Fiercely local and proud of it

MULTIPLE OUTLETS: Editor Peter O'Neill in the newsroom of today, where stories go not just to the traditional newspaper but also  online, the latter of which are accessed via desktop computers and increasingly through tablets and smart phones.
MULTIPLE OUTLETS: Editor Peter O'Neill in the newsroom of today, where stories go not just to the traditional newspaper but also online, the latter of which are accessed via desktop computers and increasingly through tablets and smart phones.

The Timaru Herald celebrated its 150th birthday on June 11. Editor Peter O'Neill looks at the story so far, the role the newspaper plays in the community, and what the future holds.

We're in the kitchen of a wooden bungalow on a muddy road in a place called Timaru.

Alfred Horton is laying out letters of type on an Albion printing press. When he has them all in place he runs ink over them, then applies a sheet of paper.

HERALD READER: Edna Maxwell.
HERALD READER: Edna Maxwell.

What emerges is a newspaper, the masthead in old English type announcing the birth of The Timaru Herald. We can imagine the thrill running through Horton as he selects the type for the words Vol. 1.-No. 1. The date? June 11, 1864.

One hundred and fifty years ago. A sesquicentennial. Wow.

Wow because that newspaper, this newspaper, is still going. Still under the same old English masthead.

There are two significant similarities about that page and this one.

It's on paper. And it's unashamedly local.

Oh sure, some things have changed. We print six days a week. We print 11,500 copies a day each weekday and 13,500 on Saturday. We also deliver news and advertisements on a thing called the internet. We have 5000 readers a day there, some of whom live here, some in the Coromandel, some in Canberra, some in the cloud. Yes, the cloud.

We write stories, we publish colour photos and advertisements, we shoot video. We talk to you and you us on social media - 6455 of you "like" us on Facebook.

Our news appears on our own masthead site and also at times on national website Stuff, because we're part of the Fairfax family - nine daily newspapers, two Sundays, more than 60 community newspapers, and 16 magazines.

In short, more people are reading South Canterbury news than ever before.

How you are reading us is changing, so we're having to change with you.

Some of that change has been painful.

In the United States hundreds of newspapers have closed in the last five years, in Australia and New Zealand the cost has been more in staff numbers than whole papers.

And yes, in the past year at The Timaru Herald we have had redundancies.

In all, across editorial, advertising, pre-press, classified, distribution, support staff and management - our fulltime staff in Timaru has gone from 49 to 35.

We take no comfort in that, but if as a company we didn't change, we risked everything.

It is not as if change is new to us. Just look at the timeline on this page to see how The Timaru Herald has changed, and how often we have been to the forefront of it in the industry.

And we're aware that recent changes here have been talked about in the community, but get this.

We're not going anywhere.

We're not going anywhere because you believe in us.

You, our newspaper readers are the most loyal in the country. We have the highest average issue readership of any daily paper in the country, at 64 per cent of the population. Over the week we're read by 82 per cent of you.

Our community newspaper, the South Canterbury Herald, has a penetration rate of 75 per cent.

Online over a week we have 14,000 unique viewers. OK, so some of these will also be newspaper readers, but all up it means we reach virtually all of you somehow.

How have we maintained this readership? I'd like to think it is because we have stuck to the aims of those pioneers in that kitchen all those years ago.

As the first editorial said: "Our primary task will be to keep the wants and claims of the district perpetually before the public."

And that's what we still do. At school fairs, on the sideline at sporting events, on the farm, in factories, courts and council chambers.

This week we've been asking people in the street what the Herald means to them. I held one back, that of 84-year-old Edna Maxwell. I did so because it sums up so well the service we provide, from the weather kid to the births and deaths, and so much more besides.

It's called community.

And with that, in our 150th year, we realise the responsibility we carry. We are but guardians of the product, for this is no ordinary product. Not only is it a part of your daily lives, your daily ritual, the newspaper is also a mirror of the community in which we all live. And because of that, readers are parochial about what that mirror reflects.

So while generally you accept that bad things happen and they need to be reported, if we do so unfairly or inaccurately you are quick to let us know.

And that's a good thing. It means you care. It means that you think you own the newspaper, and, actually, you do.

It means you care so much that when, in January, we had two days in a row of no death notices, some of you phoned to complain. But honestly, that one wasn't our fault. No-one died. No-one.

We can always do better and we strive to do so, and, actually, the staff at your newspaper are a dedicated and hard-working bunch.

We felt the wrath of some of you when a month ago we changed our delivery system.

Computer hiccups, the weather and a decided shortage of numbers on letterboxes (what's with that?) conspired against us in the first fortnight, but now we are delivering more accurately and earlier than we ever have.

Some of you are now even thanking us for the change we made.

We aim for that to be the case with other things we've changed. Fairfax is committed to the newspapers it runs, but it also recognises a growing market online.

Where will we be in 15, 50 or another 150 years?

Still here hopefully, although no doubt in some different form.

Already the online reading audience has changed.

Where initially it was all on personal computers, now half of it is on smartphones. Tablet use is growing. Google is working on eye glasses that deliver stories and pictures and watches are being developed that will do the same.

That's kind of scary and exciting at the same time.

It will certainly provide more opportunities for us to serve readers and advertisers, across more of the day and in different ways.

Someone will still be required to gather and present the information, and we intend to be that "someone".

So if we stay loyal to you, if we retain our fiercely local bias, and if you keep doing what you're doing, we'll see you at our 200th.

Well, our kids might.


This week the Herald has been asking readers the above question, and Edna Maxwell, 84, and now a resident of Radius Elloughton Gardens, perhaps best confirmed how the newspaper is more than a product, but something instead that goes to the heart of the community.

"I've been getting the paper for 45 years keeping me up-to-date with what's going on every day.

"I love sports. I kept the paper of the big snow in 2006 and my great- grandchild was in the paper as a weather boy about a month ago. It makes the paper special.

"My grand-daughter was Miss Cutie Caroline Bay when she was 5, that was 36 years ago. And she was on the front page when Prince William was born, she made a handmade card. I kept it all.

"My great-grandchildren play hockey and I get to keep up with what's going on. I like to sit and relax and read the paper. It's an important part of my routine.

"I like the TV page and love rugby and league. I wouldn't know what day it was without the paper."

The Timaru Herald