26 May 2024

Trading on - new deal saves local medical media

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 26 May 2024

Barbara Fountain, long-serving editor and publisher of NZ Doctor / Rata Aotearoa and  Pharmacy Today.

Barbara Fountain, long-serving editor and publisher of NZ Doctor / Rata Aotearoa and Pharmacy Today. Photo: supplied

These are tough times for media - even those dedicated to covering big businesses and industries. After more than 20 years publishing health news and employing expert journalists, Barbara Fountain has done a deal to keep two important local titles alive. Could other once-lucrative trade publications follow suit?

Deep and controversial cuts to TV news jobs and programmes at TVNZ and Newshub have made many headlines recently, but the current crisis in journalism goes wider than just the broadcasters. 

Independently-owned local papers are now an endangered species too. The price of printing publications has gone through the roof, along with the cost of postage and delivery. 

NZ Post recently confirmed that from next month it won't deliver to rural addresses on weekends and this week the NBR's Maria Slade warned a bigger rejig may be further bad news for publications.

The country's once-lucrative trade publications - papers and magazines serving specific industries and businesses - will also be concerned. 

For years, fortnightly magazine New Zealand Doctor/Rata Aotearoa and the monthly Pharmacy Today have produced high-quality coverage of health, and both also run live websites for subscribers.  

Award-winning journalist Barbara Fountain became the co-owner and publisher of both in 2015, after reporting stints at the Otago Daily Times and the now-defunct business weekly The Independent

It looked like the end might be nigh for both titles when the New Zealand Herald recently reported that her company The Health Media could cease trading this year. 

Why the need to sell?  

An established publication with a readership of medical professionals ought to be attractive for advertisers.   

"We've known forever and a day that quality news has always had to be subsidised by something else, whether it's been classified advertising, display advertising or subscriptions. We already had a strong education component to our business too, because health professionals are required to do regular education to keep them updated. The business model was 50 percent display advertising, 25 percent education contracts and 25 percent subscriptions," Fountain told Mediawatch

"We were stretched through Covid but we got through that. But towards the end of last year we knew we had a four-year government contract for education coming to an end... and we experienced a projected slump in advertising. Two months ago, we advised our staff that we were going to cease trading."

Among 23 staff at the company are former Herald journalists Martin Johnston, Alan Perrot and Patrice Dougan. 

"It's still quite hard for me to talk about that part of it. It came the week after the Newshub decision and people were already reeling," said Fountain, whose daughter was formerly a Newshub news director. 

"Breaking that news to our staff at a time when the industry was in turmoil - it was really difficult. But when advertising drops, you know, that's a huge hole."

But last Friday, Fountain and co-owner Anna Mickell finalised a sale that will keep the titles going - and herself at the editorial helm. 

The new owner is Group Healthcare Ltd which owns electronic patient records systems medicine software for primary care prescribers and pharmacists in New Zealand.

"It's a huge relief that Group Healthcare sees value in quality media, given the difficulties currently faced by the media industry the world over," Fountain said. 

"We are planning to continue with our print publications for the foreseeable future, but there will be change. They come from the health IT infrastructure side of things, but [we will] look at how we will integrate our education and news content into their digital dashboards." 

Poacher turned gamekeeper? 

A recent edition of the fortnightly NZ Doctor.

A recent edition of the fortnightly NZ Doctor. Photo: supplied

Both publications will inevitably end up reporting on matters concerning the new owner.

"I talked to my new boss about that. I said that it's not going to be the stories about (their) products, which we can put a disclaimer on, that are going to be of concern. The concern is when someone in the industry comes and taps him on the shoulder and says they don't like the stories we are writing.

"I said that because you've got an independent editor, you can just say 'talk to the editor' and be confident that we'll deal with any issues that might arise.

"We have very clear advertising and editorial boundaries. But it comes down to what the readers perceive."

Could other trade publications do the same kind of deal?

"It's absolutely a possibility. In the past, you have seen printers buy publications just to keep the presses running," Fountain told Mediawatch.  

"And I think it's really important to acknowledge that there are a lot of journalists who aren't working in the mainstream media. The work they do is often overlooked but they are waving the flag for independent well-researched journalism in New Zealand." 

The bulk of Pharmacy Today stories are too obscure for most people, but the subject ends up in the news today more than we might think. 

This week TVNZ reported pseudoephedrine remedies are back after the government lifted a decade-long ban. But they can need to be bought after consultation with a pharmacist.

PT MAY 2024 cover

On Monday. Alan Perrott reported on this for PT’s website: It’s back to future on cold and flu medicine.

There’s also a recent piece by a pharmacist on the pitfalls, given that pseudoephedrine is also a precursor for the manufacture of methamphetamine. 

On Wednesday, PT’s Jonathan Chilton-Towle reported on uncertainty over the role of chief pharmacy advisor amid MOH’s current round of job cuts and the same day on RNZ’s Nine to Noon with concerns about pharmacies administering vaccines.

The RNZ mailroom once heaved with incoming plastic-wrapped trade publications and magazines published by national agencies and institutions. The Magazine Publishers Association currently lists 30 publishers as members. But there are far fewer in the mailroom these days. 

Are they now online-only for reasons of cost and efficiency? Or have many disappeared for good, along with the specialist journalism on their pages? 

"I was quite surprised at some of the publications that I was completely unfamiliar with but certainly a lot of them have gone online. The answer is partly the cost of distribution," Fountain told Mediawatch

NZ Doctor was putting stuff online back in the mid-1990s in the era of dial-up modems and it has had a paywall for more than a decade. 

How does Fountain respond to politicians blithely telling stricken media companies the answer is simply 'innovation'?

“Like everyone I get a bit frustrated. In many newsrooms, you cannot give them more credit for what has been tried - digital, podcasts, video, apps. Even with this [sale] announcement, we had lots of support from people really upset about the possibility that we would go. But but no one really knew what to do about that.” 

“It's the same with general media. We know we need good news media to hold governments and people in power to account. The government knows it needs to have the media there to make it effective. But it doesn't want to know what to do.” 

"In The Atlantic, in a series of essays on the future of news media one commentator said those of us working in the media now are too close to it to know what the answer is. I agree with that a little bit. But I also think those of us working in the media now, who have lasted this long, also know what's not going to work."

“If we don't have the actual journalism, the good quality content... then all the innovation in the world is going to be a waste of time. We could come up with some damn fine new way of delivering news - and find that we've got no one coming out of journalism schools.

"It's exactly what's happening with our medical workforce. With this purchase, we have two parties coming together, looking at the best of what we do and working out a better way to deliver content to people who need it, closer to the time they need it."