Courage and crisis capitalism

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    “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around,” Milton Friedman said in 1982. “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” 

    I met the economist’s quote back in March, when the freedom of the ideas spilling around as we went into pandemic crisis augured well for a future which – we found ourselves saying – would never be the same ‘‘normal’’ again. The opportunity inherent in crisis and the ability to plainly say and hear what had been unsayable for three decades was almost eerie.

    An early pandemic response committee meeting in April chaired by then Opposition leader Simon Bridges canvassed the whole gamut of media industry spokespeople,  highlighting the glaring fallacies of the capitalist model in an industry brought to existential crisis by unregulated – and minimally taxed – digital transmission.

    At that stage, a slew of redundancies and job losses from the big players were being announced by the day and German news magazine publisher Bauer had already demonstrated how little resilience there was in acquisitive multinational companies able to command (and export) shareholder returns without regard for the human and natural resources they were plundering. Or for any long-term reserves.

    Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi emphasised to the pandemic response committee the government’s commitment to plurality and competition in New Zealand’s news media going into the future.

    There was a general consensus that the Stuff/NZME merger needed to be worked out by the two overseas-owned media companies and that, after initial triage of media damage due to the pandemic, New Zealand’s attention should return to building  new and more agile models of ownership and news media resourcing. 

    The Gordian knot of a monopolistic merger that had, in challenging times for media, paralysed New Zealand’s two biggest players was decisively cut this week when Stuff chief executive and former journalist Sinead Boucher bought the company from its Australian owners Nine Entertainment for a dollar – for the first time in decades putting a journalist at the head of its vast daily, weekend and community newspaper stables and the country’s largest online platform.

    After nearly 30 years of offshore ownership, initially by Rupert Murdock (who saw to the demise of our historic restrictions on overseas investment in news media), the enterprise’s  return to New Zealand ownership has been widely welcomed, including by the broadcasting minister, who saluted the courage and commitment behind the purchase.

    As Newsroom journalist Tim Murphy acknowledged, it is “a gutsy, big-hearted and highly risky play which has won admiration from within her 900 staff and the news media industry”.

    Perhaps presciently, Boucher had been sympathetic but pragmatic during the response committee’s discussion of Bauer’s closure of the majority of the country’s long-time news magazines. There would, she said, be chances for renewal as well as loss from the devastating news. 

    Her own gamechanger purchase signed this week, effectively a manager buyout, also fits well with the media committee’s consensus on the need for professional news to be unshackled from the capitalism model, which had brought global news media to a point of existential crisis. 

    A staff ownership model and a charter for editorial independence are among her initial plans and she does not envisage government aid, saying it should enable the entire news industry to flourish rather than individual players.

    Boucher started her own career as branch office reporter for The Press, which – as of Monday – she now owns. Along with the Dominion Post, Waikato Times, the award-winning Sunday Star-Times, a slew of community papers and two major websites. 

    In London, she worked for the Financial Times and Reuters, she was Stuff’s first digital editor, spent four years as executive editor, and was appointed Stuff chief executive in August 2017.

    “It’s no silver bullet for all the issues that media are navigating through, lay on top of that all the Covid issues that we’re all going to be navigating through,” Boucher said in an interview with the Guardian. “But it does give us a sense of being more in control of our own futures and that the sacrifices that people have personally made are for something that we will have more control over.”

    Her epic business rescue does indeed take the palm (as well as a slew of Voyager Media Awards) for gutsy, thoughtful and powerful leadership in an industry brimming with ideas for rebuilding an independent, vital and fit-for-purpose news media industry out of the crisis. •
    Liz Waters

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