6 Mar 2016

Current affairs drifts online - will funding follow?

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 6 March 2016

Current affairs programmes that once aired on national networks are now reappearing online. Is this a trend that could loosen the broadcasters' hold on the bulk of public funding?

Two weeks ago, broadcaster Willie Jackson and left-leaning blogger Martyn Bradbury launched a daily discussion show called Waatea 5th Estate. It screens on on Auckland's local channel Face TV, which is available nationally on Sky TV. The show is streamed live on YouTube, and on the websites of Willie Jackson's Waatea News and Martyn Bradbury's The Daily Blog

It's a multimedia counterpoint to, in Bradbury's words, "dumbed down tabloid trash served up as current affairs on other channels at 7pm". It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it does show what can be done on TV and online these days with a small budget.

On an episode last Monday about broadcasting, AUT media lecturer Dr Wayne Hope said government broadcasting funding agency New Zealand on Air "should broaden its remit to fund more programmes like this one".

Interestingly, New Zealand On Air used to back a weekly TV show that had a lot in common with Waatea 5th Estate. Eye To Eye was also hosted by Willie Jackson and produced by Claudette Hauiti. It screened on TV One between 2004 and 2009, and was also billed as a frank chat about important current issues.

On air - or online?

A different kind of TV current affairs that screened more recently might also reappear online soon. Fairfax Media this week hired three key people from TV3's former show 3D, best known for investigating the wrongful conviction of Teina Pora.

Fairfax Media's moody shot of their investigative team: Toby Longbottom, Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham

Fairfax Media's moody shot of their investigative team: Toby Longbottom, Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham Photo: supplied

NZOA funded 10 3D investigations last year, but the show was scrapped as soon as the last of those screened after the management said too few people were watching it in prime time.

Fairfax Media chief editor Sinead Boucher told NBR the success of overseas projects like Serial and Making a Murderer showed there was a real appetite for investigative journalism presented in new and engaging ways online. Her new team "will be encouraged to experiment with modern formats on new and existing platforms, and they will mostly be creating digital and video content".

Will public money end up paying for online journalism?

Sinead Boucher, Fairfax NZ Group Executive Editor.

Sinead Boucher, Fairfax NZ Group Executive Editor. Photo: Fairfax NZ

"This kind of journalism is important and we will invest in it regardless," Sinead Boucher told Mediawatch. "But I would like to think New Zealand On Air would be able to adjust its criteria. It is well aware that the way people find and consume video journalism has changed. TV is only one channel for video journalism now - and possibly not even the major channel."

The notion of the public funding privately-owned newspapers has always ran contrary to journalistic notions of independence. Media companies which are not broadcasters have never taken public funding for their journalism before, but now they are investing in online video the question has arisen.

It's already happening with comedy.

Last year NZME - owner of the New Zealand Herald and Newstalk ZB - launched an online video channel called Watch Me. Two video series on it were funded by NZOA to the tune of $100,000 each. One is a video version of satirical political website The Civilian, and a recent online episode tore into contemporary television news.

picture of The Civiilian on Watch Me

The Civiilian takes down TV news on Watch Me Photo: screenshot

If public money is available to satirise TV journalism online, there seems no reason not to use it to put journalism which TV broadcasters have abandoned - such as 3D - online as well.

Fairfax and other publishers would probably be competing with broadcasters for contestable funding soon, Boucher told Mediawatch, and she would have "no philosophical problem" with getting public money from a government agency.

Is Fairfax Media lobbying for a bigger slice of the pie, either alone or in concert with other publishers? Four major media companies - including Fairfax - have already joined together to form KPEX, an outfit that jointly sells advertising space. 

"All of the major media companies realise we are stronger together than apart," Boucher told Mediawatch. "I think you will find us talking more and collaborating more, while still maintaining a healthy rivalry."

New Zealand on Air would not tell Mediawatch if any major publishers had approached them to fund online journalism, but a spokesperson said their criteria for funding had not changed.

It wanted applicants to have a proven ability to find and hold an audience, to host local content of a type the market could not provide alone and to be willing to co-fund projects.

The funding agency also demanded a firm plan for how the proposed content would be made, and be made available to the audience.

Where the money goes

While most of the money New Zealand on Air allocates still goes to programmes which screen on TV1, TV2 and TV3 (and their on-demand services), it is now funding more online projects and put out this message: 

"We are looking for integrated interactive documentary projects whose basis comes from the opportunities afforded by the internet and digital media, and whose outcomes may differ depending on the actions of the users."

Both Fairfax Media and NZME have news websites which interact with large audiences. Both are also putting more effort into online video.

New Zealand Herald editor Shayne Currie told The Listener documentary-style video would be "the next big play for us both at a newsroom level and an company level". The Listener reckoned NZME could even deliver its own TV news channel via the internet before long.

If it hasn't already happened it is surely only a matter of time before publishers of multimedia journalism put their hands up, or out, for public money.