Graham Adams: Bauer bows out (along with #TurnArdern)

Graham Adams: Bauer bows out (along with #TurnArdern)

While Jacinda Ardern’s government has been criticised for making decisions during the Covid-19 pandemic that could be interpreted as politically partisan — particularly its award of a permanent $25 a week rise to beneficiaries — it can’t be accused of political favouritism in its dealings with media over the lockdown.

One of the recurring criticisms of Ardern during her tenure has been that she has relentlessly exploited her photogenic appeal by dominating magazine covers in a way that most politicians can only dream about, with the accompanying soft interview that is rarely accorded a male MP.

Her success as a celebrity cover girl so infuriated some of her more mischievous opponents that late last year they started a #TurnArdern campaign to reverse the books and magazines carrying her image, then gleefully posted photos on social media recording their latest guerrilla victory in shops and supermarkets.

Now — in the wake of the government’s entirely arbitrary distinction between publications deemed essential or non-essential — the women’s magazines that provided her with so much glamorous publicity have been vaporised by the diktat of their German owner, Bauer Media (alongside current affairs titles such as North & South, the Listener, and Metro).

Ardern clearly doesn’t want to take any responsibility for the demise of the magazines in which she starred such as Woman’s Day, NZ Woman’s Weekly, Next and the Australian Women’s Weekly — or any of their stablemates. Consequently, she was very quick to slate Bauer for its decision and suggest the German publishers didn’t try very hard to keep its business running and the lights on.

She seemed to think that because Bauer didn’t engage with the government over a wage subsidy that it cannot have had any real intention of keeping the magazines open, despite evidence the company was working with the Magazine Publishers Association to be reclassified as an essential business.

Ardern’s statements have been read as intimating that Covid-19 was the excuse the company was looking for to close its business here — rather than for the very sound business reason that their products probably wouldn’t be available for sale for an indeterminate time and the commercial risk wasn’t one it wanted to take.

And anyone who has worked for Bauer in New Zealand would find the idea that the German publishing behemoth needed the cover of a pandemic to close an arm of its international operations simply laughable. It has always shown itself to be ruthlessly pragmatic.

Shortly after Bauer Media bought ACP’s trans-Tasman magazine empire in 2012, New Zealand CEO Paul Dykzeul warned staff that the Germans were entirely unsentimental and would swiftly close any magazine that didn’t make a profit. They weren’t in the habit, he said, of carrying ailing titles.

But while Bauer has closed titles here and in Australia as well as launching others, its move into Australia and New Zealand appears to have been a money pit for the privately held family company despite its initial bullishness.

Founded in 1875 and run from Hamburg by billionaire heiress Yvonne Bauer, it had had a lot of success selling low-cost, mass magazines in Europe and seemed to think it could replicate its success Downunder. Consequently, it paid an estimated (and whopping) $A500 million for ACP’s magazines in Australia and New Zealand but by 2017 publishing rivals in Australia estimated its investment was worth no more than a quarter of that figure. And it’s very hard to imagine that diminished value would have looked any more rosy by the beginning of 2020 as circulations for most titles have steadily dwindled along with advertising revenue (as indeed they have for most legacy media).

At first, Bauer’s buyout of ACP’s stable of magazines in New Zealand was welcomed by New Zealand’s senior management. There had been a difficult period under the control of a private equity group, which at one time led to a pervasive rumour that the company might not be able to cover its next pay run.

A small, select group of employees (possibly including those deemed most likely to spread such scurrilous gossip) were called into a boardroom to be assured that the company’s finances were sound — with the implied responsibility to spread that heartening message far and wide.

So, when Bauer bought ACP’s business, management believed they had fallen into the hands of sympathetic owners who — unlike the private equity group — had a deep understanding of the peculiar demands and nuances of the magazine business.

That illusion didn’t last long. The new masters in “Hamburg East” immediately insisted on their company motto — “We think popular” — being widely used throughout the company’s branding, despite it appearing to be a clumsy Google translation of a German slogan, as well as being entirely inappropriate for current affairs titles.

Bauer also instituted a penny-pinching approach to editorial expenditure and a bizarre micro-managerialism at times that included edicts (thankfully ignored) about the maximum number of words permitted in any sentence.

Hamburg East encouraged magazines that published puzzles to consider repeating ones printed just a few months earlier, as if the readers of these publications were either amnesiacs or plainly stupid. Magazines with cooking columns were offered recipes translated from Bauer publications in Poland as a way to cut costs.

And the culture clash between German formality and New Zealand informality was made starkly apparent when Dykzeul was reportedly reprimanded in a meeting with German representatives for referring to Yvonne Bauer as “Yvonne” rather than “Ms Bauer”.

Bauer was said to be hostile to including redundancy agreements in employees’ contracts, but its most outrageous move was to require anyone who worked for the company as a contractor to agree to indemnify it in the case of a defamation suit. A lot of the company’s material has always been provided by freelances, who suddenly faced the possibility of massive legal bills if anyone lodged a suit against the company with regard to anything they had written.

In the ensuing uproar, some contractors were privately assured that the provision would never be used but nevertheless everyone who wanted to work for Bauer was obliged to sign it.

However, despite the increasingly impossible demands put on employees over the years of Bauer’s ownership — with one wag suggesting the company motto should have been changed to “Do more with less” — the central Auckland “Bauer Tower” will be mostly remembered by former employees as an enjoyable, informal and energising workplace.

And that’s a tribute to its management and its talented editors.

Graham Adams worked for ACP and Bauer as a contractor and employee for more than 20 years in a variety of editorial roles.