The bad news for news

News media in this country is getting pulped and it's an absolute goddamn catastrophe.

The bad news for news
Photo by DDP / Unsplash

Straight to the point: News media in this country is getting pulped and it's an absolute goddamn catastrophe. It's happening so fast, insanely fast, and I worry we're not even beginning to grasp the sheer loss to society.

Newshub will soon be gone, disposed of like so much trash by its megacorporate owners Warner Brothers Discovery, who seem to exist for the sole purpose of un-making media. At least Newshub isn't being killed merely for tax reasons. Meanwhile, the Pantograph Punch is going on a hiatus that looks like it might be permanent, and TVNZ – which, contrary to popular opinion, has frequently been a net funder of Government rather than a recipient of Government funding – is facing enormous cuts, with flagship programs like Fair Go and Sunday set to get the axe.

Naturally, David Seymour, the future Deputy Prime Minister and shareholding minister in TVNZ, is already dancing on journalism's grave. It's absurd. Very few politicians or political parties have manipulated or benefited from media the way David Seymour and ACT have; witness this telling tale from The Spinoff, wherein Seymour utterly ghosts the media that have helped him so much the moment he has no more use for them.

There is some truth to Seymour's allegation that political news media can be more concerned with scalps than with substance. One major problem with his take is that he's been a huge net beneficiary of their optics-first focus, and that the "scalps" tend to belong to people quite unlike Seymour. Too often they're young, brown women. Just because there's accuracy to elements of his critique doesn't mean it's being offered in good faith; in fact it seems that as a shareholding minister of TVNZ his comments could be breaking the law. Good-faith media criticism has mostly come out of the (doomed) hope that media might be made better, and none of the recent developments will achieve that. Instead, the mainstream looks like it's being supplanted by something much, much worse.

News isn't going to become less popular just because it's not profitable. People are addicted to it, and there are plenty of pushers. The likes of The Platform and Reality Check Radio are poised to fill the gap left by ad-funded media's demise; they're amply bankrolled by dilettante millionaires, mystery money, and easily-fleeced cookers. They can, and will, scale quickly, especially after being lent legitimacy by politicians who prize the need to be seen over good sense. Think tanks and lobby groups like the Taxpayer's Union, the New Zealand Initiative, and Hobson's Pledge will happily occupy any niches left – they already partly function as news platforms, doing journalists' jobs for them, and they have been building up their own audiences via email, podcasts, and the like for years. The loss of mainstream media stands to make the neoliberal grift-tanks and their political actors more powerful, not less.

The great advantage of having a mainstream media was that it allowed audiences to have a shared reality, and I think this loss is incalculable. Sure, the MSM was monolithic, beholden to advertisers, and got a lot wrong. But even if it only pretended to be non-partisan, or frequently focused on ranking politicians by how good their PR was, it often unearthed truths that the powerful would rather keep hidden. I think, on balance, that it succeeded more than it failed. If that's true, the people celebrating the mainstream's demise are fundamentally misguided, no matter their brand of politics. Once you see what's coming to replace the old MSM – and, in many important ways, already has – you'll miss the devil you knew more than you ever thought possible.

Of course, as bad as things are, media Aten't Dead yet. Stuff and The Spinoff carry on gamely in the unforgiving commercial marketplace; the Herald keeps heralding (subsidised largely by its overtly right-wing propaganda arm, Newstalk ZB); Government-funded RNZ remains; and TVNZ will keep making news for the moment, albeit horribly diminished. I hope they all find a way to continue, and if you have the means to pay for news – especially news that is owned and operated by journalists – now is a good time to start. Ignoring for a moment the brands and the mastheads, it's journalism that matters, and the relatively few full-time journalists left are harried, threatened, overworked, overwhelmed, and underpaid. I hope that, as a society, we can find a way to change that. Given the new Government's myriad assaults on democracy, transparency, and our founding treaty, we need journalism now more than ever.