The Listener is no more. Along with Metro, North & South, Woman's Day, NZ Woman's Weekly and a host of other magazines. All gone, with the sudden announcement from Bauer Media NZ that it is shutting down, immediately, and will not start up again.
We have lost so much and we will lose more, because where Bauer goes, others will follow. The company's CEO, Brendon Hill, made the reason clear enough: the Covid-19 crisis has destroyed Bauer's advertising support.
"Publishing in New Zealand," he said, "is very dependent on advertising revenue and it is highly unlikely that demand will ever return to pre-crisis levels."
It's true, and it's also true for commercial radio and television. That hasn't always been widely understood, but it's always been true. Without advertising, the only media we would have is state-funded or, in niche markets, subscription funded.
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It might be tempting for the Government to circle the wagons around state media and leave the rest of us to our own devices, but that would be a tragedy. Most media is judged an essential industry right now, and the enormous numbers of readers and viewers it is attracting tell you why. But if it can't survive without help, it should get that help.
Bauer isn't a New Zealand company, and it's possible to see its closure here as a decision made at head office in Hamburg to cut its losses in the current climate. But that's not really the point. Even if the company was owned by its own staff it seems it would not have the financial capacity to survive right now.
The Bauer titles are cultural and community treasures. Many of them have spoken truth to power, repeatedly over the years. They share a long, proud record for quality writing; for long-form and in-depth journalism; for insightful, entertaining and authoritative cultural analysis. If all their awards were lined up, the certificates would smother many walls.
They have also done much more. Magazines are part of the glue that sticks communities together. It's as true for the readers of NZ Woman's Weekly as it is for Metro, that magazines engage their readers in a world, enliven that world and give readers a sense of belonging to it.
All media does these things, but magazines, with their implicit invitation to readers to return to them, explore them and savour them, are especially good at it. And Bauer titles have been especially good examples of that.
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The NZ Listener has been our publication of cultural record since 1939, leading the way nationally in its coverage of books, the arts, social issues and so much more.
Lois Daish and Annabel Langbein were the first to bring a modern sensibility to food writing, in their alternating columns in the 1970s and 80s. In the same period Tom Scott created a whole new way to do politics, by treating MPs as deeply flawed characters in an ongoing comedy, which he wrote and drew cartoons about.
Because he made the workings of power accessible, that work became one of the great democratising influences in our history. The legacy was brilliantly continued by writers Denis Welch and then Jane Clifton, and cartoonists Trace Hodgson and Chris Slane.
Diana Wichtel did a similar thing in television: with sly wit and immense grace, and powered by a view that there are good and bad versions of every type of programme, her reviews set the benchmark for all other critical writers in this country.
North & South brought a sophisticated sensibility to readers outside the metropolitan centres, invented from nothing by editor Robyn Langwell and developed magnificently by her successor, Virginia Larson. Its writers include Donna Chisholm (also in the Listener) and Mike White, both titans of contemporary journalism.
And there's Metro, which I edited for five years, hoping always to honour the presiding spirit of its late, great founding editor, Warwick Roger. Its role was to be the spirit of Auckland, in love with and also highly sceptical about the city. Critically engaged for 39 years. Entertainment and edification, satire and celebration and a lot of advice on good eating, all poured into one heady cocktail.
Visually, too, these magazines have been indispensable. Design standards are high – led for many years by Jenny Nicholls at North & South. Photographers get to do their best, and we've seen that from so many, including Jane Ussher, David White, Alistair Guthrie and Adrian Malloch.
More Bauer titles, more leaders in their field. Home, under Jeremy Hansen and then Simon Farrell-Green, has promoted not just the best of New Zealand architecture but the new ideas and values reshaping our built environment.
Fashion Quarterly, the grand dame of New Zealand fashion, and its youthful offspring. Next, with its stylish mix of current affairs and life issues. And the big three "mass market" titles: Woman's Day, NZ Woman's Weekly and Australian Women's Weekly: conduits to the world and mainstays in the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, week after week. Indispensable in that role.
You want to know who we are, where we've come from, where we might be going, and what the hell is going on, and be entertained – wildly, quietly, whatever suits – along the way? What splendid ways of doing all that these magazines and their websites have offered. We have lost so much.
Now what? There's no good answer to the question of how commercial media should make a buck.
In the good old days, quality journalism in newspapers was paid for by classified advertising. Then that disappeared online. Then a lot of the other advertising disappeared online too. Trade Me, Facebook and Google have swung like wrecking balls.
Media companies have fought back, diversifying into their own online services, like GrabOne and OneRoof (both from NZME, the publishers of the Herald). They're successful, but they don't pay for newspapers, or the quality journalism expected of them.
Retail sales have been hit, ditto subscriptions. Digital versions of newspapers have been built and pushed hard, and they're popular. Wildly so right now. But again, they don't pay for newspapers or the quality journalism expected of them.
Our advertising sales staff have worked hard to build up the value of print ads in different sectors: until last month travel advertising was leader of the pack. That's gone now and there's no way to see it quickly coming back.
Some media, like the Spinoff and Newsroom, have used the sponsor model. Instead of many advertisers, they build relationships with a few key companies, often so that one company essentially pays for all the coverage in a specified channel, like politics or television.
It's good when you have the sponsors - and makes you vulnerable each time you lose even one.
NZME has a digital subscription service, which means online readers pay for "premium" content. It's now an invaluable source of revenue, but it doesn't pay for all the premium content it covers.
Some people say making readers pay is not fair, especially to those on limited incomes. It's a hard argument to follow, because it's never been raised against newspapers themselves. The digital subscription is cheaper than the paper.
Some say it's wrong to charge for important information. But we don't, for example, make breaking news premium. A lot of our Covid-19 coverage is free, and some of it is not. There's a balance.
Besides, if you were going to make none of the "important" stuff premium, what would you be left with?
Some say they object to paying money that will subsidise non-premium content. That's the "why should I pay for Mike Hosking?" argument. But you don't. Hosking is a star at NewstalkZB because he's popular with listeners, so he brings in a lot of advertising money. If the truth be told, Hosking probably subsidises me.
But even his advertising support, like everyone else's, has been compromised now. Will we climb back? That requires the advertisers to see a future for themselves, and not all will. And to be able to get back to trading quickly. Not all will be able to do that either. Bauer will not be the only company to shut down altogether.
The end of this crisis won't be like the end of a war. We're not going to flood the streets and the shops on a joyous day of victory, kissing and hugging and shopping furiously. The return to normal will be slow, cautious and uncertain.
If we, as a society, want media to survive, it will require, perhaps on a temporary basis, the attention of Government. Exactly how? I don't know. But yes, with money.
Meanwhile, RIP Bauer magazines. You will be missed.