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MediaApril 10, 2024

This could be the biggest loss of journalism jobs in New Zealand history. What’s next?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Three today confirmed that Newshub will shut forever on July 5th. When combined with dozens of job losses at 1News, it marks a dark week for New Zealand news. Duncan Greive lays out what just happened, and what it means.

“Warner Bros. Discovery [WBD] today announced a new business model for its free-to-air operations in New Zealand,” the press release begins, an oddly cheerful note given what comes next. “The restructure means the closure of all Newshub’s multi-platform news operations and output, including the Newshub website, AM, and the 6pm TV bulletin… The new structure will see the business reduced by 294 roles to 120.”

Two thirds of those roles sat in the Newshub team, with the balance sitting across other areas including commissioning, marketing, legal and sales. Short of the total shutdown approach favoured by Bauer Media at the start of the pandemic, it’s as cataclysmic an event as we have experienced in recent media history. When added to the 64 jobs lost at TVNZ yesterday, this week is likely the biggest loss of journalistic jobs this country has ever seen. 

Given that we already operate with much less than half as many journalists as we did 20 years ago, that’s a stunning loss, one which will forever change the volume and quality of news reported and distributed within Aotearoa. It means original reporting which will not occur and fresh angles not discovered. It will step change the common ground we have in which to communally share information and understand what’s happening in this country.

What’s driving it is partly a migration of audiences to digital platforms, where they are much more likely to be monetised by big tech companies, and partly a deeply depressed TV advertising market, which dropped by a huge number in 2023, according to just-released ASA figures. James Gibbons, APAC head for WBD, underlined that in a statement:

“Just recently, it was revealed that in 2023 alone, $74 million disappeared from broadcast TV advertising in New Zealand. Apart from 2009, the year following the Global Financial Crisis, this was the single largest year-on-year drop in 30 years – a 14.3% drop.”

The consultation period between February’s announcement and today’s news has not been entirely fruitless, with 20 more roles retained than had been proposed. Still, none are within Newshub, and the statement is at pains to point out that, despite reports suggesting another 6pm bulletin might rise from either Newshub staff or another news outlet, “as of now, no deal regarding news output has been made.”

‘As of now’

That phrase “as of now” does leave substantial room for manoeuvre, just as an NZME spokesperson’s note that the company is not “currently [my emphasis] part of the process” did yesterday. Part of the appearance of good faith engagement with Newshub staff precluded any deal to replace their jobs while the process was live. Presumably, with that period having ended abruptly this morning, WBD and its recent news rivals are now free to discuss their creating a product to fill that vital 6pm slot.

Still, reports framing that as a lifeline for Newshub staff are greatly exaggerated. The whole thesis behind closing Newshub is that it costs far more to create than the revenue it brings in. Any replacement could only raise a smaller portion of that revenue, therefore its budget would be far smaller than the current costs associated with Newshub. One of Stuff, NZME or potentially Sky could plausibly hire a handful of journalists, producers and technical side staff – but the bulk of its newsgathering would have to come from its existing journalistic staff. 

It might not be pretty, or create much extra reporting, but it could plausibly be done. Be wary of anyone claiming it as much of a defence of media plurality, though – taking news from one organisation and re-skinning it for another increases the audience for news, which is good, but will have little impact on the total number of stories created. 

Where is TVNZ in all this?

Yesterday’s cuts at TVNZ are not trivial, even if they pale by comparison to what went on at Newshub. It has confirmed the loss of its midday and late bulletins, while the cancellation of Sunday also confirmed this afternoon. The process was not entirely fruitless – the Fair Go brand will be retained, and administered online by a team of four. Similarly, while the cuts at Re: News are the same size, they have been reshaped to retain some of the leadership, which has been welcomed by the team.

On some level, the organisation could convince itself that it’s through a hard period, but has upside coming. Last night Three launched Friends Like Her at a screening in Newmarket. It’s a moody, complex NZ on Air-funded drama, the kind of thing both networks have fought to commission for decades. Three still clearly hopes it will be able to get funding for such shows, despite having laid off 300 staff; what’s far less clear is whether NZ on Air will support that ambition, particularly if, as you would expect, its audiences dive precipitously with the loss of Newshub and other popular local shows.

But audiences which leave Three aren’t guaranteed to come across to TVNZ. Its product mix too is markedly weaker with the loss of multiple daily bulletins and powerful news brands. It’s quite possible that both networks could lose considerable audiences to digital over the course of this year.

TVNZ’s Auckland studios (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

What does the future hold?

As we know now with total clarity, when audiences move from predominantly linear consumption to predominantly digital consumption, they become a lot more fickle. As TVNZ CEO Jodi O’Donnell notes in a forthcoming contribution to The Spinoff’s 20 CEOs, Two Big Questions series, “Global streamers have the ability to negotiate their own buttons on TV remotes worldwide, so we’d like to see the government support app prominence legislation for local media who are supporting and sustaining a creative industry here.”

The Netflix button on many of our remotes is just one part of an array of advantages global media has over local counterparts which can feel overwhelming. These run from deep personal data, to minimised tax, to low-to-no content costs, to lack of local staffing costs, to a total absence of regulation. And on and on and on. 

It is part of why this moment feels like the start of a new era for domestic media. It’s not just news – the whole of our domestic sector is experiencing an enormous and permanent shift. Just this morning screen production group Spada talked about $50m in local commissioning budgets disappearing, which represents hundreds more jobs, in addition to those lost today.

Industry isn’t blameless in all this. TVNZ rejecting a request from Newshub to combine some aspects of newsgathering is a decision which looks worse by the day, as does its refusal to allow TVNZ channels on Sky’s puck. The failure of ad trading platform KPEX is a stain on the industry’s ability to collaborate. 

Successive governments have all played their part too. Legislation sorely in need of updating has been ignored, and ideas like the merger have shied away from the deep and total reconception the industry has needed for years. 

It’s very much not this government’s fault, then – but it is happening on its watch. Given that the economic prognosis for the rest of the year stumbles by the day, it’s likely that this is the worst week for local news and media, but not the only one we’ll wince at. Eyes will turn inexorably to Melissa Lee and this cabinet paper she’s working on. Either she follows Australia into bold action – or she can expect to explain away more days like this in future.

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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