Finally, some good media news

TUESDAY COMMENTARY

The management buy-out of Stuff by its chief executive Sinead Boucher is welcome news. It ticks the boxes: New Zealander, broad industry experience, and sound strategic thinking.

Gone are the fears of foreign private equity buyers, languishing under the diffident control of an owner that did not want it, or closure in a macabre rerun of Bauer’s treatment of its New Zealand magazines.

The deal announced yesterday is a better outcome than the thwarted merger of Stuff with NZME. I gave that proposal 11thhour support when I feared Stuff faced closure. However, I’m pleased the two main newspaper groups will continue to pursue separate destinies and provide alternative voices that could have been lost under single editorial control. It also means that our two largest  digital news platforms – stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz –  remain competitive. That would have been unlikely under a merged operation.

No-one, least of all Boucher, will under-estimate the challenge of owning the country’s largest publisher and we can expect change now that Stuff has been freed from the stultifying effect on Nine Entertainment’s reluctant ownership. We may, for example, see initiatives in digital platforms that build on the Stuff Supporter initiative as an alternative to paywalling. Boucher has been the champion of Stuff’s digital strategy and is likely to continue to drive that side of the operation. However, she also knows that print still represents the bulk of revenue and cannot be neglected.

How the declining fortunes of the newspaper business are handled remains to be seen but, as owner, Sinead Boucher has an opportunity to employ some innovative thinking that may not have resonated with a board of directors in Sydney.

She might, for example, consider selling off the regional and community titles to local owners. That would be difficult under Stuff’s highly centralised operations and grouped resources but not if she took a different approach. She could form a cooperative with local buyers of the mastheads. Stuff could continue to provide content and services (thus avoid the need to replace the centralised infrastructure) while allowing local autonomy. It is an approach that could be extended across other media groups with whom all non-competing services could be shared to minimise costs.

However, Boucher faces a more immediate challenge steering the company through the effects of Covid-19 and its devastating effect on cashflow. That may require her to follow NZME and MediaWorks with staff cuts. The severity of the situation is exemplified by the depth of MediaWorks planned reduction of 130 staff, largely in its radio and sales divisions. Its CEO, Michael Anderson, may have been speaking for the entire industry when he told staff yesterday that Covid-19 had “completely changed the market that we operate in and this means that we must adapt to ensure our survival and sustainability in the coming months”. Boucher has, however, shown a willingness to share the pain: When Stuff’s staff were asked to take a 15 per cent pay cut and executives 25 per cent, she stated she would cut her own remuneration by 40 per cent. And she has so far resisted the urge to cut staff.

Longer term, she faces the same issues as other legacy media companies transitioning to a digital world, but she does have the knowledge and experience to manage that change. Her ownership will give her a louder voice in shaping the future of the industry. Our media organisations must change and Sinead Boucher now has an opportunity to be at the forefront of that transformation in her own right.

Error message on ‘fake news’

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Let’s be clear about “fake news”. It is not a reporter’s error or over-enthusiastic language. It is certainly not something with which you just disagree. It is intentional deception.

Yet it is term that is thrown around ­– sometimes with reckless disregard – by politicians, pundits, commentators, and the public. They take their lead from Donald Trump, whose use of the term is matched only by the number false or misleading statements he has made since assuming the presidency (currently more than 16,000).

Last week Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien described Jacinda Ardern as the most popular New Zealand prime minister in a century. Massey University academic Steve Elers, in his weekly column on the stuff.co.nz website, labelled the claim ‘fake news’ and ‘propaganda’.

The claim was, in fact, based on comparing the latest TV3 poll with past election results. The New Zealand Herald analysed her comment. It accepted that, translated to the polling booth, Labour’s 56.5 per cent would produce the largest majority since Joseph Ward’s Liberal Party took the 1908 election  with 58.7 per cent. It’s arguable whether that can be translated into personal popularity, but few would doubt Ardern’s role in the current poll result. And, whether you agree with the methodology or not, it was a genuine attempt to measure Ardern against her predecessors.

It would have benefitted from  a qualification by O’Brien at the time because many – me included – assumed it was a comparison with past opinion polls. The older among us scratched our heads because we couldn’t recall scientific opinion polls in the media before the 1970s. That, however, was an oversight by TV3, not an error of fact.

