There were some dramatic stories, and some big wins – but the overall trend was very troubling for New Zealand’s domestic media. Duncan Greive creates a month-by-month timeline to show just how bad it got.
Recently a lump of concrete fell from the ceiling in one of New Zealand’s most important newsrooms. No one was injured – staff just steered clear of that area and got on with their work. It’s an irresistible metaphor for where New Zealand media sits as 2023 draws to a close: continuing to operate as best we can, while the infrastructure crumbles around us.
Is it really that bad? The media has been talking about the sky falling in – albeit less literally – for a decade now, and we’re still here. Or at least, some of us are (see below, over and over and over). A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking this is just more special pleading from an industry that is inherently conflicted when covering its own operations. But no one else is going to, and this time really does feel different.
The local sector faces a more austere and indifferent government, a recession, an extremely soft advertising market, along with a fiscal cliff (on trend) with the end of a fraught support programme in the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF). Now pile on international headwinds like a continued shift to social platforms, an epic strike by actors and directors, the rise of performance marketing and the existential threat presented by generative AI and you have a chilling combination.
If you talk to senior executives at the large news and media companies in New Zealand, the word being used is “existential”. This is new, and connected to a widespread belief that one or more of the largest media companies could face some sort of catastrophic financial event in 2024: liquidation, bankruptcy, a forced sale – something horrible and traumatic, basically.
If you’re not in the weeds of daily media industry news, congratulations on your choices. But you might have missed just how dire it has been. The timeline below is an attempt to build a portrait of the major story beats, with a focus on the largest news and screen media that operates in New Zealand, along with international storylines where they have a clear impact on local operators.
To help make it clear what’s going on, I’ve highlighted the key words – think “restructure”, “cancelled” or “closes” – along with the company names. This is so that as you read, you get a sense of how the sector as a whole is tracking. The cumulative impact should make anyone reading aware that New Zealand’s media is in a highly vulnerable state, and the prognosis might be worse than it has ever been.
(Related: if you enjoy and care about your friendly local independent media, please strongly consider becoming a member today.)
- The calm before the storm, only broken by Mediaworks kicking off a year of industry-wide layoffs with the loss of 90 staff.
- Open AI’s ChatGPT becomes the fastest platform in history to reach 100m users.
- New PM Chris Hipkins confirms speculation that Labour’s long-gestating proposal to merge TVNZ and RNZ had been abandoned.
- Mediaworks announces its CEO Cam Wallace has resigned to go and work in the more profitable airline industry.
- The two major publicly listed media entities, Sky and NZME, announce reduced profit.
- The Spinoff reports the founding of Reality Check Radio. The positive is a new digital radio station launches, with popular talent like ex-TVNZ star Peter Williams and former ACT leader Rodney Hide… the negative is that it’s run by anti-vax conspiracists Voices for Freedom.
- Mediaworks shocks the nation by abruptly shutting down Today FM a year after its launch, leading to a dramatic on-air protest by hosts Tova O’Brien and Duncan Garner, and the loss of dozens of jobs.
- Former NZME editor-in-chief Shayne Currie resigns only to re-emerge as the ‘Media Insider’, quickly becoming the most-talked about column in the industry. He’s replaced as EIC by his colleague Murray Kirkness.
- Sky TV announces the loss of 170 jobs as it offshores part of its operations.
- AUT’s unintentionally corrosive trust survey inevitably reveals further decline in trust in the doom looping local media – marking the fourth straight year of decline.
- Labour minister Kiri Allan makes a public apology over remarks highly critical of RNZ’s treatment of Māori staff at a function to farewell her then-partner Māni Dunlop.
- On the other hand, RNZ receives a massive $25m cash injection, commonly seen as a reward from then-broadcasting minister Willie Jackson for being more embracing of his merger proposal than TVNZ.
- This news is announced a day after the resignation of TVNZ CEO and former National minister Simon Power is made public.
- Stewart Sowman-Lund reports for The Spinoff that mayor Wayne Brown turned down more than 20 interview requests in the aftermath of Auckland’s floods – further undermining the role of news media.
- Stuff announces three new paywalled sites for regional newspapers The Post, The Waikato Times and The Press.
