Shell-shocked by RNZ barrage

RNZ alienates allies – RIP AAP? – Readership

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

I’m no heavy metal fan but Radio New Zealand is forcing me to identify with a song by Metallica. The title of the track is Confusion and it is about post-traumatic stress disorder.

The state broadcaster is giving me a serious case of PTSD.

First it embarked on an ill-conceived strategy to effectively kill off RNZ Concert and, in the process, undermined audience trust and lost some of its credit balance with the Minister of Communications.

Now it has swept away the trust it had built with private sector media by embarking on another ill-conceived strategy: A ‘knocking’ advertising campaign that reeks of grandiose delusions.

rnz ad 2

The social media and billboard advertising are anchored by the statement that RNZ “has news for you”. No problem there. However, the messages that precede it are clearly aimed at undermining commercial news media. They include “If you think quality journalism has disappeared” and “If you think you have to pay for premium content” and “If you can’t seem to avoid ads online”.
The message is clear: Only non-commercial RNZ can deliver accessible quality journalism in New Zealand.

And that is simply not true.

Although commercial media (especially on their websites) pander to user analytics, they are also responsible for some excellent journalism. I’ve used the phrase ‘oases of good journalism’ to acknowledge the desert that may surround it but that does not detract from my admiration for the quality of, say, investigative reporting by private sector media in this country.

“Pay for premium” is a crack at media outlets – notable the New Zealand Herald – that have installed paywalls to compensate for declining revenue. The suggestion is that other media charge for their best content. However, RNZ’s website is not alone in being paywall-free. Only a small number charge subscriptions. The most popular news website in New Zealand – stuff.co.nz – does not have a paywall, nor do One News or Newshub. Newsroom and The Spinoff have membership programmes but most of their content is freely available.

However, it is the tilt at advertising that will have caused significant anger in the commercial sector. RNZ is ‘unsullied’ by commercials because New Zealand taxpayers give it $43 million a year. Cash-strapped private sector operators believe this gives the state broadcaster advantages and certainty they do not enjoy. They do not need their already eroded financial situation further hampered by an operator that has the luxury of not needing to sell advertising. This disparity is the basis of bitter campaigns against the ABC by News Corp that stretch back decades and show no signs of abating. New Zealand has been largely free of this continuous sniping, but will that continue to be the case?

The stated reason for the current advertising campaign is that RNZ is using marketing to increase its audience reach.

No-one would deny the organisation the right to do that. However, the way in which it has gone about it is confusing.

No media organisation in New Zealand has done more that RNZ to foster collegiality in the industry. It has been generous in its willingness to share content and its latest annual report states that 60 per cent of New Zealanders have consumed RNZ content on third party platforms. In large part this was due to RNZ forging collaborative partnerships with more than 40 other media organisations including Stuff, NZME, TVNZ, the Otago Daily Times, Newsroom, The Spinoff and magazine publisher Bauer. These partnerships were strongly suggesting that RNZ could become a successor to the late-lamented New Zealand Press Association.

RNZ CEO Paul Thompson was instrumental in forging an agreement between mainstream media on how they will avoid spreading white supremacist material during coverage of the Christchurch mosque attacks trial. He has been an outspoken supporter of both cooperation and media plurality.

Now there is a strong likelihood that this good work will be undone by an advertising campaign whose underlying message seems to be that the state broadcaster has little respect for those with whom it has sought alliances.

Why? Trying to determine the answer to that question is sending me into a PTSD tailspin. There seems no more logic to this latest move than there was to the plan to turn RNZ Concert into elevator music.

Could there be a bigger picture? Could this flurry of activity be related to the investigations into whether RNZ and TVNZ should be replaced by a single new public media entity? Could RNZ be trying to position itself as the moral (if not financial) senior partner in the project?

RNZ would certainly be in a strong position if it gained the political upper hand with strategies designed to reach wide (and possibly under-served) audiences with content deemed to be superior to commercially funded material.

The simple fact, however, is that both RNZ and TVNZ have equal amounts of worth to bring to the proposed enterprise.

I had a vision of the directors and senior executives of RNZ sitting around the boardroom table, each clutching a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. In the section on how a prince must act to gain honour, the Renaissance writer stated emphatically that a prince should never join in an aggressive alliance with someone more powerful that himself. “This is because if you are the victors, you emerge as his prisoner; and princes should do their utmost to escape being at the mercy of others”.

In my hypothetical musings I can see the RNZ leadership imagining it was in a dungeon beneath the TVNZ Television Centre in Auckland’s Victoria Street.

If such things are in RNZ’s collective mind, it should not take too much notice of Machiavelli. The very reason the government is entertaining the idea of an entirely new entity is because a simple merger could lead to one broadcaster subsuming the other. One of the tasks facing its potential creators will be to devise governance structures and protocols to avoid such an eventuality.

