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The economic turbulence unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic has always been expected to claim business as well as human casualties.
However, Thursday’s announcement that Bauer Media was shutting down was still surprising and shocking.
The company publishes some of New Zealand’s best-known and best-loved magazines.
Titles such as The Listener and New Zealand Woman’s Weekly have been part of the country’s media landscape for decades.
Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have been fed on Woman’s Weekly recipes or clad in woollens knitted from its patterns; it is not too far to say that that title alone has been part of our way of life.
Metro and North and South have published some of the most important journalism in New Zealand in recent decades; specialist publications such as Fashion Quarterly and Your Home and Garden have loyal readerships who will miss them should their closure be confirmed.
It remains a matter of hot dispute whether the Government’s response to Covid-19 was the straw which broke Bauer’s back or whether the company was heading down this path regardless.
All media organisations were suffering from falling advertising before the advent of Covid-19 placed even more stress on revenues.
Bauer said its expectation that advertisers would not return to their publications at pre-Covid-19 levels was the determining factor in its decision.
"We understand the New Zealand Government's decision to move to Covid-19 Level 4, but it has put our business in an untenable position," the firm’s statement said.
This was a pointed reference to the Government’s stance that most weekly media should not share the essential services designation afforded to daily media.
While Bauer’s staff were prepared to find creative ways to keep their publications running in the interim, the company seemingly could not wait out the emergency — a decision made with its shareholders in mind but which will do little to assuage its now former staff and once loyal readers.
It provoked an angry response from the Government, which hit back immediately by revealing it had had discussions with Bauer about how to preserve its business, and that the firm had turned down offers of assistance, including taking part in the wage subsidy scheme.
The subtext — that the German multinational could not divest itself of its New Zealand holdings fast enough — may or may not be true.
Of more concern is what future long-form journalism now has in New Zealand.
Metro, The Listener and North and South in particular have published stories which have altered the nation’s thinking, alerted authorities to injustice or wrongdoing, or offered insight into the changing nature of New Zealand.
While it might not have the immediacy of daily news, the week or month taken for greater reflection, presenting the views of prominent people in more depth or challenging their assertions, has time and again proven its worth. All Bauer’s titles are now for sale, although its dire predictions as to their future profitability will hardly encourage white knights to come to the rescue.
It is often said the first casualty of war is truth; it is a terrible irony that among the first economic casualties of the war against Covid-19 are journalists who could have told the in-depth story of the current public health effort.
Their colleagues on non-current affairs publications will also be missed; they too held a mirror to New Zealand.
While Covid-19 is rightly absorbing the nation’s attention, some thought has to be given to what sort of country we will have left after the pandemic is over.
A nation without these titles will be the poorer.