11 Feb 2021

Public purse to bankroll more of our news

From Mediawatch, 2:39 pm on 11 February 2021

The government has pledged $55 million for a new fund for public interest news and journalism - the biggest single boost in media funding for many years. Media companies countrywide will compete for the cash from NZ on Air over the next three years. Mediawatch looks at what it’s for and what it means for our media.

Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi.

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi said the new fund will support “public interest journalism which would otherwise be at risk . . . to be produced and shared through New Zealand media outlets”.

He said it will be open to all media organisations  - including local and regional ones and Māori, Pacific and ethnic media - and administered by the funding agency NZ on Air. 

The money will be available over three years, with the first $10 million available in the current financial year and applications open from April.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage website says it wants the new fund to be "as inclusive as possible and include the likes of photojournalism, data journalism and investigative journalism." 

"Eligible content may include at risk journalism that: 

  • seeks to inform and engage the general public about important issues of the day
  • investigates and reports on public policy and matters of public significance
  • holds power to account or 
  • covers matters of interest to New Zealanders such as cultural, ethnic, artistic expression, sports, science and health." 

NZ on Air's website says application guidelines will issued in April and submissions will be open by the end of the month. The first funding decisions re to be announced before the end of June.

This funding takes the total government spending on media and broadcasting to more than $300m this year. New Zealand on Air’s annual budget will swell to $190m. 

Why now? 

Soon after he became the minister in 2018, Kris Faafoi signalled an appetite for spreading public funding for journalism beyond public broadcasters after under-pressure private media outlets told him they may not be able to stay in the business for much longer.

“If we keep public funding strictly for public media entities and things continue in the way they have told me (about), they may no longer be in existence in three or four years and we will only have one voice for media," he told Mediawatch in December 2018.

"There's the purist view that we should only do this through our public media assets like RNZ, TVNZ and Māori TV. But  . . we want the content we care about to get in front of New Zealanders," he said at the time. 

Covid-19 further changed the picture last year.

“COVID-19 and the lockdowns last year highlighted the important role our media plays in providing up-to-date, independent and trusted information to the public,” Kris Faafoi said today.

“We want to ensure that kind of coverage is supported and developed across all community levels, where media operations have often cut back resources to reduce their costs."

In April 2020, Kris Faafoi announced a $50m “adrenaline shot” of relief measures to free up cash for media companies hit hard by a sudden slump in revenues. 

He promised a second tranche of support later in 2020, while warning there would be no bailouts for media business that were not sustainable. 

But that never came. 

“We weren't able to reach consensus with . . . coalition partners,” Faafoi admitted last August. 

He also said media companies were doing better than expected after the lockdowns ended. 

But in the run-up to the 2020 election Kris Faafoi told E Tū Union representatives a "multi-year contestable funding through NZ On Air had already been budgeted. Between now and then, the current Cabinet gave it a green light.

A game-changer for news media?

For some outlets struggling to fund projects and pay reporters, this could be a game-changer.

But a lot depends on how NZ on Air allocates the money. 

NZ on Air has has hired former MediaWorks news chief Hal Crawford as consultant on the project "off the back of a recent comprehensive review he undertook (yet to be published) to assess the impact of the NZ Media Fund since its launch in 2017."

NZ on Air said it intend to employ a head of journalism and a funding advisor.

Major media companies like Stuff - which has already had success securing funding from NZ On Air for multimedia projects like those carried out by its Stuff Circuit team - will be happy to have a potential source of further funds. So will smaller local outlets like Queenstown-based Crux which has also secured public funds in the past for multimedia journalism.      

But this bump in public funding also shows how the game has already changed for public funds.

When the NZ on Air funding system was established, it had no brief to fund news or current affairs.

Government and broadcasters alike agreed dependence on government funding could create conflicts of interest and open the door to political interference.  

But when commercial broadcasters backed away from news and journalism in recent years, NZ on Air became a critical source for programmes about politics, current affairs and investigations.

NZ on Air declared itself "platform-agnostic" in 2016, and that approach has been further entrenched by today's funding announcement.

These days commercial and state-owned media companies alike produce multimedia journalism and publishers like Stuff and NZME argued they should have a shot at more contestable funding from the public purse.

In 2019 NZ On Air funded the Local Democracy Reporting programme to employ eight reporters (now expanded to 12) in newsrooms of local newspapers. It was the first time journalists’ salaries had been paid from the public purse outside state-owned broadcasters. 

The new fund means the annual budget of NZ on Air will top $200m dollars in 2022. 

By that time the government’s total annual spend on media and broadcasting will be more than $330m a year, including the annual budget for Māori Television / Whakaata Māori and the Māori media funding agency Te Mangai Paho (which are funded under the auspices of Te Puni Kōkiri).

And in the background, the government is is also planning to create a new entity for public media which will replace state-owned RNZ and TVNZ. But it’s far from clear yet how this will be funded.