Tonight we celebrate, but the party mood won't last long

11:23 am on 22 May 2020

Opinion - New Zealand's journalists will gather tonight to celebrate their craft at the Voyager Media Awards.

technology, electronics and audio equipment concept - close up of microphone at recording studio or radio station

Photo: 123rf

In keeping with the times, the event will be held virtually via the internet rather than in person at a large black-tie dinner.

Covid-19 is casting a shadow over the New Zealand media industry that goes far beyond the forced livestreaming of an awards night.

For more than 20 years the internet's unrivalled advantages have undermined the financial foundations of newspapers and broadcasters that rely on advertising.

While the coronavirus did not the cause this crisis, it is precipitously steepening it.

As Finance Minister Grant Robertson has dryly noted, the patient has pre-existing conditions.

So why does this matter?

The answer lies in the extraordinary efforts of New Zealand journalists in the past 15 months.

Despite a reduction in staff and massive industry uncertainty, the news media have comprehensively and robustly tackled the two biggest stories of our times: the Christchurch mosque attacks in March last year and now the pandemic.

In between, we also had the Whakaari / White Island eruption.

Radio NZ CEO Paul Thompson

RNZ CEO Paul Thompson. Photo: RNZ

It has been a defining time for reporters, editors and producers and they have risen to the challenge. New Zealanders have been kept well-informed about these seminal events and have had access to a range of news angles, analysis and perspectives. Competition between outlets spurred everyone to lift their game.

Journalists have also filled the critical role of critiquing the official version, asking awkward questions, and probing away. Journalism by its nature both creates discomfort and then provides the essential lubricant of independent information in our open democratic society.

The work over the past 15 months was not faultless, and no doubt we got some things wrong and could have done better at times. Gaps in coverage are noticeably widening - across the courts, regional sport and local government, for example - as newsrooms shrink.

But overall, journalists did their job, day in and day out, and there have been many instances of exemplary work that made New Zealand a fairer, better-informed and more connected nation.

This is what we will celebrate at the awards tonight.

The party mood won't last long.

The future of news looks shaky and, like many sectors, it will not survive the pandemic in its current shape.

All industries are able to mount arguments about what makes them unique and essential.

But bear with me while I make the case for the news media.

A sovereign democratic nation will not survive, and it certainly will not prosper, without a bedrock of reliable and verified journalism, produced by a range of trusted outlets based within, and reflective of, the communities they report on.

The alternative will be the ascendancy of spin, officialese, foreign meddling, propaganda and partisan messaging.

The crisis requires two responses.

First, the industry itself must continue to do all we can individually and collectively to adapt to these extraordinarily difficult challenges. The status quo is unsustainable but elements within it have a future and other parts can be salvaged. Good decisions - including around collaboration - will make a difference. We must never leave all the heavy-lifting or thinking to the state.

Second, the government will inevitably become more involved in the news sector through new policies, more funding to preserve and nurture essential capabilities and talent, and regulation that supports a diverse range of voices.

The biggest challenge will be to enshrine editorial independence at the heart of new policy, and ensure increased government involvement does not chill editorial freedom. No one should underestimate how tricky this will be.

The news media sector that develops over the next few years could and should be an improvement in critical ways, including by ensuring journalists look and sound more like all their audiences and better reflect New Zealand's unique cultures, ethnicity's, languages and regions.

The outline of a revitalised and reinvented news media sector for New Zealanders can be discerned, featuring more grassroots community outlets, different sorts of owners and business models, stronger public broadcasting, fruitful career paths for young journalists, and lots of green shoots and co-operation.

Requiring the global platforms to operate responsibly without sucking the marrow out of local media would complete the picture.

- Paul Thompson is the chief executive and editor-in-chief of RNZ. This is the first of a series of articles from media chief executives about the future of their industry.

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