One Question Quiz
A group of people sit at desks in an office. Some red dots are placed over half the faces to signal they're being removed
Which stories will be soon miss out on? (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyApril 24, 2024

The voices that vanish in a decimated newsroom 

A group of people sit at desks in an office. Some red dots are placed over half the faces to signal they're being removed
Which stories will be soon miss out on? (Image: Tina Tiller)

How will the recent wave of job cuts impact ethnic diversity in the media?

In November last year, I was working a very busy day in the newsroom of a large online news site, interviewing whānau about their concerns over the imminent closure of one of the few puna reo in Tāmaki Makaurau. 

That afternoon, my editor called my small team into an emergency meeting, warning us about a one-on-one meeting with the editor-in-chief the next day. What the meeting was about, they couldn’t say. I asked my editor if I should bring a union rep and have that meeting before my scheduled therapy appointment. They said both were a good idea. I’m about to lose my job, I thought. 

The next day, as anticipated, I was told my two-year contract under the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) wasn’t going to be renewed. In other words, in a couple of months, I wouldn’t have a job. I was the first person on the firing line that day, but not the last to return home with tired, watery eyes. 

In the last few months, this situation has replayed itself over and over for many journalists in Aotearoa. As someone who was employed to focus on underserved voices, I’m worried about the potential loss of ethnic richness and media plurality in newsrooms and the stories they produce.

Victoria Young says careers in media are discouraged in certain cultures due to instability. (Photo supplied)

In recent years, several media outlets have made conscious efforts to resource reporting for minority communities, for instance, the Te Rito Journalism Project, RNZ Asia, Stuff’s Pou Tiaki, and TVNZ’s Re: News. But it’s unusual to see initiatives like these thrive, or even exist, without public or philanthropic funding. 

Post-pandemic, in response to the media’s decline in advertising revenue, the Labour government established the PIJF to support newsmaking otherwise not viable under a commercial-only model. The fund’s spending breakdown is perhaps most succinctly outlined by one of its greatest critics, The Taxpayers’ Union. The fund of $55 million between 2021 and 2023 enabled cadetships and roles for journalists of Māori, Pasifika and “diverse” backgrounds, resourced bilingual reporting and accessibility technology, and funded student journalism and reporters in remote areas. 

Without the PIJF, the fate of these initiatives is unclear. As of today, Stuff’s Pou Tiaki team has been slimmed down from the original 10 writers hired to just two, and outside of the PIJF, TVNZ last week confirmed Re:’s team of 10 would be reduced to six amid cost-cutting measures.

River*, a Māori journalist in their 20s, feels “disillusioned” by the state of news media, and doesn’t trust media organisations to promote ethnic diversity on their own. Newsrooms run on tight deadlines with low staff numbers, and therefore “go for the lowest hanging fruit”, River says: often relying on press releases for pre-packaged stories and only approaching organisations that are acclimated to media queries for comment, such as central and local government and universities. With journalism numbers reducing seemingly by the week, this approach is likely to continue.

Minority communities, on the other hand, often aren’t approached at all, whether that’s because most journalists lack contacts in those communities, community members mistrust the media, or language barriers exist. But hiring a journalist from a minority group doesn’t automatically mean they are comfortable reporting on it: River comes from one of the largest iwi in the country, but avoids doing stories about it. “It’s your literal family members,” they say. “Whatever I do reflects upon my family name … it’s a lot to feel like everything about your culture, your whakapapa or your belief system relies upon what you do.” 

The closeness and smallness of minority communities can make stories harder to tell, from researching with limited resources and building trust with those who might understandably be wary of journalists, to ensuring cultural practices are followed in order to remain respectful while engaging. Stories that take longer to tell inevitably cost more money, something media companies are currently struggling to find. Regional and community reporters work in the same way, telling stories that can only be done well from within the community, not a national newsroom. These are the stories that cost money and are vitally important to a thriving democracy, but don’t typically make money due to their focus.

At one point, River had a supportive editor who allowed them the time to build trust with underserved communities, understand their worldview and express their viewpoint accurately. But after moving back to a fast-paced newsroom with little support, River no longer reports on te ao Māori. It’s one thing for newsrooms to say that they want to highlight Māori voices, River says, but another to “cultivate those relationships so that those voices can be heard”. 

What about the next cohort of journalists coming through journalism schools? Based on data I collected from them directly, 64% of students identified as European, 13% as Asian, 12% as Māori, 7% as Pasifika, and 2% as other, which is not far off from the latest data on Aotearoa’s ethnic profile. However, not all journalism students will finish their studies and end up working in newsrooms. Just five people applied for the $8,000 RNZ Asia Scholarship open to all New Zealand final-year and postgraduate journalism students from any Asian background. 

Journalism is a financially precarious profession, so it favours people who are already financially stable. Greg Treadwell, head of journalism at AUT, says young journalists get into the profession out of a  sense of injustice, but many end up leaving for more lucrative jobs or because they lacked support in the industry. This results in news deserts, where whole communities are left without local information, he adds. 

Greg Treadwell, AUT head of journalism, says we have an unhealthy public sphere. (Photo supplied)

“Media is seen as an unstable career and [it’s] discouraged in certain cultures,” says Victoria Young, the editor of BusinessDesk and co-founder of Kiwi Asians in Media and Communications (KAiMaC). “This means Asian journalists could be more influenced to move out of news media during tough times … Family pressure can create barriers to being in such a dynamic and poorly paid profession.”

But it’s critical journalists come from a range of backgrounds, Young says. “We want our news media – the people we see on screen and hear on the radio – to reflect the society we live in.”

At the same time as larger newsrooms were downsizing and many reporters of diverse backgrounds and areas of interest were losing their jobs, community stories were equally in peril. In March, the Hauraki Herald shut down. Two weeks ago the publisher of the Howick and Pakuranga Times was put into voluntary administration and is seeking a buyer. 

We will continue to miss out on more and more stories of everyday New Zealanders from all different backgrounds. And we won’t know, because there’ll be no one left to tell us.

*Name changed upon request. 

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