It's survival time for local media - we are in your hands
For journalists in our region, throughout NZ and throughout the world it is as if we are picking ourselves up from the ground after the mother and father of all bombs was dropped from above – Covid-19. It has wiped out advertising, much of our newspaper production/distribution and the physical movement journalists need to do our work.
In the aftermath of that bomb we are looking around to see who is still alive and who has gone. Already we had lost around half our numbers through years of Google and Facebook cannibalising the local ad market. So – journalists were not in good shape even before the bomb dropped. We were already sick, and tired.
Now hundreds more have gone or will be gone very soon. The Government is not sure what to do. They’ll do something – but it is likely to be too little and too late.
But instead of wailing and whining about how tough all of this is we need to get real. Advertising never really made sense any way. You cannot bite the hand that feeds you – full stop.
We’ve danced and finessed our way around this for two centuries because it suited a lot of people. Government, corporations and councils were doubtless aware that a few thousand, or hundreds of thousands of dollars spent with media on advertising and official notices would soften the blow of critical journalism.
Likewise, what journalist is going to attack an airline or a supermarket that pays their salary through media ads? Even more so, what journalist was going to hold a ski field or tourism operator to account in Queenstown if those same organisations kept the local newspaper or radio station funded? Even the QLDC and CODC spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on local media ads and notices. We, as a group of journalists, don’t do nearly enough to hold local government to account – in fact local government is tempted to become their own media channel because they simply have the money to do so. It's actually our money - but who's really watching?
Life would be a lot easier for Government and councils without the nuisance of journalism.
The Government may fund media, councils may even fund local media, but this scenario just recreates the old Elephant in the Room. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.
So, where to now? It literally is up to you.
News should never have been free. It should never have been a “business.” In fact, it was never a business. Advertising was a business; news just filled the gaps in between. We as journalists often thought we were doing God’s Work and believed our bosses when they pontificated about Independent News and the power of the pen over the sword.
Overseas where news was huge, some great journalism got done under these rules and even in NZ there has been the occasional breakthrough. But it was always a compromise between the ad money and the power of news to create an audience. That was the business model.
In the future, you will need to pay for news. It should never have been an exception to what we pay for, along with electricity, food and consumer goods.
News can of course be subsidised but it needs to be ultimately owned by the people – by the citizen – and be not for profit. Don’t take our word for it – virtually every media expert in the world now agrees on this including Kiwi Dr Mel Bunce speaking on TVNZ’s Q and A this morning and media giants like former Herald Editor Gavin Ellis.
Crux is not perfect – but we can be a lot better. We need funding to form a Community Editorial Advisory Board, to hire more local journalists and take the time necessary to write strong accurate stories. A properly researched story can take 10 days – not the 20 minutes it takes to turn a media release into a “pretend” news story with a journalist’s name on it. That’s what makes up 80% or more of what you currently consume as “news.”
Crux is now being read by up to 20,000 people locally each day. In the month of March 194,000 people engaged with our social media posts on Facebook. Our plan was never to be the sole surviving media in this part of NZ. Others will also survive and adapt.
But we were the first to turn our backs on advertising. That took courage and meant that for much of the time we’ve not been paid for what we do. But we stuck with it because we always knew that advertising was a compromise too far for news. Now the world has caught up with that view - albeit through circumstance not reason.
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