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Panpa Bulletin : March 2011
www.panpa.org.au 20 | MARCH 2011 | The PANPA Bulletin Independent love Smaller publishers battle every day against the big guns. REBECCA LEAVER reports THE exhilaration of controlling a newspaper and creating strong and valued connections with communities are just two reasons why independent publishers love this industry. “There is a freedom being an independent publisher,” says Belinda Noonan, publisher of the fortnightly Burwood Scene in Sydney. “You have the freedom of choice, which is a really good democratic force in our community. I have a ‘why not’ philosophy because I know I won’t be held over a barrel by an executive for making decisions.” Independence allows for a level of creativity and flexibility, say smaller publishers. Peter O’Neill recently became editor of the daily, The Ashburton Guardian, in New Zealand. “The fact The Guardian is independent did not affect my decision to apply for the role. However, it did become a factor during the interview process,” says Mr O’Neill. “Bruce’s (Bell, the managing director) passion for his paper is deep – it is in his blood. “My creative juices started flowing when we began talking about the website. Where we take our online presence is in our control, whereas it is already formulated for papers that are part of the bigger publisher,” he says. Industry consolidation has been a consistent market trend in Australia and New Zealand over the last two decades. Fairfax Media and APN News & Media now dominate the New Zealand market. Those two companies, plus News Ltd and West Australian Newspapers, control the Australian market. And in Singapore, the predominant publisher is Singapore Press Holdings. (All these companies are significant contributors to this association). In Australia, it was once very different. In 1903 there were 21 metro dailys owned by 17 publishers. By 1960, this was reduced to 14 dailys with seven owners, and by 1999 two groups owned 10 of 12 dailies. Now, there are no independently-owned metros. Consolidation continues today. Most recently, Fairfax acquired Southern Independent Publishers’ Kiama Independent, Lakes Times and Wollongong and Northern Leader in New South Wales. For independent publishers, the competition with the big guns is potentially crippling. Major publishers can reduce costs because of their scale, with titles sharing correspondents and wire services, sharing transport and making bulk newsprint purchases. More recently, they have started to centralise subbing and design operations. Some independents worry about the overall impact of consolidation and claim it undermines industry unification on important issues. Bruce Bell, managing director of the daily Ashburton Guardian, says: “The industry is fragmented in New Zealand. “I have been in the industry a long time, there is very little comradery now between publishers. In the good old days, we were all mates but now it’s dog eat dog.” Pier Smulders is managing director of Mainland Press in New Zealand which publishes four community newspapers, a motoring and a classifieds publication and a glossy lifestyle magazine. “It seems to me the newspaper groups (APN and Fairfax) are competing at a level which is turning into a race to the bottom in terms of price,” he says. “They make decision based on rivalry”. Michael Muir, managing director of the daily, the Gisbourne Herald, recalls a time when most papers were independents. “We all used to work together. There is more competition from other media now, so we really should be working together.” The Otago Daily Times is a major independent daily in Dunedin. Business manager Nick Smith has been frustrated by the inability of the industry to stand together. “In the past members of the New Zealand Newspaper Publishers’ Association met twice yearly to discuss aspects of the industry where we could make a unified stance, be it on industrial matters, advertising opportunities or combined newsprint purchase or quality negotiations,” he tells The Bulletin. John Engisch is managing director of Torch Publishing in Sydney, which is now 50 percent owned by Fairfax Community Newspapers. He is optimistic, saying: “Independent newspaper publishers are like the Viet Cong of publishing – lean, strong and competitive.” Independent publishers operate as a vital bloodline for the industry, particularly in terms of training, says Lawrence Gibbons, group publisher at Sydney’s Alternative Media Group. “Our role is extremely beneficial for upcoming journalists,” he says. “Many journalism students contribute to our publications and use it as a starting point to get into the industry. “Big companies like Fairfax won’t hire an intern who hasn’t got a portfolio of published work. “Having us serves as an important industry function. Big publishers have been more than happy to snap up the talent that has walked through our doors.” For many of the regional independent papers, recruiting and keeping staff is a challenge. “We don’t offer the cafe lifestyle,” says Tim Lewis general manager at the Border Watch in regional South Australia. “One of the greatest challenges we face is attracting journalists and printers,” he says. A similar story is echoed by Keith Millerd, director and part-owner of the Namoi Valley Independent in regional NSW: “We’ve advertised on Seek for a journalist position but got applications from India and Sri Lanka.” Staffing shortages mean his team has to be multi-skilled, “so that if someone leaves we are not up the river without a paddle”, says Mr Millerd. Many small publishers can see the benefit of being part of a bigger company, particularly when it comes to staffing, training and resources. “Surviving as a daily independent is a hell of a lot harder than it once was,” says The Guardian’s Mr Bell. “I envy the efficiency of bigger companies.” Wanda Dunnet, publisher of the Narrabri Courier in regional NSW, says her training and staffing challenges would ease in a bigger company. “The bigger companies have excellent training courses for advertisers, graphic artists and journalists,” she says. As Mr Engisch of Torch Publishing, points out, independents are often owned by a family, “and therefore change, particularly in management, is not going to happen fast”. In bigger companies, upper management changes frequently and this offers career progression, Mr Engisch says. It is clear independent publishers value being part of the fabric of their communities. “It’s very fulfilling,” says Ms Dunnet, “on a personal and professional level. We take pride in our community and we try to reflect that in our paper.” “This might sound corny,” adds Mr Bell of the Ashburton Guardian. “But I would like to think that the heart of our newspaper is one of real feeling.” (The phrase ‘independent’ in this article is used to refer to papers that are separate from the networks of papers run by major publishers. No one suggests the big publishers are not independent within themselves.) Wanda and Ian Dunett, the Narrabri Courier Tim Lewis, the Border Watch Lawrence Gibbons, Alternative Media Group Michael Muir, the Gisborne Herald A selection of front pages from the regions independent publishers