MediaRoom: Putting a price on trust

COMMENT: The New Zealand Herald has been running a smart advertising campaign for itself involving whole pages of the newspaper with just a few words in the middle emphasising its values of truth, facts and trust.

"In an age of misinformation, it pays to get your news from a source you can trust," says one, above the gothic 'H' of the Herald's masthead.

The ads stand out from the busy-ness of the commercial and editorial content around them in the paper.

They make you think - about who or what you should trust in the media in this age of misinformation. They should also make you think about that Herald brand, a 156 year-old totem of our media.

The reason you are likely seeing the ads now - after years of some real risk to that brand from its fine journalism being overwhelmed online by a waterfall of average tabloid clickbait - is that the Herald very soon needs to trade on its trustworthiness and factual journalism.  

It is about to ask New Zealanders to start paying online for Herald content, which has for many years been entirely free on

When the Herald owner NZME gave its half-year financial performance update in August, it promised to be capable of charging readers for its 'Premium' content by the end of the year. Capable it probably was, but no online subscriptions emerged and the website's part-paywall is proving as elusive as Donald Trump's.

We're now at February. Later this month NZME will front up to the market with its annual financial results, and the promise of new revenues from the Premium paywall will hang heavily over chief executive Michael Boggs.

So we know the company and its technology is 'capable' of launching paid subscriptions and taking your money. The market research has been done - readers were asked if they'd pay between $3 and $7 a week for quality content on the site - and the brand campaign on trust, truth and the New Zealand way is in full swing.

The premium content effort has an editor, Miriyana Alexander, and NZME has been good to its word and recruited a range of top-shelf journalistic talent to feed its new money-maker, while progressively trimming non-premium teams covering sports and photography.

Boggs said in August the Herald would want to attract between 4 and 6 percent of its online readership of 1.74 million a month to become paying Premium subscribers. That doesn't happen on day one or year one, but over time that sets a subscriber target of between 70,000 and 105,000 people. If they pay the $3 a week fee, that's anything between $10-16 million a year. Given existing subscribers to the printed Herald will no doubt get a discount, those numbers could be halved.

But well worth an ad campaign reminding the Herald's vast audience of its stock-in-trade, journalism you can and should trust.

Truth, facts and trust - bankable qualities. 

To emphasise its good journalism, the site has highlighted a section of Premium content over the past few months and lately started publishing two Premium sections, carrying longer form investigations and features.

The pre-launch sections are a bit eclectic. Among yesterday's columns and deep reads were an entertainment story on why it's time for Air New Zealand's safety rap video to disappear, a Leighton Smith podcast, a businessman's battle with a ticketing company over concert payments and a 'why your cellphone is out to get you' special.

Put your money, though, on the Herald entering the digital subscriptions market very soon. Boggs could even sign up as its first paying guest when he reveals the company's result in the next few weeks and then watch as the revenues roll in.

Stuff to sell 

The country's other big newspaper-digital media company, Stuff Ltd, won't be spending up on a brand advertising campaign any time soon.

It is a business that has been declared surplus to the needs of its new owner, Australian media giant Nine Entertainment. Nine has taken a Marie Kondo approach and is disposing of the joyless assets it acquired when it took over Fairfax Media.

The fate of all, or parts of, Stuff should be one of the media business stories of the year. It owns the Stuff website and runs major newsrooms in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch that service both the site and the Sunday or city newspaper titles including the Dominion Post, The Press, Waikato Times, Sunday Star-Times and Sunday News.

Because the newsrooms are so well-integrated, separating off individual or stables of newspapers from the business could be complex. Closing papers like the Sunday News and Waikato Times, which have seen their sales plummet, might not offer much of a saving to prospective purchasers of as it needs content from those teams.

It is possible a regional independent media company like Allied Press, owner of the Otago Daily Times, could bid for The Press and the Southland Times, for example - and that local business people elsewhere might seek their regional daily newspaper to be managed and edited locally.

Or private equity, attracted by the not-insubstantial print revenues, could purchase the stable of newspapers with some agreement they would feed news to and vice versa for a time. is still the biggest media site in the country, but in December came the closest it has ever been to toppling it from number one. Stuff's monthly audience fell to 1.75 million unique readers and the Herald site rose to be just 13,000 readers behind. While good news for the Herald, it was not so much its own great performance as it had been at that level 12 months ago, fallen steeply and just regained its audience number. Stuff, however, had been above two million readers in the middle of 2018 and between October and December had fallen out of bed.

The January audience numbers, out in a fortnight, will be interesting - although the holiday period makes the readership patterns highly unpredictable. 

Buzzfeed Oz 

Cuts to the newsroom staff of BuzzFeed, the global digital media success story that mixed celebrity and listicles with heavy-hitting investigations, have reached Australia. About 11 of the 40 people working for BuzzFeed Australia will lose their jobs as part of a worldwide cull in which 250 will leave the company.

BuzzFeed's cuts were announced on the same day the HuffPost, another of the wave of digital news operations relying on building large audiences and attracting advertising to fund themselves, cut its entire Opinion and Healthcare sections at the cost of 20 writers.

Increasingly, the diminishing returns of relying on big audiences and advertising online, are seen worldwide as a difficult model for news media. Paywalls, subscription newsletters and membership schemes for readers are the hallmark of digital news ventures making progress in challenging times.

On the move 

A new year usually brings with it changes to the presenting line-ups of our radio and TV stations.

RNZ has shuffled its hosts around, but essentially it’s the same voices - just in different slots.

Guyon Espiner stays in one of the Morning Report chairs while RNZ hunts for a replacement. He will then move to a roving role with a focus on investigative reporting.

The only major change at TVNZ has been the retirement of long-time weekend newsreader Peter Williams, who has been replaced by reporter Melissa Stokes.

The prime time weekday news and current affairs programmes of RNZ, TVNZ and Three have kept the same line-ups but there have been moves in the background that will impact the shows and the broadcasters themselves.

RNZ’s head of news Glen Scanlon is leaving to live in Europe. His decision to quit surprised the media industry as he has been in the role for less than a year following the sudden departure of Carol Hirschfeld.

Scanlon will be a loss for RNZ. The former editor of Stuff joined RNZ News in 2014 as head of digital and has played a key role in transforming the radio broadcaster into a much more dynamic multi-media organisation.

Some of Scanlon’s workload will no doubt be picked up by Checkpoint’s executive producer Pip Keane, who has been given an expanded role. She will also oversee RNZ’s planned new 5am show.

RNZ has been committed to holding onto Keane after John Campbell left to be a roving reporter/presenter at TVNZ.

Keane and Campbell have had a close professional relationship since Keane was executive producer of Campbell Live.

TV3 has lost three experienced staff in the last few months. Producer of The Nation, Rebekah Ferretti, sports editor Sam Ackerman and head of graphics James Brown have all quit.

Interestingly, Ackerman and Brown are moving to Tauranga to work for Campbell Squared, a fast-expanding PR company run by former TV3 political reporter Scott Campbell and his wife.

But the departure that will have MediaWorks management fretting the most is not from its news department. Chief financial officer Ciara McGuigan is leaving after two years in the role, which is disruptive but not disastrous. It is where she is going that will have CEO Michael Anderson reaching for the worry beads.

McGuigan is the new CFO at TVNZ, and MediaWorks' staff are suddenly asking each other “does she know something we don’t?".

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