New Zealand news agency closing after 132 years

AP News
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Posted: Aug 29, 2011 6:54 AM
New Zealand news agency closing after 132 years

When New Zealand's homegrown news agency transmits its last story Wednesday, it will mark the end of a 132-year-old institution that has helped shape the identity of this remote nation.

The New Zealand Press Association (NZPA) is closing its doors Aug. 31, a victim of changing technology and media consolidation.

Two Australian media empires have bought up most of New Zealand's newspapers, and the papers in each chain share stories with each other, reducing their need for an outside news service.

News agencies such as NZPA typically sell their news services to newspapers, broadcasters and online providers rather directly to readers. Like other such agencies, NZPA has tried to adapt in recent years by seeking new broadcast and online customers outside of its traditional base of the newspaper chains, which are also the agency's main owners under a cooperative model.

But in the end, the agency was simply squeezed out.

"It's a tough thing when any news agency disappears," said Bill Mitchell, the leader of entrepreneurial and international programs at the Poynter Institute for journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida. "It means there's one less voice in providing a range of coverage."

The agency's tenure spanned coverage of New Zealand becoming the first self-governing nation in modern times to give women the vote in 1893 to the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 by one of its most famous citizens, the late Edmund Hillary, to the country's ban on U.S. nuclear ships in 1985.

In its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, NZPA employed dozens of journalists, including correspondents in London, Sydney, Hong Kong and Washington D.C. New Zealand newspapers also filed stories of national interest to the agency, which would then distribute them to other papers.

"It was a situation that worked well for 100 years," said Kevin Norquay, editor of the agency, whose staff has dwindled to 42.

The model began to break down, Norquay said, when newspapers consolidated and the Internet came to the fore. With newspaper chains able to make stories instantly available to a wide audience online, the agency's role became less clear. In 2005, most newspapers stopped filing stories to the agency.

The final blow came in April when Fairfax Media, an Australian-based group that owns more than 70 newspapers in New Zealand, decided to end its business relationship with NZPA and go it alone.

Author and historian Ron Palenski, who worked for the agency for a dozen years until 1984, said its stories helped establish New Zealand's identity by bringing common concerns to people across the sparsely populated country of 4 million people.

"For it to be taken away by foreign ownership of two newspaper companies is very sad," he said.

Some see the move as yet another example of the increasing control that Australian companies are exerting over New Zealand business. Australian-based companies now dominate New Zealand's media and banking sectors and are making inroads into retail.

The two countries enjoy close economic ties, which make it relatively easy for corporations to set up shop in the neighboring land.

Paul Thompson, the executive editor of Fairfax, said little will be lost.

"NZPA was a key part of the industry for decades and a fantastic servant," Thompson said. "But the situation changed."

In recent years, the agency did not do much original reporting, he said. He added that Fairfax's team of 400 reporters would more than fill the gap.

Fairfax and rival APN, which publishes the New Zealand Herald, are each adding staff to offset the agency's demise. APN started its own news service last week with 17 employees. It will serve its newspapers as well as a handful of independent ones.

"We're genuinely excited by this new project in journalism," said Chris Reed, editor of the new service.

Meanwhile, a third big player is expanding in the market.

The Australian news agency, AAP, is increasing its New Zealand reporting staff from one to nine to serve the Australian market. The U.S.-based Associated Press has business relationships with Fairfax, APN and AAP.

"We were buying the service from NZPA and suddenly found ourselves without New Zealand news," said Bruce Davidson, the chief executive of AAP.

He said the new landscape won't mean that New Zealand is being underreported _ but rather, the opposite.

"Sadly, from my perspective, we are now going to have a situation where we have three agencies and quite a large element of duplication," he said. "It's a bit silly in the long run."