TVNZ's plans to move reporters around don't add up to many in the industry. Photo: 1news

Last week TVNZ’s CEO Kevin Kenrick announced a major restructuring of 1news as part of a plan to cut costs at the State-owned broadcaster.  But as Mark Jennings writes, the proposed changes have baffled TV news people inside and outside of TVNZ. The idea of cutting the number of reporters in Wellington and Christchurch and redeploying some of them to the provinces just doesn’t make sense.

Today, 1news reporters in Wellington will down tools and meet with E tū – those who were not already members signed up with the biggest private sector union last week. Any sort of industrial action seems unlikely but it is a clear indication that trouble is about to hit TVNZ’s news department.

The action is driven partly by bewilderment. Almost nobody in the news business can understand the plan to halve the staff numbers in the Wellington and Christchurch bureaux and create positions in places like Nelson, Hawke’s Bay, Palmerston North and Tauranga.

The idea has been tried before and it didn’t work. TVNZ shut its Hamilton office a long time ago and didn’t bother replacing its Whanganui reporter when he moved on. TV3 had a go at basing reporters in Tauranga and Rotorua, but gave up.

It doesn’t work because TVNZ and TV3 are national news services. Their on-air programmes like 6pm, late news and early morning shows are watched by the whole country.

The stories they run are of national significance – or at least that’s the aim.

Viewers in Invercargill don’t give a toss about Whanganui’s sewage problems.

There are simply not enough stories of national significance in Nelson or Queenstown or Tauranga to justify a full-time TV reporter in those areas.

When a decent story does happen in a place like Nelson, crews from the TV Networks can fly in from Wellington and hit the ground running in less than an hour.

It is a far cheaper way of covering the area than having a $60,000-plus reporter based there twiddling their thumbs for much of the time.

The economic rationale for putting reporters into the regions doesn’t stack up, so there must be another reason, right?

Some of the more cynical TVNZ reporters have suggested that it is an elaborate plan to reduce numbers while seen to be pandering to the provinces and that after the experiment fails in 12 months, the regional reporters will be gone and hence more money saved.

Of course, TVNZ will quite fairly point out that it’s not just a TV news service anymore and the regional reporters will put local stories online where people interested in local content can find it.

That’s true enough, but as Kevin Kenrick himself points out there is very little money to be made there and the 6pm bulletin still pulls in the bulk of the dollars.

If the flagship bulletin is weakened, and viewers switch channels, the financial consequences will be dire.

It is hard to see how 6pm won’t be negatively impacted as, even now, there are barely enough crews in Wellington and Christchurch to report on events and uncover stories in those two cities.

By putting reporters in the smaller centres TVNZ may be hoping to draw attention away from its plan to centralise news operations in Auckland.

The jobs of the bureau chiefs in Wellington and Christchurch will go, so will those of the video editors.

Reporters will now edit their own video material which will then be “polished up“ in Auckland where Kenrick has said he wants to create a “centre of excellence.”

TVNZ sources say that everyone south of the Bombay hills will report to a “Southern Manager” based (ironically) in Auckland.

Another major flaw in this plan is that the new regional reporters will be video journalists or VJ’s who shoot, report and edit their own stories. Currently, stories are produced by a team that includes a reporter, camera person and video editor. The camera and editor work on multiple stories during the day but the reporter will generally focus on one.

Essentially VJ’s need to cope with their brains being split in three directions.

Very few reporters can adapt to this – imagine asking a probing question while trying to make sure the camera shot is in focus and properly framed- and most international TV networks use VJ’s sparingly and in circumstances where there is unlikely to be a lot of time pressure.

Prime News tried it here before it bailed out and contracted its news operation to Mediaworks.

What tends to happen is that when the pressure comes on, VJ’s produce a mediocre product – this may be ok for an online offering but it stands out like dog’s balls in a slickly produced 6pm show.

The restructure seems like a rare miss-step from Kevin Kendrick who has been a very steady operator since he took over from Rick Ellis in May, 2012.

Other commentators have correctly pointed that Netflix, Lightbox, YouTube and other platforms are cutting free to air television’s lunch, but less well known is the impact US studio output deals are having on TVNZ’s bottom line.

The big Hollywood studios like Disney and Warner have provided lots of top rating shows for TVNZ but they have come with a hefty price tag. The state broadcaster also took a sucker punch on its deal with ITV, the producers of Coronation Street. When Prime (owned by Sky TV) went after Coro, TVNZ had to pay through the nose to keep it.

All this was fine when advertising revenues were rising and there was no Netflix, but now these deals will be really hurting as ratings and revenues tumble.

Until TVNZ can unwind some of the long-term agreements, its cost cutters have little choice but to go after local programmes like 1news.

The owners of TV3 saw all this coming a few years ago and took the extreme step of putting the company into receivership so it could get out of an onerous deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox studios.

The restructure of 1News is likely to cause strife in its newsrooms for the next 12 months as staff either leave or adjust to a new, slimmed down environment.

It hasn’t been confirmed but the tiny teams that remain in Wellington and Christchurch will undoubtedly be moved to smaller offices or possibly be told to work from their homes and cars. If not, how else does TVNZ make the required savings?

Over the years, TVNZ has been good at shutting out its competitors in the news business. The last time it left the door ajar was when they let go New Zealand’s best news presenter, Judy Bailey.

3News made rapid advances and it took TVNZ several years to regain its dominance.

This restructure is opening the door to the new version of 3News – Newshub.

Mediaworks may not have the resources to barge through it, but they will know that this is their big chance to grab audience share in Wellington and Christchurch.

Given it is election year the cost cutting in news is bound to draw the attention of politicians.

Questions over whether TVNZ should still be required to pay the Government a dividend are already being raised.

This won’t find favour with current Government which has already allowed TVNZ to skip dividend payments for the past two years while it spent $60 million on refurbishing its Auckland headquarters.

The idea of selling TVNZ will get some more air time as will the calls for it to be merged with RNZ, which incidentally, has reporters in most of the smaller cities that TVNZ is planning to put people.

With RNZ steadily moving into video does it make economic sense for both our state broadcasters to duplicate services?

Kenrick has been reported in other media as saying that in the future broadcasters will need to work together if they are to survive. Maybe that day has already arrived.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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