Musings on the state of New Zealand media through an American lens

I spend nearly six months a year in the USA, which gives me an interesting perspective on the way the media report on President Trump, world affairs and of course general news.

It’s a useful lens for me as we gear up for the Voyager Media Awards this month, which celebrates the best of the best from the country’s most well-established news outlets, growing independents and influential newcomers.

What you want, when you want it

In broad terms, liberal Americans tend to prefer media outlets such as the New Yorker and online site Slate, whilst Fox News tends to pique the interest and sympathy of the political right. Further right, of course, are hard line commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Breitbart News.

The broadcast stations such as NBC, CBS, ABC, coupled with online news sites like Yahoo and Google, have a more middle-of-the-road audience than other mainstream media outlets. A lot of the news and content is absolute nonsense but it’s amazing being able to pick and choose what you want, when you want, and how it’s delivered.

But it’s also a business, not just an agenda

From a business perspective, I’ve watched with interest how Jeff Bezos has transformed the Washington Post, which he purchased for USD$250 million in 2013. It’s now profitable, and just a week ago it won two Pulitzer Prizes for its reporting on Russian interference and the Senate race in Alabama.

Commenting on the way the Washington Post transformed a loss – turning journalistic enterprise into a winning formula, Bezos offered these insights: “We’ve grown our way into profitability instead of shrinking our way into profitability…. we run Amazon and The Washington Post in a very similar way in terms of the basic approach”.

“We attempt to be customer-centric, which in the case of the Post means reader-centric. I think you can get confused, you can be advertiser-centric — and what advertisers want, of course, are readers — and so you should be simple-minded about that and you should be focused on readers. If you can focus on readers, then advertisers will come,” he added.

To adapt or die, that’s the question

This is all well and good for a man worth nearly USD$120 billion, but it’s arguably of little consolation for media companies here in New Zealand, large and small. Regardless of their size, most, if not all Kiwi media organisations are struggling to compete for advertising dollars against online juggernauts such as Google and Facebook.

The message from Bezos for media owners in the USA (and here in New Zealand) is simple: you can’t shrink your way to relevance, you have to grow and the way to do that is via technology – using it without becoming a slave to it. For example, the Washington Post successfully innovated by creating a publishing platform called Arc, which it’s now selling to other papers including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

What’s more, it also uses data to test headlines and gauge how readers are likely to connect with particular stories. I genuinely want all media organisations throughout New Zealand to thrive and prosper, because we need quality journalism and plurality, as they say, in terms of voices from the left and right of the political spectrum.

The future is ours to shape

It makes sense for an Internet company like Voyager to sponsor the Media Awards, particularly as more and more news is delivered via the Internet. In a sense, we’re the delivery mechanism of the news along with print, radio and TV, and the reporters are the product. But the 3000 journalists working here in New Zealand are working longer hours, and feeling more pressure, both ethically and resource-wise, than they were only two years ago – according to the recently released survey from the Worlds of Journalism project.

In a different era, an appropriate sponsor for the Media Awards might have been a pulp and paper company, but times are changing – the growth across digital platforms shows no sign of slowing down. Whilst I don’t profess to be a media expert, the success of outlets such as the Washington Post suggests to me that innovation and creativity will be key to making that possible.

New Zealand media deserves to flourish, regardless of whether it’s via print, digital or broadcast format – because debate and dialog in this country deserves it. If we don’t, then I think we run the risk of eventually electing our own version of Donald Trump.

Seeby Woodhouse is the CEO and founder of broadband Internet and phone provider Voyager.

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