MediaRoom’s annual salute to those who stood out through strong and high-calibre journalism, executive innovation or success, and advocacy for the public right to know

Media businesses were initially hit hard in 2020 by the pandemic – with lockdown ultimately inspiring Bauer to shut down its magazines and lay off 200 staff, and more than 430 other roles disappearing from other companies as advertising dried up. 

Government funding helped broadcasters (relieved of tech fees), publishers (given public sector advertising money in advance) and smaller digital providers (with Crown agencies encouraged to subscribe).  And media firms took the wage subsidy to retain jobs.

By year’s end, however, bold dealmakers, bold advertisers and bold principle had transformed the outlook for our media businesses and for their journalism.  Here are some of the individuals and groups who deserve special recognition in a year like no other:

(In no particular order, with Newsroom staff not considered):

Sinead Boucher 

In a high-stakes move, Boucher made a late, personal bid to buy Stuff, the company she ran as chief executive, out from under stalking arch-rival NZME. Now, as she explores ways of somehow devolving equity in the business to her 900 staff, Boucher has freed Stuff from its shackles. It has reduced raging clickbait content, abandoned Facebook and launched an historic apology to Māori for the company’s coverage. Big, brave calls and big challenges ahead.

Wendy Petrie 

A class news anchor for 14 years, Petrie was abruptly let go by TVNZ’s 1News when it moved to a one presenter format, keeping only Simon Dallow. But Petrie was then called back because of Covid-19 to continue reading the news, solo, as the state broadcaster ran two separate teams to ensure continuity. She handled both her demotion to relief presenting, and the Covid-19 reinstatement, with high professionalism and aplomb. 

Carmen Parahi 

The face and voice of Stuff’s historic introspection and apology to Māori for coverage in its newspapers and sites spanning three centuries. Parahi was central to a remarkable and honest appraisal over about a week in November-December,  which examined all aspects of Stuff and its predecessors’ treatment of Māori. She spoke powerfully, both professionally and personally, about what she had seen in her own working life in newsrooms and had now found in the archives of Stuff. 

Tova O’Brien 

Newshub’s political editor Tova O’Brien took on the two biggest stories of the year, Covid-19 and the general election, and broke scoop after scoop. From capturing former National deputy leader Nikki Kaye anointing colleague Goldsmith as Ngati Porou to exposing “Merv from Manurewa”, the National Party board member adopting a fake talkback radio persona to comment on his party’s Auckland Central candidate selection, to the misfortunes of health minister David Clark during lockdown. Her detractors say she goes too hard, too early against their favoured politicians, but O’Brien is an equal opportunities skewerer.

Jessica Mutch-McKay 

The 1News political editor moderated the third, and most watchable, leaders debate with a footsure touch from the outset and helped viewers learn a lot about the two women seeking to lead the country. Mutch-McKay stepped in when needed but encouraged and made time for discussion and revelation. A class performance.

Dylan Reeve 

Film-maker Dylan Reeve (working with David Farrier) produced one of the best examples of sleuthing by the media in 2020, tracking down online the person who created and circulated fake and racist allegations against Auckland’s first Covid-19 ‘index family’ – claiming one member had broken quarantine rules. Reeve found and interviewed the man, discovering he had put two fake pieces of information he had heard together and posted on Reddit before it was picked up by other social media and spread virally. Reeve said: “I thought ‘I wonder if I can figure out who this guy is’. I did. It took me about 15 minutes.”  The post was debunked and its potential for harm neutered.

Sido Kitchin 

The former Woman’s Day editor lost her magazine and her job when Bauer shut up shop in April, but was back two-thirds of the way through the year with her own publishing business and four new magazine titles – Woman, Thrive, Haven and Scout. That’s as good a return to the frontlines as anyone in 2020, and a show of faith in Kiwi readers and advertisers that deserves an accolade in itself.

Michael Anderson

The former MediaWorks chief executive found a buyer for the loss-making television business, Three.  In some of the most turbulent times for business and the media industry. Job done. Jobs saved. Enough said.

Bailey Mackey 

Former Te Karere and TV3 sports journalist Bailey Mackey is founder of the highly successful Pango Productions TV business. Hugely regarded for his ideas and creativity, Mackey’s company brought us one of the most charming hits of 2020 Match Fit – a reality show that brought together old All Blacks to try to win back their health, mental and physical, in an eight week build up to playing again, decades after retirement. This was so much more than football, or celebrities. The players were raw, funny and their struggles utterly relatable. Coaches Sir Graham Henry and Buck Shelford were just right. It takes a special talent to get the right people to do the right thing at the right time, and make hit TV at the same time.

Those who saved RNZ Concert

They wanted to gut RNZ Concert, do away with much of its staff and dump it on – of all things – an AM frequency. But the people rose up, with their bassoons and violas, harps and percussion, forcing the Government to frown at RNZ’s chiefs and forcing the ill-advised policy to be dropped. RNZ Concert didn’t get this kind of support because it is fat and lazy.  It is a small, finely-tuned, daily miracle, bringing joy and inspiration across the motu. Kudos to all those who saved a treasure.

Harvey Norman

The trans-Tasman retailer wins a special award for almost single-handedly saving the nation’s print media from Covid and lockdown doom, spending mega dollars in taking over front pages nationwide week after month, sometimes buying ads across the first three pages of the newspapers that brought us the news of the pandemic and election. It was a bold and almost counter-intuitive call by whomever at Harvey Norman or its advertising agency decided to flood the zone – and in turn win sales and market share through the deepest months of economic fear.  

But the winners of Media Person of the Year for 2020 are:

The reporters at the 1 pm briefing

Every day during the peak of Covid-19, much of the nation turned to their TVs for live coverage of the daily briefing given by the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. What some viewers saw horrified them, as the press gallery reporters called over eachother to get their chance to pepper Ardern and Bloomfield with questions, challenged them both, repeatedly and sometimes confrontationally for proper answers and even asked Saint Ashley if he’d considered resignation over one of the (multiple) system failures in health.

For their trouble, many of these journalists were vilified on social media, accosted daily for their impertinence to the untouchable Jacinda, for disrespect, for daring to seek the truth on behalf of…. the viewing public. The social media pile-on by those of delicate sensibilities was probably driven by a Team of Five Million kindness kool-aid session, a need to stand together even when those on the podium were ducking, providing inadequate details or justifications or just being plain misleading.

The 1 pm journalists – sometimes, like Derek Cheng of the Herald and Marc Daalder of Newsroom, from their own inquiries and sometimes for other excellent journalists like Newshub’s Michael Morrah – did what they ought to have done. They sought the truth and raised hell. And they made a clear difference for all New Zealanders in gaining the attention of the most powerful to the cries from their own underlings of too little PPE, crazy hospital rostering practices between Covid and non-Covid wards, shortages of swabs, deficiencies in mask supplies and the absence of checks and tests at the border. These things mattered. They were uncomfortable for the people on the podium trying to buy time until they could put obvious failings right, and they were uncomfortable for viewers not used to seeing masters of spin and PR put on the spot.

It might all have been a bit unruly and a bit combative at times. Just like Parliament, for anyone who tunes into Question Time daily.

But the 1 pm journalists deserve our gratitude.

Previous winners of MediaRoom’s Media Person of the Year:

2019: Jane Wrightson

2018: Kathryn Ryan

2017: Guyon Espiner

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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