Tumultuous times for journalism

Who knows what journalism and the media will look like in this country in 20 years?

What we understand, though, is that the screws turn tighter and the casualties mount.

The number of journalists covering the news and reporting and investigating continues to tumble. All the while, the forces of the "dark side", of public relations, have grown stronger.

Many a government department has more PR people than there are journalists in Wellington covering all of government. Companies and local authorities also employ their "spin doctors" — often obfuscating and obstructing.

Meanwhile, trust in journalism has slid when the complex modern world needs its watchdogs as much as ever. For all its weaknesses — including biases and selectiveness — the Fourth Estate injects a vital element of independence.

We lament the loss of Newshub, with its nearly 300 staff. It takes a lot of people to produce quality broadcast news 365 days a year. It signed off last Friday after a memorable 35 years as the spirited underdog to 1News.

Newshub staff pose for a final photo ahead of tonight's final 6pm bulletin. Photo: RNZ
Newshub staff posed for a final photo ahead of last Friday night's final 6pm bulletin. PHOTO: RNZ
While a few staff behind and in front of the cameras have been taken on by Stuff for the replacement ThreeNews, the loss to plurality is significant. Democracy is weakened.

One scary conclusion is that failure can follow even when the product quality is good and the following is reasonably strong, albeit slipping as linear television fades.

Stuff is supposedly being paid $6 million to $8m to run the 6pm news — a half hour at weekends (plenty long enough) and an hour on weekdays. TV Three owners, Warner Bros Discovery, keep the advertising revenue.

The retention of Sam Hayes as the primary news reader strengthens Stuff’s desire for continuity. But, when the broader Newshub operations were estimated at costing $30m, Stuff might have underestimated the challenges.

While the bulletin itself has begun well, the ongoing strains on the whole organisation and its finances will be acute.

Stuff this month is shutting the 60-year-old Sunday News newspaper and has closed many community papers in recent years, the latest in the central North Island. It is regularly trimming staff and cut several sports reporter jobs this year. NZME recently announced the loss of regional reporters as it beefs up main-centre coverage. TVNZ is cutting about 60 news jobs.

The potential good news is the government has announced it will press ahead with an amended Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, designed to force tech giants to pay news organisations for their content. Whether the giant media companies will co-operate is an open question. The record from Australia and Canada is mixed.

There also are many questions about the impact of generative AI on news and how it is processed and accessed, including copyright issues.

There remains no doubt, however, that the likes of Google and Meta (Facebook) take many hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue from New Zealand without paying significant tax. They make much of their money from user data.

New Zealanders have become used to receiving news for "free", even if their data is exploited. The steady increase in subscription models, however, is providing some income, even if at varying levels.

"Premium" or "subscriber" exclusivity can also help sustain traditional print newspapers because payment is still required.

Traditional media has played an important role not just as watchdogs and raising important issues but also as key avenues for shared experiences and community.

As the heft of traditional news organisations declines and as news outlets splinter, more polarisation becomes evident. We head more to the news and views of the like-minded rather than being exposed to ranges of voices and opinions.

We are also in danger of forfeiting exposure to the "worthy" but important news from councils, politics and the community.

A sliver of positivity came last week with New Zealand on Air’s announcement that it would, with RNZ, continue funding Local Democracy Reporting (16 reporters) next year.

It is becoming more difficult to ascertain the future in many fields, and especially for journalism, media and the news.

We should value even more stability and reliability where we find it in this confused and confusing world.