Struggling news media companies are hoping the funding agency New Zealand on Air will bankroll more journalism in future, in addition to the local dramas and documentaries for TV it has funded from the public purse for years. Mediawatch asks its new CEO Cameron Harland if it wants that job - and how it’s adapting to the Covid-19 chaos disrupting all the broadcasters it supports.
Unveiling the government’s $50 million package of financial assistance to struggling media companies last week, the minister of broadcasting and digital media Kris Faafoi said there is “a natural level of function of journalism the Government wants to see.”
So far the government has ruled out any direct bailouts for - or investment in - the providers of it, other than in the ones it actually owns: RNZ and TVNZ.
One of the commercial ones has gone to the wall already. This week, some journalists at top magazines were clearing desks at Bauer Media HQ after the Germany-based publisher of the Listener, NZ Woman's Weekly, Metro and many more, pulled the plug on them last month.
Cleared my desk at Bauer today. 11 years of journalism consigned to 2 black rubbish bags. Rescued this tile mosaic made for me in prison by a guy serving life for murdering his sexual abuser. I’d told him my cat Zac had died. He phoned to ask what colour he was then sent this. pic.twitter.com/nEVNO9Q0Hv— Donna Chisholm (@Donna_Chisholm) April 30, 2020
Just before Bauer closed down in New Zealand, it offered its magazines to the government for $1, but that was an offer the government could and did refuse.
“The most likely scenario is that the government will look to directly fund journalists or journalism and thus avoid claims it is supporting doomed business models or subsidising foreign owners,” wrote Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings recently.
“It has a ready-made vehicle in NZ on Air that could quickly allocate funds,” said Mark Jennings, who is not a disinterested by-stander: Newsroom has two major podcast co-productions with RNZ funded by NZOA as well as and journalism projects of its own.
Others in the industry have also suggested the government’s broadcasting funding agency should bankroll more journalism.
For more than 30 years, NZOA has been the main avenue for taxpayers’ money going into public broadcasting and local content. It passes on RNZ’s annual budget and also funds New Zealand music projects and community radio. But the bulk of its budget is a contestable fund parceled out to TV production companies and broadcasters to make shows the TV broadcasters agree to screen.
The big budget items are the local drama TV drama series and documentaries.
In recent years, NZOA responded to the rise of the internet by declaring itself 'platform agnostic', so smaller sums are now spent on digital news content by outlets which have never been broadcasters at all - such as Stuff, Coconet, The Spinoff and Newsroom.
Until recent years, NZOA didn't fund news or current affairs at all. It was thought to be a bad idea for editorially-independent commercial media to be beholden to the government for their news.
But when the likes of TV3 and TVNZ backed away from making current affairs from their own income, NZOA moved in to fund news shows that “would not normally be made in a wholly commercial environment.”
Now that Covid-19 has battered that commercial environment such that almost all journalism would ‘not normally be made’ in it, the pressure is on NZOA to put more public money into it.
The brand new chief executive Cameron Harland had less than a week with his staff before the lockdown dispersed them all.
Cameron Harland was formerly CEO of online cricket platform CriqHQ and chief executive of Park Road Post Production. He is a director of Weta Workshop and Te Papa and stepped down from TVNZ's board to lead NZ On Air.
Does he want the role of funding more journalism?
“I’ve only been in the role a short period of time and it’s humbling to hear from a number of sources they see New Zealand on Air as a source for helping with journalism. It is under real pressure and if content is going to struggle to be funded then we could be a solution,“ he said.
“As an an agency I guess we are pretty adept at funding diverse content and if journalism is seen in that way . . . I’m sure we would rise to the challenge,“ he said.
“I guess our remit over the years has changed. As an agency that distributes funds in a transparent way . . . we are as good as any,“ he said.
Funding journalism would run up against the competing demands of TV producers and other content makers who pitch for NZOA's contestable funds.
“The fundamental point that we have made to the Ministry (for Culture and Heritage) is that we need to maintain a baseline . . .at least at the same level that it’s been in the past,” he said.
In July 2019, NZ On Air met with news executives do discuss the future of journalism. A report by business journalist Pattrick Smellie suggested as one option a "contestable fund for investigative journalism projects" at arms-length from political influence.
"The primary focus should be on the provision of public interest journalism, regardless of whether funding decisions inherently help to sustain new or existing business models," he wrote.
The report was passed on to the government pondering its media policy for the digital future.
But there will be intense demands on NZ on Air from all sectors of the media facing uncertainty created by Covid-19.
"What we want is a baseline to remain so we can support production companies and cast and crews in the sector and if we are called upon to support journalism we would hope that would be an additional level of funding rather than coming out of the precious pot for productions and for music and the other platforms refund as well,” Cameron Harland told Mediawatch.
“We also support local music and most of the artists make their money through gigs and obviously gigs are unlikely to be a thing for some time. But we have managed to find some more money to pump into supporting artists and creating single and projects," he said.
"We had a huge number of TV shows in production that had to pause. As part of our support for the industry we put out a rapid-response funding round and turned around the criteria within a week while managing our standard funding rounds . . . to get people working and get new content,” he said.
“The important thing is to see these productions finished both from a production point of view and the people and safety point of view. We had more than 100 productions that had to stop including premier dramas. We are working with those producers to ensure . . we can get those shows completed," he said.
$700,000 was spent on several 'lockdown' productions last week.
For example, Stuff got a modest $4000 for a reporter and photojournalist to document essential workers currently working through the night. TV channel Three got $250,000 for the rapidly-assembled weekly Dai's House Party. described as “bubble-based silliness from a range of local comedians.”
“The broadcasters have done an amazing job with news and safety messaging but we need a bit of light entertainment as well” he said.
The PM has spoken of 'triage' for the stricken media sector last week - but is anyone setting priorities for public investment in media? The pressure to keep production companies in business will be huge, but so is the need to create programmes and content.
Broadcasters in other countries have the same problems because the productions they rely on to fill their schedules are suspended and the supply is drying up.
Cameron Harland said if New Zealand is up and running before other countries that could give them an advantage and an opportunity to sell programs to broadcasters offshore desperate for content.
“We are talking to our producers about that. It is an opportunity but the other side of that is that the broadcasters that we provide the shows to have had their commercial revenue go through the floor,“ he told Mediawatch.