16 May 2021

Shocking news reveals southern reporting cutbacks

From Mediawatch, 9:13 am on 16 May 2021

That shocking knife attack in Dunedin's central city this week came out of the blue - but the coverage also revealed the ranks of reporters there are thinning out. One major TV broadcaster had to cover it from Christchurch on the day - and the other is set to scrap its office in Dunedin altogether.

The Cumberland Street Countdown in Dunedin on Tuesday night after four people were stabbed there in an attack that afternoon.

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Countdown supermarket corporate general manager Kiri Hannafin got plenty of airtime in the media and fielded hundreds of media calls during the Covid-19 crisis when she played a key part in pulling up panic-buying. 

But she admitted she was struggling in interviews after the shocking violence in the central Dunedin store last Monday.

It did not help that she was scrambling to get to Dunedin from Napier at the time. 

And she was not the only one. 

While TVNZ's 1News had live pictures from the scene at 6pm on Monday, its two reporters covering the story were both in Christchurch. 

The pictures in Lisa Davies' report came from Dunedin's daily paper the Otago Daily Times which had the first professional video journalist on the scene. (The ODT's local TV operation Channel 39 had its own full report on its own 6pm news show The South Today.) 

The timing was unfortunate for TVNZ. Its reporter in Dunedin for the past six years - John McKenzie - left the job late last month. 

His replacement Maddie Lloyd was due to take up the job this coming week. 

TVNZ news boss Paul Yurisich told Mediawatch they tried hard to get reporters into Dunedin by 6pm on Monday from Christchurch and also from Queenstown, where Jared McCulloch is TVNZ's reporter. 

Maddy Lloyd's live update on 1News actually came from en-route at Christchurch Airport - and she was in Dunedin in time for the TVNZ's news show Tonight - along with her colleague Lisa Davies. 

Over on Three at 6pm, Newshub's long-serving Dunedin reporter Dave Goosselink live from the Countdown. 

But next time bulletin-leading news breaks in Dunedin or nearby, it will be a different story. 

Controversial closure confirmed 

Days earlier, Newshub staff had been told a restructuring of South Island news-gathering could soon mean the axing of its Dunedin office. 

TV3 has had a Dunedin bureau with dedicated reporters and crew ever since the broadcaster launched New Zealand's first private TV news operation in 1990. 

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins and Tairei MP Ingrid Leary - formerly a TV3 journalist herself - urged Newshub's owner Discovery to reconsider. 

But after the chaos in Countdown faded from the headlines, Discovery confirmed the closure last Thursday. 

Southland District Council Mayor Gary Tong told the Otago Daily Times he wrote to Newshub director of news Sarah Bristow on behalf of several other Southern mayors but got no response. 

That's the response Mediawatch got when we asked for an interview this week after the confirmation of the closure. 

Discovery instead issued a two-line statement from corporate communications which it wanted attributed to an unnamed spokesperson. 

"We remain committed to regional news ... with our excellent team of reporters and camera crews who travel the country regularly - and through our network of freelancers," the statement said. 

"Our focus remains the same - delivering best-in-class news to Kiwis," it concluded. 

There's nothing new about a company making an unpopular announcement being reluctant to talk about it to the media - and issuing a short statement instead with a reassuring tone to it. 

But it is disappointing when it comes from a media outlet that produces news - and whose reporters encounter that sort of thing all the time. 

They know "delivering best-in-class news to Kiwis" is easier said than done without reporters to cover things happening where they actually live. 

This week the coverage of this week's shocking supermarket violence in central Dunedin showed that all too well. 

Reporters on the ground in Dunedin

RNZ has an office and a studio in Dunedin - and two reporters. 

Timothy Brown was reporting from the scene for RNZ on Monday afternoon. (Otago/Southland reporter Tess Brunton was on the first trans-Tasman bubble flight to Australia recently and was still there last Monday.)

In September 2018, NZME - owner of the New Zealand Herald and half the country's radio stations - cut the job of its Dunedin reporter, who also covered Otago and Southland. 

NZME's lower South Island news-gathering is now managed by former TV3 reporter Hamish Clark in Christchurch. 

But the NZME daily rural show The Country comes from premises in Dunedin overlooking the Countdown supermarket. 

The Country executive producer Rowena Duncum - an experienced live broadcaster - had a bird's-eye view on Monday reporting for NewstalkZB.

One reason NZME doesn't have a dedicated news reporters in Dunedin is that it sold its South Island newspapers in 2014 and now shares content with the Otago Daily Times, which has by far the biggest newsroom in the city. 

It was the source of many live updates online throughout the day for other media. 

Stuff doesn't have a newspaper in Dunedin, but it does have full time reporter Hamish McNeilly. Last Monday he told his Twitter followers he refused to appear on air for one broadcaster which had no Dunedin-based reporters. 

Back in 2015 TVNZ proposed scrapping the role of its only Dunedin reporter - part-timer Megan Martin - and its sole full-time camera operator and editor in the city.

But they put a business case to TVNZ arguing they cover two cities and more than 65,000 square km - including the most intense tourism area in the country.

At the time RNZ News noted:

"The once-strong Dunedin press pack is already a shadow of its former self, down to two radio reporters and representatives of just three TV outlets and two print outlets."

The region's mayors and MPs swung in behind with a campaign and petition of their own in 2015.

TVNZ eventually scrapped the cuts - a rare case of a media restructuring 'proposal' which turned out not to be a fait accompli. 

But Newshub's new owners were not for turning this week. 

Global broadcaster and programme-maker Discovery bought the TV arm of Mediaworks in September last year. 

In February the new owners launched a new morning TV news bulletin and said they were "committed to local news at a time when news is more important than ever"

But now Discovery 's priority is combining its operations in one trans-Tasman unit - and cutting costs by covering news from the South from Christchurch seems to be part of that new plan.