THE $15 MILLION QUESTION
One beacon of light held up this year has been the government’s recent investment in New Zealand programming and journalism. Labour allocated $15 million in Budget 2018 and the wait is now on to see how it is allocated between RNZ and NZ On Air. While it’s not quite the $38 million outlined in Labour’s preelection policy, which featured a plan to strengthen the public broadcaster’s multimedia offer with RNZ +, Radio New Zealand chief executive Paul Thompson says it’s still a significant investment – “even if we only get a share of it”. “More important are the strong signals that this is just year one and that increased investment for RNZ and the sector will be available from next year on.” “I think what you will see within a 10-year timespan is politicians and officials thinking about what they can do to encourage diversity of news and information. It’s so vital to any functioning democracy, it’s as vital as air and water to how we operate as a society.” For RNZ, proving that function comes with the financial support of the government and a charter outlining its role to provide comprehensive, independent, accurate, impartial, and balanced regional, national, and international news and current affairs. Thompson says it’s very fortunate and privileged to have public funding and is aware that “it’s fairly tough for commercial operators”. “I think there will be quite a lot of consolidation across those entities and I think media organisations that continue to rely on advertising as their main source of income will find it very challenging.” One of those is TVNZ, a media company with a form of media bipolar disorder: it’s almost entirely commercially focused, yet its only shareholder is the New Zealand Government. Earlier this year, Hal Crawford, Mediaworks chief news officer, shared his views on the state of the local media landscape and said having a government-owned commercial TV company in New Zealand is a big distortion in a small market. “To say that the TV ad market is a level playing field is like denying the incline of Ruapehu,” he said in a piece on The Spinoff. He went on to explain that TVNZ’S model, alongside RNZ’S, means the broadcasting scene in New Zealand is poorly set up to serve the audience. “There is no public broadcaster in New Zealand making digital, radio and true TV content – no single source for all platforms.” His suggestion was to make TVNZ1 that public broadcaster – rather than the “awkward work-around” of pushing RNZ into TV. Regardless of whether or not RNZ does move into the TV space, TVNZ head of news and current affairs John Gillespie does not see it as a threat to TVNZ’S offering, and says the question should be: What does that mean for the wider market? “It’s about all the players and if you pour a whole lot of money over there, which I’m not saying they will or won’t, that will make a difference to the overall market.” That difference is something Gillespie says the media funding commission is going to have to get its head around. Stuff editorial director Mark Stevens says he struggles with the “thinking and reasoning” behind sharing the additional funding between RNZ and NZ On Air. “If you look around the country, RNZ’S not really in the regions. It’s not creating local journalism in the regions or certainly not at the level that companies like ours have been for many years.” Similar concerns have been seen in the UK with some saying the government funding for the BBC is putting local democracy reporting at risk. Stevens says the solution in the UK was the establishment of a Local News Partnerships scheme, which sees the BBC funding 58 news organisations in England, Scotland and Wales to cover the employment costs of democracy reporters. When announced in December 2017, there were contracts to employ 143 full-time and two part-time reporters and the stories written by them will then be shared with over 700 media organisations that are part of the scheme. In the announcement on the BBC, controller of BBC English regions David Holdsworth said: “This is a major advance in the partnership which will significantly improve the reporting on councils and public institutions, leading to greater public accountability for our local politicians.” Closer to home, NZME managing editor Shayne Currie believes there are great opportunities for NZME to be able to get a slice of the funding, be it from NZ On Air or any of the other funding coming from the government. Already it’s received NZ On Air funding for video and radio projects – including 'The Road to Rhythm – 15 years of Rhythm and Vines, Kiwi Women who Changed the World' and ZM’S 'Sealed Section' 2018 – but, like Stuff, Currie gives its regional reporting as another possible incentive for it to receive funding. “There’s no reason NZME can’t have a share,” he says. “We are a media business and we are investing a lot of time and money and resource into regional journalism, into our metropolitan newsrooms and we have regional newsrooms and they are each telling stories from those areas.” RNZ’S Thompson says growing its regional coverage is one of the plans it has in place, but what this looks like it is still unclear.