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MediaApril 18, 2020

Magazines are still not allowed to publish. And still can’t understand why

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Even as New Zealand contemplates the end of lockdown, more closures and a major snub continue to rankle publishers, Duncan Greive reports.

The magazine industry, still reeling from the abrupt closure of its biggest publisher, Bauer Media, received two further blows this week after being left out of the media session of the Epidemic Response Committee and seeing three further titles close

It was another deeply troubling week for the industry more broadly, with Herald publisher NZME announcing 200 redundancies and that the majority of its staff were taking a 15% pay cut. Its rival Stuff announced an identical pay cut two days later, meaning all of the major private sector news providers have now had significant pay reductions.

In between those announcements, the Epidemic Response Committee, a collection of MPs meeting via Zoom to stand in for parliament during lockdown, asked a number of executives from various media organisations to appear before it to talk about the impact of Covid-19 and level four on their entities. On the list were four leaders of small digital publishers (including The Spinoff) – but not a single representative of the magazine industry.

“We were surprised and disappointed that we weren’t included,” says Sally Duggan, head of the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA). She says the MPA only discovered the meeting was happening at all a day before it went ahead, and was told that there was not enough time to procure it a slot. The Spinoff has approached the committee for comment on the exclusion.

The snub came less than two weeks after Bauer Media NZ, the publisher of long-standing titles like The Listener and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, announced its closure, citing the government’s decision not to designate magazines an essential service. While the extent to which this was the key driver of the decision was disputed by prime minister Jacinda Ardern and communications minister Kris Faafoi, those within the industry remain furious it was ever designated non-essential in the first place.

“We still cannot understand why that decision was made, and why magazines were singled out,” says Duggan. “We’re flabbergasted.”

This sentiment is echoed by publishers. “It’s baffling, and particularly frustrating that the government, who is there to regulate and protect New Zealanders, is ignoring the sector,” says James Frankham, publisher of NZ Geographic. After waiting two weeks, late last night he received only what he describes as a “form letter” in response to questions to the minister, and remains deeply puzzled by the fact magazines remain the only product sold in supermarkets that is banned from production.

“We only hope that when the government considers assistance for the media sector, that magazines are considered within that, as we should be,” says Frankham. “The journalism we practise takes weeks or months to create, but is no less valuable to New Zealanders.” This was echoed in a statement from the MPA, which said the industry was troubled by “not being consulted on wider media issues vital to the industry”.

The ban on production has stayed in place despite the industry being adamant it’s able to operate safely, says the MPA’s Duggan, and that every element, from creation to distribution, has been checked to ensure that.

“The large majority of the magazine industry workforce – journalists, advertising salespeople, editors, office workers, designers, management teams, accounts staff, digital and social content providers – are working from home,” she says. “Magazines use a tight and controllable supply-chain network to print and deliver their products: a handful of printers and a single distributor in NZ Post.”

In response to a query from The Spinoff, communications minister Kris Faafoi provided this comment: “Level four is the highest alert level possible and as such calls on all New Zealanders and sectors of the economy to act and operate in the best interests of keeping New Zealanders alive under the serious threat that Covid-19 poses.

“Under the alert level four restrictions, it was considered necessary to limit essential media services to those publications which could provide the most up-to-date critical daily information.”

The redundancies and pay cuts at the major publishers overshadowed the closure of three more magazines. Stuff reported that AGM is shutting Urbis, Houses and Interiors magazines, with publisher Nathan Inkpen attributing it to the gloomy prognosis for media even after lockdown ends. “Globally, many advertisers and brands are hunkering down, retreating and pulling their media spend, wherever they can,” Inkpen said. “This has meant that we’ve had to make decisions that a month ago would seem unthinkable, but now seem the only logical way forward.”

When asked whether other publishers were also assessing their stables, Duggan said, “I think everybody’s doing the sums.” Despite that, she said she was struck by the mood in a webinar the MPA held during the week. She says there remains a long tail of smaller publishers, along with a number of mass-reach titles, and that there was strong belief that many of the Bauer titles would emerge from the sale process with new, more committed owners.

“There’s a lot of a passion and a lot of determination there,” says Duggan. “But there is no doubt people are hurting.”

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