For decades, journalists and scholars alike have lamented the downsizing of the newspaper industry. Most of us know that democracy functions better when it has access to accurate, reliable, fact-checked, rational information from which we—as citizens—can understand government policy and decide what is best for us. Bad information can logically lead to bad decisions. It’s true of any system.
But it was Last Week Tonight host, John Oliver, who gave us the spoonful of sugar that helped the medicine go down. On his HBO satirical program, Oliver articulated the difficulties that we are facing as a society, as the newspaper industry faces increasing pressures—even for his own program, which, Oliver admitted, relies heavily on the work done by newspaper journalists for its content. But increasingly, journalists are squeezed to do more and more with less and less time and resources. And with downsizing and other economic pressures, there are fewer newspapers and fewer journalists at each newspaper to do the hard work of gathering the fact-checked information that provides the foundation of our civic knowledge. This is a global phenomenon.
For some, the newspapers are just a business, in it to make as much money as they can for their shareholders. When money is the bottom line, it is difficult to think about the public interest role that an institution, such as the press, provides. But for decades, newspapers have been a vital source of information from which we learn about our community, our government, our world. So what will we do with the diminished capacity of newspaper journalists who do the original reporting? How will we understand the policies, the representatives, the systems that either better or worsen our collective lives? Will we be forced to rely upon insulting tweets and Blame Framing blog posts that give us no true understanding of the real factors that got us to our current situation or where we should go?
Already under pressure, New Zealand’s journalism institution faces another gigantic downsizing with the proposed merger between Fairfax media and NZME. It will mean more layoffs and more pressure on the remaining journalists to produce content with less time and fewer resources. And what does that do to civil society who live in New Zealand? On its face, the merger may be good for its own business but it is bad for New Zealand.
Perhaps the proposed merger gives us an opportunity to explore new, much needed models to fuel and inform the democratic engine. A New Zealand version of BBC is one solution that experts have bandied about: It could be done by expanding Radio New Zealand and by taking the commercial pressure off of TVNZ. A government interested in an informed society might see this as viable. But in lieu of that, there are other models. For one, journalists themselves can band together and create a nonprofit cooperative media where their salaries and production become the primary expenses, and without the added pressure of generating greater and greater profit for shareholders, they can refocus their resources into great journalism.
Another alternative is for universities to continue expanding their roles beyond their own campuses and collectively build a strong media together—a media that offers breadth and depth of knowledge, society-wide. And while universities too are being squeezed so tightly that they can barely breathe, they must push back, so they can continue to stand for an educated society, a public interest that benefits all of us. Better education and better civic knowledge mean better problem solving for the big problems that beset us all.
Whether we get one or all of these options will be a public service to New Zealand, and maybe, if wildly successful, offer a model for others in the world who are struggling with similar issues.
Maria Armoudian is lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.