Community newspapers are unable to publish during the lockdown (image: Getty)
Community newspapers are unable to publish during the lockdown (image: Getty)

BusinessMarch 28, 2020

Government rules that magazines and community papers aren’t an essential service

Community newspapers are unable to publish during the lockdown (image: Getty)
Community newspapers are unable to publish during the lockdown (image: Getty)

Just a tiny handful of print publications will continue through the lockdown, with only daily newspapers specifically identified as being able to continue. Duncan Greive spoke to publishers of magazines and community newspapers about the impact on them and their communities.

Publishers of magazines and community newspapers are reeling, after a ruling from their regulators at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage which has excluded non-daily print media from publishing through the level four lockdown. “I’m sorry it’s not the news you or your associations would want to hear,” wrote Matthew Oliver, strategic advisor to MCH chief executive Bernadette Cavanagh, in an email to the heads of the main magazine and community newspaper associations.

The email has been obtained by The Spinoff, which has approached the MCH for comment. It details which print publications are able to operate through the lockdown:

Excerpt from an email to representatives of the magazine and community newspaper industries

The ruling means that hundreds of publications are now effectively on pause until lockdown ends. Perhaps the most concerning area of publishing to be impacted is community newspapers. David Mackenzie is president of the independent community newspapers association, and publisher of both Cambridge News and Te Awamutu News. He says the decision was made without any consultation, and has left his members reeling, deeply concerned about its impact on the areas they serve.

“The move discriminates against small communities,” he told The Spinoff. “Daily newspapers simply do not serve them… they only serve the towns they’re based in.” He cited areas like Ruapēhu and Waiheke as examples of areas with vibrant community newspapers which would be effectively cut off from local information by the move.

Mackenzie says the motivation to continue publishing is in no way economic, but connected to the role the papers play in their towns. In fact, because of the advertising market evaporating, most would incur larger losses by printing, says Mackenzie, than they would by halting production. “It’s because they firmly believe in the role they have to play in the community,” he says, admitting that more than one of his members has contemplated defying the edict and printing regardless.

Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher, whose organisation publishes dozens of community titles, concurs with McKenzie’s perspective. “In this situation, people really need to know, not just the national story, but the regional or community one.”

Stuff publishes some magazine titles, which are also captured by the ban. Boucher says that they are abiding by the ruling with regard to their magazine titles, which include NZ House & Garden. “Our interpretation of it, as magazine publishers, is that they are non-news titles.” But she says they will continue to publish the Sunday Star-Times, despite it being a weekly. The Weekend Herald was also distributed today, and the Herald on Sunday tomorrow.

Outside of community newspapers, the largest impact is on the magazine industry. For many special interest or lifestyle publications, from the Woman’s Weekly to the TV Guide, this is understandable on one level – during the lockdown, a vast number of businesses are ceasing operation, or radically reconfiguring their work. Yet magazines are functionally no different to the likes of music radio or entertainment television, each of which are allowed to continue broadcasting. Additionally, with well over half their distribution happening through supermarkets, publishers are wondering why they aren’t being treated the same way as soft drinks or chocolate.

This was raised by Sally Duggan, head of the Magazine Publishers Association, in an email to The Spinoff. “One of the points we will be making is around the definition of an essential service. The prime minister said yesterday, in answer to a question about why tobacco was still be supplied to supermarkets: ‘We’ve kept the guidance very simple, if you supply a supermarket, those work forces are able to produce supply for our supermarkets and our dairies.’ The MPA will be asking why magazines do not qualify under this definition.”

Bauer Media, by far New Zealand’s largest publisher of magazines, is heavily exposed by the ruling, with its revenue crown jewel Kia Ora, published in collaboration with Air New Zealand, likely to be on pause for months, and the ad market very slow to recover. Yet its impact is not just economic – it also has non-daily publications which are emphatically part of the news media. The Listener is a weekly news magazine with a circulation in the tens of thousands and health is a huge strand of its coverage. Stablemates like Metro and North & South are also widely read titles with strong current affairs threads, and while all have online outputs, print remains the core of their distribution.

Within the broad magazine demographic there is a large number of elderly, those most vulnerable to the virus, and magazines are part of what connects many older New Zealanders to their communities, with publishers expressing concern for the mental health of readers cut off from their routines at such a stressful time. The Spinoff approached Bauer for comment, but a spokesperson declined, saying the company’s priority was communicating the decision to staff.

The ruling comes against a backdrop of immense interest in news, along with plummeting revenues, as only a tiny number of companies will be advertising during the lockdown. The media was already under immense pressure prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, as Facebook and Google ate their advertising revenues. Ironically, the need for fact-checked and well-sourced media has never been greater, but a huge amount of the government’s Covid-19 ad campaign has occurred on Google, Facebook and Instagram – the very source of much of the misinformation around the virus. Effectively, the tech giants can be seen as being paid to clean up a mess distributed through their platforms and services.

Fears are high within business circles that the event is not survivable for the private sector news media. One senior executive I spoke to said that even with the stimulus package, the three main news providers – Stuff, NZME and MediaWorks – would face major cashflow crises by late April or early May. Already NZME staff have been asked to take voluntary redundancy and 15 days’ annual leave by July. Credit cards have been cancelled throughout the industry, and many titles will simply never reopen after lockdown.

Without some kind of sector-specific government intervention, those within the industry are increasingly doubtful of its ability to survive.

More: Duncan Greive’s The Fold podcast on media and Covid-19

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