Metro editor Henry Oliver recalls the fateful Zoom call which ended Bauer New Zealand – and what came next.
A year ago this week I joined a Zoom call with 200 or so other Bauer employees. On being let into the meeting, I scrolled through screen after screen of little black boxes with little names in the corners. A few people struggled to turn off their video as instructed. You could hear a murmuring of distant chatter in adjacent rooms, the clicking of mouses trying to find the mute button. Soon, Brendon Hill, our Sydney-based CEO, arrived on screen only to disappear again. Evidently, he was struggling too. He reappeared and began reading a prepared statement. I barely listened to the words. I didn’t need to. As soon as I heard his voice – his usual trans-Tasman work-hard-play-hard boom reduced to the shaken monotone of a reluctant corporate executioner – I knew exactly what he was going to say.
Hill thanked us for our attendance and briefly summarised the economic impact of Covid-19 on Bauer’s business in New Zealand, especially given the government’s ban on magazine publishing. “In response…” he said before the audio cut out for a crucial 11 seconds “… owner with no success. Due to this, it is with great sadness that we are announcing today that the New Zealand business is no longer viable and Bauer New Zealand will close our operations. This is effective today.”
I’d been the editor of Metro since January 2019, only one issue more than our annual six-issue cycle. It was the kind of dream job I never considered a possibility until it very much was. Five years earlier, when I quit my professional career to become a freelance writer, my highest ambition was to write for Metro, but I never dreamed of editing it. It was the kind of job that only came up every five to seven years, then went to someone already in the building. So while I loved my time there, when those words hit — “close our operations” “effective today” — I didn’t feel the loss I knew others did. Even though I was the editor, I didn’t yet feel ownership over the title. It had been a privilege, sure, but one that wasn’t owed to me. I felt lucky to have been there at all.
At Bauer, I sat three desks down from Virginia Larson, who’d edited North & South for 12 years. On the other side of some cupboards topped with indoor plants so cared-for they looked fake was The Listener, edited by Pamela Stirling for the last 16 years (she’d been a journalist there for 16 years before that). They’d spent the prime of their professional lives leading these titles; I, it suddenly seemed, was just briefly passing through. I grew up loving magazines (I barely read anything else as a kid) and when I took the job at Metro, I knew there was a possibility I’d be there at its end, a headshot three-quarters down the news report of its demise. If I’m the last to do it, I thought at the time, at least I got to do it. I just never thought I’d only get seven issues.
In the year since, from the wreckage of Aotearoa’s biggest magazine publisher, a revived industry has emerged. Bauer (a global family-owned company based in Hamburg, Germany) went on to sell its Australia/New Zealand operation to an Australian private equity firm which then sold off as many New Zealand titles as possible and rebranded to Are Media to continue publishing those that it kept, including The Listener, NZ Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Day. Sido Kitchin, formerly the editorial director of the latter two titles, joined School Road Publishing to launch not one or two but four new titles: Woman, Haven, Thrive and Scout. Simon Farrell-Green, then editor of Home, started Here; Zoe Walker Ahwa, then editor of FQ and Simply You, started Ensemble; four former editors (Kelly Bertrand, Emma Clifton, Nicky Dewe and Alice O’Connell) started Capsule. North & South was bought by Verena Friederike Hasel and Konstantin Richter, two German journalists (Richter is also a board member of the largest media group in Switzerland) who quickly invested in a new team for its relaunch; FQ and Home were bought by Parkside Media and relaunched with new staff; and Metro was bought by Simon Chesterman, who I’d been friends with for years, but never would have guessed would be remotely interested publishing a magazine.
Simon had called me a week or so after the Zoom call and asked what I thought about Metro’s future, and whether I’d want to return. It sounded too good to be true, but every week or so he called me with an update on the bidding process. During those calls, we talked about life during Covid; how we’d all be living more local lives for the foreseeable future (a likely result of climate change in the longer term anyway). We talked about the potential of print media; how it can be uniquely beautiful and tactile, and how its physicality was key to its survival – the magazine as an anecdote to the infinite social media death scroll and the 36 open tabs sitting lonely, unread. We talked about Metro as a quarterly; fewer issues but with more pages, more writing, more design, more photography, and more space (which, ironically, was promised four years earlier when Metro went from 10 issues a year to six). We talked about Metro’s potential off the page — Simon had recently sold a sports streaming platform to Sky and had ideas about how Metro could exist online that were beyond anything we dreamed of at Bauer. We wanted Metro to be faster where it should be fast and slower where it could be slow with nothing in between.
We’re now six months in, having recently released our second issue together along with returning food editor Jean Teng, art director Kelvin Soh (with his team at DDMMYY), and Nick Shaw and James McKee (with their digital agency Fracture), all of whom are part-owners of the title. A year ago, there was suddenly no Metro. Now, Metro is out on its own again, less frequent but bigger and (we think) better than it has been in a long time. We’re free to rethink the way a magazine can exist in 2021. We’re free to build a business from scratch, with as few middle people as possible. We’re free to make our own mistakes, to try things that were written off long ago by people with much more experience than we have, free to dig back into our past and write a new future for ourselves.
Now, after months of supermarket magazine racks half-filled with dreary back issues wedged in between the odd Australian or British import, the New Zealand magazine industry is back — not to the former glory of the turn of the century, but certainly to a beyond where we left off at the start of the pandemic. Most of the old titles are looking better for the break and the new titles serve niche audiences in new and exciting ways, showing that an industry made up of mostly independent publications might serve readers better and have a better chance of commercial survival than an industry dominated by one global company. Though, despite the warranted relief that local magazines have “bounced back”, the root causes of the volatility haven’t gone away — there’s still not enough advertising to go around after Facebook and Google take their dominant share, and most people are still conditioned to believe that media should be free (unless it’s $12 a month to Netflix or Spotify). So while it feels good that news of the death of the magazine industry turned out to be greatly exaggerated, a hard truth remains: not all of these titles will make it. But if they don’t, at least it won’t be almost 20 of them going down at the same time.
An hour or so after that Zoom call, I told The Spinoff, “no one wants to be the last editor of a magazine. Despite all evidence pointing otherwise, I find myself still hoping, perhaps naively, I’m not.”
One year later, I’m still hoping.
Hear Sido Kitchin tell Duncan Greive about the Bauer closure and launching four new titles with School Road Publishing in this episode of media podcast The Fold. Subscribe and listen to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.
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