- In the last two weeks, 437 media-related jobs in New Zealand were cut as advertising plummets due to businesses struggling with the coronavirus.
- It’s not clear how many of those are journalists, but with the entire country employing about 1,600 journalists, according to the 2018 census, it’s a brutal blow.
- New Zealand media commentator Gavin Ellis told Business Insider the country’s media was already “distressed” due to advertising going offshore, via Facebook and Google.
- Along with the loss of full-time journalists, freelancers and columnists have been cut, leading to what The Spinoff founder Duncan Grieve told Business Insider was an even bigger loss of voices than the numbers indicated.
- The government hasn’t acted yet, but it’s listening. On April 15, in a highly unusual move, chief executives from most of the nation’s largest media organizations were summoned (via Zoom) to explain the situation to a select committee.
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New Zealand has been lauded by the Washington Post for crushing the coronavirus. But its effects are being felt on the very people providing the information — its national media is taking a hammering.
On April 15, in a highly unusual move, almost all of the heads of New Zealand’s largest media groups and several smaller ones — covering print, radio, television, and online news — met on Zoom with the Epidemic Response Committee, a government select committee, to discuss the future of the country’s media.
The larger organisations were granted 20 minutes to explain their situation, while smaller media groups were given 15 minutes. Submissions went over the allotted time. The mood was grim. Shayne Curry, the managing editor of NZME, a New Zealand radio, print, and online media company, noted it was unusual to be in front of the news rather than covering it.
But the media leaders didn’t have much choice. Despite Stuff.co.nz’s chief executive Sinead Boucher telling the government its news site was getting an average of 2 million people per day plus paper readers — in a country of 5 million people — its revenue, much of it from advertising, had more than halved in March. She said it was a “cruel irony” that the key mechanisms to fund the media had “fallen off a cliff.”
NZME had a surge in readers, too, with 1.5 million online visitors per day, according to Currie, and it also had plummeting advertising. Only the day before, on April 13, NZME announced it would cut 200 jobs. The exact number of journalists wasn’t clear, although the cuts included people taking redundancies and positions that hadn’t been filled. After making the announcement, NZME asked its remaining workers to work on a reduced salary for the next 12 weeks.
Less than two weeks before that, on April 2, Bauer Media, run by the Bauer Media Group in Germany, closed its New Zealand operation, cutting 237 jobs, and killing a selection of magazines including two that had been published since the 1930s.
According to 2018 census data, the country had about 1,635 working journalists, so the loss of 437-media related jobs is brutal.
The Epidemic Response Committee’s submissions were opened by Gavin Ellis, a former editor in chief of the New Zealand Herald, NZME’s national newspaper, and a media commentator for the last 15 years. He told Business Insider he had been asked, in military terms, to provide a situation report to frame the situation.
He provided a possible three-part plan going forward. The most urgent stage was referred to as “emergency triage,” meaning an injection of cash to keep the companies afloat.
“Without some sort of intervention, the most immediate problem for all commercial media is that their cash flow has the tap turned off,” he said.
He told Business Insider the last fortnight’s job losses were: “a catastrophic loss.” But the unfortunate fact was that more redundancies were likely. For instance, Stuff.co.nz, one of the two major newspaper groups, had yet to make any people redundant. But Boucher, its chief executive, told the select committee it could not guarantee that redundancies weren’t coming.
Duncan Grieve, founder and editor of The Spinoff, an online news outlet, as well as a media columnist who spoke to the select committee, told Business Insider something similar only blunter. He said the prevailing trend for media companies in New Zealand before the coronavirus had been falling profits, and it was “sort of a s—show.”
The media, he said, were waiting for something good to happen, and instead, it got the coronavirus. “In two weeks the media lost 10 percent of the workforce, as well as freelance columnists and contributors from the two main newspaper teams. If anything, it’s a bigger loss of voices than that number indicates,” he said.
He said hundreds of more job losses were possible if the government didn’t intervene.
Historically, New Zealand’s media had been profitable, with no need for government support, and both groups had held a healthy, mutual suspicion of each other, he said. But with the rise of Google and Facebook, over the last two or three years, the media had been lobbying the government harder for help.
Two of the major outlets were trying to play down huge debt, he said, while another two had been for sale for a long time with no takers. Media consolidation might have helped, but that was rejected by the Commerce Commission, New Zealand’s regulator.
Despite the grim news, he said, on balance New Zealand’s situation probably wasn’t quite as bad as America’s media, if only because of the “reasonably good” chance of “dramatic” government intervention. “Whereas there’s no prospect of that in the US. You basically know you are on your own … that there isn’t a rescue boat coming,” he said.
At the select committee, Broadcasting, Communications, and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi said he would have some “good news” for media companies soon, but did not provide details.
Grieve said despite Faafoi’s announcement, nothing was guaranteed. What form the good news would take was unclear, and there could be disgruntled media operators depending on what the government chose. Also, it was worth keeping in mind; the media was far from the only industry “screaming for help,” he said.
Ellis was a little more positive. He said he found some aspects of the meeting hopeful, particularly the media leaders agreeing on so many points. “There is a sort of collegiality, a recognition that we’re all in this together. It’s a bit like what happens in wartime you put aside your differences for the common good,” he said.
“Their real competitor is social media,” he said.