The Mercury Bay Informer is one of 80 community newspapers nationally affected by an officials' decision to deem them non-essential. Photo: Facebook.

Updated: The Government has reversed the ban on community and ethnic newspapers after further discussions at a Cabinet committee on Tuesday. They will be allowed to be printed and distributed via dairies and other collection points. Periodical publications like magazines will remain ‘non-essential’.

“Where people can provide their community information online we ask them to focus on that mode of publication….. but we accept there may be remote communities and non-English language communities who may not be accessing information through other means,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. “I do acknowledge that the media will be significantly affected by the financial impact of Covid-19.”

MediaRoom column: A decision to block publication of community newspapers under the State of Emergency could be changed tomorrow. Tim Murphy reports.

A decision to stop community newspapers from circulating in the country’s suburbs, towns and settlements appears to have been an example of officials scratching their regulatory itch.

On Friday, without consultation, newspapers and magazines that do not come out daily were taken off the media entry in the list of essential services, leaving many community-driven newspapers and ethnic minority publications unable to be printed or distributed.

This was done in the name of safety – there being allegedly too much risk in their production at print works and in the delivery to people’s homes – and because they were supposedly not supplying vital, urgent information to the public.

News media are exempt from industry closedowns because of the need for information to be issued widely and regularly to the public.

Today, the silencing of the community presses was among the issues discussed by Cabinet’s Covid-19 committee when it considered the ambit of ‘essential services’. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at her daily briefing she expected to announce a decision on Tuesday, which would be contingent on publishers agreeing to safety issues for staff, work from home and hygiene practices. She acknowledged many people obtained vital local information from the community titles.

The blunt decision to stop all papers like those in the hometowns of regional MPs and their suburban cousins in cities now looks likely to be changed to let the papers be printed – but not delivered to houses, instead being available at collection points. It could be that rural delivery of newspapers direct to properties is also permitted.

The media industry, including the Community Newspapers Association (CNA), had pushed back hard on the ban, arguing community papers provide just the sort of advice and information needed for readers in a time of crisis. The Free Speech Coalition has even threatened to take court action to challenge the decision.

Many community papers have an online presence and would try to keep their readers informed via the internet, but the physical paper is considered to have a strong bond with older readers and in some districts those who cannot or do not receive broadband and therefore a digital news service.

Stephan Bosman, the owner and editor of The Mercury Bay Informer which serves the top part of the Coromandel Peninsula from Whitianga, told Newsroom the sudden downturn in advertising had made his business hard enough, but the ban on distributing printed papers was “worse than running into a wall. It’s more like running into a bulldozer and then being pushed backwards”.

He had worked with the CNA, and contacted his local MP National’s Scott Simpson, in a bid to have the decision reversed. He had also contacted the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment but received no reply.

Bosman had hoped for a reprieve from the Cabinet discussions – and was working towards the compromise where community papers could be printed but then left at designated pick-up spots for readers to collect.

At the same time, he has had to find a back-up print works as his normal supplier might not have sufficient customer demand to reopen. Coromandel’s northern paper could end up being printed in the South Island.

Whitianga and Mercury Bay readers were supportive on Facebook. One, Rohit Ranchhod, told Bosman: “Fighting the good fight, as always. Well done 👍🏾 keep it up. The community needs access to its local news.”

Another, Melanie Orbell, thanked him for highlighting the economic crisis’ effects on businesses in the region: “Thanks to you also looking into the business side of things with Scott Simpson – this has been overlooked! No one seems to want to talk about it!”

Bosman said, if approved, he would print at his and his wife’s own expense if necessary. “Important to note is that our cashflow has reduced to less than a trickle. We probably have only 20 percent of the advertising we normally have. My wife and I have decided to print (if we can) in order to keep on providing our community with what almost everyone (but not everyone) believes is an essential service. I doubt we’ll cover our printing and distribution costs with the amount of advertising we have.”

The CNA represents nearly 80 newspapers nationwide. The full list is here

Also affected by the ban on non-daily publications are current affairs and lifestyle titles, including The Listener, and weekly women’s magazines. Their immediate fate is less clear.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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