On a flight back from Sydney recently I watched the movie Spotlight, a powerful story about The Boston Globe’s groundbreaking investigation into the systemic child sexual abuse going on inside the Catholic Church. It’s a great reminder of the good that quality investigative journalism can do. Sadly, while it makes for a great movie, investigative journalism is becoming a thing of the past because media companies are simply not making money any more.
This point was rammed home for me when it was confirmed that Australian media business APN is proposing to split out its New Zealand operation, NZME, and seek to merge it with rival Fairfax’s New Zealand media business. Given the dominant positions NZME and Fairfax occupy in the New Zealand market, the Commerce Commission is likely to cast its eye over the deal.
You can see the logic behind a merger. It’s hard enough to make money in media these days as it is, with the rise of free online content and the fall of print advertising. But in a small market of just 4.5 million people it must be doubly hard.
The swing to digital has been steadily underway for a number of years so the proposal doesn’t really come as a surprise – but it’s the possible ramifications for consumers, journalists, advertisers and the PR industry that have got people talking.
Between them, NZME and Fairfax account for most of the country’s newspapers and half its radio stations. Consolidation and job losses are inevitable, and you have to feel for the people – especially the hard-working journalists – caught up in it.
The country’s two most popular news websites – The NZ Herald and Stuff – are currently bitter rivals but, assuming they both survive, will now become stablemates.
The newsrooms for both sites have become victims of falling advertising revenues and fewer resources – and loyal readers of both sites are suffering through more and more clickbait stories, mostly concerning reality TV shows and celebrity shenanigans. While that might be good for boosting traffic and therefore attracting advertisers, it does make news fans question the value of their subscriptions.
Writing on the RNZ website, former New Zealand Listener editor Finlay Macdonald opined that The New Zealand Herald could become more of a ‘serious’ read and live behind a paywall, while the clickbait could be left to Stuff.co.nz. We’ll have to wait and see.
So what might this media merger mean for the PR industry and, in particular, media relations? Here’s four thoughts:
1. Consolidation of titles / outlets will mean fewer opportunities to pitch stories for our clients. Some regions will find they no longer have a local newspaper, and more and more content will be shared amongst titles.
2. With fewer titles and even fewer journalists than there are already, competition for journalists’ attention will get even tougher, and we’ll probably see more exclusives being offered in order to secure coverage. There is already intense rivalry between media organisations and sometimes that plays out in ways you wouldn’t expect: following a recent pitch to MediaWorks TV we were told that, while it was a great story, because The New Zealand Herald had already run it they couldn’t and wouldn’t. It’s tough out there and it will only get tougher.
3. This all points, in time, to media having less influence over audiences. Organisations will need to redouble their efforts in building up their own channels and communities of influence by going where their audiences are. This isn’t about focusing on your own website – it’s about using channels like LinkedIn Pulse and Facebook, for example.
4. Finally, it all boils down to content. At the end of the day audiences want quality content, and increasingly – and sadly – this won’t be found in the news media, and it won’t be free. The good news is that content is already a core PR offering – it’s our job to develop content and place it in the right channels so that it’s seen and engaged with. However, the beauty of digital is that content can be highly tailored for niche audiences in a cost-effective manner, and produced in a variety of formats from interactive e-books, to video and virtual reality.
We don’t yet know how this particular merger will play but one thing is clear: the world of news media is evolving and PR needs to evolve with it.
- Hamish Anderson is the managing director of Hotwire PR.