5 May 2024

Call for urgent action to save news

From Mediawatch, 10:28 pm on 5 May 2024

New Zealand news media face "extinction within a few years" without urgent changes to media companies, and the laws and agencies that govern them. That’s the stark warning of a new report urging sweeping changes to deal with digital transformation and low levels of trust in news - and fast. 

If not journalists, then who?

If not journalists, then who? Photo: supplied

"For a democracy to run successfully, it is important to have a functioning, sustainable media," the new media minister Paul Goldsmith told RNZ’s Morning Report last week the day after his appointment. 

"You've got some real challenges with the massive power that the big streaming companies have. Part of the solution is to try and level the playing field as best we can. I'm conscious of the fact that there's some urgency," he added.

A new report - If not journalists, then who? - sets out just how urgent the problem is. 

“A combination of predation, changes to the media, destructive behaviour, and adaptive limitations are pushing the environments in which journalism is produced to the point where their effective extinction may be measured in years rather than decades,” the report says.  

“Within the next three years, it is likely we will have no mainstream broadcast television, hollowed-out newsrooms, news media closures, and sections of the community disenfranchised by cost or age. The vacuum created by retreating journalism may be filled by disinformation. The social and political risks are high."

While the paper zeroes in on the future of news at a time when trust in it seems to be in short supply, it also zooms out to the impact on democratic life here.

Koi Tū / The Centre for Informed Futures is led by Sir Peter Gluckman, a former PM’s science advisor. 

The report’s author is Koi Tū research fellow Dr Gavin Ellis, former editor-in-chief at the New Zealand Herald and media commentator on RNZ’s Nine to Noon for many years. 

In one of his previous books, Complacent Nation, Ellis warned New Zealanders were not alert to the threats to the future of democracy here, including news and journalism’s part in that. 

That was eight years ago, and he’s pleased the new minister has acknowledged the problem. 

“I'm encouraged. Also, Paul Goldsmith also holds the justice portfolio. In the paper, we point out a large number of pieces of legislation desperately need revision. Also, he already has the portfolio of the department that media comes under: culture and heritage," Elllis told Mediawatch. 

"If anybody can take that unified approach that we're calling for, it's probably Paul Goldsmith." 

Representatives of 17 media organisations were consulted for If not journalists, then who? The report says a priority must be to “overcome gross distortions caused by the dominance of the market by unregulated transnational digital platforms” and find “sustainable – and publicly and politically acceptable – ways of supporting pluralistic media".

Change the law 

Dr. Gavin Ellis, Koi Tū research fellow

Dr. Gavin Ellis, Koi Tū research fellow Photo: Matt_Crawford info@mattcrawfordp

Ellis recommends dropping the Digital News Fair Bargaining Bill, which would compel the likes of Google and Facebook to negotiate payments to media for the local news carried on their platforms and services. 

The News Publishers Association umbrella group is strongly urging the government to make it law. 

Instead, the Koi Tū report recommends amending the Digital Services Tax Bill (also now before Parliament) so that a levy on digital platforms could feed a ring-fenced fund to support media. 

“This isn’t about giving money to the media - but compensating media for what's been taken from them... and what will be taken from them in the future. This is money that is owed to them," Ellis said. 

“That bill is designed to try to overcome the tax avoidance mechanisms that these platforms use on an industrial scale. If we simply amend that to make an additional sum available to the media... that would be in keeping with what's being done in other jurisdictions.

“That money would be ring fenced, and we would have to have an equitable system of distribution that all the media agree to, large to small. That could be the difference between survival and going under."

The idea of a levy on digital services is also backed by lobby group Better Public Media (BPM). 

“Austria has got a 5 percent levy on digital advertising,” BPM chair Dr Peter Thompson told a debate at the group’s AGM last weekend. "If we did that here, you'd be getting $85m to $90m a year. Denmark has a 6 percent levy on subscription video-on-demand services like Netflix. If you put a 3 percent levy on telecommunications, you'd get $150m - and about the same with a 2 percent on audiovisual retail goods. This is game changing."

RNZ CEO Paul Thompson, TVNZ chief operating officer Brent McAnulty and Irene Gardiner, chair of producers’ lobby group SPADA, also backed the concept at the same event.

