13 Aug 2023

Calling it quits after 30 years

From Mediawatch, 9:07 am on 13 August 2023

RNZ’s head of news Richard Sutherland’s called it a day after more than 30 years in the news. He’s worked at almost every major news broadcaster in the country and led the outfit representing their mutual interests, the Media Freedom Committee. But he’s not the only news leader to leave the business lately amid warnings about the increasing intensity of it.

Richard Sutherland

Richard Sutherland Photo: RNZ

"Have years of low pay, low esteem, and lay-offs taken such a toll on journalists that they have become incapable of viewing the world as anything but a grim, dark place?” former New Zealand Herald editor Gavin Ellis asked recently

“Our news outlets are pervaded by negativity,” he wrote, citing the cost-of-living crisis, crime, inequality and a pandemic that has “left a residue of anxiety.”

The following week  - under the headline 'There must be more to life than this' - he hinted at the toll on senior news leaders, some of whom had decided to quit lately. 

At the Herald, long-serving chief editor Shayne Currie stepped aside to write about the media instead as an editor-at-large. Miriyana Alexander, head of premium content at Herald publisher NZME resigned last month to take a break. 

TVNZ producer Sam Robertson, in charge of Breakfast for years, resigned recently - and the CEO Simon Power also resigned at the end of June. 

Also in June, the former head of news at MediaWorks Dallas Gurney left the business entirely. Along with his partner, he bought the shop in the Northland beach town of Whananāki for a complete change of scene. 

MediaWorks and TVNZ are also looking for new chief executives. 

Why is this happening now? 

While senior execs are much better paid than those who work hard for a lot less in their newsrooms, commercial media have endured static or falling revenue for more than a decade, Ellis wrote. 

“Newsrooms have been depleted by recurring rounds of cost cuts to sustain the journalism that was the reason they got into it in the first place,” he added. 

Today's digital platforms are always pushing for ever bigger audiences, and news deadlines have effectively collapsed. 

“Emails mount up during the so-called working day,” said Gavin Ellis, which means working into the night. 

“Some media executives have given so much of their lives to the job that they have had an epiphany  - and want some of that life back,” Gavin Ellis concluded. 

New Zealand’s longest-serving media CEO now - by some margin - is RNZ’s Paul Thompson. 

“All of those individuals have different reasons, but the jobs are demanding and they're not getting any easier. But people go on and do some really interesting things after these kinds of jobs. There's a life beyond them as well. So good on them,” he told Mediawatch. 

One of the senior news leaders to leave lately was one of his. 

Richard Sutherland left RNZ after almost five years as head of news earlier this month, bringing to an end a 30-year career in news in which he worked at almost every major news broadcaster in the country and led the outfit representing their mutual interests, the Media Freedom Committee.

“I haven't got Whakaata Māori (Māori Television) on my bingo card yet, but maybe there's still time,” Sutherland joked. 

“I think any industry goes through periods when a lot of people leave, and people step up. I don't think that there's anything special about the news media in terms of the pressures. Go and talk to someone on A&E at a hospital or a firefighter - we all struggle with the workload. 

“It does seem that everything is fast paced to a degree that it wasn't, say 15 or 20 years ago. It is quite a relentless job you are always on,” he said. 

“A lot of people in senior roles started off as journalists. We didn't really come to journalism to manage people but some of us have, you know, failed upwards to get to where we are,” he said. 

“In any news operation, there's always 27 different things to fix. And you can't do everything you want to do. 

“I got to the start of this year and I wanted to help get the Morning Report refreshed. The other thing that I was very keen on getting over the line was RNZ Asia . . . that we've been working on here for the last two or three years and we've got it over the line,” he said. 

“I feel like those have been achieved. And so now is as good a time as any, to wander off into the wilderness for a bit,” he said. 

He’s worked through a period of intense technological and commercial change and in recent years including a pandemic which upended and undercut the economics of the news media. Yet most of the major outlets in business 20 years ago are still there. 

“There's been an amazing level of resilience shown by the various media companies but I think it's a fragile resilience at the moment. Talking to my counterparts . . . in the commercial side they are very challenged with revenue at the moment,” he said. 

“I feel like the media industry is always in some sort of trouble. It's just a matter of degree. But it's been unprecedented in the last few years with the arrival of Google and Facebook hoovering up the ad revenue.” 

“But I hark back to the very, very dark ages of 1990 and 1991 when I graduated from Wellington Poytechnic’s journalism school into a market where very few people could get jobs because the media industry at that time was having one of its regular downturns,” he said.  

“When newspapers started back in the 17th century, they probably didn't know what their business model was going to be - and they managed to work something out. I'm cautiously optimistic that there will always be some sort of commercial media,” he said. 

“I think the thing that's changed most over the last 20 to 30 years is the amount of commentary, opinion and analysis that gets thrown at any story these days. Back in the 1990s it would be a straight news story and there might be a sternly worded editorial in the Dominion Post about some ministerial hijinks - and that would be it.”

“But these days, there seems to be a lot more appetite for the commentary and the opinion piece and the analysis piece. There are a lot more people pumping out a lot more stuff,” he said. 

One thing that has changed since 1990 is public money for media which once went exclusively to public broadcasters is now extended to privately-owned media companies via NZ on Air. 

The Local Democracy Reporting service pays local news outlets to employ reporters in the regions and the Public Interest Journalism Fund pumped $55 million into the media over three years from 2020 in spite of strong political opposition.

“I think it has helped to a degree, and I don't buy into the narrative that some people push that the commercial media accepting this money have been bought by the government  . . because I know what journalists are like. I'm sure it's been worthwhile. I'm sure it's helped. But I don't think this money saved the commercial news industry from collapse,” he said. 

“I don't think you're going to see a complete withdrawal of public funding of good news outcomes in the commercial media. But the funding boost that RNZ received in the last budget will mean a lot more attention on this organisation,” he said. 

Sutherland’s final week at RNZ was a politically hyperactive one - coinciding with Kiri Allan’s resignation in the wake of her arrest after a car crash. 

The volume of coverage and analysis that received shows that while newsrooms have shrunk dramatically over the years, party politics remain as intensely covered as ever. 

The same can’t be said of other significant subjects.

“Had I been staying on, I would have pushed for more regional reporters - and I'm sure there will be more regional reporters regardless,” Sutherland told Mediawatch. 

“As the commercial (media) have retreated to their metropolitan cores they have left behind  if  not ‘news deserts’ then maybe ‘news savannas.’ We need more regional reporters, because if you're the only reporter in that town working for that community newspaper, you're only going to be able to tell a set number of stories,” he said. 

“It's really important as a society that somebody who lives in Auckland can find out what's happening in Central Otago. That sort of reporting helps weave this weave the country together - and without the people on the ground to do that reporting, you lose that,” he said. 

 “As to what I'm doing next - I really honestly have no idea. And for the first time in 30-odd years, there is a certain lightness to being able to say that,” he said.