What sort of media – what sort of journalism – will make it through this economic crisis? Gavin Ellis on what we have learned so far

I now know why they are called ‘home truths’. They reveal themselves while you are banged up in your house waiting for the plague to go away.

I have learned a few home truths about the media since going into voluntary isolation even before the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown order was issued. Age was the reason I turned my back on human contact weeks before the café doors slammed shut but it also means I’ve seen a few media institutions come and go over the years.

Journalists have learned to go with the times – yes, mainly go. They have been constantly told they need to adapt with technology, with competition, with changing markets. They have learned to roll with punches and that, for many, has meant accepting some things that leave a bloody taste in the mouth.

So, from the safety of my bubble (or, more accurately, the serenity of my study where the only danger lies in refusing Rufus his cat treats), I have had time to reflect on the past, to gather a few home truths that just might be useful lessons for the future.

Home truth #1

Journalism is too precarious for me to recommend it as a career.

It breaks my heart to say that. I regard journalism as a vital public service and have been proud to be part of the profession. I tried to instil a sense of vocation in students I taught. However, Covid-19 saw scores of journalists lose their jobs and the latest redundancies were only the latest in a long string that began two decades ago. Making good people redundant was the most soul-destroying task I had as an editor. I did not control the purse strings, which were held 18,000 kilometres away. This latest tranche of job losses has been debilitating. I do not feel I can, in all honesty, recommend to a young person that they study for a minimum of three years then seek a career in journalism. There is no guarantee that jobs will be there. Yet without journalists we will face a serious democratic deficit. We can only hope that there are individuals with enough fire in their bellies about the craft to ignore such grim realities and to press on against the odds. Those people should dismiss what I say as merely a manifestation of lockdown depression.

Home truth #2

Investor-based news media are elderly Coronavirus patients with underlying health issues.

The almost instantaneous cashflow plummet experienced by commercial media in lockdown left no-one in any doubt about the financial vulnerabilities of the industry. Investors were aware, of course, that legacy media were on a downward earnings trajectory but the speed with which revenue dried up in the lockdown was one dose of radiation too many. NZME’s share price, which sat at 37 cents in March has dipped below 20 cents. Two years ago it was 80 cents. Its private sector counterparts, Stuff and MediaWorks, had the For Sale sign s on their doors before Covid-19 appeared. That sales imperative became all the more urgent when their cashflows tanked in the lockdown. Bauer, of course, had beat the band and closed the doors on its New Zealand magazines. Overseas, media companies are in equal or greater strife. The danger now is that news media join a group of industries regarded as Coronavirus casualties that investors will abandon. It is not the first time media have had serious revenue declines. Advertising is a canary-in-a-coalmine economic indicator and each recession has hit media cashflows. Nothing, however, has had the immediate shock effect of lockdown business closures. It is the final front in a perfect storm that has been building in the digital weather system. Although there may not be an immediate collapse, investor-based media organisations will be able to do no more – at best – than buy time to find more secure futures.

Home truth #3

Foreign owners have no investment in New Zealand society.

Foreign owners have a curious detachment from their enterprises in this country. Perhaps it is because they seldom, if ever, have to look local staff in the eye or be confronted in the street by a New Zealander who is passionate about my newspaper, my magazine, or our television channel. Distance makes it easier for Bauer executives in Hamburg to issue an abrupt ‘close it down’ order, for MediaWorks American and Australian owners to reportedly tell local executives that the television arm will be closed if it isn’t sold, and for Nine Entertainment to announce it had no interest in Stuff before the ink on the Fairfax sales agreement was even dry. One of my favourite books is Selected Chaff, the wartime columns of small-town American newspaper proprietor and editor Al McIntosh. His column on February 3, 1944 began: “We had a moment’s concern when we saw County Clerk [Charlie] Souter headed for our office door with a rifle slung over his shoulder. We couldn’t remember of any reason for Charlie getting hostile and drew a sigh of relief (when) it was a Japanese rifle and bullets that Charlie was bringing us to put on display in the Star-Herald window”. I wonder whether corporate decisions would come so easily if foreign executives’ office doors were as accessible as Al McIntosh’s.

Home truth #4

Consolidation multiplies impact.

The consolidation of the New Zealand media industry began decades ago with the purchase, first, of regional newspapers by metropolitan newspaper groups. Then one newspaper group swallowed another or was broken up and divided among the major players. Private broadcasting saw the rise of a multitude of radio stations and, in the neo-liberal lolly scramble of state asset sales, more commercial radio stations changed hands as the market ‘evolved’ into two major groups each with a stable of networks. The consumer magazine market for a time looked like pass-the-parcel until Australian interests arrived on the scene and began to consolidate the market. Then the German giant, Bauer, arrived and created an unrivalled stable including our most iconic and long-lasting magazines. The result is that, in 2020, we have the lion’s share of our private sector media in the hands of only four companies – NZME, Stuff, MediaWorks and (legally if not operationally) Bauer. We have already seen the effect when one of those owners shuts up shop. Bauer’s decision to quit the New Zealand market saw 27 titles cease publication and turned off the light on an irreplaceable amount of our current affairs and cultural output. Now imagine the impact if one of the two major newspaper groups did the same. The lesson here is that we must find ways to redistribute ownership. Then failure of a part does not destroy the whole. Before that, however, we may need to tolerate the merger of NZME and Stuff to buy time to find long-term solutions for publishers and, perhaps, to stop Stuff’s Australian owner from a post Covid-19 slash-and-burn exercise (see Home truth #3).

Home truth #5

Light will shine through.

No more pessimism. We can look forward now to Level 2 and the promise of more freedom to go about our business.  There is light out there…and in the media. Journalists have continued to function and have provided impressive coverage of the crisis. And those who, for no good reason, have not been able to function – I refer to our remaining magazines and most of our community newspapers – have been diligently seeking ways to ensure their survival. Survive they must. Take, for example, New Zealand Geographic, which has been informing New Zealanders about their country since 1989. Its publisher James Frankham has tried (without success) to make the government see the important contribution magazines make to our society. With or without government support he will keep NZ Geographic going because he’s not going to let down the 158,000 school pupils who access his magazine online. Or Stuff chief executive Sinead Boucher who appealed to readers to support ‘trusted journalism’ by donations. That is not a move one expects of commercial media but she is determined to keep journalists employed in spite of her newspapers’ advertising revenue taking a massive battering in the lockdown. Or the individuals, as yet unnamed, who are negotiating with Bauer to buy at least some of the magazines that are household names. Start-ups like Newsroom and The Spinoff, whose founder Duncan Greive yesterday told its donors: “ We’re on the verge of recruiting more journalists and commissioning ongoing work from a wide range of freelancers. We can’t wait to get into it”. There are many reasons to be positive about the future. I doubt it will look like the present (or, more accurately, the recent past) but there will be a future if we accept a few home truths and there are enough courageous young people to dismiss Home Truth #1 and become journalists in spite of the odds.

Dr Gavin Ellis is a media researcher and commentator. His work appears on www.whiteknightnews.com

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