The print financial crisis has shifted focus from job cuts to closures. A cycle once years away, is now before us.

First off the mark this year: Fairfax announced they’re closing 28 New Zealand papers, unless they can sell them. That’s one of the largest mass culls of titles in recent newspaper history – about one in three in New Zealand’s largest group.

These are small, usually free, weeklies; valued by their communities, but not by advertisers. Only one has a cover price. The New Zealand announcement followed Fairfax closing six Sydney community papers in November and News Corp reducing the Manly Daily to twice a week.

That’s how the newspaper closure cycle will roll, shaped by a desperate attempt to hang on to those advertising dollars running through publishers’ fingers like water.

First, community and regional free and weekly papers: expect a similar mass cull of Australia’s regional titles in the next 12 months.

Then, the three to five day a week regional papers, perhaps through a way station of weekly or bi-weekly publication. Watch out for papers like the Canberra Times, classically stuck in the middle (is it regional? is it metro?). Its circulation is now down to about 15,000, in a city of 400,000.

Last standing will be the metropolitan and national daily newspapers still trying to build a digital future.

Media companies have used their half-yearly financial reports to show off their frantic paddling to improve efficiencies, cut costs, share resources, aggregate businesses. But for all the job cuts, the figures show them being ground down by the remorseless reality of falling advertising dollars and the failure to replace them with reader revenues.

Newspapers have high fixed and low variable costs. That’s great in good times. It’s lethal in bad, as the falling revenue curve crashes through the adamantine line of fixed costs.

The “efficiencies” may be keeping the cost curve trending below revenues for the time being. But it comes at its own cost, as fewer journalists leads to lower quality and falling circulation. Although News Corp has now withdrawn from the independent circulation audit, the publishers’ half yearly results released in February show that across Australia and New Zealand, the demand for print is collapsing.

This is particularly true where Fairfax has tested the elasticity of demand by increasing cover prices, now at three dollars for the SMH and The Age. This has seen their circulations — over 200,000 not long ago — slumped to sit somewhere around 80,000.

Yet if print has a future, it will be by providing must-have journalistic experiences. We can’t just ask people to pay more for less of what they used to receive.

The good news is digital subscription. Fairfax reports paying subs across the SMH, Age and AFR up 11%, although total circulation income dropped by 4%. This was off a claimed digital base of 283,000, up about 50,000 since August.

Similarly, News Corp claimed digital circulation of 389,600 across its Australian mastheads, up from 309,200 12 months previously. The Australian claims about 100,000 of them.

Australian papers were slow to enact paywalls, and initially struggled with the shift to the consumer marketing it required. They have got better at using modern marketing techniques to identify and convert subscribers.

This is unambiguously good news, but not a revenue basis for the journalistic scale that newspapers need to provide, particularly at the regional or community level. Building will require more than good marketing. It demands rethinking journalism from the paying reader’s point of view.

In New Zealand, for the time being, the 28 condemned titles have the “for sale” sign out. Apart from half a dozen agricultural titles, buyers seem unlikely. Fairfax inherited a core competency from its 2008 Rural Press merger: it can wring the last dollar out of regional publications. They’re heavily integrated into the broader business. If Fairfax can’t make them work, it’s unlikely anyone can.

And so the closure cycle begins to turn. The last cycle of mass extinction of Australian titles —  the death of the afternoons – took four years, from February 1988 to March 1992. Now that the media travels at internet sped, how long will this cycle turn?

Peter Fray

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