Looking back on 10 years which saw New Zealand’s media transform from a position of near-limitless power and influence to the deeply humbled reality of today.
At the end of 2009 I had resigned from my first good job, convinced that print media was finished. The good job was as editor of Real Groove, a monthly music magazine that existed for 20 years as a scrappy challenger to the also-quite-scrappy RipItUp. I got the role mid-2006, and it was truly a dream – there was one round-the-world trip flying business class and staying at boutique hotels in Atlanta and Glasgow, where I watched a music exec lose $10,000 in half an hour at a casino, then shrug like it was nothing – but the grind of running a fast lowering-budget, single-subject publication wore me down. I found myself wanting to write about and think about more than music, and worried about the prospects for Real Groove, whose ad pages seemed to shrink with every passing issue.
Yet every job I applied for, at publishers big and small, was a bust. I couldn’t even get a reply to an email, let alone an interview. Coupled with the grip of the GFC, I got into a funk, becoming convinced even back then that publishing itself was nearing the end of its natural life. I struck out into marketing, thinking I’d left the misfiring media behind forever. Within 18 months Real Groove had closed, followed a couple of years later by RipItUp. Yet while the titles died and I had a new career, I was a long way from done with the media. The industry, a kind of sickness, would haul me back in within months.
The Spinoff’s Decade in Review is presented in partnership with Lindauer Free*, the perfect accompaniment for end-of-decade celebrations for those looking to moderate their alcohol content (*contains no more than 0.5% alc/vol).
The irony is that as much as those times felt somewhat eerie, New Zealand’s media as we rolled into 2010 was still very strong. The traditional distribution forms – free-to-air and pay TV, magazines and newspapers, radio – remained formidable businesses, with high barriers to entry, huge audiences and fat margins.
Digital was perceived as a danger in some quarters, and Trade Me had already wiped out the fountain of money that was classifieds, but the internet was as often seen as a business opportunity as an existential threat. While it was already starting to cut into profits, there was so much money there that it took a while to really feel the slow slipping away.
10 years on, from some angles little has changed. Almost all the key businesses and brands remain (albeit some with different names: along with many smaller entities, TV3, Fairfax, NZME and TVNZ’s main channels have all changed names). Underneath the surface you can feel the rot. I often think with media, the last thing to go is the brand or the masthead. We’ll chip away at grandfathered-in contracts, sub-editors, senior journalists, license fees, delay upgrades, while desperately trying to convince audiences and advertisers that everything is fine. Until all of a sudden all those cuts start to be unmissable to anyone. The final act is the end of the brand, but in reality, that happens over a period of years.
It’s worth surveying the media as it stood at the dawn of the 2010s, to get a sense of how the media world looked and felt. The Herald was a broadsheet on every day but Sunday. If you wanted to choose a movie on any given night, you traipsed round your local Video Ezy. The state-of-the-art iPhone 3Gs’ camera recorded in VGA, and one of Facebook’s key concerns was whether it would figure out how to monetise its audience on mobile phones. Almost 800,000 people watched linear television on any given June evening – not an all-time peak, but the highest number since 2002.
The media still existed as a beautiful arbitrage. Its owners gathered an audience, either mass (One News) or narrower and interest-based (NZ House & Garden magazine), then packaged and sold that audience to marketers who were hungry to reach them. The attention economy was still the product of a limited number of distribution channels with content created by professionals – writers, radio personalities, TV programmers, etc – who left gaps between their work which were on-sold to brands. We in the media were the cure for boredom and the expression of your interests, and if we did our jobs well, we had a good business.
If you wanted to get around that hegemony, your opportunities were limited. You could get some neighbourhood kid to shove flyers into letterboxes. You could rent a billboard at a busy intersection. You could fly a plane over a rugby game. You could sponsor a polo tournament or rugby league team. But for the most part, if you wanted to reach a lot of people, your only way was through the media – and therefore you were inadvertently subsidising the production of journalism, or music, or movies, or television, or some combination of all the above.
This was not vastly different to the way things had existed for more than a century. Advertising funding the production of content, with the form changing as various distribution innovations (newspapers, magazines, radio, television) arose along the way.
Then came the internet, the social web, and an extraordinary profit machine reared up. Facebook, Google and YouTube allowed the creation and micro-targeting of audiences. Smartphones put incredible photography and video editing hardware and software in every pocket, and made the experience of engaging with it tactile and moreish. Safe Harbour laws absolved the businesses of any consequences for what was uploaded and distributed. Netflix put a huge library of niche and broad content on every screen. 4G and fibre meant that content was fast and available anywhere, anytime.
All of this had been in motion prior to the 2010s, but it was the increasing sophistication and penetration that made the force irresistible. The tech giants hired the greatest minds of their generation to sell ads, working independently but with the cumulative force of a riptide, to pull people out of one attention economy and into another. Starting young, but eventually taking older and broader demographics. And while ratings companies tried their best to tell a different story, replacing magazine circulation with readership, and tweaking audience measuring methodology the same way a CEO times revenue quarter-by-quarter to show a smooth upward curve, the end result felt foregone from midway through the decade.
Because us marketers are (it’s easy to forget) people too. Despite the still-glorious experience that is a network season launch or radio station lunch, we monitor our own behaviour. The way radio gives way to podcasts, and magazines pile up, un-opened, let alone read. The way our friends say, when you ask about an extraordinary and time-intensive piece of journalism, ‘I read that on Facebook’. Or your wealthiest friends brag about torrenting a new movie. It was a decade of death by a thousand swiped petabytes.
