18 Sep 2015

Is it worth worrying about Scout?

1:45 pm on 18 September 2015

The launch of the new gossip site Scout this week has caused consternation, but is it really doing anything the mainstream media wasn't already? Three media experts offer their thoughts.

Screengrab of Scout website

Photo: Scout

Trying to find celebrity news online is like looking for hay in a haystack.

That hasn't stopped MediaWorks, owner of TV3, Four and a host of radio stations, from launching its own gossip site, Scout, to mine the lives of Kiwi celebrities.

Editor-in-chief Rachel Glucina, who previously worked as a gossip columnist for the New Zealand Herald, promised it would deliver New Zealand content in the vein of the successful foreign enterprises E! Channel and TMZ.

scout.co.nz editor-in-chief Rachel Glucina

Scout's editor-in-chief Rachel Glucina Photo: Twitter

Its opening "exclusive" on Monday was a video, presumably shot covertly, of radio and TV presenter Mike Hosking vacuuming his Ferrari. It caused the Twittersphere to erupt in revulsion at the paparazzi-style tactics and to lament the "downward spiral" of New Zealand journalism.

But does Scout really signal a nasty new era in celebrity coverage for New Zealand?

Media commentator Russell Brown says while, on the face of it, Scout may look like a new type of enterprise for the country, in reality it is treading old ground.

"There isn't a sole venture that is doing this kind of thing, but on the other hand, everyone is doing this kind of thing - newspaper websites, women's magazines."

Indeed, in recent years the country's biggest news sites, Stuff and The New Zealand Herald, have ventured into what was once considered women's magazine territory. Both publish celebrity stories daily as they compete with the world's media for clicks against a landscape of declining newspaper readership.

Women's magazines, meanwhile, have papped news readers and rugby players (and been embroiled in the subsequent privacy stoushes) for decades.

Even the idea of a New Zealand website solely focused on celebrity is nothing new.

In 2003, budding paparazzo Jonathan Marshall and writer and producer David Herkt launched the website nztabloid.com. Funnily enough, one of their opening stories featured photos of Mike Hosking's family in their own back garden. Criticism rained down on the site and it closed after three months.

Mike Hosking

A video showing Mike Hosking vacuuming his car launched Scout, while paparazzi pictures of the TV and radio presenter were featured on a similar, short-lived New Zealand gossip site in 2003. Photo: TVNZ

Is Scout worth worrying about?

Still, just because Scout is treading a well-worn path doesn't mean Twitter's hand-wringers should cease their worrying.

Its launch is evidence that the era of celebrity journalism is nowhere near its end and the issues associated with it continue.

Former New Zealand Herald editor Gavin Ellis said too many resources were being put into celebrity coverage. "My biggest concern are the resources that are going into it that could go to more meaningful news and current affairs," he says.

MediaWorks, which makes several news and current affairs shows, has at least 12 people working on Scout, although the news editor Francis Cook resigned yesterday, just four days after the launch.

"If they're employing [around] 13 people, that is potentially money and resource that could be put into other media," says Mr Ellis.

Gavin Ellis

Gavin Ellis is concerned about the resources news organisations are putting into celebrity coverage. Photo: SUPPLIED

There is also the issue of cross promotion. In its short life, the site has already hosted a video of TV3's Duncan Garner walking on a high wire, run an interview with Art Green, who found fame on TV3 show The Bachelor, and launched a vlog by MediaWorks radio DJ Sharyn Casey.

Duncan Garner

Duncan Garner is among the MediaWorks personalities Scout has covered. Photo: MediaWorks

Mr Brown believes the promotion of MediaWorks' personalities and shows is one of the aims of the site. "I think the strategy is to do this kind of internal promotion, and [have stars] being required to talk about their television programmes."

Will Scout last?

It's possible the concerns will be short-lived: media start-ups frequently fail.

Mr Ellis predicts Scout's lifespan will be short if it does not have constantly updated content. "While I understand the demand for entertainment and celebrity news, I think that much of what is on Scout is available elsewhere. There is some local material, but I'm not sure how much of it is new," he says.

Indeed, by the site's third day, the pace had already slowed and the "exclusives" dried up. No new stories were posted between 9:30am and 6pm, and there wasn't any exclusive content the entire day, save for an attack on the Scouts Association of New Zealand, who are contesting the site's choice of name. As the week wore on, the stories on international celebrities, already covered on a multitude of foreign sites, proliferated.

Ellis says it's not a good sign. "Young audiences want immediacy - it's old news within an hour. So there are issues like that which they need to be mindful of. I suspect that it will be a very unforgiving audience and a very demanding audience."

The former, long-time chief reporter of the now defunct tabloid Truth, Jock Anderson, is even more pessimistic.

"It's cheap and nasty stuff, and I don't think anyone is going to bother with it. It's not sustainable because they'll get a flurry of a certain type of reader.

"But first of all, those people don't spend money, they don't support advertisers. After a while, the media guys will work out that the advertising isn't getting any sales.

"The general public is not silly, they're not stupid. People talk with their wallets and their feet, and if they don't like it, they'll walk away. I don't think there's any commercial future for it - you have to be sustainable, businesswise, and you have to make money. They're trying to chase a market that really doesn't exist, so far as spending's concerned.

Mr Brown, on the other hand, sees a market for a New Zealand gossip site.

"I don't necessarily think the pool is full - there is always an opportunity to do something better."

He just doesn't see Scout as that something better.

"It's not funny or sharp," he says.

But he still says it has a chance if MediaWorks is prepared to continue supporting it.

"I get the feeling a lot of money's going to go into it - whether it's sustainable, who knows? The signs are that there is a commitment to it [from MediaWorks]."

Whether New Zealanders will be as keen remains to be seen.

*Radio New Zealand contacted Rachel Glucina and MediaWorks for comment for this story but didn't receive a response.