Categorically, O’Brien’s statement was not ‘fake news’.

The term should be reserved to denote a deliberate misrepresentation of fact to serve your own ends. That can take various forms:

  • A falsehood deliberately distributed to undermine a person or an institution
  • A falsehood distributed for financial gain (click-based advertising on social media)
  • Parody and satire shared on social media as ‘fact’.
  • Bad journalism – running unsubstantiated rumours as ‘fact’.

It has, however, been misappropriated, most notably by President Trump, to mean something entirely different: News that we want to be false, even if it’s true.

In every case (including Trump’s) there is an ulterior motive and is usually designed to trigger an emotional rather than rational response. This differentiates it from a mistake or unintended error.

The indiscriminate use of the term does journalism an injury. Already struggling to regain public trust that is disturbingly low, journalists are dealt a double blow by ‘fake news’. Not only are they cast as purveyors of lies, but what they write and say should be immediately dismissed.

Mistakes, on the other hand, can be forgiven and put down to human frailty. I made a few, for which I trust I’ve been forgiven and which I hope have been forgotten. Some errors, of course, are enduring. Perhaps the most notable – or notorious – was the front page of the Chicago Tribune that awarded the 1948 presidential race to Thomas Dewey when Harry Truman had, in fact, won. The “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline ran in the paper’s first edition.

Transport arrangements meant that edition had to be priunted before the final results were in. All the indicators pointed to Dewey taking the White House and the Tribune’s Washington correspondent Arthur Sears Henning (who had predicted four of the past five election) told the desk to go with it. The result was a now-famous photograph of Harry Truman holding the paper aloft and displaying a look usually only associated with cats and cream. His reported comment was somewhat more gracious than we might expect of his current successor: “That ain’t the way I heard it!”.

The Tribune was no friend to Truman – it called him a nincompoop on one occasion – but even he recognised the front page for what it was. It wasn’t ‘fake news’, it was a plain simple cock-up.

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Finally, some good media news

  1. Gavin, I’m not convinced by your optimism that “Gone are the fears of foreign private equity buyers, languishing under the diffident control of an owner that did not want it”. Let’s not forget it was New Zealand-owned companies – NZ News, INL and Wilson & Horton who sold NZ’s newspapers into foreign ownership. So there’s no guarantee that won’t happen again. And the other big newspaper owning company, NZME, remains in the hands of Australian investors. NZME also owns half of our commercial radio stations, with the other half, along with TV channel Three, in the hands of Mediaworks, owned by US Oaktree Capital Management “the largest distressed securities investor in the world” (Wikipedia). So Stuff coming back into NZ control – bearing in mind we still don’t know who’s put the money behind the manager’s buyout – is just one small step in the right direction.

    1. It is useful to recall history, Paul, but let’s not forget that NZ News began the rot and that was started by a private equity company — Brierley Investments. BIL’s attempt to buy Wilson & Horton let to the board seeking an alternative buyer they thought more fitting for the business (given BIL’s asset stripping of NZN). Over time the Irish ownership morphed to Australian ownership but no single Australian institution now has control of the NZX-listed NZME. I agree the buyout of Stuff is a small step in the right direction but, as far as that company is concerned (and my comment related directly to it) I stand by my claim that “fears of foreign private equity buyers, [or] languishing under the diffident control of an owner that did not want it” are overcome by Sinead Boucher’s move, which removes Nine (the diffident owner). I have no doubt whatsoever that she will not allow Stuff to become prey to foreign private equity.

  2. I wish the new Stuff the best, but the number suggest she has a massive hill to climb. Off Stuff’s own numbers and various analysis of the dealing going on, they have handed it over with no cash in the bank and lent her around $15 million for up to three years. Current burn through of cash looks to be around $8-$10 million a month. So within two months she finds serious investment, massively slashes costs, or a combination of both.

    1. I doubt that she went into it without backers. And she’s astute enough to pick partners who are up to the task. You might be surprised who is lurking in the woodwork. Sure, they urgently need cashflow but let’s not write her off yet.

  3. Boucher led Stuff through the standard of Stuff journalism worsened – a trend corrected this year. The question will be whether the loss of oversight by Nine Entertainment will mean a slide backward in standards balance and a distinction between fact and comment

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