Before I was rudely interrupted…

I feel a little like onetime Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra.

During the Second World War, Cassandra (Sir William Connor) was a victim of newsprint shortages that saw his column suspended. When it resumed at war’s end, he began his column with “As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted…”

The interruption to the Tuesday Commentary on theknightlynews.com can’t be blamed on the international situation, although it is tempting to blame Covid-19 for everything from shortages to Deep State shenanigans. No, it was of my own making.

I had coped rather well with lockdowns and cancellations and stress was something that I had learned to manage as a journalist and editor. I always felt I had control of my life. However, other issues (notably renovations in preparation for the sale of our house) robbed me of that sense that I was in control of things. I became depressed.

Slowly I learned how to regain control – notably by sharing my problem and talking openly and honestly about it. One of the coping mechanisms was to pare back my life to essentials and, much as I loved my weekly commentary on media matters, it had to be put on hold.

Now the renovations are complete, the house is on the market, we are under no pressure from the village where our new apartment is located (“we’ll see you when you’re ready”), and the coping mechanisms have had the desired effect.

I cannot consign 2020 to the past without giving it a send-off. So, as I was saying before I was rudely interrupted…

Cassandra took his nom de plume from the character in Greek mythology given the gift of prophesy and the curse of never being believed. If I had her gift, no-one would have believed what I might have foretold of the fortunes of the media in 2020. It has been quite a year and its twists and turns sometimes took on the appearance of improbable fiction.

In the year of the pandemic New Zealanders rediscovered the importance of mainstream news media as a trustworthy source in a sea of disinformation and conspiracy theories (championed by the outgoing president of the United States). News coverage in this country generally reflected scientific opinion and official sources (although the same cannot be said of some radio talkshow hosts who had been reading too much looney social media). There were occasional navigation errors that crossed the line into sensationalism – the Weekend Herald’s “Pandemonium” headline early in the Covid-19 emergency was the standout example – but the overall approach was as information provider. Even the interrogation of failings and missteps in the containment process was characterised by legitimate journalistic holding of power to account rather than attack dog tactics. In short, at a time of heightened public anxiety, the media achieved a balance that satisfied the need to know without creating undue panic.

And here I will make a prediction: Next year’s Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer that measures public trust in New Zealand institutions will see a rise in the standing of the country’s mainstream media. Much of that will be attributable to the Covid-19 coverage.

The virus was blamed for a drastic reduction in the media industry workforce. The JMaD Report on media ownership (now in its 10th year and available here: https://www.aut.ac.nz/study/study-options/communication-studies/research/journalism,-media-and-democracy-research-centre/projects/new-zealand-media-ownership-report) estimated 637 jobs were lost this year. No doubt Covid-19 and the lockdowns played a part in those job losses but cost reduction is the media’s business strategy of first resort and one is left with the impression that the virus provided an acceptable face to shrinkage that would have occurred in any event. Certainly, Bauer media’s closedown of its New Zealand magazines and fire sale had more to do with its determination to quit the market that genuine force majeure.

The standout on job retention in the JMaD Report was Stuff. Although it asked staff to take a voluntary pay cut (later refunded), it did not resort to redundancies. I attribute that standout attitude to Sinead Boucher, the CEO who took ownership of Stuff from reluctant Australian owner Nine Entertainment in May for a nominal $1. Boucher is now positioning the company as a principled supporter of good journalism, evidenced by a new Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics, a trustworthiness campaign, and the Our Truth, Tā Mātou Pono investigation and apology for past racism and marginalisation of Māori. Boucher and Stuff are pointing the way to practices for all New Zealand media to improve their standing with the public.

The transfer of Stuff into New Zealand hands was one of a raft of ownership changes in 2020. The Commerce Commission had kept Stuff out of the hands of NZME and allowed an altogether better outcome to eventuate (not that such an outcome was in any way guaranteed by the ComCom refusal to allow a merger-cum-takeover by the New Zealand Herald’s publisher). There was no such intervention, however, in the sale of MediaWorks’  free-to-air television assets by one foreign owner to another, or in German publisher Bauer selling its New Zealand magazines to a Sydney-based investment fund. 

There may be a lesson in that: Once sold to foreign owners, our media assets are effectively beyond our ownership regulatory reach.

The sale of TV3 and Bravo to Discovery may translate as no worse, and possibly better, than its previous ownership by fellow US company Oaktree Capital. However, Discovery’s decision to run its Australian and New Zealand assets under single management (albeit with a New Zealand domiciled joint general manager) runs the risk of New Zealand once again playing second fiddle to a larger market or a one-size-fits-all approach.

The sale of Bauer’s magazines, on the other hand, can only be a benefit. The German publisher wanted out of the business on both sides of the Tasman and the new owner Mercury Capital is headed by a New Zealander well aware of the iconic status of The Listener and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Both are back on the magazine racks and it appears to be business as usual. Divested titles including North & South and Metrohave benefitted from new ownership and are back in production.

But wait, there’s more. Quite literally, there’s more. The upheaval led to the launch or relaunch or at least 20 titles and the creation of a new enterprise School Road Publishing that has spawned a clutch of four new titles (Woman, Haven, Scout and Thrive) under seasoned publisher and editor Sido Kitchen. 

Meanwhile, in the state-owned media sector, the proposal to create a new entity to house RNZ and TVNZ (and perhaps provide back-office services to Māori broadcasters) has been resurrected. It apparently failed to find favour with NZ First leader Winston Peters but his ability to influence outcomes ended at the general election.

The election did not end Kris Faafoi’s tenure as Communications Minister but he has acquired additional heavy duty portfolios that could interfere with his ability to helm a much-needed re-evaluation and resetting of the New Zealand media landscape.

Our media enterprises ended the year in better financial shape than anyone dared to expect in April and May. Audience engagement has also improved in both traditional and digital formats. That is welcome news but a small swoop of swallow doesn’t make a summer. The underlying issues facing the industry have not gone away and the danger is that a few rays of sunshine may delay urgent re-evaluation of the structural and financial requirements of diverse and sustainable journalism. Those enterprises must be sufficiently significant, with large enough audiences, to hold power to account.

And here I will make another prediction: The Tuesday Commentary will continue to call for a broad-church summit to start that reshaping of the media landscape. Yes, Bretton Woods 2 will resurface in 2021.

This year produced journalism of which the industry can be proud. There were stories that led to re-examination and change, stories that made us think more seriously about ourselves as individuals and as a country, stories that recognised those working on our behalf, and stories that helped carry us through what – for many of us – was the worst year in living memory. 

Finally, not a prediction but a promise: The Tuesday Commentary will be back next year, although I will not inflict myself on you during what we once called the Silly Season. Wouldn’t it be nice to have those Covid-free bucolic times back again?

In the meantime, very best wishes for what I sincerely hope will be a festive season for everyone.     

3 thoughts on “Before I was rudely interrupted…

  1. Glad you’re back, Gavin. Moving house AND renovations sounds like hell – congrats on getting through it and Merry Christmas.

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