One Question Quiz
Hear me out: a PR-funded UBI for journalists.
Hear me out: a PR-funded UBI for journalists.

OPINIONMediaMarch 26, 2024

Here’s an idea for funding journalism: make PR professionals pay for it

Hear me out: a PR-funded UBI for journalists.
Hear me out: a PR-funded UBI for journalists.

I work in PR and I think my colleagues should be collectively transferring around $24.3m into journalists’ back pockets. 

In a year that has killed off one main TV broadcaster, severely maimed the other, and finished off a signature radio station, there have been plenty of reckons and pointed fingers about the state of the media.

Maybe stingy audiences are at fault! They’re happily consuming all the news and forgetting to pay the bill. How about this new, three-headed coalition? What about the lazy advertisers and greedy social media monoliths? 

A concentrated effort from any one of these parties would help preserve the media ecosystem we know and love, but do we really want journalism’s future hinged on David Seymour’s goodwill, or a sudden uptick in audience subscriptions?

When looking for the best candidate to fix a problem, it’s helpful to look at those with the most to lose. Aside from the journalists themselves, that’s me and my industry colleagues.

Public relations, communications, the dark side, or whatever you want to call it, is an industry scarcely understood – I’ve watched many an eye glaze over trying to explain what I do – but basically, we’re the buffer separating an organisation and its inner workings from the rest of the world. 

One of these key functions is media relations, where the press relies on us for access to information and interviews, and public relations professionals rely on the media for third-party credibility, wider distribution and brand growth. 

In short, we have skin in the game for journalism’s success, but our current financial contribution doesn’t reflect this. Although we all subscribe to the media titles and provide intermittent donations, that’s not much better than what my grandma’s already doing.

I think it’s about time the PR industry put our money where our mouth is, making a financial contribution that reflects the importance of our relationship with the news.

A $24.3m fund for journalism?

According to the 2018 census, New Zealand had 8,097 people who said they worked in public relations, and 3,381 people working in journalism.

A recent investigation by The Spinoff found this number has probably halved, to around 1,674. Assuming that the number of PR people is around the same as it was in 2018, we are looking at a ratio of one journalist to almost five communications people.

I propose an annual levy applied to all public relations and communications professionals, which is evenly distributed to all remaining working journalists in New Zealand. 

At a set rate of $3,000 to begin with, that would mean a yearly $24.3m pot of cash to be distributed to all journalists.

By comparison, the Government’s Covid era $55m Public Interest Journalism Fund, doled out over three years, supported 73 projects, 219 roles and 22 industry development projects.

Unlike the high-minded PIJF, the $24.3m in annual should be distributed, UBI style, equally across all journos, whether they’re writing the best snack lists for The Spinoff or court reporting down in Dunedin. 

Based on my back of the envelope numbers, this would equate to around $14,500 in the back pocket of every journalist in NZ. Certainly not enough to fix things, but enough to provide some financial relief.  

Let’s say an organisation like TVNZ employs 200 journalists and 10 communications staff, they would have to stump up $30,000 for their communications team, but would receive $2,900,000 for their journalists.

How could you incentivise large organisations to pay up?

Obviously, we can’t expect instant buy-in from everyone.

Some in the industry will try to argue that their particular job has nothing to do with the media. They’re drafting newsletters or taking the jargon out of quarterly reports or refining how a brand talks about itself; the relatively narrow task of working with the news media occupies little if any of their time. 

Others may welcome an increasingly empty pool of media professionals with a sense of relief. Less journalists mean fewer OIAs and annoying reporters calling up with awkward questions.

But if you’re a PR professional who believes that a) journalism plays a disproportionately large role in the communications industry, and b) the current funding models threaten its existence, then I believe you have an ethical obligation to help raise our financial contribution. 

At $3,000 per person, per year, we’re looking at a small but not insubstantial sum which I believe captures the broader significance of the relationship for both parties.

For agencies, this could be very simply factored into the cost of business for every invoice and I’ve no doubt clients would be more than happy to pay it.

But how do we convince Waka Kotahi to pay $90,000 for their 30-odd communications staff?

Enforcing membership would be very difficult. In a perfect world, we would all link arms toward a higher purpose, but there needs to be some kind of carrot and/or stick in play.

One effective means of achieving full membership (or close to it) would be by introducing an accreditation scheme, much like the verified “blue check” marker you see on Facebook or Twitter, whereby journalists could choose whether to open pitches or press release emails from “unverified” communications professionals (and presumably would be far less inclined to).

Anecdotally, some journalists are getting north of 50 PR pitches or press releases a day. A verification system would give them another filtering mechanism for the stories they do and don’t cover. 

How could we set up this fund?

Once the PR industry is on board with my proposal, we’ll need the right middleman to take on and distribute the funds, as with NZ on Air and the PIJF. Some options include the likes of PRINZ or the communications council, but there are smarter people than me that could figure this part out.

Introducing the fund as a kind of universal basic income would severely limit the administrative costs, and function as a tide that raises all boats for the broader media sector. It would also eliminate snobbery against certain publications, because for PR people the guys at Fishing News are just as important as the nerds in the press gallery. 

Will this make the media biased?

You may read about PR people paying the media and imagine we’re opening the floodgates to widespread corruption in the fourth estate. 

The truth is that this levy would merely formalise a relationship between the two professions deeply rooted in the transmission of information. As long as there’s been news, there has been the quiet hand of the PR. 

My annual contribution should have no bearing on whether a journalist decides to cover my pitch or go easier on a client who has misbehaved. Just as we expect the government to view all taxpayers with the same attitude, we should expect the same high standards of impartiality from the press.

Journalists are already beholden to a strict set of media ethics, enforced by trained editors and the New Zealand Media Council. Not only will these structures continue, but, hell, they might even be better resourced!

What’s next?

Like a hippie anxious about climate change but taking twice-yearly plane trips to Bali, the PR industry has been in a doom cycle of stressing about the future while doing nothing to change the present. 

You simply can’t bemoan the media’s death spiral if you’re not engaged in a solution. So here’s your solution: a small percentage of your yearly income, charged back to your clients. An annual $24m fund to preserve the fourth estate. Easy.

Keep going!