Launch of the Southern Community Media Trust

  • Hon Clare Curran
Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media

Having been a journalist, cutting my teeth on the Nelson Mail and the Hauraki Herald, it is no surprise that I am a very strong supporter of the fourth estate as an essential pillar of democracy.

I don’t think we talk about it enough and the important role that media plays in our society. It has been devalued.

I think the evidence of what’s coming out of this region, with your stories, puts a strong case for the value of the fourth estate.

I’m also a very strong advocate for the value of independent media as an essential part of the wider media ecosystem.

It’s a core component of a healthy democracy, playing a critical role in holding public and private institutions to account and helping inform debate and understanding.

And it’s important for us as New Zealanders to be able to see and hear our stories and culture reflected in content across media platforms.

At the moment the media is struggling to do that, to reflect back from all parts of New Zealand, what is really going on. What are the great initiatives, the great ideas, what are some of the core hardships that are coming out of regional New Zealand?

So it’s really exciting to be gathered here with a group of people who are truly engaged with their local community so much so that you are putting money in to it. That’s a great model. And you’re working together to promote positive public interest journalism.

It’s a fact that our media institutions face a challenging time and Government is aware that funding for public interest journalism is a constant struggle, one exacerbated by a fast-changing media landscape driven by rapid technological change.

These are just some of the pressures facing operators in New Zealand’s changing media environment.

AI and other technologies are transforming industries, transforming sectors before our eyes – with things like algorithms. The media sector in particular has really felt the rise of social media, but it’s impacting on most industries you can think of.

The shift from legacy platforms to digital media has reshaped the media landscape. New technologies are challenging old ways of doing business, demanding new business models, new distribution strategies and new ways of thinking.

And it’s crucial that strong public service media functions as a core part of society’s fourth estate, to keep the public informed on key issues, and enable our democracy to flourish.

So no matter what the platforms are, no matter what the transformation is around how industries are organised and the technologies that underpin them, there’s a fundamental principle about the provision of quality information, quality journalism and a will to reflect true diversity in a public interest way.

In the words of the American broadcast journalist veteran, Walter Cronkite “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work”

Earlier this year I established a ministerial advisory group on public media, initially to investigate two things. To investigate the resourcing needs of public media agencies, RNZ and New Zealand On Air. And to look at the establishment of a Public Media Funding Commission to be a non-political voice advising Parliament on the state of the media and the resourcing needs of public media agencies.

I can’t say too much about where we are with that because of the Budget later this month - but we’ll reiterate the commitment by this government to the evolution and the investment in non-commercial public media in New Zealand and the absolute importance of that.

This is just one part of Government’s work programme for the sector. I am also focused on ensuring there is support for sector growth, sustainable and high-quality content and a fit-for-purpose regulatory framework.

While RNZ+ will be the Government’s flagship public media programme, I recognise that it won’t fill all of the gaps in our current media system. Other approaches and models, including the Southern Community Media Trust, will be key to ensuring a comprehensive fourth estate, serving national, regional and local audiences.

The Government sees New Zealand On Air as being a vital part of this ecosystem, as it funds content on commercial platforms.

Our plan is to expand what it does but also to have a look at how we can add more value in that space.

This Government is also focused on ensuring access for all New Zealanders to quality media content that reflects our unique voice and culture.

Part of this work will include addressing current regulatory gaps relating to classifications and standards for online content.

Our main objective is consistency of classification standards across all platforms because at the moment we’ve got a hotchpotch of regulation across the media environment.

That work is about empowering New Zealanders to choose online content that is suitable for themselves and their family, and seek correction or redress when community standards are not met.

Another thing we’re doing as a priority is looking at increasing captioning. There are currently in New Zealand around 800-thousand New Zealanders who have a hearing disability and around half a million who have a visual disability.

Of the 800-thousand, around half can’t access our broadcast media because they can’t hear it. Captioning is about the principle that all New Zealanders can participate and access media.

We are a government that believes more can be achieved by working alongside the media sector, so that’s what we will be doing with this work.

Another of this government’s objectives is to identify and close the digital divides by 2020. Essentially that means people are able to access the online environment, that they can afford to and that they’ve got the skills and awareness to do so.

There are around 22 per cent of New Zealanders that we believe have either no connectivity or very low connectivity. And we have to work to ensure that they can access the internet.

Local stories

In an increasingly globalised media system, distinctive local voices and local stories can be hard to find.

It’s all very well to be providing local content and to be doing it in a digital environment but if not everybody is digitally connected then they’re locked out.

Mainstream media is reducing or cutting its presence in many areas and the Queenstown-Lakes District is not excluded from that.

This comes at a time when the District is increasingly developing an identity distinct from Invercargill, Dunedin and the rest of Otago, with different challenges and different opportunities.

The District has become the fastest growing population centre in New Zealand - 7 percent growth last year, more than three times higher than Auckland’s growth in the same period.

Housing costs are also higher in the Queenstown-Lakes District than in Auckland, while wages are lower. This unprecedented growth means that the local Council here is planning to spend $1 billion over the next ten years just to keep up.

In the face of these unique challenges, it’s immensely heartening then to see an exciting, proactive, community-led site like Crux – – developed by the Southern Media Community Trust.

As I understand it, Peter Newport identified a need for civic journalism that wasn’t being met by other media in Queenstown and he contacted Gavin Ellis to discuss the trust model. He couldn’t have picked a better person, as Dr Ellis literally wrote the book on the principles and practice of public service media trusts.

From there came meetings with the Mayor who was supportive along with other high profile members of the Queenstown community. And so the trust was formed with people who have direct links to the Queenstown/Wanaka community.

I’m told it’s the first large scale community funded media project in the country.

You are all about covering community issues and supporting local action, rather than chasing the day- to-day breaking news.

And there’ll be no advertising – funding will come from donors, community trusts, reader contributions, local business sponsorship and other grants.

This Trust is a great venture. I’m sure that Queenstown-Lakes District residents will benefit greatly from its presence.

It’s the sort of innovative media organisation, focused improving society and individual wellbeing, that the Government wants to support and see grow.

I am also impressed that the Trust has partnered with the University of Canterbury’s School of Journalism, with a view to supporting new journalists on their career pathways through training and career development.

This is the future. Let’s make it the future. No matter how technology disrupts the media models we are used to, the core principles of the absolute importance of quality media, quality journalism, and quality public interest media remain important.

So I heartily support the venture. I think it’s very exciting to see that it has come out of regional New Zealand and my congratulations to the Southern Community Media Trust on its ambitious objectives.

I commend you all on your collaborative approach and wish the Trust the very best of luck in its endeavours.