New Zealand national news agency's future in doubt

The future of New Zealand’s national news agency was thrown into doubt today when major subscriber and shareholder Fairfax Media announced it was pulling out of the cooperative.

New Zealand Press Association Chairman Michael Muir said the board of the 131-year-old agency had ordered a review to determine whether it could keep operating.

A union representative said staff were told at a meeting that NZPA would be closed within six months.

The agency was founded in 1879 as a cooperative that collected local stories from newspapers around New Zealand and distributed them among its members, saving each paper the cost of providing its own coverage in other parts of the country.

But NZPA’s services have been whittled back by members in recent years. In 2006, the copy-sharing agreement ended and the agency became responsible for producing all of its own content. The move significantly curtailed its coverage outside the main cities of Wellington and Auckland, because it only had journalists based in those places.

In effect, NZPA was caught up in tough competition between its two largest stakeholders – Fairfax and APN News and Media, both of which are Australian companies.

Fairfax owns a string of newspapers in the country and the popular news portal stuff.co.nz; APN owns the country’s largest-circulation newspaper The New Zealand Herald and other media assets.

Fairfax said it was ending its association with NZPA because it was bolstering its own newsgathering and no longer needed the agency.

“We are the biggest funder of NZPA. We have provided a lot of our content for a number of years,” Fairfax executive editor Paul Thompson said in a video posted on stuff.co.nz.

“But increasingly over time, we have invested in our own resources, and that’s meant that a lot of what NZPA provides actually duplicates content driven by our own reporters.”

“So really, the value of the service has diminished, and we now need to make a decision where we are investing in our own newsrooms, not in a shared news service,” he said.

Muir said in a story sent on NZPA’s wire that staff would be consulted and their feedback considered before a final decision is made at the end of the month on the future of the agency.

“Whatever the outcome, there will be new opportunities, and in some cases more competition,” as both major media companies enhance their own editorial operations, Mr Muir said.

Andrew Little, national secretary of the Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers Union that covers journalists in New Zealand, said members at the agency had been told the staff consultation period would last a few weeks and that, “the organisation will be wound up over a four-to-six-month period.”

He added: “It’s a very sad day for New Zealand journalism. But in many ways it’s been a case of death by a thousand cuts. There has been a progressive move towards this decision with questions having been asked for some time about NZPA’s future viability.”

After being founded in 1879 as the United Press Association, NZPA adopted its present name in 1942, according to its website. It supplies a 24-hour national news service to media outlets around the country, as well as a national photo service. It also distributes international news from other agencies, including The Associated Press.

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