Communication in a time of crisis: a press in lockdown

In the face of the Covid-19 crisis, New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown at midnight on March 25 causing much angst for many. People have real concerns over job security, heath worries and an uneasy uncertainty over what the next four weeks (and beyond) will bring.

For the most part, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has done well to keep New Zealanders informed and updated on the entire process. This, thanks in part to a well-functioning press that helps keep communities informed in a way that is both accessible and digestible. Essential in difficult times like these.

So, why then are certain sections of the media being excluded from this essential function as the country and its communities grapple with self-isolation?

An email obtained by The Spinoff on Friday outlines which print publications are able to operate through the lockdown, ultimately putting hundreds of smaller community newspapers and magazines on pause until the lockdown ends. And with this, thousands without a reliable (and reputable) source of news and information.

Though not formally recognised as a part of the political system, the press (and media at large) wields significant indirect social influence. This ‘fourth estate’ function helps frame and holds governments (and those in positions of power) accountable. However, for many community-based magazines and newspapers, this mandate ceased temporarily on Friday as their operations were deemed ‘non-essential services’.

Following this revelation, the country’s national print association, PrintNZ admitted that it was caught by surprise. “This decision came without consultation and in conjunction with the Community Newspapers Association we have spent the weekend talking to officials and MPs, writing submissions and doing interviews to hopefully have this overturned,” said Ruth Cobb, General Manager PrintNZ in a statement to members on Monday.

This decision would leave some smaller communities without any printed papers, leaving them without community-centric updates regarding the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown. “Vulnerable people in the community could be left without news – the elderly, lower socio-economic households and those who rely on foreign language papers,” said Cobb.

While a select few in oversight committees do their bit to ensure the government is doing its part for the people, journalists also have a responsibility to report on things in their communities that affect real people at a grass roots level. Issues that would not necessarily get a voice if it was not for the likes of the Wairarapa Times-Age or Chinese Eye Magazine.

Aside from the impact that this is having on community newspapers, Duncan Greive, Managing Editor of The Spinoff says the largest impact is on the magazine industry. “For many special interest or lifestyle publications, from the Woman’s Weekly to the TV Guide, this is understandable on one level – during the lockdown, a vast number of businesses are ceasing operation, or radically reconfiguring their work. Yet magazines are functionally no different to the likes of music radio or entertainment television, each of which are allowed to continue broadcasting. Additionally, with well over half their distribution happening through supermarkets, publishers are wondering why they aren’t being treated the same way as soft drinks or chocolate,” he questions.

There is however some debate around this as retail stores are still requesting magazine stock as normal – given their mandate as an essential service. The MPA (NZ) did petitioned the government to have magazines classified as an essential product under ‘News & Media’, however, the government department ruled; “Printed periodical and non-daily publications are not considered essential under the news & media designation”.

Tony Edwards, General Manager of Ovato Retail Distribution, however believes that his company can continue to distribute magazines because they are supplying essential services – i.e. to the retailers that remain open. “Jacinda Ardern has been very clear that anyone supplying supermarkets (and other essential retailers) can continue to trade,” he says. Adding that in his opinion, local publishers and printers should be able to continue to operate as they are part of this important supply chain.

As the country and government continues to find its way in these “unprecedented times”, as our PM would say, there will continue to be debate around what is deemed essential and what not – whiteware and heaters or a free to operate press?

While this is sure to be an unsettling and uncertain time for the traditional press, it does offer opportunities for alternative media, social journalism and companies to expand their offerings beyond their current business models. Thus finding new and innovative ways to communicate in times of crisis.

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