Diana Wichtel: 'We didn't see the Bauer truck coming'
24 June 2020
Opinion: Nostalgia gets you nowhere amid the terrifying implosion of the media, writes Diana Wichtel.
The meeting was via Zoom and short notice. The nation, and large swathes of the rest of the world, was in the Covid-19 lockdown. Self-isolation as a mass undertaking turns out to be strangely absorbing, like some arcane spiritual practice where you sit atop a pillar or self-flagellate or just hole up in your house for weeks, offering up baked burnt offerings to dangerous gods.
Busy trying to flatten the curve of a rampaging pandemic, we didn’t see the truck coming that was about to flatten us and almost the entire local magazine industry, as Bauer Media New Zealand took the opportunity presented by magazines being declared non-essential during the lockdown to pull the plug.
The New Zealand Listener, North and South, Metro, The Woman’s Weekly… It was one of those moments when you are actively aware of failing to believe the evidence of your own ears. The manager had us muted or he would have been deafened by the roar of a couple of hundred people going “F---, f---, f---”.
Everything I love to write about – books, television, radio, movies – has at one time been declared in an extinction crisis. All are still here and, in the case of television, never better.
The Listener last year celebrated its 80th anniversary. It was my professional home for 36 of those years, a run that ended in a rolling media meltdown including, a week later, NZME laying off 200 staff.
My time at the magazine began as farce. I had been tutoring in the University’s English Department, working with people who had been mates with Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, James K. Baxter – the great New Zealand writers. Some – C. K. Stead, Bill Pearson – were the great New Zealand writers.
In 1984, despite the fact that I knew nothing about journalism and couldn’t type, I got a job as television writer for a big, floppy, inky national institution. I went around for days in dark glasses, panic stricken. “What’s wrong with you?” people asked. “I’m going to work at the Listener,” I wailed. They looked at me as if I were mad.
Decades with the best: Helen Paske, Steve Braunias, Bruce Ansley, Geoff Chapple, Tom McWilliams, Alison Mudford, Finlay Macdonald, Tony Reid, Margo White, Philip Matthews, Rebecca Macfie, Donna Chisholm, Fiona Rae and more. You would head off to interview Bruno Lawrence or Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or 80s yuppies at play, with photographers like Jane Ussher, Robin Morrison and John Reynolds. Our Auckland High Street outpost had legendary Christmas parties attended by all manner of artists, writers and blagueurs. Formidable advertising manager Flo Wilson had to fend off would-be advertisers.
It was less another world, more a glittering galaxy far, far away. Though it’s deceptive to think in terms of golden ages. There was more time for serious journalism and space for a range of voices from all ends of the political spectrum, but always a substantial word count for the trivia and crap that rules our lives. A cover could be David Lange or a Doctor Who dalek. I interviewed Oliver Sacks. I interviewed Mike Hosking. Sublime and not infrequently ridiculous.
Nostalgia gets you nowhere amid the terrifying implosion of the media, which, for all its infuriating failings, is an essential service in any functioning democracy. Still, nothing ever turns out exactly as predicted. Everything I love to write about – books, television, radio, movies – has at one time been declared in an extinction crisis. All are still here and, in the case of television, never better.
And everywhere now, even during lockdown, there has been a valiant, unfettered creativity, a determination to cut new cultural channels, to keep going. When almost everything went dark, people did things differently. Our kids made children’s television content on their phones, shot ads in their kitchens, studied and researched for the new world still out of sight. As I write, my partner, his colleagues and readers are working to keep the magazine he edits, Architecture NZ, 70 years old and counting, alive.
New ideas to keep journalism afloat land in my inbox or spring up online. “It is something where there might otherwise be nothing,” one journalist said about his plans to continue doing what he does for the love of doing it. We saw this sort of spirit after the Christchurch earthquakes: resilient, hopeful, generous. It’s the spirit of resistance. Whatever comes next, it should not be allowed to slip away.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2020 edition of Ingenio magazine.