A word from old mate Sir Bob Jones

The news from Sydney that the Fairfax Board has declined the best offer they could solicit for Stuff’s newspaper fleet, namely $50m, came as a surprise. They’re out of touch and should have grabbed it, tee-heeing as they fled that there’s one born every minute. For who would be dumb enough to want to buy such rapidly dwindling in value assets?

Further evidence of their lack of touch is the hint that they may try to float the company, perhaps inspired by the constant moaning by our sharemarket writers about the absence of new issues and ever diminishing New Zealand sharemarket. But once they talk to brokers here, this the first step in any public flotation, they’ll be hard pressed to find one prepared to lend their name to it. Here’s why.

The latest newspaper audit figures tell the story. Almost every New Zealand newspaper has taken a circulation beating over the last year.

The most conspicuous exception is the Otago Daily Times down only 3.7% while the best performer is the relatively tiny Wairarapa Times-Age down only 1%, this doubtless attributable to an enthusiastic and industrious new owner. I met him recently at a Wairarapa function I was a guest-speaker at. He’s correctly sussed the appetite for local news and gossip which is the key for provincial newspapers’ survival. But that said, even if only 1% , it’s still down.

Reflecting the general decline our major city’s newspaper, the New Zealand Herald for the first time, possibly in the last century, has dropped below 100,000 daily sales to a meagre 90,000.

But back to Stuff. Wellington’s Dominion Post has suffered its biggest ever fall, down 13.33% to a woeful 37,000. Still they can console themselves that allowing for the population difference, they’re out-performing the New Zealand Herald.

The Stuff fleet includes the Christchurch Press, down 14.4% to 37,500 sales, plus their two Sunday papers and some poor performing provincials. Why they persist with the Sunday News is a mystery as its sales fell by over 17% and now sells less than 10,000 nation-wide, so too the Sunday Star Times which lost 13% of subscribers and sales (including me as it’s a disgrace) fell to 60,000, still economic though.

The newspapers are not primarily to blame for their slow deaths, rather as with so many longestablished activities they’re victims of the new digital age. Basically their established audience is dying off while most under 30s wouldn’t know what a newspaper is, thus their spectacular ignorance.

This is a world-wide phenomenon although the Brexit stew in Britain has provided an upward spike as has happened in America with the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post, thanks to the Trump horror fascination by the serious minded.

Few would dispute that the Fairfax Board has been spectacularly inept in recent decades. But they’ve now got their act together across the Tasman, pumped money into quality journalism and arrested the decline with the Sydney Morning Herald and particularly the Australian Financial Review, both now first class. So too Murdoch’s The Australian. This suggests that if confined to quality there’s hope for major city newspapers with the serious minded and thus affluent, a valuable advertising target.

The failed attempt to amalgamate the Herald and Dominion Post, knocked back by the monopoly concern, was a tragedy for the serious newspaper audience as it would ultimately have led to a high-quality national newspaper.

The Herald is plainly trying but not so the Dom’ which seems to have given up, reflected by the 100% absence of news (excluding week-end sports results and a brief bit of foreign news) in its Monday editions. All of its Monday contents are totally fictitious non-news-stories in which some trivial matter is blown out of all proportion and shouldn’t even be accorded an inch.

For Stuff to survive it must get on with its paywall. Its website has always been and remains superior to the Herald’s. That way as their print products head towards their inevitable demise, correspondingly the site’s subscribers will grow. But they need to act smart.

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