News matters

Redundancies occur frequently. That is so sad for those losing their jobs.

The changing world, shifting consumer preferences and transforming technologies force businesses to adapt or go under.

But what makes the carnage from the confirmation this week of Newshub’s closure and the loss of TVNZ news capacity especially distressing is the blow to our democracy and society.

It is no accident the first action of would-be dictators is to seize control of the media. A vigorous Fourth Estate is vital in functioning democracies.

That strength has abruptly been decimated in New Zealand. This follows the halving of journalist numbers over the past 20 years. This precedes fears that more losses and closures are to come.

Warner Bros. Discovery, TV Three’s owners, are axing its news operations. About 250 jobs are being lost, most of the redundancies in news itself. Gone are the AM show, Newshub Live at 6pm and the news website. Gone is the direct news competition to help keep TVNZ on its toes. Gone are many fine journalists.

Gone will be stories that hold power to account, that expose injustices, that educate, that exchange and share ideas, that entertain, that help change laws. Gone are different perspectives.

One example. It was TV Three’s Michael Morrah who revealed the appalling and dangerous lack of Covid testing of managed isolation and border workers despite all the false official assurances. He also revealed the failure to distribute PPE to hospitals.

Meanwhile, gone are TVNZ’s midday and night news bulletins and television’s only remaining investigative show, Sunday. Gone is Fair Go as a broadcast programme. Gone is 60% of youth-orientated Re: News.

Farewell here to 64 roles, following a steady drip of departures over the years.

The point that audiences are always right is accurate. However, while declining, ratings for television news remain relatively strong. Newshub Live at 6pm, while a poor cousin to One News, drew in 900,000 viewers across a week. The website is the country’s third-most popular news website.

Nevertheless, television advertising fell by $73 million in the last year. At the same time, broadcasting faces a burden of costs and regulations not encountered by digital providers.

Meanwhile, media in this country produces the content, obeys the defamation and other laws and regulations, pays tax, employs New Zealand staff in large numbers and so on — in contrast to the social media and international internet giants.

Even Media and Communications Minister Melissa Lee, so far accused of being asleep at the wheel, recognises the playing field is uneven.

She has prepared a paper for Cabinet on the issues. It must be bold enough to advance something like Labour’s Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill. This, as happens in Australia, would force the freeloading internet giants to pay towards the New Zealand-produced news that, directly or indirectly, is shared on their platforms.

Apparently, consideration is delayed until New Zealand First leader Winston Peters returns from overseas. Hopefully, despite his anti-media tirades, he acknowledges the importance of healthy media.

This comes at a time when the AUT Trust in News survey found only 33% trusted the news, down 20 points in four years.

The remaining New Zealand media must work to rebuild trust and must provide for a diversity of news and views.

There is talk of other news organisations negotiating to run a scaled-down and cheaper 6pm news replacement. Although better than nothing, it will be largely the repackaged and rebranded work of current journalists. Plurality in news sources and from different journalists is still diminished.

In an age of social media echo chambers and misinformation, reliable news is all the more important.

When audiences have splintered and society is far more polarised, news outlets that still cater for mass audiences — like television news or the Otago Daily Times in the South — enable the potential for more unity and commonality.

The politicians and the people must be aware that news matters, and that the decimation of journalism undermines democracy and society.