We are the ones who can save the media

Why we need to pay for a free press.

Image credit: Vans the Omega and Beastman, The Colombo, 363 Colombo Street, 2013, wall mural. Photo: Catherine Jeffcoat.

In case you haven’t heard, local media outlets are having a hard time of it right now. Google and Facebook are cannibalising their advertising revenue, readers are distracted by social media and streaming services, and to add insult to injury, we expect to get everything for free. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone. I’m not what you would call an early adopter, so I’ve been reluctant to jump into subscription services. But I am now a complete convert.

Working in communications, I’m acutely aware that we need quality journalism to get our stories out there. If a story makes it to publication, then it’s been through a rigorous process of scrutiny and fact-checking, not to mention making it past some formidable bullshit detectors. That gives the final product way more credibility than a press release, and ensures that readers are getting the strong stories they deserve.

Getting our messages across intact in a busy media environment has its own challenges, but we need enough journalists, and a wide range of outlets, to give readers the choice they deserve. 

Once again, it’s an election year. Watching NZ politics for me is a little like watching The Office. If I subject myself to it at all, it’s by peeking between my fingers and hoping the worst bits are over soon. While I personally would rather hide under a duvet until December, it’s reassuring to know that our media are out there asking the hard questions. Politicians may hate it, but I really feel like you can’t get away with any funny business in New Zealand, because someone’s always watching.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal No 16 is “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions”. I would argue that includes the media, to make sure our democracy and our businesses are being held to account.

I know the media aren’t perfect. Some stories can be a bit click-baity, and some commentators foam at the mouth about anything they perceive as PC. But things won’t improve unless we get behind the media doing excellent work and give them our support. So here are the key things you need to do to help boost the standards of journalism in this country.

  1. Subscribe to Newsroom Pro

I have a number of media alerts set up at work to monitor various sustainability topics. But even before I open them, the one thing I read every day without fail is Bernard Hickey’s 8 Things email: Example provided with permission.

I don’t know how he does it, but by 9am every day he sums up the essential global and local news stories so I have the big picture of what’s affecting the sustainability environment and what our member businesses are concerned about. There’s analysis of what’s going on in Parliament, Chart of the Day on an important economic issue, upcoming milestones and one fun thing which never fails to make me smile. What I also appreciate is that it’s written by someone with a deep understanding of the issues and also a lot of heart for the people affected by social policies, the environment, and our country. 

On the site itself are high-quality stories on essential economic, business, environmental  and social topics written by an expert crew of journalists. The standards are uniformly high, but I have to single out the analysis by Rod Oram of big-picture trends which affect our environment and the wider impact on society. He’s one of the single best thinkers on these issues today. 

Newsroom Pro articles are paywalled for 24 hours, and in that time they’re being read by decision-makers in Auckland and Wellington. Get a subscription to Newsroom Pro and gain a 24-hour head start on the news that matters. And that means a full-throated subscription, not a household one that you then forward to everyone in your company.

When I worked in libraries, the importance of playing by the rules with subscription services and respecting their intellectual property was drummed into us. Now as a communicator, I see the blood, sweat and tears that go into producing this content, and it has sharpened my respect for it.  

  1. Become a Spinoff Member

In five years, The Spinoff has roared out of nowhere to provide funny and engrossing reading, and increasingly hard-hitting pieces about social and environmental issues. Their breakdown of child poverty statistics, for example, is up there with the best of them. The Ātea section, led by Leonie Hayden, covers important stories about and affecting tangata Māori. 

And they host the incomparable Toby Morris, who can express in one illustrated narrative an entire manifesto for a more caring society. 

Their audience is young, urban liberal professionals, and I’m particularly fond of the stories they do helping consumers navigate the tricky issues around conscious consumption, like Alice Neville’s piece today on disposable coffee cups.  

I also subscribe to the daily Bulletin email, which is a chatty run down from Alex Braee on some of the main stories in the media, and a good way to check out what’s new on The Spinoff. I applaud the gutsy decision by Z Energy to sponsor The Bulletin, attracting flak from all sides, but showing their commitment to supporting media, and also providing a channel to highlight their progress on environmental issues. 

The Spinoff has recently introduced a membership programme – for just $80 a year, you can get a warm glow that you are supporting diverse media voices – and a free teatowel! They also regularly survey their membership to find out what topics they want to hear more about, so it’s a great way to support increased coverage of sustainability topics. 

  1. Advertise with Stuff, and subscribe to the print edition

If Newsroom Pro is the shot of espresso you need to start your day, and The Spinoff is the  “mid-shelf red wine of New Zealand journalism” (their words not mine!), then Stuff is a firehose of content. This is what comes of being the biggest news site in the country, covering the length and breadth of New Zealand. But it also gives it the critical mass to launch a ground-breaking climate change section. The number of stories on climate change that have appeared online and in print is unprecedented, and Stuff have now hired Eloise Gibson as a dedicated climate change editor. 

It also supports a range of positive voices on various environmental and social issues, like this great column from Carly Thomas on packaging in supermarkets, and their thoughtful National Portrait series highlighting local heroes doing work that largely goes unrecognised. They publish the superb Sharon Murdoch with her incisive skewering of over-inflated personalities.  

Under the leadership of Sinead Boucher, Stuff has also been a staunch and long-term member of the Sustainable Business Council, was an original member of the Climate Leaders Coalition, and is committed to making a difference on sustainability through their business operations as well as through the content they publish.

But all of this does not come cheap. We can laud their vision and bravery, but backing that up with commercial dollars would be a more concrete way of showing our support. Get in touch with their advertising department. Keep up your office subscription. Better yet, buy multiple copies so staff aren’t fighting over who gets to read the paper with lunch.  

I’ve gone on long enough, and I haven’t even covered the excellent work Jamie Morton does for the Herald, growing coverage of the financial and business implications of climate change at the NBR, or the emerging New Zealand section of The Guardian.

On radio and television, there’s the legendary NatRad and the indepth work done on Q&A, The Nation and Te Karere. And don’t forget the high-quality Maori and Pacific media outlets like e-tangata, Waatea Radio, and the Pacific Media Network., or other long-established sites serving specific communities like Indian Newslink. Whatever your choice of media, there will be similar ways to support them too.  

I work with a lot of businesses in my day job, and I understand the commercial imperatives. You don’t exist without your customers buying your products. And it’s the same with media – if we want them to stay in business, we need to reach out and support them by buying what they have to offer. 

So next time you want to complain about a sensational headline or a combative line of questioning, remember that they’ve got a job to do as well. Supporting media will give them more resources for quality journalism rather than relying on click-bait. 

And the government isn’t a white knight riding to the rescue with more funding or a magic merger. Who is going to save the media? Us. We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.

Disclaimer: I’ve had articles published by Stuff and The Spinoff – which just shows their good taste, naturally. This article reflects my own personal views.

Published by Catherine Jeffcoat

Wellington-based communications manager.