- Mediaworks announces that Today FM will be replaced by X, an alternative station which saves on staff costs by having no DJs.
- Stuff proposes a restructure which will halve its print production team.
- Two former powerhouses of the digital media economy are humbled within days of each other. Buzzfeed decides to close its award-winning news division, while Vice faces bankruptcy.
- School Road publishing saves North & South after the iconic magazine appears likely to close, following the relocation of its owners.
- A surprise win for the gaming industry in the Budget – with film-style rebates created to match powerful incentives out of Australia. Rumours suggest that they’re under threat as the new government tries to find cost savings.
- The Spinoff scoops that iconic Auckland magazine Metro has been acquired, less than three years after being rescued from the collapse of Bauer, by the emerging “beautiful business” conglomerate Still.
- The former powerhouse real estate publication Property Press announces it is shutting down, later to be rescued by NZME.
- The NZ Film Commission announces its new CEO Annie Murray, over a year after her predecessor went on extended leave amid a conflict of interest scandal.
- A huge change to government media policy proposes a new super-regulator; but the void between highly taxed and regulated local media and unregulated social media looks likely to remain. News media are troubled by its broad emphasis on “harm”.
- Stuff’s owner Sinead Boucher announces her resignation as CEO, with ex-NZME exec Laura Maxwell stepping into her role.
- A Twitter account notices some pro-Russian edits on RNZ stories about the war in Ukraine, which quickly spirals into a massive scandal; a later review suggests it was more about process and structure failures than deliberate attempts to mislead.
- Digital news bargaining legislation comes into view just as Google announces a range of deals with news organisations including Stuff, Allied Press and The Spinoff. National chills the mood somewhat by announcing its opposition – though it is likely to now support it to select committee.
- The Spinoff scoops the debut of NZR+ – NZ Rugby’s digital platform which might ultimately give it an alternative direct-to-consumer platform to Sky – potentially cutting out the media’s role entirely.
- The chaotic echo of the end of the merger sees three of TVNZ’s digital teams face major restructures.
- BusinessDesk’s Daniel Dunkley scoops that Wellington news site CapitalNZ will close mere months after it debuted, citing financial difficulties.
- Are Media and NZME announce that the Listener will be available as a digital subscription through the NZ Herald platform.
- The D*List is founded, providing a powerful and modern platform for disabled voices in Aotearoa.
- TVNZ sharply acquires Spark Sports’ package of rights, returning to sports in a substantial way for the first time in more than a decade.
- TVNZ also forecasts a $15m loss – deeply troubling given that it is typically the most solid performer in all of free-to-air broadcasting.
- Newsroom’s Mark Jennings reports that Three’s owners Warner Brothers Discovery have had to inject $35m into the loss-making subsidiary; it will later ask for government help.
- RNZ board member Jason Ake lasts just a few weeks before resigning after criticising media coverage of Kiri Allan’s car crash and arrest.
- Stuff wins the race to hire former Today FM host Tova O’Brien, who will go on to create analysis and an eponymous podcast.
- A protracted standoff between tech giants and the Canadian government sees news disappear from social media there.
- The screen production sector gets its wish, with a major expansion to its rebates scheme.
- Sports radio network SENZ has its losses blow out to $5.5m – explaining why the station will ultimately be sold to the TAB (another example of media being cut out of the customer equation).
- Media Insider scoops a union email discussing the loss of 28 more jobs at Stuff, with BusinessDesk reporting that the losses are concentrated in high profile investigative and data journalism roles.
- A rare bright spot: adroit work from new CEO Sophie Moloney sees Sky TV able to post a reasonably healthy $51m profit.
- Another bright spot: startup Caffeine Daily kicks off, recruiting senior business journalist Fiona Rotherham to cover the tech sector with a positive view.
- Mediaworks decides to appoint acting CEO Wendy Palmer as its permanent leader.
- NZ on Air’s mammoth “Where are the Audiences?” survey reveals that digital has overtaken linear for the first time, and older audiences are now increasingly getting stuck into streaming too. This directly impacts ad spending, down across the board in 2023.
- The NZ Herald completes a restructure which leads to the loss of multiple senior editorial roles.
