2 Apr 2017

'Journalism Still Matters' 10 years on

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 2 April 2017

Ten years ago, the journalists' union held a summit at Parliament under the banner 'Journalism Matters' to air their fears about commercial pressures diminishing the quality of news. A decade later, they were back for a event called 'Journalism Still Matters'. What's the state of play now?


The media world is facing unprecedented financial challenges and there are real questions on whether the big names in New Zealand media can survive the disruption of their industry. Newer, more nimble media outlets are starting up to fill the void too.

Ten years on from the Journalism Matters summit, E Tu Union brought journalists back to Parliament on Friday to take stock again at an event titled Journalism Still Matters.

Colin Peacock speaking to Sinead Boucher, Brent Edwards and Bernard Hickey

Mediawatch's Colin Peacock speaking to Fairfax Media's Sinead Boucher, RNZ's Brent Edwards and Newsroom Bernard Hickey Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Rose

The keynote address was delivered by Jacqui Park, the chief executive of The Walkley Foundation, an organisation founded by a New Zealand-born businessman in the 1950s that promotes and supports journalism in Australia.

In her address, she spoke forcefully about holding on to core values but also the need to innovate. 

Easier said than done, when stakeholders in media businesses are looking at a slumping bottom line and shrinking revenues.

Fairfax Media's Sinead Boucher

Fairfax Media's Sinead Boucher Photo: RNZ/Jeremy Rose

And while journalists were expressing their concerns at Parliamentthose did not seem to echo further into the corridors of power. 

The Green Party did use the forum to announce new policy, with MP Gareth Hughes saying they would boost RNZ's budget by restoring its funding to the level of 2008 when it was frozen by the current government. The party also proposed setting up a contestable fund of more than $3 million a year administered by Creative New Zealand which could bankroll 'public interest journalism' projects on any media.

But Labour spokesperson Claire Curran and United Future's Peter Dunne were the only other politicians to turn up to the event held on their patch.

Mediawatch spoke to Bernard Hickey of new online startup Newsroom.co.nz, RNZ head of newsgathering Brent Edwards and Fairfax Media group editor Sinead Boucher.

Mr Hickey and Ms Boucher agreed that Facebook and Google's gobbling up of the bulk of online advertising posed an existential threat to the future of commercial journalism in New Zealand and new models were needed.

"We're still feeling our way," Mr Hickey said.

"I don't think anyone's found the magic model. We're still experimenting, trying new things. For Newsroom, we're trying corporate sponsorship allied to subscriptions, mostly from corporates but also from supporters who are individuals paying money through Press Patron."

Newsroom's Bernard Hickey

Newsroom's Bernard Hickey Photo: RNZ

Mr Edwards said the public should not leave it up to politicians alone to come up with solutions to the crisis in the media.

"If you're thinking about democracy and if you believe you need a healthy democracy, it's clear that you also need a healthy, diverse news media and independent journalism. So that's not just a question for the politicians. It's a question for the publicm, and I think it's time the public started to take some note of this and actually voiced their concerns as well.'

"I don't believe there is one model that's going to sustain journalism in the future, I think there will be a whole range of different bits and pieces that are going to do it. And I was quite excited by some of the comments today about what is happening," said Brent Edwards.

Ms Boucher said that in her experience, "once a party gets into power it loses interest in a really strong independent media and increases its interest in media regulation".

She said Fairfax was not looking asking for public funding from the government, it was just asking for the best shot at a sustainable business model and that model, in her view, was Fairfax and NZME being allowed to merge.

"Public service journalism is actually performed mostly by privately owned companies, not by great work from RNZ and others. They're small, they can only do so much. But us, NZME and others are out in every neighbourhood in every community performing public service journalism. It's really important to the country that we find a way for that to continue into the future."

Brent Edwards

Brent Edwards Photo: RNZ

Journalism Matters: A decade on

Ten years ago the main union representing journalists called the 'Journalism Matters' summit at Parliament.

The commercial pressure on journalism had - according to the union - ushered in a decline in the quality of our news that could damage our very democracy.

Experienced journalists were being lured away from the job to better paid work in PR, while more junior reporters were left to do more with less  - and for less money. 

The “most viewed” stories online were just starting to influence what appeared in print and on the air.  Once respected media outlets faced the charge of “dumbing down”.

Ten years on, media companies are far less profitable beasts - some of the commercial ones are owned - ultimately - by banks holding their debt.

They’re all now in direct competition for revenue with offshore online giants like Google and Facebook - and they’re sharing some of their own content with rival companies to get bigger audiences. 

New Zealand's two biggest publishers of news, Fairfax and NZME are seeking permission to merge into one.

Meanwhile, the number of professional and full-time journalists reporting the news that informs us all - and also entertains and amuses us - is still falling.  

Just last week TVNZ announced significant cuts to the news division that still brings hundreds of thousands of people to its channels.

However, today’s digital technology has made it easier and cheaper for new start-ups to deliver journalism online that’s as good as anything offered by the established names in news media.

The Commerce Commission has postponed its decision on the proposed merger, which was opposed by E Tu and many independent media outlets, until 2 May.