26 Apr 2020

Struggling media get takeaways from government

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 26 April 2020

Some media companies will take away more than others from the government's $50m Covid-19 crisis package unveiled this week. The minister of broadcasting has also signalled he will follow Australia's moves to make online platforms like Facebook share revenue from the news content they carry. 

The news business has questions for Facebook.

The news business has questions for Facebook. Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Colin Peacock

The bulk of what Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi called an “adrenaline shot” will help to ease the immediate cash flow problems of commercial broadcasters.

More than $20 million was set aside to cover the cost of their transmission fees for six months and another $16.5m will cover broadcasters’ contribution to shows funded by New Zealand on Air for their channels and platforms. 

There was nothing like that for struggling publishers of newspapers and online news, such as Stuff - which has no broadcasting assets but employs more journalists than any other media company in the country. It is owned by Australian entertainment company Nine which has been trying to find a buyer for Stuff for months. 

Another $11m of the "adrenaline shot" is earmarked for “specific targeted assistance to companies as and when needed", but the minister was far from specific about what those needs might be.  

He was at pains to point out that this was just the first of two packages of targeted assistance. The second will be incorporated into the next Budget.

Faafoi also signaled "beefing up" the Local Democracy Reporting Service - a joint project set up last year administered by RNZ which employs eight reporters at local papers in regions where full-time journalists are thin on the ground. 

It is the first time newspaper reporters have been paid for from the public purse - and now it seems it is a sign of things to come.

It is also a sign of how messy and ad hoc public media funding has become. 

The service was backed by $1m via NZ On Air from a fund to support innovation which no longer exists and set up by an advisory group the current minister disbanded last year.

Faafoi told Kathryn Ryan on RNZ's Nine to Noon on Friday he was closely following Australian moves to make digital platforms Facebook and Google share revenue from journalism carried on the platform across the ditch. 

He said he had not yet talked to officials in Australia but would meet with Facebook representatives on Friday to discuss “the viability of NZ media market.” 

This weekend, the minister's office said he had a conference call on Friday including Facebook’s policy director for Australia and New Zealand Mia Garlick, but the minster declined to be interviewed about what was discussed.

The Australian move has caught the imagination of other governments too.

Would Facebook willingly share revenue from news with news media companies now struggling to survive Covid-19's economic shock?

Andrew Hunter - formerly editor-in-chief at Microsoft MSN in Australia - is Facebook's head of news partnerships in Australia and NZ.

He co-wrote in 2015 titled All Your Friends Like this - How Social Networks Took Over the News

"Every idea for how to save news has been fed back to the news partnerships team at Facebook. But we have to think about the social and business implications of an idea like that - not just for Facebook but for other media organisations as well. It's not an idea we are going with at the moment," he told Mediawatch in mid 2018.  

This week he did not respond to requests via email about Facebook engaging with New Zealand's government on the issue.  

Stuff's appeal on readers highlights some of its senior reporters.

Stuff's appeal on readers highlights some of its senior reporters. Photo: screenshot/ Stuff.co.nz

In the meantime, Stuff this week launched a scheme to persuade its online readers to contribute.

The Stuff Supporters scheme asks for an annual or monthly amount donations - or a one-off payment. 

"We were a bit disappointed that in a package of that scale that 75 percent was inaccessible to non-broadcast entities," chief executive Sinead Boucher told Mediawatch. 

On Thursday, Kris Faafoi said he wanted to be assured print and online media companies were reforming their funding models before giving them government support.

“This not to prop up failing businesses. It’s about supporting journalism in New Zealand,” Faafoi said raising the prospect that financially backing Stuff - and other big media companies also facing industry pressures - was not a good investment.

"I hope that's not what he meant," she said. 

"There have been over-arching issues globally in the last few years and now we find ourselves in this pressing situation after Covid which has knocked off our major revenue source of advertising at a time when there has never been greater demand for our journalism," she said. 

"We need that help to get through this short term to keep delivering that work. Those forces won't go away unless we get some government attention," she said. 

Sinead Boucher, chief executive of Stuff

Sinead Boucher, chief executive of Stuff Photo: Supplied

Boucher however said she did not want the government to take up stakes in media companies to help them survive, as some in the industry have suggested.

Before it closed down in New Zealand last month, Bauer Media proposed to sell its magazines to the government for $1.

"We will need government assistance in a range of ways to help us put news on a stable footing and that means addressing some of the uneven playing field that exists between our news media companies and the international companies that have made their business off the high-quality content others create," she told Mediawatch. 

She believes revenue sharing with the likes of Facebook and Google is better news for our media if progress can be made. 

"I was really encouraged to hear the minister says that," she told Mediawatch.

"If we were able to have an arrangement similar to the one the Australian treasury has proposed it could really be transformational for the new media here," she said. 

"Google's organic search is effective because of the great content it can surface but the creators of that [content] ... get none of the benefit and lose out on the other side as well because they [Google, facebook etc] use market dominance to grab most of the digital advertising revenue," she said.