Government funding of reporters in private sector news is ramping up but, as Stephen Parker writes, the scheme could become a headache for media companies when the tap is turned off
Comment: Broadcasting and Media Minister Kris Faafoi is again warning the $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) currently pumping money into commercial news outlets has a limited shelf life.
NZ On Air announced the second round of funding recently providing the biggest injection of government cash into commercial newsrooms seen so far.
Close to $18 million was announced to pay for 110 reporter jobs in newsrooms. This follows a $10 million round one announcement in July to provide 25 Māori cadet reporters and various training schemes.
Half of the PIJF is now out the door, another $5 million from the fund will be allocated before the end of the year and the remaining $20 million allocated in 2022/23.
But the fund is drawing flak from the opposition parties and other critics who suggest the Government is buying soft news coverage.
And, when approached for comment by Newsroom, Faafoi said when he announced the PIJF at the start of the year he made it clear it would only last three years, and that hasn’t changed.
His comment is telling as the scheme reaches the point where government-funded reporters are being hired to work for commercial newsrooms.
Of the 110 reporter roles being paid for, 70 are regional community news reporters. Thirty-six are Māori reporters (19 for Māori news outlets and 17 for mainstream news outlets). There are also eight Pasifika and five Pan-Asian reporters.
Unsurprisingly, the largest amounts are awarded to big players with regional newspaper stables.
NZME – the NZ Herald stable – is the beneficiary of nearly $3 million over two years for its ‘Open Justice – Te Pātiti’ scheme.
This provides 15 jobs (13 for multimedia journalists, one editorial role, and one part-time administrative role) to improve court and justice reporting across the country, in collaboration with RNZ and Allied Press (publishers of the ODT and other South Island regional papers).
Stuff is receiving $2.8 million over two years for 20 jobs.
This pays for 11 reporters for 11 Auckland community newspapers and nine Pou Tiaki reporters (Stuff’s specialised Māori and Treaty issues project).
The largest funding awarded is a sizeable expansion of the Local Democracy Reporting project which is run through RNZ headquarters.
Up to $3,554,000 over two years is being spent to hire 18 reporters to work at other provincial newspapers. RNZ is also funded to employ two staff to administer the nationwide scheme, and gets to use the content.
TVNZ, Discovery, and Māori TV also get a sizeable amount of funding.
TVNZ is paid up to $206,000 for two roles. A Kairururangi Partnership Editor in the newsroom and a Manutaki Māori role for news and current affairs.
Discovery receives close to $700,000 for three roles at Newshub: one Māori affairs, one Pasifika affairs, and one Asian affairs reporter.
While Māori Television gets $1.593 million for seven additional reporters.
Australian consultant Hal Crawford, who advised NZ On Air on the design of the scheme, said it was large by international standards.
“The PIJF will invest more per year than either the UK or the Canadian PIJ schemes, in a country a fraction the size. The potential impact is big, and the scheme has an opportunity to set the global standard in terms of public interest journalism reinvention. It is not an exaggeration to say that for anyone convinced of the value of news, the initiative represents a crucial test,” he said in his NZ On Air report earlier this year.
Without a doubt, the Crown paying for reporters in commercial news outlets is a place no government has boldly gone before.
On the immediate horizon are questions on whether it is going to be possible to get the scheme running to the deadline.
Finding and hiring 110 reporters (including experienced Māori affairs media specialists) is harder than it looks. Especially so because NZ On Air has only left a small window open. News outlets are required to get on with recruitment.
“As we cannot predict the available journalism workforce, role funding is contingent on the roles being filled by a set date and any roles that remain unfilled (by January next year) will have the allocated funds reverted to the PIJF,” says an NZ On Air spokesperson.
This is on top of the next funding round which is about to get underway where the further $9 million is to be allocated for additional roles and projects ($5 million for the PIJF and $4 million for existing NZOA funding).
News bosses, and some NZ On Air executives, have entertained the idea that the PIJF might be a forerunner to permanent financial support for local media, like there is in Denmark (population 5.8 million) where the news media gets a subsidy of $88 million a year. But, the Government will be weighing the potential political fallout attached to the scheme, which is why Faafoi’s comment is significant.
Justifications for the scheme were much stronger 18 months ago. It was conceived in the immediate wake of the first pandemic and Covid lockdown, a time when economic shock and uncertainty reverberated more loudly. Prospects were also looking bleak due to dramatic swings in revenue from declining print and linear TV usage in the wake of digital take-up. Magazines were folding, reporters being made redundant, and provincial newsrooms were stripped bare of reporters.
A project where the Government paid for reporters in commercial newsrooms also didn’t seem like heresy 18 months ago when compared with other sectors receiving direct injection cash from the Covid fund.
Now, the picture isn’t so bleak. For example, TVNZ and NZME have reported profits, paid dividends and increased spending on digital transformation. That’s not to say future threats have all dissipated but that resilience has proved better than expected.
And there are also Klingons on the starboard bow. Opposition MPs are asserting the Government is getting an easy run from the media. This is partly fuelled by the latest Covid lockdown and opposition frustration with the daily Beehive press conferences. But the bone is also pointed at the PIJF.
Blaming the fund is a stretch. To do so assumes news editors around the country are easy beats. It also overlooks that the scheme is still some time away from being operational.
Regardless, it does leave the Government with a perception headache. A quick scroll through social media finds billowing whiffs of public suspicion and opinions that the Government has bought off the media. So much so, there’s even anecdotal feedback that some readers have suggested they won’t buy news subscriptions because outlets are being funded by the Government.
Tackling perception at the intersection of politics and media is not easy. It also wouldn’t be at all surprising if some ministers are privately questioning if the scheme is worth the effort, or whether they are fully comfortable with what has emerged from the NZ On Air pipeline.
Add it all together, it’s not surprising Faafoi is categorical that PIJF is a limited-time offer only. There is no hint, or signal, that the door will be left ajar.
It is also a serious reminder for the media industry. What is helpful now could be a headache later.
The Government’s PIJF kitty will soon be empty. And the challenge for news outlets employing government-funded reporters is will they be able to keep paying them in just over two years’ time.
* Disclosure: In the latest PIJF round Newsroom received up to $528,316 for a Māori Unit Editor and four part-time reporters to cover news in the South Island. The Māori Unit Editor will be shared with North & South magazine. In an earlier round we received up to $50,610 for training and up to $806,135 for The Detail.
Note: Funding for The Detail is for 18 months and the podcast was previously supported by NZ on Air’s media fund.