As we stare down the end of the decade these forces have squeezed and squeezed until what remains of the industry is ready to pop. As I write, this story has just been published on the Sydney Morning Herald site:
It ran on a site owned by Channel 9, which also owns Stuff. Was it an act of self-sabotage, or a high-spec classified ad to reaffirm that Stuff, still New Zealand’s largest employer of journalists, really, really is for sale? One brutal line seemed to sum up the perilousness of Stuff, and should have sent chills through anyone running a media business. “Private equity has no interest [in buying the business]. There wasn’t even a $1 bid … There’s no way to make it leaner. The newspapers need to consolidate to at least be able to cut some costs to survive. There’s not the scale to survive on subscriptions – it’s going down the gurgler.”
When Channel 9 bought Stuff, it was, like all the Fairfax newspapers and sites, effectively an unrequested tote bag gifted at the checkout. All attached to what the channel really wanted: domain.com.au – Australia’s largest real estate listing site. That’s the kind of asset which is attractive in 2019. Traditional media? Not so much. Right now a wealthy New Zealander with $500m to spare could buy New Zealand’s biggest newspaper, its entire pay TV industry, half its radio network and a giant tranche of digital assets and still have money left over to buy its biggest private free-to-air TV channel (Three, a once mighty business battling for its life).
To buy the same assets in 2010 would have far beyond the total net worth of even the wealthiest New Zealander.
It’s a doomy scene to survey. The industry which spans everything from the noble ideals of the fourth estate, to the crucial information about civil defence and measles emergencies, to culture-reinforcing drama, to national identity-forging and health-promoting sports is humbled beyond its freakiest 2010 nightmares. What has replaced it as advertising and mass communication vehicles has been implicated in everything from election hacking to genocide over the course of this decade. Yet there remains a yawning gap between the onerous legislation governing traditional and startup publishers alike, and that which governs the trans-national tech giants. It’s important to note that big tech didn’t kill New Zealand’s media, and that we have made serious mistakes ourselves. But the rise of one group and fall of the other are inextricably linked.
It’s entirely possible that we are witnessing, as markets seem to predict, the end of a New Zealand-created mass media. Not the end of media: there will always be great news and entertainment products – from Disney+ to the Guardian – they just won’t be from or particularly about here. When the competition for attention either gets their content free (Facebook and Google), has global scale (Netflix, the Daily Mail) or or isn’t even trying to sell you content as a core business (Apple, Amazon Prime), it’s hard to imagine anyone locally and at scale resisting those forces over a longer time span.
The bulwark against that is government intervention. Already, simply by dint of a more stable ownership or funding regime, government media properties like RNZ and TVNZ loom larger in the media consciousness than they did a decade ago. If those entities merge, as is rumoured, their combined power could hasten the end for major private sector players. The Māori media, which is predominantly state-owned or -subsidised, has shown the potential peril of that situation. The once powerhouse reporting team at Native Affairs fell apart after clashing with various board members. While it re-emerged elsewhere, the scars of that incident endure.
As we go through this transition, from a world of limited channels to global giants servicing infinite niches, there’s also the very real chance that news and information becomes a product by and for elites, with vast news and culture deserts in between. That’s already happened in places, with New Zealand’s tiny local democracy reporting scheme an acknowledgement of it – though how eight reporters are meant to replace the work of the thousands lost over the past decade has never been addressed.
The glimmer of hope which remains flickering in all those still working in what has come to be known as the content mines is that the tools are out of this world. I’m drafting this in a Google doc and for all its many faults, Facebook is also the most extraordinary content distribution system in history. Additionally, because they can absorb the best of the world’s work, many of those who remain working in New Zealand’s media are doing extraordinarily good work. Young and old journalists, screenwriters, podcasters and creators of all types who remain are creating work of incredible power. The emergence of reader revenue models (a naked plug: please support ours) are promising, too, if still far too small to get near matching advertising revenue.
So while big tech seems unassailable, the market has issued its verdict, and government is shrugging, there remains a long shot that this is the darkness – and what remains is the dawn. Either way, a lot of my favourite journalists have been unable to tear themselves away. One of my best friends was, in 2011, editor of RipItUp. Now we both work at The Spinoff. Neither of us, nor anyone else in the media, know what comes next. But one of the true pleasures of this seemingly cursed job is getting up every day and finding out.
The media phrases of the decade:
- Facefucked: when you pin your hopes on a strategy (eg: pivot to video) and Facebook changes theirs on a whim, leaving you holding your own entrails.
- SVOD: Subscription video on demand. Basically Netflix and a whole bunch of companies, from linear TV channels to Hollywood studios to telcos, who desperately want to be Netflix.
- Convergence: how at this party everyone is doing the exact same thing (content) in the exact same place (the internet).
- Legacy: formerly something to be proud of (a century-long history of publishing an important newspaper), now something to be buried and deeply ashamed of as you tell the world you’re now a platform (see: the decade in a sentence, below).
- Influencer: someone who sells tooth whitener on Instagram.
The decade in a sentence:
The media is coming to terms with the fact that all it does is create content (high cost, low margin), when all you want to be is the platform (ultra-low cost, high margin).
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