Defending the truth

By Ron Murray

These are extraordinarily fragile times for the Media – locally and globally. The roles played by the news media, public relations companies and marketing agencies are no longer as well-defined as they were. Over time they have become hybridised, merged and muddied.

Globally it's seen in the shift in the way a long-standing PR firm like Weber Shandwick has reinvented itself as a marketing services company, moving beyond PR to embrace new technologies, use of data and broader marketing approaches even tapping into management consulting.

Then there is the astonishing spectacle of a prestigious paper like The Guardian, forced to kick off what is effectively a "give-a-little" campaign among its readers to stay viable.

Closer to home, we have the ongoing trend of our media organisations to move beyond an alignment with a particular side to the media like newspapers to add in broadcast (radio and TV), online and social media elements to their mix.

We are also witnessing major shifts in audience allegiances as the new generation groups - Gen X's (34-54), Millennials (20-33) and Gen Z's (13-19) - flex their media preference muscles and diverge from the Baby Boomers. Millennials are all over YouTube, and Gen Z's love Instagram and Snapchat (and YouTube), while Gen X's are big on Facebook and Twitter. Boomers love Facebook, but much less so the other social media sites and they still like TV news (which the other groups rarely visit, if at all). Figuring out which channels to direct your marketing messages through is considerably more complex than it was in the past.

These have been tough times particularly for print as electronic and digital channels grow in popularity.  Many papers have closed, particularly in the regions, and the squeeze saw the much-publicised move by our two major media groups - Stuff (Fairfax) and NZME (home of the NZ Herald, Newstalk ZB and a raft of other media) to merge.  The Commerce Commission turned that merger down but the decision has gone to appeal and there's a strong possibility - if you believe the prevailing sentiment and opinion - that the merger may get the green light.

The villains in the room, in most people's eyes, are the global media powerhouses Facebook and Google.  They're viewed as freeloaders in this (and other countries), paying little in tax but creaming more than 80% of media advertising revenue, and prospering in a news sense from news and other content crafted by others - for which they pay nothing.

The concerns of our big media players were loudly and succinctly voiced by Stuff Chief Executive Sinead Boucher at a recent Sustainable Business Council breakfast I attended.  In a talk entitled, tellingly, "Saving the truth", Sinead raised a massive red flag about the future of the Fourth Estate in the face of the global and local disruption happening in the media.

Sinead pointed to the example of Facebook being party to the "stolen election" in the US, and the Trump-fanned fake news phenomenon, lamenting the decline of true "checks and balances" journalism to ensure the public heard the truth. Within this country she pointed to the gradual loss of local reporting which might keep tabs on - and keep honest - localised developments, citing the recent example of a resource consent breach that went unreported in Ashburton till it was too late. In the past, the local stringer or reporter for the regional daily might have alerted the public to it.

Within their own organisation, Sinead says Stuff is having to look at investing in other non-news areas to simply get dollars in the door to fund the journalism they want to do.

What about PR?

Swinging her gaze on our profession, Sinead suggested the decline of news reporting was great news for PRs - that we'd be clapping our hands with glee.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, we produce news releases for our clients and like to see their points of view and perspectives get aired in the news media, but we totally buy into the need for journalists and editors to bring a balanced perspective to the discussion. The treatment needs to be balanced to be credible.

We want a thriving news industry not one that's so squashed and compromised that it can't investigate and research the topics that are important.  PRs contribute to those as much as any source.

The sad death in August of former Metro editor Warwick Roger after a long history of battling Parkinson's Disease reminded us of the place of the great investigative journalist - and the need to have such courageous champions of the truth plying their trade.

Sinead sounded a note of warning should the Stuff-NZME merger fail a second time: how more reporting jobs would be threatened and the prospect, for example, of a major player like TV3 departing the news scene.   Commentator Brian Gaynor in the Herald also ran his gaze over the merger, referencing the planned Channel Nine-Fairfax tie-up across the Tasman.  To Gaynor, our Commerce Commission took a backward-looking, historical view in rejecting the view that Facebook and Google were stiff competition for the Herald and Stuff websites and stopping the Stuff-NZME deal.

The fact is that the media battle for the public's attention is being waged between those two camps and the merger is one of the few opportunities to make that a fair contest and preserve the future of robust news reporting - and defence of the truth.

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