As the familiar Heraclitus adage goes, you cannot step twice into the same digital news industry. It’s in a constant state of flux, swishing this way and that, pulling some out to the depths and bringing a few new faces to shore.
To say that these are turbulent times for the news has become something of cliché, with declining advertising revenue continuing to put pressure on mainstream news providers.
NZME managing editor Shayne Currie has, of course, spent much of the latter part of his career wading through this fluid space, looking for ways to keep the news afloat.
Yet, despite the financial challenges facing the news industry, he remains optimistic, saying the demand for quality news and current affairs has never been stronger.
Nielsen readership figures back this sentiment showing that the daily brand audience for the NZ Herald (across both print and digital) is up 13.7 percent year on year to 894,000.
Even on the print side, the daily readership saw a rise in average issue readership of 19,000 to 423,000 readers when compared to the previous year. However, circulation dropped around eight percent from 134,000 to 124,000 between 2015 and 2016.
There was also good news for the Herald on Sunday, with readership lifting by 19,000 to 320,000 (circulation for the paper fell from 97,000 in 2015 to 89,000 in 2016).
These readership results are good when compared to recent years, but the longer-term readership figures continue to show a decline in print.
Between 2009 and 2014, the number of consumers accessing the news through either print exclusively or through a combination of print and digital on a weekly basis declined from around two million to 1.6 million (print-only readership dropped from 1.5 million to 874,000 over the same period).
Viewed against the long-term decline, the recent lifts in readership seem somewhat anomalous, but Currie puts it down to the quality of the journalism produced by both the weekday and weekend teams under the leadership of respective editors Murray Kirkness and Miriyana Alexander.
Asked how much of this growth has been driven by free subscription deals often advertised on Facebook, Currie says the difference isn’t substantial.
“We’ve always had a subscriber acquisition deal in the market,” he says. “I think the big difference for us over the last 18 months is around the revamp of TheWeekend Herald, which saw us separate the sport and business sections. So we’ve seen big growth in the readership of the Saturday paper because it’s much more shareable now… By physically separating the paper into more sections, it’s really lifted our readership.”
The continued appeal of weekend papers as a welcome reprieve from the digital world is also part of the reason why they’re often tipped as the future of the print news industry.
Across the ditch, Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood has openly admitted that the daily print model will eventually give way to weekend-only as digital continues to grow.
Locally, Currie doesn’t see this shift happening anytime soon and wouldn’t be drawn into speculating when daily print titles might start closing down.
“I’ve never put an estimate on it and I’ve never agreed with the dates that various people have put on it,” Currie says.
“We are seeing growth in our print readership and you’re seeing examples overseas where subscriptions are increasing in both print and digital because people are hankering for that quality content. If we can keep producing quality, relevant journalism, then I see our print products going well into the future. Digital is absolutely vital, but we’ve never ever walked away from our newspapers. It’s always been an integral part of our business.”
This should not, however, be understood as a resistance to change. The Herald, and NZME more broadly, has looked for new opportunities in the digital space.
One of the best examples of this would be NZ Herald Focus, which stands out as one of the best examples of local current affairs in the digital realm.
Presenters Laura McGoldrick and Tristram Clayton appear in social newsfeeds and in Herald articles every day, giving a rundown of what’s happening in the news. It’s fast, responsive and turned around within the NZME newsroom as soon as the news happens. You no longer have to wait for the 6pm bulletin to have the news summarised.
At its peak, Focus is now being streamed 1.7 million times per week and is attracting a younger audience to the Herald.
“That’s an example of us tackling an area of growth and doing it differently from the traditional channels,” says Currie.
Another major advantage of NZ Herald Focus is that gives the NZME team something that can’t be pilfered instantly.
“As you know, commodity or breaking news is covered by all the big publications within five minutes,” says Currie.
The advantage of video, particularly when fronted by in-house talent, is that it gives NZME a point of difference over the competitors.
“One of our big strategies here is to make sure that at least a quarter of all our content is planned and unique journalism that can't be found or rehashed elsewhere.”
This is also why video and data journalism is increasingly integrated into the big investigative pieces published in the Herald.
The ‘Under the Bridge’ and ‘Black Gold’ investigations as well as the various data projects developed by Harkanwal Singh’s team all fall into this category.
But this work isn’t always what drives the perception of the Herald in the comments section or in anecdotes shared over coffees. More often, it’s the softer news stories, the so-called clickbait that dominates the discussion.
Currie says the team has started to accept this as part of the package when it comes to operating in the digital world.
“In the age of social media, you’ll always have people commenting on what we’re producing and presenting,” he says. “We’re the biggest show in town, we’re hitting a million people a day, so you’ve got to expect a few barbs coming your way.”
Currie continues by pointing out that the Herald isn’t a niche player and simply can’t afford to commit all its resources into a specific type of content.
“The Herald is a broad church of content,” he says. “We’re in the mass market… and we have to ensure there’s the right balance of light and shade at all times.”
While Currie says his team is also happy to pivot in accordance to constructive criticism that comes from readers, he says that some of the accusations made in comments sections are often unfounded.
“The terms ‘clickbait’ and ‘fake news’ are really easy to throw around these days, and they’re catch-all phrases for somebody who might not agree with someone’s opinion,” he says.
Stuff editor Patrick Crewdson also touched on this recently, pointing out that the real threat of ‘fake news’ lies in the use of the phrase to undermine the credibility of major publications.
“The only way you can combat that is to prove day in, day out that you are producing quality journalism,” Currie says. “You need to highlight it as best as possible through the homepage, front page and social channels.”
The use of the phrase ‘fake news’ also adds pressure on journalists to be as accurate as possible, but, as Currie explains, this isn’t anything new.
“Look, it’s always been a tenet of journalism across the world. One of my first editors said to me, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out, check everything.’”
And if you do get it wrong, Currie advises against trying to hide it.
“If you think about the millions of words produced every day, we’re not always going to get it right,” Currie says. “But it’s the putting right that counts. We have to acknowledge when we make an error and go about getting that corrected and fixed and apologising where necessary.”
Spoiled for choice
While the channels might be changing, the core relationship between the publication and the reader remains integral to running a successful news brand.
And while the Herald and Stuff might be the big shows in town, they certainly aren’t the only ones around.
In the past few months, we’ve seen the emergence of a triumvirate of N’s in the shape of Noted, Newsroom and Newsie, adding to the choice readers now have at their disposal.
If consumers don’t like what they’re getting at the big guys, then they can always take their eyeballs elsewhere. And Currie welcomes this.
“The more light that can be shone in dark places by myriad agencies and startups the better we are as a democracy,” he says.
“That’s been one of our big points in our submissions to the Commerce Commission. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s absolutely possible to start up an agency in the current day and age and start producing quality news.”
Currie says he doesn’t see any of these publications as enemies of the Herald and even seemed open to working with them similarly to what the Herald does with The Spinoff by allowing it to republish its columns.
“I see those kinds of partnerships expanding,” he says. “In a market this size, it’s important that we recognise where the true competition is coming from, and that’s from the Facebooks and Googles of the world. Local media companies have to partner up.”
Currie is, of course, hoping to do just that with Fairfax, but his fate remains in the hands of the Commerce Commission.
So how does he think it’ll turn out?
“Well,” he says, pausing briefly, “we obviously, believe we have put forward our strongest position possible. Now, we’ll just have to wait until 11 April.”
Indeed. And no doubt journalists across the nation will also be watching closely to see what fate the Commerce Commission decrees for them.