- Both National and Act announce plans to slash government advertising – extinguishing a rare bright spot for some local media companies.
- NZME debuts yet another new subscription product, announcing ZB+, led by influential Substacker Philip Crump.
- The Department of Internal Affairs reprimands broadcasters TVNZ, Three, Mediaworks and NZME for airing ads for online gambling outfit Jackpot City. This results in a seven figure loss of annual income to some of these companies. Meanwhile Jackpot City ads continue to be all over social media to this day.
- Almost lost in the leadup to the election: perpetually debt-laden radio and outdoor advertising giant Mediaworks announces a $9.7m loss and an enormous $100m+ impairment.
- A week later an auditor report expresses “material uncertainty” over Mediaworks’ ability to continue as a going concern as it renegotiates banking covenants. Mediaworks’ board issues a statement saying it has “every confidence” in the business.
- Student radio icon 95bFM sells its record collection as it tries to survive the advertising crunch and deal with an audience transition to digital.
- Otago Daily Times publisher Allied Press has its staff go on strike after being unable to reach a pay deal with their union.
- Screen industry body SPADA formally calls for a levy on big tech streamers to help offset loss of income to local broadcast media.
- Yet another overseas streaming service launches in NZ, this time reality TV-centric platform Hayu.
- RNZ has been spending some of its big budget boost on hiring some of Stuff’s most prominent journalists.
- Newsroom’s Tim Murphy reveals that Stuff’s multi-award winning video team, Stuff Circuit, was absent from a recent NZ on Air funding round and hasn’t released any new investigation in 2023.
- NZME announces a 15% decline in profit.
- Kim Hill finishes one of the great careers in radio – Toby Manhire sends her off with an appropriately magnificent profile.
- TVNZ completes a subdued upfronts to announce next year’s new shows – still better than Three, which abandons the crucial set-piece pitch to advertisers entirely.
- Consumer magazine flags job losses as the decades’ old not-for-profit attempts a digital transition.
- The Spinoff’s Madeleine Chapman scoops that Stuff is downsizing its Pou Tiaki team three years after its lauded apology to Māori.
- NZ on Air board member Andrew Shaw is forced to resign after breaking public service neutrality rules in critiquing new deputy PM Winston Peters on LinkedIn. LinkedIn!
- Wētā Digital announces 256 layoffs two years after being acquired by gaming developer Unity.
- Three’s The Project plays out its final show in front of a live audience, a beloved and high-functioning product which just cost too much to make.
- Nine further redundancies occur at TVNZ, with senior staff including high-profile head of sport Melodie Robinson leaving the business.
- Three’s new 7pm show is announced, a cheaper proposition built around polarising host Ryan Bridge. His AM Show slot will be taken by Lloyd Burr.
- BusinessDesk reports that RNZ is using some of its cash injection to avert strike action from its unionised staff.
- Stuff reports that Allied Press announces the closure by Christmas of its long-running Dunedin TV stalwart Channel 39.
- The NZ Film Commission predicts diminished revenue in coming years as it seeks to markedly scale back its role.
- TVNZ promotes its head of commercial Jodi O’Donnell to the role of CEO. She’s the first woman to lead the organisation.
In summary: that’s a lot of news, right? And not much of it is good. Our media absolutely has bright spots – BusinessDesk has had an incredible year developing its product; After the Party shapes as a potential international hit in 2024; NZ director Gerard Johnstone’s M3GAN grossed almost US$100m. But they’re all aberrations – the drift of the industry, and of audiences, is clear.
Some might say this doesn’t matter – that it is simply nature taking its course. But the gravity of a small handful of tech platforms has a large number of very challenging aspects for New Zealand as a society. This is most obvious in journalism. A factual inaccuracy told on a New Zealand news platform could be catastrophic for its parent company, but completely inconsequential for a social platform. But it challenges our very fundamentals as a country too.
International platforms overwhelmingly serve content from anywhere, with no law saying they must promote our culture or identity. That’s why Netflix has just seven New Zealand productions out of its library of thousands. Why international conspiracy theories are now regularly discussed in our domestic politics. And much more besides. As of today, there is no good reason to think this will change. Which means our chance to find out what our country looks like without any substantial domestic media is a year closer. Buckle up.