Media

MediaRoom: A new start or false start?

MediaRoom today: Taxpayer funding for eight private journalism jobs is already up in the air ; PR woman Deborah Pead gets a good run in the media; and How has the Herald paywall affected its readership?

EASY COME, EASY GO

New Zealand's latest state support for private media businesses is from a $1 million fund that expired in the Budget.

Much has been made of the grant, from the NZ on Air - RNZ Joint Innovation Fund, to allow newspaper proprietors to embed eight journalists in newsrooms around the country to cover 'local' and 'regional' stories. 

Their stories, shining a light on local bodies and public institutions, would be shared for free with RNZ and other news outlets willing to publish them.

The scheme is based on a UK one where public broadcasting fees for the BBC are diverted to pay for around 150 journalists based at media offices, and their output is shared.

The innovation fund was established by the Government to stimulate new products and content for RNZ without handing its $6m directly to the public broadcaster. RNZ will have access to more reporting voices in more towns.

What happens next year and beyond is already in doubt. The innovation fund did not get renewed in Thursday's Budget. Both RNZ and NZ on Air won more money directly, but the NPA's eight journalist scheme was a one-off approval from the innovation fund and would need to win support from either or both those organisations directly in future.

NZ on Air separately spends $1.3 million directly on regional TV news coverage, some of which goes to members of the Newspaper Publishers' Association for their local video news content under a scheme called Local Focus.

The Budget did note as a new fiscal risk the likely costs of "delivering the Government's public media objectives" - saying "significant additional investment may be required." So there is hope for the NPA.

The fund has commissioned numerous projects for RNZ

Quite which regions will be reported on under the innovation fund $1m has not yet been determined.

One of the architects of the scheme, the chief executive of RNZ, Paul Thompson, offered "the West Coast" when pressed on his own Mediawatch programme for an example of an area likely to gain another watchdog.

But it's also understood perhaps two of the eight journalists could be tasked with covering the far-flung districts of South and West Auckland. There is an argument those parts of urban Auckland are under-reported at a local board and community level, but they probably don't meet many people's definition of regional New Zealand.

The scheme is a pilot. It is a start but hopefully not a false start.

Local news is important, locally. Readers partly rate their news based on its proximity to their lives. So it is good some areas of the country will gain a reporter to keep an eye on elected representatives and public bodies. The reporters, the organisers say, will have quotas for how many stories they produce so their focus on any one issue is unlikely to be in-depth.

Whether alternative funding can be found to continue those eight employment contracts into year two is up in the air.

The Joint Innovation fund was set up by former broadcasting and digital media minister Claire Curran last July to "commission content, initially for RNZ platforms, with a focus on the creation of new, interesting, and innovative content for audiences who are currently not being well served". (Newsroom is one of the media organisations funded under it, producing a daily news podcast called The Detail for RNZ).

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PUBLIC RELATIONS AND MEDIA RELATIONS

Auckland PR woman Deborah Pead showed again last week the benefit of having close media contacts.

Pead featured, twice, in the New Zealand Herald talking about issues close to her heart.

First she was quoted extensively as a "reputation expert" worrying in a business page story about the impact of bullying allegations against the departing Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell.

In Pead's view, Maxwell had conducted herself in an "exemplary" manner in her role. She speculated complaints had come from people who may have had communication issues with their boss, said the issue had been handled "shockingly" and the independent investigation had taken too long.

While the story said Maxwell had been cleared of bullying, the QC's report made three findings of “unreasonable conduct” against her and found two further breaches of staff confidentiality.

In an unprecedented fashion, Maxwell's return to her role has involved managers from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment being on hand at the commission's office and staff have been told any whistleblowing can be raised directly with that ministry's chief executive.

Not in the story, but Pead and Maxwell have had at least one PR - client association in the past, for an online advertising agency bluechilli, where Maxwell was strategic media director and Pead ran its PR firm. (Update: Pead has been in touch to say she pointed out the client relationship with Maxwell before giving the interview.)

Second, on Thursday, Pead featured again in the Herald's columns, this time in a story about her giving three managers shareholdings alongside Pead in her self-named PR business. Headlined 'Changing ownership ushers in new era for Pead PR' the un-bylined story featuring a photo of the foursome reported what is an extraordinarily ordinary business development, one which probably happens daily in small businesses around the country. 

So unusual was its treatment as a news article, it prompted political commentator and pollster David Farrar to tweet: "I thought nothing demonstrated better how good Pead PR is at PR than the fact they managed to get a news story about senior staff becoming shareholders."

I wondered on Twitter why it wasn't in the Herald's Premium (paid) section, and Pead replied that the story was "chickbait."

But a clutch of media friends tweeted their congratulations to her - it was unclear whether over the shareholding or securing news treatment of the same. Broadcaster Jesse Mulligan and trade publisher Bette Flagler both used the phrase "you are the gold standard" in their tweets. Others happy with the news included blogger Russell Brown and former Breakfast hosts Rawdon Christie and Nadine Higgins.

Everyone's free to write any story they like, and tweet what they like. But the whole, circular media-report-to-social-media-posting-to-media-influencer-endorsement just seemed a bit in-house.

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HOW HAS THE HERALD PAYWALL AFFECTED READERSHIP?

The media industry will watch with acute interest for the latest Nielsen monthly website audience numbers due out in a fortnight. The imposition of the New Zealand Herald's Premium paywall on April 30 means the May results are the first insight into a changed news market.

The March numbers were greatly inflated for all news sites because of the high public demand for information on the Christchurch terror attacks. In April, the last month when the Herald and Stuff went head-to-head as the two biggest free news sites, Stuff recorded 1,902,000 unique readers to the Herald's 1,770,000 - a lead of 132,000.

Media organisations receive a clear indication of audiences day by day and week by week through each month and it appears the Herald site has held up relatively well for unique users since it began charging for a substantial part of its daily menu.

People are still going to the Herald site but there appears to have been an understandable effect on the number of articles they are looking at. The trends in 'page views' are apparently negative for the Herald and positive for Stuff.co.nz.

This is predictable. The Herald will have factored in a lower number of total reads as it put a barrier to casual readers on that large number of yellow-labelled Premium stories. 

But it could come with an economic cost - again, probably factored into publisher NZME's financial calculations before launching the paywall.

It is on the page views metric, not that for unique readers, that online businesses seek and make their revenue. As page views go down, advertisers are less inclined to pay the same for fewer eyeballs and resist any attempts to increase advertising charges. If an advertisement can win even greater viewership on Stuff than it did before, that site becomes a more attractive advertiser home.

NZME has set out to make its money from subscribers at $5 a week or $199 a year - and could make millions annually if its readers sign-up. But it may forgo advertising monies and drive them to its big, free competitor. Some might argue it is a win-win situation.

As for the May reader numbers, while the Herald 'unique readers' figure is expected to be within historic monthly movements up and down, some with paywall experience predict it, too, will drop over coming months as regular visitors who choose not to subscribe tire of the restricted access and turn elsewhere.

Meanwhile, word is that a paywall - or membership scheme - could be in the near future for another website, the popular-culture, politics and social life site The Spinoff, for a sample of its content. It does not currently have a subscription business, with its content free and its revenues coming from sponsors and from custom publishing for commercial partners. 

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