24 Feb 2016

Long-serving news chief Mark Jennings resigns from Mediaworks

From Mediawatch, 12:00 pm on 24 February 2016

ANALYSIS: Long-serving news chief Mark Jennings has resigned from TV3's owner Mediaworks. Mediawatch looks at his departure and what it might mean for viewers.

Mark Jennings – TV3 news chief.

Mark Jennings Photo: MediaWorks

In a statement released this afternoon, Mediaworks chief executive Mark Weldon said: “His legacy in journalism will continue to reverberate through the Newshub in its future".

More on this story - Head of news resigns from Mediaworks

It's unlikely Mark Jennings would have approved of such overwrought language in a news story by one of his journalists. He was by far the country's longest-serving news boss and without him there are no journalists in the senior management team at Mediaworks.

It's surely not a coincidence he has left just after the launch earlier this month of Newshub, Mediaworks' new integrated digital-first news service. This effectively killed off the 3 News brand Jennings shepherded though TV3's turbulent existence.

He had been with TV3 since its beginning in 1989. When 3 News was established it had to attract viewers and gain credibility against vigourous opposition from an established incumbent - TVNZ, which formerly had a monopoly in TV news. Ever since then, Mr Jennings has competed with his rival on smaller budgets, but with greater restrictions and uncertainty.  

An artist's impression of the Newshub newsroom in Auckland.

An artist's impression of the Newshub newsroom in Auckland. Photo: screenshot

At a symposium discussing media ethics several years ago, he was asked about the rights-and-wrongs of using hidden cameras. He said getting his hands on any camera to film a run-of-the-mill story was a challenge on any given day, let alone for one raising complex editorial issues.

Weathering the storms

During the controversy surrounding the scrapping of the popular (but not popular enough for management) Campbell Live show last year, Mediawatch asked Mr Jennings if this was part of a drive to make the company more attractive to potential buyers. He said it wasn't - but added that the company had effectively been for sale almost all the time he had worked there.

Mark Weldon

Mediaworks CEO Mark Weldon Photo: Creative Commons

The debt-laden broadcaster was taken out of receivership in 2014 by new chairman Rod McGeoch, chief executive Mark Weldon - a former boss of the NZX  - and former TV producer and entrepreneur Julie Christie, a specialist in reality TV who was given an acting role in the company's TV strategy. 

It became clear they did not favour the news shows produced by Jennings' journalists, and current affairs shows Campbell Live and 3D were cut. Last November, Mediaworks chairman Rod McGeoch  told The New Zealand Herald:  

We put news on, but only because it rates. And we sell advertising around news. This is what this is all about.

It must have pained Mr Jennings to put down programmes he created while projects favoured by the top brass  - such as Paul Henry and the Rachel Glucina showbiz site Scout - got the green light. It's also telling that many journalists who fell victim to the changes of direction didn't blame Mr Jennings for it.

Former 3D host Paula Penfold for example:

The new broom

The first inkling of Mr Jennings' exit this afternoon came not from TV3's Auckland HQ, but from Australia. 

The NineMSN company announced its editor-in-chief and publisher Hal Crawford would be leaving in May to join MediaWorks as "chief news officer," which does not sound like a role at the company's top table.

Hal Crawford said in a statement: “I have seen (NineMSN) transition from a joint-venture to a 100 percent-owned digital arm of a dynamic media company. Now it’s clear it is committed to digital - and digital will be key to the future of the company".

These are thoughts that chime with Mr Weldon's mission to transform Mediaworks from a TV-led broadcaster into a digital media company. Mr Crawford is also the author of a recent book called: All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News.

The publisher's blurb says:

How do you get your news? Chances are not from a newspaper or the TV - that's so old-school. If you're anything like the rest of us, you get it from Facebook or Twitter. Are we better off or worse off because of it?

Mediaworks' viewers and listeners may be about to find out. 

John Campbell at a rally which aimed to save his show outside the MediaWorks building in Auckland.

John Campbell at a rally to try to save his show in Auckland last year. Photo: RNZ / Tiana Barns

End of an era

Having pushed through the process that led to the launch of Newshub this month, Mr Jennings insisted the new integrated service would not be once-over-lightly news. It would strive to add context and explain news events rather than just record them, he promised. 

"If Mark says so, I'm sure it will," veteran TV3 reporter Jeff Hampton told Mediawatch just last month. Hampton was one of just a handful of people at the channel as long as Jennings, but he had decided the new integrated digital-first style of Newshub was not for him. He said it "devalued" 3 News which he - and others - had worked on for many years.

Maybe his former colleague Mark Jennings eventually came to the same conclusion.