21 Apr 2024

Stuff / Newshub deal: a lifeline or the last chance?

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 21 April 2024

This week’s deal to outsource Newshub’s 6pm TV news to Stuff is a bold move for an company that’s never been a broadcaster. Both parties say it’s the way of the digital future, but it will provide a cut-price version of what viewers have had in the past. Mediawatch asks a former Newshub chief how it might work. 

WBD Boss Glen Kyne & Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher

Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

The deal unveiled last Tuesday between Stuff and Newshub's owner Warner Brothers Discovery (WBD) was hammered out behind firmly-closed doors by executives playing their cards very close to their chests.  

Six weeks had passed since Newshub's global owner first proposed to close it by the end of June

There were then reports and rumours of other media companies offering to make a replacement bulletin for TV channel Three.  

Reportedly most of these were rapidly rejected by WBD, apart from Stuff's offer - though no-one would say so on the record. 

When news of a 'business update' for Newshub stuff on Tuesday morning filtered out the night before, some Stuff staff told Mediawatch they did not know of any announcement coming for them. 

But the next day Stuff owner and chief publisher Sinead Boucher broke the news to her staff first in front of a banner proclaiming a new future for the 6pm news.

She then joined WBD's local boss Glen Kyne for a joint media conference, which revealed WBD will pay Stuff an undisclosed annual sum to make one-hour bulletins on weekdays and half-hour ones on weekends. 

The income from the ads will be harvested by WBD. 

But other important details had yet to be decided. 

Boucher would not say how many people will work on the new news production, though she said it would probably be fewer than the 40 to 50 that Newshub's own staff specified in their own pared-back survival proposal, which was eventually rejected by WBD. 

It will be Stuff calling the editorial shots but the name, the presenters, the style and the tone of the show are all still TBC.

A bold play

Stuff leaders appointed in June 2023 Nadia Tolich, Laura Maxwell, Matt Headland, Sinead Boucher, Joanna Norris (left to right)

Stuff leaders L-R Nadia Tolich, Laura Maxwell, Matt Headland, Sinead Boucher, Joanna Norris Photo: supplied

This is brand new territory for Stuff, whose core business for decades was newspapers. 

But that was not a problem in these digital media days, Boucher told the joint media conference. 

"We are already a digital-first multimedia company. We are building off that to produce a modern, new 6pm product for Warner Brothers," she said.  

And while this deal was clearly done quickly, WBD chief executive Glen Kyne made it sound much more strategic. 

"This is the future of media ... in innovation and partnership. Scale is important - and that can come through partnerships like that. So we're very excited about the innovation and future opportunities this will bring both companies," he said.  

But Stuff’s 6pm news will be significantly smaller-scale than Newshub at 6. 

"We're not taking over a television operation. We are definitely not going into linear television," Boucher told reporters. 

But they are, according to former TV3 news chief Mark Jennings.

"It totally is the television business. And it's linear television she said she wasn't getting into. She's not starting a TV station, but she is providing a linear TV product," Jennings told RNZ’s Morning Report

And while both parties to the deal hailed it as "an innovation" and a pointer to the future, it is really creating another version of the past - a live 6pm newshour but done more cheaply by far fewer people. 

Boucher also described it as an exciting opportunity for the Stuff staff in 19 locations around the country. 

But Jennings on Morning Report pointed out - they already have demanding jobs. 

"Stuff reporters will be doing that plus their own job - and possibly writing something for their regional newspaper as well. Multi platform work like this is very, very difficult. Just ask the journalists how hard it is. You can sit in an office and say: 'We've got the capability of doing this' but they’ll burn through the journalists trying to do it," Jennings told RNZ.  

Stuff's digital transformation is now led by a new tier of executives mostly recruited from other media companies in the past two years - has already burned through a fair few journalists in recent years. 

But there will also be many broadcast journalists and programme makers looking for work when Newshub closes and TVNZ's news and current affairs cuts kick in next month. 

Chances of success

Mediaworks chief news officer Hal Crawford

Mediaworks chief news officer Hal Crawford Photo: supplied

When Newshub's owners first announced they wanted to get rid of it in late February, Newshub's former chief editor Hal Crawford told Mediawatch he did not think any local news media company would take it on. 

So can this outsourced, stripped-back service - with similarly stripped-back budget - work out? 

"What's normal is for a broadcast newsroom to produce a bulletin for someone else. [Australia's] Nine for many years produced the Qantas bulletin ... because the cost of setup of a TV newsroom is very high. But then every unit of news that you produce from that point is relatively cheap," said Crawford  - now a media consultant in Australia.

"In this case, the broadcaster has decided it's too expensive to do news, and they're looking for a service provider and that service is going to be provided by a non-TV, fundamentally text based publisher."

Newshub cost WBD tens of millions a year to run. It will pay Stuff only a fraction of that for the new service.  

"We've got to consider here that ... you actually have to do it 365 days a year. So that's over 300 hours of news every year, and ... that requires bodies. Capex [capital expenditure] setup cost will be considerable. The OpEx [operational expenditure] is what it costs to run it every year, including the costs of the licensing deals [for international news]. 

"If you have a Kaikōura earthquake, you need to be able to respond or you're not actually a news service. A minimal viable product [would need] about 25 to 30 people. And I think that you're talking about $3-3.5m OpEx in a year.

"I think the best thing they could do would be to try to do something different ... but they might be quite constrained by the terms of the contract. However, they're also going to have to be realistic that they're paying a fraction of the price."

They will also make the most of ‘camera-ready’ reporters like former Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien. 

"She is a huge asset and someone that they should be and will be making big use of for this product. I'm just fascinated to see what happens," Crawford told Mediawatch. 

Sinead Boucher of Stuff has repeatedly pointed out Stuff has journalists in 19 locations around the country. But staff are thinly spread after years of cuts, and last year Stuff rejigged its local newsrooms so that reporters cover urgent local news in other regions. 

"Can we immediately say just because we've got someone on the ground in a certain place, that we have a presence that's ready to contribute to a TV bulletin? No, you can't. It would be a dog's breakfast."

"You might have one really great correspondent in - say - Queenstown with an iPhone 15 and the ability to do a live cross, straight to camera. Amazing. But most people are not ready to do a live cross. It takes a newsroom to teach a young reporter how to do that,” Crawford said.  

"The status that this bulletin has within Stuff as an organisation is critical. If it's low, it will wither and die. But I don't see this as just a stopgap. It could be long term.

"It's a case of: 'Let's do this experiment. Let's see if it works. If it works, then let's do it a bit more. If it doesn't work, let's try to correct it. And if it continues to not work, then let's drop it'. That's the mentality that you need."

Crawford's predecessor at TV3, Mark Jennings told RNZ this week a slimmed-down service on Three is "better than nothing".

"But it is hardly strengthening our democracy or media plurality. Rather, it is a step in the stuttering rationalisation of New Zealand's news media."

When Crawford left Newshub in early 2020, he complained the New Zealand news media was broken

"I think Mark is spot on. The problem is that ... there's no viable way to start a general news business. You can start a niche news business - but no one wants to invest in a content-only media business," Crawford said. 

"That's the thing that government and administrators should be thinking about. It is not the business of government or regulation, to save old media businesses. It is super-important to think about how you can come into this market."