Redesign puts Herald on Sunday back on course

I am labelling the redesign of the Herald on Sunday a course correction. It is one that could bring the paper back on track.

From its inception, the HoS did not sit comfortably alongside its older siblings the New Zealand Herald and Weekend Herald. Somehow it didn’t seem to share the same gene pool. It always left the impression that it might, in fact, have been an adopted child.

After downsizing, the weekday Herald had retained something of the gravitas of its broadsheet antecedent even if it assumed tabloid trappings that pulled away from the ‘compact’ concept championed by The Independent in London (the Herald had been its stablemate during the Tony O’Reilly era). The Weekend Herald has also reflected its traditions, despite a tendency to confuse broadsheet and tabloid design concepts.

The Herald on Sunday had been born to break the traditional mould. The past was to be another country and ‘invented here’ was its guiding light. In a word, it was tabloid.

There is nothing wrong with breaking moulds if they are replaced by something superior. However, I do not think the HoS met that challenge. Worse, it was pitched at a market outside that of the main mastheads.

There are three Sundays in the New Zealand market: Sunday Star Times, Herald on Sunday and Sunday News. Stuff owns the SST and venerable Sunday News, which has been with us since 1964. The former strives for the ‘thinking’ end of the market while the latter is  what it has always been ­– a tabloid aimed at the lower end of the market (although the economies of copy sharing with its sister has unfortunately raised the tone a little). The Herald on Sunday should be pitched at the middle market, which is arguably much larger than either end of the spectrum. However, since its inception in 2004 it has been aimed lower than was wise.

The re-design last weekend is a welcome attempt to draw it back toward the centre and, while one swallow does not a summer make, it looks to be a successful move.

Its front page still owes more to tabloid design than the subtleties of compact creation but it has become a matter of never mind the width, feel the quality. David Fisher’s investigation of the exploitation of a major Lotto prize winner was a compelling story with which to lead off the new look.

Oh yes, there was the matter of the masthead which, while still anchored top left, has swung down the side of the page. I rather like it for the statement it makes – this is different.

However, it is what is inside that really marks this as a new approach. The first 23 pages (13 if you discount the full-page advertisements that are welcome in these cash-strapped days) are devoted to news. And I mean news – unadulterated and informative reportage that makes absorbing reading. The content is combined with a more restrained design that suggests the stories can stand on their own without gimmicks.

It is followed by a review section worthy of the name. Last Sunday, it contained the depth of Fisher’s Lotto story and an absorbing analysis of the Westgate development. Of course, NZME can’t get by without its mouthpieces and there are plenty of columnists in the Review section but the opinion is corralled. They are grouped together in a way that neatly delineates the breadth of opinion: the Right (Paula Bennett) and Left (Hayden Munro), the conservative (Heather du Plessis-Allan) and progressive (LGBT rights activist Shaneel Lal).

Business has been re-masted as Money – who has it (supermarket owners), where to get it (worker shortages), where not to spend it (consumer ‘offers’), and how to lose it (declining real estate prices). That is a better mix for a Sunday than share market analysis.

I have never been much of a fan of the Spy section, which attempts to make genuine celebrities out of a woefully small supply base. However, Ricardo Simich is still there as large as life (well, almost as tall as the tabloid page). Last Sunday we were regaled with his ‘triumphs’ of the past decades. Frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.

What I did find compelling in Spy was a column titled Zeitgeist, even if it seemed misplaced in that section. It is written by Herald planning editor Vera Alves and last Sunday discussed Finish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her turn around the dance floor. I loved the first two paragraphs:

You’re not going to believe this: the Prime Minister of Finland went to a party and – shock, horror – danced.

I know, right? Earth shattering stuff. A Prime Minister with a life. Who the hell does she think she is? Some kind of … normal person?

Exactly the questions I was asking, too. I think Zeitgeist might become compulsory reading for me.

The Herald has always had a strong sports offering and the HoS has tidied its presentation (although the Sunday Star Times still gives it a run for its money). Alice Soper is a welcome addition to the section, writing on women’s sport, but no newspaper can quite match Newsroom’s Lockerroom for coverage of that dimension of sport.

I said at the outset that the HoS has had a course correction. Perhaps the metaphor came to mind because there is a standout change in the middle of it – a pull-out section called Reset. In many respects it is the latest in a growing tradition of newspaper magazines and it follows many of the established concepts. However, editor Jacqui Loates-Haver has an eye for content that is a step above what we have come to expect in this Sunday newspaper.

It contains intelligent writing on subjects that will catch the attention of that middle market. There’s a revealing interview with one of our real celebrities: Los Angeles-based Kiwi choreographer Parris Goebel. I read every word of a mildly gut-wrenching story about a woman forced to ‘dumpster dive’ for food. I was going to pass over a one-night stand that led to 15 years of marriage but found I had to read it. Even the bloody cooking hooked me with a coffee and hazelnut cake!

Reset may prove to be a rod for NZME’s back. After only a single issue it looks to be a real rival to Viva in Wednesday’s Herald. The Weekend Herald’s Canvas may struggle to keep up.

In fact, internal competition may be a bigger threat to the Herald on Sunday than the Sunday Star Times. It outstripped its Stuff competitor on readership by about 150,000 so the real struggle will be to maintain the quality standard it has set for itself.

It will be a challenge.

The HoS will be vying for material that may also be coveted by its weekday and Saturday stablemates. This will be particularly so with investigative journalism and key magazine features. HoS editor Alannah Erikson, her section editors, and Reset editor Jacqui Loates-Haver will have to vigorously fight their corner to ensure quality material continues to come their way.

Not a bouquet, but a bunch of flowers nonetheless.

To Tova O’Brien and her MediaWorks crew for securing the interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy that aired on Today FM last week and which formed the basis of a Prime documentary last night.

O’Brien’s tenacity and news sense has been obvious throughout her short visit to the war-torn nation. Good on her for scoring a lengthy interview.

The television documentary had a wider focus but her interview with the president took on a singular tone. After a series of general questions that elicited revealing and sometimes deeply personal responses from the president, O’Brien went down a cul de sac.

It was obvious that she went into the interview intent on getting Zelenskyy to criticise New Zealand and its leader.

She zeroed in on the size of New Zealand’s contribution in war materiel or ‘lethal aid’. Certainly, it is small – less than a day’s firing of artillery shells by his estimation – and miniscule beside that of the United States and Britain. It belies the fact that a much larger contribution is made in vital humanitarian and non-lethal aid.

She tried to elicit a negative reaction to Jacinda Ardern declining an invitation to visit Ukraine. It was turned down in June while at the NATO leaders meeting in Spain because Ardern had existing travel commitments.

She tried draw criticism of the number of Ukrainian refugees who had been resettled in New Zealand, short of the available quota.

But O’Brien had misjudged Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He may have been a comedian before becoming president but he is a natural diplomat. He was not going to be drawn into criticising a country he regards as a friend or, perhaps, ally. He and his interpreter deftly dealt with each loaded question in a way that avoided the slightest hint of criticism.

Both may have been confused by the interview. Why, they might have asked each other, was the interviewer so intent on having her own country cast in a poor light? Unfortunately, that is the risk an interviewer takes when seeking a headline.

And, finally, a bouquet

To Newshub, Newsroom, Waatea News (and anyone I may have missed) who published links to the full list of Voyager Media Award winners after last Saturday’s awards bash. The big players like NZME, Stuff and RNZ trumpeted their own successes but were less than collegial about other award winners. I think it is mean-spirited and small-minded. It is not very difficult or time-consuming to put at the end of a web story: For a full list of award winners go to (yes, you can click on the link from here).

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