Fairfax kills NZPA

The NZ Herald reports:

The New Zealand Press Association, which has supplied news to newspapers for more than 130 years, faces closure after one of its owners withdrew its support.

The Wellington-based news agency’s 40 staff heard last night that Fairfax Media had given notice of pulling out of a co-operative ownership agreement with APN, publisher of the Herald, and independent newspaper companies.

NZPA’s board announced a review of the agency’s future, and a final decision is expected in a month.

Fairfax’s decision has one almost inevitable consequence – NZPA will close after 132 years, and New Zealand will jave no national news agency, such as AAP in Australia and AP in the US.

Fairfax seem to have not only killed off NZPA, but also stopped their staff from reporting on it. The one story on the Stuff website, reads like a Fairfax advertorial about why this is a good thing etc. No outside comment at all.

Very different to TVNZ. Often TVNZ is itself the news, and the TVNZ news department reports on that pretty much as they do for any other agency. Where are the Fairfax stories about the criticisms of their decision?

I think the decision is a disaster for parliamentary reporting, and bad for the overall news industry.

NZPA are the one news agency in Parliament that cover every bill before the House. When other media are safely home in bed, there will be a NZPA reporter noting what time the House rose, and what bill was being debated at the time. Likewise on select committees, they are often the only news agency there (apart from the excellent Select Committee News, which is subscription only).

What I also liked about NZPA is they complement the other press gallery agencies. The other agencies naturally focus on stories which sell – which will make for good television, can run on a front page etc. But NZPA are not about “sexy” stories. They just faithfully produce concise factual and relevant stories about what happened – reporters in the old fashioned sense.  And not just about Parliament, also from the courts and elsewhere.

This is partly why NZPA was so liked and respected by MPs and staff. In my 2009 survey of MPs and press secretaries on the press gallery, NZPA was rated the top agency.

NZPA also used to act as a pool, where member newspapers would share content with each other. This ended in 2006 – again due to Fairfax. Karl du Fresne has an excellent blog post from Jan 2010 on this. He noted:

What this all boils down to is that we know a lot less about ourselves.

As Ellis put it in his thesis, the information flows that help New Zealanders build and maintain a collective picture of themselves have been impaired.

NZPA has survived, but only as a shadow of its former self. It’s ironic that this profound change has happened with little public awareness and even less debate, but reporting on itself has never been one of the newspaper industry’s strengths.

The other sad aspect of the announcement is 40 or so NZPA journalists look to lose their jobs. I know a fair few of them, and they are are excellent reporters. NZPA Political Editor Peter Wilson is a national treasure. Peter’s been there for decades, and his weekly column (only carried in provincial papers) is a first class analysis of what is happening.

In the near future, Fairfax and APN won’t have the cost of NZPA anymore. I hope they see that as an opportunity to hire more journalists themselves to cover the gap NZPA will leave, and enhance their ability to cover important stories, even if not front page stories.

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