Of course, it is equally possible that the marketing campaign was akin to the Weekend Herald’s PANDEMONIUM coronavirus headline – so clever they just had to use it – with little or no thought to the collateral damage it might cause.

If only someone at Radio New Zealand House on The Terrace had listened to Confusion: “Pieces don’t fit anymore. Make it go away.” And the title of the album containing the track could have served as a big red light. It’s called Hardwired…to Self-Destruct.

Must Australia’s national news agency rest in peace?

 A decade ago, I wrote an overview of news agencies in New Zealand and Australia for a book that assessed the role of agencies from Associated Press to Xinhua “in the turbulent era of the Internet”. My chapter noted that, in the boardrooms of newspaper publishers that were bitter rivals, Australian Associated Press was regarded as “Switzerland”.

This respect for the neutral status of the news agency recognised the undeniable fact that the self-interest of each of its shareholding publishers was served by protecting it from the often-illogical competition in which they indulged.

It was protected by company articles requiring a “balance of control” between its shareholders and by an agreement negotiated by its then CEO Clive Marshall (who now heads Britain’s PA Media Group, formerly the Press Association) that placed shareholders at arm’s length from decisions on the sale of AAP commercial services. The agency’s newsroom was guaranteed editorial independence and freedom from interference by shareholder newspapers in its news coverage.

Nonetheless, the chapter concluded by noting that the fortunes of AAP and its counterpart, New Zealand Press Association, could not be divorced from those of their owners.

NZPA was shuttered a year later in the endless cost-cutting by the overly-competitive Australian owners of the two main New Zealand newspaper groups that held most of its shares. AAP battled on, building alternative sources of revenue from services such as the editorial production subsidiary Pagemasters. Times were sometimes tough, but it managed to survive and maintain its hard-won status.

Then times changed. In the past five years Australia’s media landscape has been reshaped – and not for the better. Traditional owners have gone, the regional press has been decimated, and transnational social media companies have raped and pillaged media markets.

Last week AAP announced that  it would close its 24/7 newswire, its editorial production business and sell its press release distribution and media intelligence operation. Effectively, it is going out of business.

I agree with the assessment by AAP editor-in-chief Tony Gillies that AAP’s demise “slashes at the heart of media’s critical social function”.

In a by-lined article carried on the AAP website, Gillies said: “Between the stripping of regional journalism and now the national newswire, how much more evidence is required before it’s acknowledged that this broken system needs to be fixed?”

One of the vital fixes should be the rescue of AAP itself.

There is a precedent.

In 2010, after withdrawals threatened the end of The Canadian Press agency, the publishers of the Globe & Mail, Toronto Star and Montreal’s La Presse mounted a rescue bid. CP switched from a not-for-profit industry co-operative into a profit-seeking business. It maintains 14 newsrooms in Canada and the United States and is the North American licensee of AAP’s Pagemasters.

AAP’s Newswire is scheduled to close on June 26. There is still time for appropriate organisations in Australia to emulate the Canadian example. News Corp and the Nine Network (which absorbed Fairfax and displays little regard for newspapers or their journalism) may not be part of that rescue bid but there are undoubtedly individuals and organisations that collectively could take over AAP’s operations. They will have to move fast. Not only has a date been set for closure but News Corp is understood to be considering an internal newswire as a replacement for AAP (Stuff created such an internal service when NZPA closed but found gaps that cost it considerable sums to fill).

As long as the agency can operate with the independence that is at the core of its high international reputation, the makeup of the rescue team need not be restricted to media entities. The sole criteria would be a desire to continue to provide Australia with a vital independent national news service, and an unqualified commitment to maintain the agency’s Swiss borders.

Readership mixed fortunes

 The country’s metropolitan newspapers have had mixed fortunes in the latest Nielsen Readership Survey to the end of last year.

Year-on-year the New Zealand Herald and Otago Times were up slightly to 455,000 and 91,000 readers respectively. The Dominion Post flatlined at 142,000 but its sister title The Press (134,000) lost 9000 readers over the year. In the Sunday market, NZME’s Herald on Sunday had a strong gain of 12,000 to sit at 325,000 but both Stuff Sunday titles lost ground. Sunday News (68,000) is a tale of continuing decline but is apparently still making money, while the Sunday Times (206,000) lost 8000 readers over the year. Over the quarter, however, it had stabilised, suggesting that editor Tracey Watkins may be stemming the decline.

Regional dailies – with a total nationwide readership of 322,000 –  are having a difficult time. Collectively, they lost 24,000 readers over the year. The Waikato Times (42,000) lost 6000 readers.

A question that might be asked is whether Stuff’s strategy of sharing a large number of pages between titles – an obvious cost saving – has a significant downside. Local content sells newspapers, particularly outside Auckland. Perhaps the locally-focused Otago Daily Times, which has also kept its circulation decline below the national average, can send a message to its contemporaries.

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