11 Dec 2022

Stuff’s regional rejig - and staff strife

From Mediawatch, 5:00 pm on 11 December 2022

Why has our biggest and only truly national news publisher Stuff just rejigged its regional reporting to have fewer reporters in its local newsrooms - and none at all in some at certain times of the week? The move has antagonised some staff against the backdrop of disputes over journalists' pay.  

Today's news: The owner of a dog deemed dangerous is taking the fight to save its life to the Supreme Court.

Today's news: The owner of a dog deemed dangerous is taking the fight to save its life to the Supreme Court. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

In October, Stuff told its staff of plans to restructure newsgathering in the regions. 

The Manawatū Standard, Nelson Mail, and Timaru Herald would see their newsroom staff sink to just three or four. The papers would still have editors, but they would be expected to write news and existing 'news director' roles would be disestablished.

Stuff proposed new regional teams made up of a group regional editor, four news directors and nine breaking news reporters.

The proposal said it "would seek to retain our journalists with experience and deep connections to local people, issues and communities".

"Some impacted staff may move to the new regional newsdesk, some may stay within their local newsroom team and some may take up vacancies at other metropolitan newsrooms," it said.

The plan was subject to consultations with staff - some of whom were unimpressed. 

"Staff were crying in the office when they received the outline today,” one journalist told Mediawatch.

"The pressure isn't in breaking news. The pressure is in going out and doing local stories. And that's where the cuts are being made," he said. 

"People are stressed, obviously. It’s been a weird few years, but we got through it because the rhetoric has been that it’s going to be so positive on the other side. Then you come along and say ‘sorry but we’re gutting your newsroom, but by the way we still want all this lovely regional journalism'," he said. 

Earlier this month, Stuff announced the regional plan would proceed - and the new structure began this week. 

"We've set up what is effectively an internal news service, based right across regional New Zealand. We've got a group of reporters who can cover any story anywhere at any time," Stuff's Chief Content Officer Joanna Norris told Mediawatch.

"We also have local teams that are based within regional newsrooms - and that consists of an editor, reporters and visual journalists. They cover stories that are happening in their local communities or get out into the local communities physically. They work really closely together with really strong communication," Norris said.

"We've been able to move resources and responsibilities around so that we make sure that we've got good coverage right across regional New Zealand. We're able to cover vacancies in some newsrooms from elsewhere in the country," she said.

"If there is a large amount of news happening in one particular region, but it's quiet somewhere else, our teams are able to move across some support. For instance, we were really struggling to get reporters into Timaru in the last year. If the newsroom there needs a bit of help from another newsroom, we're able to do that much more effectively."

Nelson Mayor Nick Smith, formerly an MP in the city for more than 30 years, was alarmed by reports the Nelson Mail staff would dropped from eight journalists to just three.

"I really did choke on my cornies when I heard Stuff say that these cuts would strengthen local news," Smith told Morning Report last momth. 

"Claiming the large reductions in regional [journalism will] somehow strengthen local news is really pulling the other one."

Since then, one Stuff reporter in Nelson has resigned and joined Nick Smith's own communications team - and another experienced Nelson reporter has resigned as well. Mediawatch understands only one full-time staff reporter remains.

Stuff says the new system has been put in place without cutting jobs overall. But have some reporters left after the announcement of the new system?  

"We had a very small number of people who decided that they wanted to pursue other opportunities. So two people have gone to PR, one has moved to RNZ and a fourth person had some personal commitments that they've decided to make a change. That's pretty inevitable," Norris said.  

"But I'm really pleased, we've been able to recruit a group regional editor in Victoria Guild, who was formerly the editor of the Nelson Mail. We are just in the process of recruiting a new editor for the Mail, I'm really pleased with how that is going."

But can local news really be covered as well with fewer local reporters where that news is actually happening? 

"Journalists just love great stories and don't necessarily have to be a kilometre down the road from where that story is occurring. RNZ is based in central locations and you cover content from across the country really effectively. Great stories are great stories wherever you're based," Norris said.

Last week, some Stuff journalists walked off the job and even picketed their own premises in three locations. It followed a below-inflation pay offer Dominion Post reporter and E tū union delegate Tom Hunt described as "an insult to the journalists Stuff claims to be so proud of".

Norris told Mediawatch Stuff had "constructive conversations" with the E tū union last week.

"We're expecting to settle early next week," she told Mediawatch

When Stuff chief editor Sinead Boucher bought Stuff from its reluctant Australia-based owner Nine in early 2020, the buyout was supported by most staff. Have the pay dispute and the regional re-jig drained some of the reservoir of goodwill?  

"I don't want to speak for others, but I move around the country a lot and spend time in newsrooms in different parts of the country. I think our team of journalists believe in our mission and why we are here and why we exist as a media company," Norris told Mediawatch

"From time to time, there are things that people feel uncomfortable about. We've moved through a negotiation to renew the journalists' collective agreement and there is always going to be friction through that process."