page editorial exhorting readers to support local businesses but not one story related to my suburb or even my part of Auckland.

I looked back over a bedraggled scrapbook and stories I wrote as a 21-year-old editing the Central Suburbs Leader (under the able guidance of editor-in-chief Michael Heard and a canny Englishman, Dennis Chicken, who ran suburban newspapers for New Zealand News). The content was all local and I would have been called to account if it was not. Councils were a ready source of copy of all shades and the scene of more than one donnybrook.

And the clippings showed that, within the Leader‘s circulation area there were a lot of interesting people. Like Mrs O.G. McLean of Fowlds Ave in Mt Albert, who survived not one but two tornadoes (one in 1948 and the other shortly before I interviewed her, when the roof was torn off the Caughey-Preston Geriatric Hospital, injuring nine people). Or Ernie McCarthy, who began hand-cranking a film projector in 1915, when the nitrate film had a nasty habit of exploding (he was still operating the projector at matinees in Sandringham’s Mayfair cinema in 1968). Or Mrs Daisy Spragg, the legal owner of Punga St (which the Mount Eden Borough Council had diligently maintained for 30 years thinking they owned it).

The real attraction of community newspapers lies in that description. They need to be about the local community, the people you know, or the people you recognise and to whom you can now put a name.

The closest I have is produced by my neighbours Kerrie and John Subritzky. The Beacon is a modest publication, and has just had its fourth anniversary. It is printed in Whakatane and was caught out by the lockdown. The April issue was delivered last week. It is unashamedly news and all the little things that go on in our community

That describes hyper-local news. Pippa Stevenson, publisher of the digital Tamihere Forum in the Waikato, defines hyper-local community news as that directly affects people where they live in their pocket, in their neighbourhood. It includes local events .. calls to action .. material changes (roads, plan changes, rate rises) and so on as well as the people stories that show who lives locally and what they do.

How each publisher defines community news will be influenced by the extent of the circulation area but the most engaged never lose sight of street level. They need to be enthusiastic champions of their own area, which makes local ownership a major advantage. And, as we are gripped by a global pandemic, they need courage.

The first-ever issue of the Valley Profile in the Thames Valley was published last week. In an email the publisher said: “Some people have said publishing the first issue of my newspaper during the shutdown was ‘bad timing’. However, I think launching a news publication amid the biggest news story in the past century has got to be a good omen and it’s certainly working out well so far!

That is commendably courageous. And in the uncertain economic times we now face, that is a quality all media will need.

  • Gavin Ellis is a lecturer, media consultant and researcher. A former editor-in-chief of The New Zealand Herald, his journalism and media management career spans almost half a century.

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