‘We’re from the Government, we’re here to help’ might well be the message from the holders of Kris Faafoi’s new $50m of taxpayer money as they start to dispense it to the nation’s media. Stephen Parker examines the implications of the PIJF.

Later this year, when reading daily news, you are likely to see the branding “Public Interest Journalism Fund”. It will mean the story content leaping from your screen, or the salary of the by-lined journalist, has been paid for by the taxpayer.

It won’t be on work from the steady public broadcasters but that tag of government funding will be on websites and newspapers of the private sector media including Stuff, the NZ Herald, and a host of other providers.

The Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) is $55 million over three years to increase content and reporter job numbers. So far it has attracted the attention of the media industry but surprisingly little follow-up debate. Yet it marks a big shift in funding for private sector news outlets. And because it goes where no government has gone before, faces hurdles to be successfully delivered.

This year has been marked by the Government picking up the pace on media reform. In February, Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi announced Cabinet had agreed to the $55 million PIJF. The designated funding arm – NZ On Air – has recently sketched out a preliminary plan on how it’ll allocate the money. More details are to follow soon.

It’s an unprecedented step for the Government to fund private sector media operators. Once, such an approach would have been deemed heresy. Now it appears more palatable, more easily digested when pitched as a salvation for reporter jobs.

New Zealand On Air hired Australian consultant, Hal Crawford, to help design the fund. In his report, he describes the PIJF as a gamechanger – even by international standards.

“The PIJF will invest more per year than either the UK or the Canadian PIJ schemes, in a country a fraction the size. The potential impact is big, and the scheme has an opportunity to set the global standard in terms of PIJ reinvention. It is not an exaggeration to say that for anyone convinced of the value of news, the initiative represents a crucial test,“ said Crawford.

That crucial test will come on many levels for the Government. It has to demonstrate more reporters being hired, and producing greater “public interest” content. It has to achieve this while negating perceptions the state is a subsidiser of struggling news business models. And it must, presumably, find a way to encourage the commercial players not to become dependent on government cashflow.

Threatened species

Describing journalists as a threatened species may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not as much as you would think. There have been sharp declines in reporter employment. The AUT research centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) said 637 journalism jobs disappeared in 2020. NZME alone had 200 jobs eliminated last year. And it has been a hastening of a long-term trend. An accepted number among policy makers is that the number of journalists in New Zealand fell by nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2018 (from 4,284 to 2,061).

News outlets have survived the digital disruption by reducing costs, particularly staff. Main centre newsrooms look hollowed out. Provincial newsrooms look stripped out. The content of our local papers appears reliant on a mixture of syndicated news, a government-funded Local Democracy Reporter, and a minimum wage junior staffer.

The three pillars

NZ On Air and Hal Crawford have come up with a simple design to get the money out the door – “The Three Pillars”. News outlets can apply for “Project”, “Roles”, or “Industry Development” funding. The “Project” funding is similar to the factual journalism projects currently funded like Stuff Circuit or The Detail. “Roles” is paying for specific jobs in newsrooms, and “Industry Development” will be a back-to- the future solution with training and on-the-job cadetships.

In a further sign of momentum, NZ On Air plans to release application guidelines by the end of the month and make funding decisions by mid-June. It aims to allocate $10 million this financial year. The tagline Public Interest Journalism will be on a publication near you by the end of the year. The trajectory booster then follows. An additional $25 million and $20 million will be allocated over the following two financial years.

So how many reporter jobs?

Just how many jobs the fund will deliver is currently a matter of interpretation.

The Cabinet paper approving the scheme said “this initiative will support New Zealand media to provide the output from the equivalent of up to 250 full-time journalists over the short to medium-term.” That language was interestingly guarded. The “output from the equivalent” has the sniff of language from a policy officer looking for an emergency exit.

The Hal Crawford report to NZ On Air recommended 100 new reporter jobs to be created through the “Roles” platform funding. Presumably more will come from cadetships.

Yet unnamed major industry players were hoping for another option – funding relief to keep status quo newsroom staff numbers. They wanted government money to pay for jobs under threat – rather than for new roles. A message delivered loudly and clearly to Crawford.

“The representatives of big NZ media companies were unhappy that the PIJF had “shifted focus” from their first discussions with Government during the COVID crisis. They claimed the emphasis had moved from industry relief to the provision of PIJ,” said Crawford.

In unveiling the design criteria, NZ On Air has fired a warning shot across the bow to industry. It is explicit that the funding is for reporter roles additional to a newsroom’s existing workforce. Although, it may make a rare exception when ‘loss of staff is demonstrably imminent”.

Such pushback on industry is understandable. Any government would be nervous about the optics, or erosion of its intent.

“Funding could evaporate quickly trying to keep the newsrooms of big commercial companies afloat if this became the primary aim of the fund. It is our belief that commercial companies should benefit from this public money only to the extent that they improve and increase public interest journalism,” said Crawford.

Being able to point to new reporter jobs will be a critical justification for the Government. It is already chancing its arm on perceptions of state subsidisation of newsrooms.

So far the fund has not triggered a backlash. It’s a sign of the times that large private sector media players can expect direct funding to keep newsrooms operating without blinking. Of course, government patronage is accepted across many industries in the post-Covid world. Furthermore, public sentiment may well support job creation for journalism.

Ultimately, how many reporter jobs are spat out of the government funded production lines depends on two variables: NZ On Air’s management of the scheme, and how much pick-up it receives from media outlets. At the moment, industry players are it figuring it out – but it’s hard to see them missing the opportunity.

A problem with paywalls

One tension to be overcome is paywalls. You would think that government funded content couldn’t be paywalled. Some quarters of industry have argued that it should. It’s an awkward tension, especially since NZ On Air and Crawford accepted industry arguments and softened their approach.

As Crawford puts it: “We have sympathy with the arguments of media companies trying to accustom audiences to paying for news content, and believe the fund should avoid requirements that damage these efforts. Funded content must be made freely available, but where content is made freely available somewhere, we believe that allowing publishers to use funded content behind paywalls should be allowed. “

On the surface this seems a helpful compromise for a large media outlet, but less so for a news consumer. How does a consumer know where the government funded content is being made simultaneously free?

What’s more this approach looks in direct contradiction or a stretch on the Cabinet decision about paywalls in front of PIJF content.

“Journalistic output funded through this initiative will be required to be made freely accessible on the funded organisation’s platform (for example, in front of any paywall),” says the Cabinet paper.

Laudable intent

None of this is to begrudge the Public Interest Journalism Fund. After all, it is funding that targets journalism jobs. Until now ,other government initiatives were designed to help outlets survive Covid lockdowns. This project is more targeted for the journalism and content.

While Covid made matters worse for media businesses, other events have underscored the intrinsic value of news industry and fuelled a greater good argument.

Covid, natural disasters, and the mosque attack all point to importance of public information. The Trump Administration was a case study on fragility of democratic institutions, and the merits of good journalism.

The Government is at pains to say the $55 million is a one-time offer only. It’s designed to allow the private sector three years to find its own business answers to digital disruption.

If private sector media companies don’t have good solutions in three years’ time they face having a support rug pulled from underneath them – unless the government changes its mind.

Stephen Parker is a former political editor for TV3. More recently he was the Chief Media Adviser at MFAT, and also worked in the Foreign Minister's office of both National and Labour-led governments.

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