A makeshift newsroom, charter planes and copies delivered by helicopter were part of a Herculean effort by Fairfax Media for its readers following this week’s devastating earthquake in New Zealand.
The 7.8 quake struck just after midnight on Sunday and caused landslides, tsunami warnings, building collapses and two fatalities.
The disaster didn’t stop Fairfax getting all its papers out and attracting an audience of 3.6 million on stuff.co.nz on Monday – up from its daily average of a million.
As residents were evacuated, Fairfax journalists were helicoptered in in teams of two: one reporter, one visual journalist.
Fairfax NZ executive editor Sinead Boucher said it was a huge logistical challenge but the company was committed to keeping readers informed.
“They have to go in with all their food, water, tents, sleeping bags, everything because there is no water, sewerage, communications or anything in the town,” she said.
Copies of Christchurch daily paper The Press were also flown in to Kaikoura and a special edition of weekly Kaikoura Star was printed.
The papers went like hot cakes.
“We distributed them all for free just to make sure people of that town knew what’s going on,” Ms Boucher said.
“Obviously they had no power. Without being able to log on to the internet or TV or radio – unless they had extra batteries – we realised how important the printed newspaper was.”
Fairfax knows how to handle similar situations having gone through the 2011 Christchurch quakes, which claimed the life on a staff member and wrecked the head office building.
VIDEO PLAYLIST: How The Press and The Star published papers in the wake of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.
Wellington, across the Cook Strait, was also affected by this latest quake.
The city’s daily, The Dominion Post, printed a second earthquake edition of its Monday paper despite damage to its print centre and an evacuation alert forcing staff to leave.
That morning, Fairfax’s Wellington office was closed for two days to assess damage.
A makeshift newsroom was quickly set up at a local hotel but equipment was locked in the office.
The IT team sprung into action and delivered laptops to Wellington staff all the way from Auckland.
“We’re really throwing everything we can at (our coverage) and it shows how important it is to be able to have local journalists on the ground,” Ms Boucher said.
“We have a really important role in (highlighting) the civil defence alerts, telling people what they should do, where they should go.”
Quake coverage highlights need for merger
The earthquake hit days after the country’s competition watchdog signalled it would reject a proposed merger between Fairfax and NZME.
The publishers argue the merger would create a strong local player better able to compete against Facebook and Google: companies that scoop up an increasing share of ad revenue but don’t – for example – fly journalists into small towns during times of disaster.
Ms Boucher said Fairfax’s coverage and civic role during the earthquake demonstrate why the merger should be approved.
“A week like this shows just how vital it is to be able to have local journalists in communities across the country,” Ms Boucher said.
“In strict economic terms, a lot of these small newsroom would just not be viable (without the merger). We need to be able to have a strong business foundation to be able to afford that.”
Ms Boucher said New Zealand had dodged a bullet with the earthquake hitting at midnight rather than midday when cities, roads and offices would have been full of people.
She said she was very proud of the Fairfax team this week.
“From our smallest newsrooms like the Marlborough Express to the Christchurch, Wellington or the national team, everyone has just really pulled together and delivered some of the finest work ever.”
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