The Koi Tū report also recommends tax changes to help boost “marginally profitable and non-profit media outlets committed to public interest journalism".

The report says "sustainable ways... of supporting pluralistic media at national, regional, local, and even hyper local levels” must be "publicly and politically acceptable". 

The previous government’s $55m Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) prompted claims it was buying the media’s compliance. Would the changes proposed here have public support and political support?

"The PIJF was subjected to a concerted and very successful disinformation campaign. In no instance was any media bribed by government - but we have to be mindful of the effect that that had. Dispensing funding from a levy must be utterly transparent and utterly independent of government,” Ellis said. 

“The public [must] know this is compensation for goods and services provided by the news media, not a handout, and secondly, that the government has no control over how that money is handed out or used."

Skepticism about media neutrality

The report acknowledges that news media don't enjoy the levels of support they once did. 

Simon Bridges is CEO Auckland Business Chamber, a company director - and "a media guy", according to his X (formerly Twitter) biography. As a former politician and leader of the National Party, he experienced the news media close up at the sharp end. 

The Koi Tu report quotes him as saying he thinks New Zealand journalists are relatively low-paid and drawn from "a narrow pool in terms of their education and political views". 

He said journalists have "a pack mentality” and there a widespread belief that RNZ is "Wellington centre-left or possibly left of centre". He said TVNZ has become “infotainment, with a strong emphasis on the 'tainment'". 

“They might be widely held or not necessarily valid views. But the fact that we have such a low level of trust in the media, and such a high level of news avoidance points to the media having to look to themselves to see where have they been going wrong," Ellis told Mediawatch

Media must evolve editorially

The paper says individual media organisations should review their own editorial practices in light of recent surveys highlighting declines in public trust, and news avoidance on the rise. 

It says these reviews should include news values, story selection and presentation - and reconsider the relevance of content to audiences.

"Collectively, media should adopt a common code of ethics and practice and develop campaigns to explain the role and significance of democratic/social professional journalism to the public," the report recommends. 

"I think that there has to be... introspection in our media, and transparency is vital. We assume the public know what we do and how we do it, and I'm not sure that's actually the case,” Ellis told Mediawatch.  

"Maybe it's time that we started to tell the public how we do our stories, why we went to certain people, what the thrust of a story was - and so on. Maybe we've got to take the public a bit more into our confidence than we have in the past. If we do that, then I think we'll see those levels of trust rise. 

"Journalists are not untrustworthy. They're the victims of circumstance in the present climate.

"Also, too often audiences are finding it hard to differentiate between what is reported, and what is the opinion of the person that's telling them. That affects trust - and it also affects news avoidance.

"[Opinion] has a real place in the very complex social environment that we live in today, but I'd like to see a lot more of it as analysis rather than opinion. Let's give our audiences the ability to tell the difference."

"There should be less reliance on online, real-time analytics of digital behaviour. I'm not sure that is the best way of determining what your next story should be. There is a lot more to be said for reliance on that tradition of what is valuable as news, rather than what Google Analytics is telling me this morning.” 

Rejig oversight for the digital age 

The previous government started a review of media regulation, currently carried out by several separate agencies for broadcasting, advertising, newspapers and online news publishing. 

Ellis says the two main news watchdogs - the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Media Council - should merge, along lines recommended by the Law Commission in 2011

“The new body would sit within a completely reorganised – and renamed – Broadcasting Commission, which would also be responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Classifications Office, NZ On Air and Te Māngai Pāho,” the report suggests.

"Content regulation really is just utterly anachronistic,” Ellis told Mediawatch.

The paper recommends a comprehensive review of 17 acts of Parliament that are "outdated - and the list is not exhaustive". 

In the current edition of New Zealand Listener, politics writer Danyl McLaughlin warns that “politicians may not like the daily news media, and even relish the prospect of the free market innovating them into oblivion – but they'll miss them when they’re gone".

"Facebook and its influencers, micro-celebrities and covert authoritarian propagandists are poised to become the nation’s primary news source," he warned. 

"That’s why we chose the title: If not journalists, then who? There is no alternative to journalists and we've got to start valuing what they stand for,” Elllis told Mediawatch