MediaRoom: A thousand cuts
News is the unusual, so no headlines have been made with the latest surgical cuts to our major print and digital media companies' teams of journalists.
Both NZME and Stuff have confirmed small, but telling, cuts to their newsrooms in the past fortnight.
Cutting the size of editorial teams and the cost of producing content has sadly been the answer to almost every question raised for media over the past decade and a half by digital disruption and desertion of paying advertisers and readers.
When I was editor and editor-in-chief of the Herald we had to repeatedly reduce the size of our editorial department through voluntary and compulsory redundancies. It was always awful: the irresistible force (of declining revenue from ads and sales of the paper) against the reluctantly but ultimately movable object (the desire to protect for readers our journalism and quality).
We and Fairfax (now Stuff) and almost everyone else in the media cut costs and hoped each cut was the last we would need, that new digital advertising revenues and ventures would take away some of the financial pressure.
The failed plan to merge the Herald owner NZME with Stuff was the latest forlorn hope for cost cutting on a grand scale.
At the same time as the companies' masters sought to salvage the merger after repeated legal rejections, the newsrooms have had to keep trimming numbers as revenues fall by substantial percentages, compounding year on year.
Stuff sold or closed two dozen community and specialty papers, culled regional titles' sports reporters and reduced its rural reporting team.
NZME reported in its half-yearly financial results last month that it had banked $3.4m in cost-cutting so far in 2018.
While the company expected to repeat or better that in the rest of the financial year, it warned this would not "be sufficient to offset the softening advertising revenue in the underlying business".
At the same time NZME has invested millions in its new digital classified advertising sites and spent up large on star journalism names to bolster its proposed premium content to sit behind its first online paywall. The company has been pretty clear that the new sites need to start paying their way or the investments won't be endless - and the paywall needs to pull in a few million in the next year or so to provide insurance against other cuts.
But here in the present both companies have confirmed limited, ominous further cuts.
At NZME its team of 15 sports journalists will be cut by four - with lead rugby writer Gregor Paul transforming into an independently contracted columnist, noted cricket writer and Olympic sports allrounder David Leggat departing, Dale Budge who covered league and motor racing leaving and the head of sport, newsroom reorganisation specialist Mike van Niekerk rounding off a year at the helm by taking redundancy.
NZME's Newstalk ZB will abolish its regional reporting jobs - not filling vacancies or cutting roles in Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Dunedin.
Hamilton and Waikato audiences will also bear the brunt of cuts by Stuff Ltd. It has confirmed five reporting roles will disappear in the Waikato, with a community news director job.
The Waikato region might want to persuade the Government's regional funding tsar, Shane Jones, to spend some money to support its regional media.
Stuff also told its staff this week it will cut nine news directors from its national roster of about 65, the people who assign stories, receive, edit and curate them for the big Stuff.co.nz website.
Stuff editor in chief Mark Stevens said in an internal memo: "It will come as no surprise that the media industry continues to navigate challenging times. And while the management of our costs and the pursuit of efficiencies in the way we do things will remain imperative, we will also do everything possible to protect our ability to create our journalism."
The media conundrum - succinctly put.
The ructions across the Tasman over threats to political independence at the public broadcaster, the ABC, which led to the sacking of the managing director and resignation of the chairman, have brought into sharp relief the bright lines here between the Beehive and RNZ and TVNZ.
The furore in Australia was so damaging that ABC News boss Gaven Morris felt compelled to make a public statement reaffirming its independence.
“The ABC Act quite clearly states that it is a duty of the board to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation…..nothing matters more than the public’s trust in the integrity of our journalism", Morris said
Earlier, Fairfax media had reported that the ABC’s Chairman Justin Milne had emailed managing director Michelle Guthrie telling her to sack a senior reporter who had (allegedly) upset the Government.
Guthrie refused and was sacked. Milne stood down soon after Fairfax revealed it had a copy of the email.
In New Zealand the Radio New Zealand Act guarantees the independence of the company. RNZ has authority to exercise complete editorial control over all of its programming.
RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson told Newsroom events across the Tasman and the Clare Curran/Carol Hirschfeld affair had “reinforced how important our independence is and I think we have lived and breathed our independence really well through this period.”
While RNZ and TVNZ are protected by legislation it doesn’t stop politicians using more subtle tactics to influence news coverage.
John Key, when he was Prime Minster, refused to be interviewed by RNZ hosts for more than 12 months, putting RNZ at a disadvantage with commercial radio stations.
National MPs regularly disparaged RNZ by labelling it “Red Radio.”
In the late 70s, after the NZBC was split into three - TV One, South Pacific Television(TV2) and RNZ - Sir Robert Muldoon, regularly clashed with TV One’s political reporters.
Fiery clashes erupted between Muldoon and hard-nosed reporters like Simon Walker, Spencer Jolly, David Beatson and Ian Fraser.
When Muldoon merged the two television operations back into one in 1980, TV One’s news boss, the formidable and highly respected Doug Eckhoff missed out on the top job.
At the time, many journalists felt that this was a politically inspired revenge move.
More recently, the Clark Labour government pressured TVNZ when Newsreader Judy Bailey’s salary was revealed to be close to $800,000.
The saga played a major role in key news executives Shaun Brown and Paul Cutler leaving the company.
Incoming news head, Bill Ralston, said Clark's position against large salaries for presenters cost the network millions and was a "major factor in bringing the place almost to its knees". MJ
A petition launched on change.org asking NZME radio to sack Wellington NewstalkZB presenter Heather du Plessis Allan over her comments on the Pacific and 'leeches' has gathered nearly 9000 names towards its target of 10,000.
The petition, which has zero hope of persuading NZME of its demand to remove her immediately from the airwaves and may perversely be regarded as a way of boosting attention to the HDPA show, aims "to force the employers of the said broadcaster to resign, which would have several positive impacts on our wider community;
1. Such borderline racist statements would cease to be repeated on air.
2. Our Pacific Community in NZ and abroad would not be subject to such statements again.
3. Swift action would improve trust and respect in NZ media from Pacific Communities.
4. Removal would send a strong signal to other broadcasters that such statements will not be accepted.
5. Encourage good race relations between NZ and our Pacific Neighbours"
Du Plessis Allan said during the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru that the Pacific had been leeches on New Zealand.
"They are nothing but leeches on us. The Pacific Islands wants money from us", she said, adding the Pacific nations did not matter and labelling Nauru a "hell hole".
She later argued her wording referred to the Pacific nations rather than Pacific peoples but those signing the petition are not persuaded.
Puanaualofa Ioane commented on change.org: "This 'lady' needs to know that she has offended the entire Pacific Island community with her vulgar language. She cannot expect to make such comments and not face any consequences. This isn't journalism! This is self-opinionated, unjustified drivel. The employer needs to show some backbone and lose the excess baggage."