These are crisis times for NZ journalism, in more ways than one

The shock closure of Bauer NZ – and with it all of the country’s current affairs magazines – is a stark reminder of the fragile state of local media, writes Mel Bunce, the author of a book on the subject.

It is a dark week for journalism in New Zealand, with the surprise announcement that Bauer Media will close its magazine stable that includes the Listener, North & South and Metro. The news is a huge blow for the talented journalists at these magazines – and a massive loss for New Zealand’s public sphere.

These magazines have, over the years, done powerful reporting, investigation and analysis. Their journalism fills page after page of the book A Moral Truth, a round-up of the most important pieces of investigative journalism in New Zealand history, put together by Massey University academic James Hollings.

Their entries in the book include Metro’s major exposé about the mistreatment of women with cervical cancer, which directly led to the Cartwright Inquiry; North and South‘s influential investigation of convicted murderer Mark Lundy; and the Listener’s work on New Zealand land being sold offshore.

The closure of Bauer’s magazines is effectively the end of current affairs magazines in New Zealand unless new buyers can be found.

It is also a stark reminder of just how fragile New Zealand’s media ecosystem is. We rely on a tiny number of media companies for our news, and almost all of them are owned by offshore companies. These companies have a legal obligation to make money for their international shareholders. And when the going gets tough, they cut their spending on journalism, and look to the exit.

Why does this matter?

Journalism is crucial to the health of a democracy at the best of times. In times of crisis, it can genuinely make the difference between life and death.

Around the world, rumour and misinformation about Covid-19 has led people to underestimate the dangers of the virus and continue socialising. It has also led some to experiment with deadly “cures” and prevention techniques.

News outlets in New Zealand are doing incredible work to push back against these falsehoods, explain Covid-19 to the public, and halt its spread. They are working hard to amplify the voices of medical experts. And they have helped to popularise clear, simple concepts that demonstrate the importance of social distancing: from flattening the curve, to staying in the bubble.

Although they are serving a crucial public function, hardly a single New Zealand news outlet is making money. Worse than that – most of them are haemorrhaging money as their advertising income dries up during the Covid-19 lockdown. Without support, more may close.

Back of the envelope calculations in the UK suggest that advertising spending – which is crucial to the business model of most news outlets – has dropped by around 30% as a result of Covid-19. And of course, for news outlets that cannot operate and publish due to the restrictions, revenue is down to zero.

The spectre of a recession also means that it is unlikely advertising revenue will return to their pre-Covid-19 levels for some time, even once social distancing is eased.

Pundits are now predicting far-reaching job cuts across the news industry and the closure of many more news outlets.

In short, we should be bracing ourselves for losses that go far beyond current affairs magazines. We should be particularly worried about the health of local newspapers in New Zealand because these outlets still do the majority of original reporting up and down the country – and they are heavily reliant on advertising.

Need for support

For those who can afford it, there has never been a more important time to pay for journalism: to subscribe to a local news outlet or donate to become a member.

We must also continue to lobby for government support. We need to catch up with our peers in Australia, the UK, Ireland, Canada and elsewhere who spend far more than us per person on public media to make sure there is quality information available to citizens.

The first priority for this spending must be a better-funded, multimedia, public broadcaster. But we will also need to go beyond this, to help support the commercial media, and ensure we have pluralism in the news sector.

It is crucial that we continue supporting NZ on Air’s contestable funds for journalism projects. Ideally, we would make the remit of that scheme as flexible as possible so that it can support outlets as they experiment with new types of journalism, and new business models. The government should also extend the Local Democracy Reporting programme and consider indirect support for journalism in the form of tax rebates and credits, and guaranteed loans.

There are very tough financial times ahead. Public spending will be pulled in many different directions. But we must not lose sight of how important the media is. It is crucial to the health of our democracy – and even, in this time of crisis, the health of our people.

New Zealander Mel Bunce teaches and researches at the Department of Journalism at the City University of London. She is the author of The Broken Estate: Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth World (BWB Texts).



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