Calling New Zealand's Jeff Bezos - NZ Listener for sale

Is there anyone out there with a spare few million and a heart for the public interest? If so, maybe there's still a deal to be done with the NZ Listener

The announcement today that APN's New Zealand Magazines has been sold is a decision years in the making. It's long been inevitable that APN would at some stage slice off the small appendage that is its magazine division, the question was always 'to whom' and whether it might be able to spark a new model of media ownership in New Zealand.

The sale announced today, subject to Commerce Commission approval, is to German media company Bauer. It's looking to buy New Zealand Magazines' titles - New Zealand Woman's Weekly, The Listener, Simply You, Simply You Living and Creme. Bauer already own titles such as Metro, Next and North & South, after last year spending what Stuff estimates to have been $600 million on the Australasian assets of magazine publisher ACP Media.

Bauer will be keen to generate some economies of scale - so expect some job losses - and will be well placed to offer advertisers deeper access to an even wider range of demographics. The loyal readers of NZWW and the Listener will also be worth a lot to them.

The sale would mean, however, that one company would own the vast majority of the country's magazines, so you'd think that would give the Commission pause for thought. The problem is that the long-form written New Zealand voice will be captured largely within one corporate entity.

However I'm sure the companies involved will argue that the competition from other print media, let alone other New Zealand media, let alone other international titles all availabe online or in the post means competition can still flourish in New Zealand. So maybe it's a done deal and the rest of this post is pie-in-the-sky nonsense. But I'm in the mood for that these days, so indulge me.

My concern, given that it was my first media love, is for the New Zealand Listener. It has a unique place in New Zealand's publishing history, and indeed in the history of publishing worldwide. It's often said that back in the 70s and 80s - when TV ownership had saturated the living rooms of the nation and the Listener maintained the monopoly on the TV listings - only Pravda in the Soviet Union had higher per capita readership.

The old A3 mag with the Queen or some TV star in the cover, and new fiction by Witi Ihimaera or ruthless political commentary by Tom Scott hidden inside, was a ubiquitous sight on New Zealand's coffee tables. Canny editors for decades were able to produce a mass market mag with some startlingly high-brow content.

When I was the magazine's deputy editor - was it really 10 years ago? - I once rang the Maori Language Commission and got put through to someone who's name I missed. I introduced myself, and no sooner had I got the word "Listener" out of my mouth than the voice on the other end of the line said, "Ha, I screwed you, didn't I?"

The voice belonged to Dr Ian Shearer, once Minister of Broadcasting, and the man who removed the Listener's TV listings monopoly. The magazine's high volume glory days were, indeed, over. But it was far from screwed and has remained a proud New Zealand institution and voice of criticism and analysis to this day.

Who knows how it will fly under Bauer's ownership? Certainly APN has hardly been a passionate advocate for such a tiny part of its empire. The Listener might go great guns under Bauer, but what would be fascinating and ground-breaking is if we never got to find out.

It may all be too late, but imagine if a wealthy philanthropist made an offer for the Listener; its reputation for intelligence and rigour could be translated into a new print and online media model bringing the best contributors here and overseas into a world-class local brand.

What I'm saying is that it offers the best opportunity for New Zealand's Jeff Bezos to step forward. In August, founder Bezos bought the Washington Post company for US$250m. It was a purchase that perplexed many but had others wondering what a guy who really knows how to make money out of the internet could do with a prestigious print brand.

How fascinating to embark on the same experiment here in New Zealand. Bezos got the initial thumbs up from the Post's journalists by saying things such as:

 "The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners..."


"I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams have shown as owners that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost". 

How fabulous it would be to hear such words in these shakey isles in these unleavened times.

Given the squeeze on the New Zealand media, the fragmentation of audiences, our small scale and the increasing commercial demands made by owners, I'm not the only journalist to wonder if 'family ownership' or ownership by a public-minded millionaire might not be the best way forward for local journalism. Is there someone who wants to help a wider range of smarter, challenging voices get into the public square? To encourage information or writing or analysis for an audience other than the mass middle? To do for New Zealand what, say, The New Yorker, Economist, Atlantic or even Time does for the rest of the world?

With New Zealand's newspapers well and truly tied up in corporate hands, the Listener has always been the obvious candidate for any Kiwi Bezos to snap up. Many look at the new money folk who understand the online world - I'm looking at you Rod Drury, Sam Morgan, and the like. But it could just as easily come from old money folk who want to give something back and have a legacy of some significance.

Because as it stands New Zealand journalism feels like a sunset industry and without some creative initiatives such as this, commercial demands will ultimately and always out-strip the wider public interest.