The remarkable bounce back of New Zealand's magazines

Elle Hunt in Whangārei
·7-min read

At 8.31am on a Thursday, Henry Oliver received a text message from his employer, alerting him to a company-wide Zoom call in 29 minutes’ time.

The day was 2 April 2020, a week into New Zealand’s national lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus. Oliver, who is the editor of Metro magazine, and his team had been scrambling to adjust to remote working and – with magazine publishing not among the “essential services” permitted to continue through the pandemic – a new digital-first operation.

Within an hour of that text, Oliver and the 300-odd other employees of Bauer Media New Zealand were told they were being made redundant, the titles they worked on would be put up for sale, and the entire company was to close. “That was still a shock, even though I was prepared for bad news,” says Oliver.

It’s not really up to a German billionaire whether I get to make magazines or not

Henry Oliver, Metro magazine editor

A privately owned German company operational in 13 countries, including the US, UK and Australia, Bauer had been a pillar of the New Zealand magazine industry since 2012. In particular it was known for its current affairs and long-form features journalism, as the home of the Auckland-centric Metro, North & South and The Listener – titles with steady subscriber bases and some of the most experienced and awarded journalists in the country on staff.

In its suddenness and its sweep, Bauer’s decision seemed to sound a death knell for an entire industry. “If the most established part of the business is prepared to walk away from it, you’d think it was dying,” says Colin Peacock, host of Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme.

“People thought: ‘one of the very biggest magazine publishers in the world can’t be bothered, or can’t see a way to make these things profitable or worth owning … the industry is really screwed’.”

‘Small affirmation of life’

Yet less than a year later, not only have Bauer magazines been brought back to life under new ownership, but also new titles have been launched – reflecting a flurry of investment and innovation in New Zealand media precipitated by the pandemic.

Sydney private equity firm Mercury Capital purchased Bauer NZ for an unspecified sum in June (later renaming it Are Media) – extending a lifeline to The Listener and four other mastheads.

Metro and North & South were both acquired by independent investors seeking to preserve New Zealand’s tradition of long-form features journalism.

Related: Bauer shuts New Zealand magazine operation amid coronavirus downturn

Meanwhile, four entirely new monthly titles – staffed by former Bauer editors and writers, with former CEO Paul Dykzeul advising – were launched by School Road Publishing in November.

The recovery, since the dire outlook in April, has exceeded all expectations: testament to the appetite of New Zealanders not just to read magazines, but to make them.

The day after he was made redundant, Oliver started work on a zine. With a budget procured from property developer Britomart Group, he was able to deploy the talents of many of the journalists and designers who had been let go with him from Bauer. He gave it the tongue-in-cheek title Essential Services, describing it as a “small affirmation of life in the face of media industry collapse”.

Oliver went on to produce two more issues with funding from government agency Creative New Zealand. “I wanted to do something that felt positive, and take ownership of the situation,” he says. “… I just thought to myself, it’s not really up to a German billionaire whether I get to make magazines or not.”

‘A mix of change and tradition’

Others too had spied opportunity in among the rubble. German-born, Auckland-based journalists Konstantin Richter and Verena Friederike Hasel were shocked to hear of Bauer’s decision. “There are not many magazines out there in New Zealand – we thought, if they’re going, there’s just going to be sweets left at the supermarket check-out,” says Friederike Hasel.

They made a “spontaneous” offer on North & Southto ensure its survival, as subscribers themselves. Richter is also a board member of the Swiss media giant TX Group, founded by his family.

When their bid was unexpectedly accepted, Richter and Friederike Hasel brought on as editor Rachel Morris, a New Zealander then based in Washington working for Huffington Post; and ran focus groups of readers to inform their editorial direction. They have since published two issues, with their third due in mid-January.

Richter describes their vision as “a mix of change and tradition”: retaining North & South’s time-honoured focus on issues that span the length of New Zealand, bridging the urban-rural divide – while injecting news and perspectives from further afield. He sees an opportunity to build on the tradition of investigative and long-form features journalism in a nation that is more receptive than others to the concept.

“There’s such great suspicion of the media by people in other countries, especially in the US – in comparison, in New Zealand, it feels that there is still trust and openness. That’s something that needs to be preserved.”

Metro, meanwhile, was bought by media entrepreneur Simon Chesterman, who retained Oliver as editor and moved the magazine to quarterly publishing. It relaunched with a splash in November with an exclusive essay from Lorde.

Oliver says they were aligned on the importance of an Auckland-centric title in the age of coronavirus. “We’re going to be living in a more local world for the foreseeable future, so a city magazine, an authority on a specific place, can be more relevant than ever.”

Plus, at a moment of up-to-the-minute, pandemic-driven doom-scrolling, “there is space for a slower media”, says Oliver. “That was really what was taken away with the shutdown of the magazines.”

To Peacock, the industry’s reinvention suggests a new era of “start-up-style media” in New Zealand, driven by “smart, motivated, passionate independent publishers taking on titles that big companies walked away from” – and journalists, convinced of the necessity of their job.

Related: New Zealand media group Stuff to be sold to chief executive Sinead Boucher for NZ$1

Peacock points to Shepherdess – a new quarterly magazine for rural women, which launched in mid-March – and the free “mountain culture” publication 1964 as examples of how print might be reinvented to serve a specific, perhaps localised audience.

“It illustrates how a very high-quality production can be done with very little staffing, … [and] the motivation of all those people: ‘we still want to be working, doing these productions and this journalism’ – and finding a way.”

The turnaround of the past 10 months has been a lesson in the relative importance of audience over advertising, Peacock says.

In April, Bauer’s Australia and New Zealand chief executive Brendon Hill had said magazines would be “untenable” in New Zealand through the pandemic: “Publishing in New Zealand is very dependent on advertising revenue and it is highly unlikely that demand will ever return to pre-crisis levels”.

But the industry’s bounce back from catastrophe reflects New Zealand readers’ loyalty to their long-standing magazines – potentially to a fault, Peacock suggests. The value of those titles has been revealed to lie not in the cover price or advertising potential, but in those “rusted-on subscribers” that buy them year on year – disincentivising change.

The resurrection of The Listener, almost identical in form and focus, suggests there was next to no enthusiasm for a refresh, says Peacock. “That habit is just so important … It’s very difficult to change things and create something in your own image if you want to first and foremost return the loyalty that is the bedrock of your business.”

Richter and Friederike Hasel are hopeful that North & South readers will embrace a new global perspective – especially at this time of transition, not just for New Zealand’s media but New Zealand itself. Bauer’s exit was “a shock to many,” says Friederike Hasel – “but I think something good might come out of that.”