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The BulletinApril 3, 2020

The Bulletin: Apocalyptic week for New Zealand’s media

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Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Media reels after horror week, Wellington Council facing massive budget crunch, and highest single day of new Covid-19 cases.

It had always been clear that this was going to be a difficult time for the media, with the Covid-19 downturn hitting already battered budgets. But could anything on this scale have been expected so suddenly? In the space of a week, the industry has been completely upended, and hundreds of people have been put out of work, across multiple companies.

On Monday it was Radio Sport, which was indefinitely taken off air after decades of broadcasting. As the week went on, Mediaworks asked (or told) all of its staff to take a 15% pay cut. Stuff and the NZ Herald slashed their contributor budgets for contractors and freelancers, ending the tenures of many long-standing columnists in the process. There have been unconfirmed rumours of redundancies swirling around other parts of the industry.

But the biggest blow was the immediate closure of magazine publisher Bauer NZ, who put out titles including the Listener, North and South, Metro, Kia Ora, NZ Women’s Weekly, and many more. Some of the magazines in their stable had existed since the 1930s. In a flash, all were gone, along with more than 200 jobs. A collection of writers paid tributes to the publications, and what they had meant to them throughout their lives.

Whose fault was it that the publications were shut down? Opinions here are deeply polarised, and I’m not going to offer one of my own. Some blame has been directed at the government, who ruled that magazines were not an essential service, and so couldn’t stay in business during the shutdown – that position was later somewhat reversed for community papers. As this storming op-ed from Duncan Greive argues, the long lead-time of magazine production and long production cycles meant massive uncertainty for not just this month, but many more down the track – and all the while competitor newspaper insert magazines like Viva could continue.

The government in turn has argued that Bauer made no effort whatsoever to claim the wage subsidy that they would have been entitled to, nor any form of government support. Others have speculated that Bauer had been intending to offload the titles for a long time anyway, and Covid-19 provided a convenient excuse. The German family who own the parent company are worth billions, so perhaps could have worn short term losses – though all media companies are being punished by declining advertising revenues now, so the losses would have lasted longer. Mediawatch spoke to former Bauer NZ CEO Paul Dykzeul, who said the move would likely have been planned for a while.

Whatever the ultimate cause is, the week of closures and cutbacks dramatically raises the stakes for the industry as a whole. According to broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi, there could be some sort of support for the commercial side of the industry in the medium term. But as Henry Cooke at Stuff writes, medium term could be too late for a lot of these companies, who are on the brink now.

It might not be the end for all of the Bauer titles. Business Desk (paywalled) reports buyers might still be considering their options, and looking for deals on some of the higher profile publications. Media commentator Gavin Ellis was quoted in the story suggesting the “NZ Listener and Woman’s Weekly would both be likely candidates” for such an acquisition. But it’s not a simple case of signing over the mastheads and picking up where they left off, and the costs of getting them back off the ground will be significant.

Finally, I just want to say to my industry colleagues who have lost jobs this week how sorry I am to see it happen. Please know that your work was noticed, admired and appreciated. I fervently hope this is not the last we’ll see of you in this heartbreakingly cruel industry.

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

Wellington City Council is facing a budget shortfall of around $70 million amid the Covid-19 crunch, reports the NZ Herald’s Georgina Campbell. Income has crashed from revenue generators like parking meters and the airport, and at the same time the Council is under pressure to slow or halt rates rises, or even a full deferral of this year’s rates bill for those that have been affected by the downturn. I’d guess that pretty much all Councils are in similar positions right now, and if there are any exceptions to that I’d love to hear how they’ve managed to do it.

89 new cases of Covid-19 were reported yesterday, the largest single-day increase New Zealand has seen. Chris McDowall has updated his daily series of charts, which give an indication of the new case load over this week – a slight slowdown in new cases, followed by a slight speeding up – overall the rate of increase is fairly consistent. 10 more people have recovered, which has been clarified as “without symptoms for 48 hours” following an illness. Updates on new cases and many more news developments from yesterday can be found on our live updates page, including but not limited to an essential worker leave scheme being announced, police sending tracking texts to the phones of new arrivals, a new exit plan for foreign nationals in NZ, concerns about testing, and more. Today’s live updates can be found here.

If you’re wondering about where all the flour has gone, it’s still around – it’s the packaging which is the problem. Stuff’s Kirsty Lawrence reports that the shortages are being caused by an explosion in retail purchasing, with commercial operators generally getting their flour in huge quantities. Some supermarkets are now starting to look at stocking 20kg bags, because the smaller packages can take weeks to arrive.

Here’s a fairly easily avoidable headline for David Clark: Health Minister drives to local park to ride his mountain bike, amid coronavirus lockdown, reports Stuff. A tip-off was made to the journalists from a member of the public, who photographed Clark’s van in an otherwise empty carpark. Clark said he was trying to model healthy exercise behaviour, the park was in his local area, and the track he rode was rated ‘easy’ and so low-risk. But it comes at a time when many people are confused about whether there are any exceptions to the general ‘stay at home’ rule. I hope Clark’s a confident cyclist, because we’ve all seen ministers get told ‘on yer bike’ for similar sorts of fumbles.

Earlier in the week we had a story about rain bringing relief for farmers. But Aucklanders are being warned that they’re still in a state of drought. One News reports the strong warning from Watercare, which says only about two thirds of the average rainfall of the year to date has come down so far, and water storage dams are now down to half full. Their directive is that people need to stop washing their cars or water blasting their houses. Of course, they also advise people to continue washing their hands properly – but think about this – if we don’t cut out non-essential water use, will there be any left for hand washing?

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Right now on The Spinoff: Dr Siouxsie Wiles has some essential advice on bubbles for anyone living in an apartment. Mirjam Guesgen reports on the start of potential vaccine testing in Australia, with results due in June. Josie Adams writes about how to get going on gardening right now if you’ve never tried before. Sam Brooks writes about his ‘third place’, which is perhaps an unlikely haunt for a man of culture but he explains very clearly why he loves it. Amee Parker has advice for those parents who are just learning now about how homeschooling works. Yawynne Yem writes about her mum, a supermarket checkout worker, and the changing perception about that job – this piece is outstanding, by the way.

And on a quick note about one of our people – I sort of alluded to this earlier in the week, but today is Alex Casey’s last day at The Spinoff. The whole site exists in large part because of her, and I’ll forever be grateful at being part of something she had a massive hand in building. Over her time here, she consistently wrote hilarious stuff, but also did some really brave and powerful pieces of reporting. I’ll share one piece from her which is a bit of both, and I think is an absolute classic – this one from 2017 – in which she rumbled influencers being secretly paid to get themselves on the TV news.

For a feature today, a fascinating piece of historical research on the earliest human civilisations. For those who get a bit nerdy about how societies work, this piece from Science News is a must read. It looks at some archeological remains across eastern Europe in particular, and argues that there is evidence to suggest that the earliest cities were far more egalitarian than is often assumed. Here’s an excerpt:

Though some of these sprawling sites had social inequality, egalitarian cities like Nebelivka were probably more widespread several thousand years ago than has typically been assumed, says archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London. Ancient ceremonial centers in China and Peru, for instance, were cities with sophisticated infrastructures that existed before any hints of bureaucratic control, he argues. Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics and Political Science also made that argument in a 2018 essay in Eurozine, an online cultural magazine.

Councils of social equals governed many of the world’s earliest cities, including Trypillia megasites, Wengrow contends. Egalitarian rule may even have characterized Mesopotamian cities for their first few hundred years, a period that lacks archaeological evidence of royal burials, armies or large bureaucracies typical of early states, he suggests.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.

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