Comment: The country’s biggest website and largest newsroom, Stuff, is advancing a restructure that will see senior and high-paying roles redundant and the exit of some prominent journalists.

Among those leaving or at risk are former broadcaster and MeToo investigations lead Alison Mau, who departs on Tuesday, and the role of editor of the newly renamed The Post newspaper in Wellington.

The latter role was only filled by former RNZ producer Caitlin Cherry in February but could be subsumed into the editorship of Sunday Star-Times editor Tracy Watkin, who it is understood could take over responsibility for Stuff’s parliamentary press gallery team.

Stuff began consulting on the restructure last week and wanted feedback by Monday, with possible decisions later this week.

It follows the decision by owner and chief executive Sinead Boucher to step away from the management role and become chair of the business, with a new CEO, ex NZME executive Laura Maxwell taking over soon and operations split into three distinct units.

Stuff is the highest-read news website in the country, with 1.9 million monthly unique readers in May, a commanding 150,000 ahead of, which had once boasted of claiming that crown. Both big sites are lower by several hundred thousand a month than in past-year peaks.

A Stuff spokesperson told Newsroom the split into three businesses – Stuff Digital, Stuff Masthead Publishing and Stuff Brand Connections – “is the start of a new story for the Stuff Group, with all of the jigsaw puzzle that we’ve been working on for the past three years coming together as we keep focusing on making a positive impact on Aotearoa”.

Maxwell and the managing directors of the three businesses “are building the future operating model and have begun discussions with senior staff about the shape of the new businesses. These discussions are confidential to those staff. We won’t be commenting about individual roles.”

Asked what might happen now to Stuff’s project to highlight MeToo harassment, discrimination and sexual offending cases, the spokesperson was non-committal.

“Every day Stuff journalists up and down the country work to uncover stories where people have been the victims of harassment, violence or injustice. Whether local reporters covering local stories or investigative journalists exposing significant abuses of power, the commitment from all of our journalists is unwavering”.

So it is unclear if the #MeTooNZ project will continue. Mau is also a columnist for the Sunday Star-Times and her piece appeared in print on Sunday.

Mau, a former TV presenter and radio talkback host, took on the mantle of investigative journalist when joining Stuff with considerable fanfare in 2018 and has led high-profile inquiries since.

She and other big name journalists appointed under Boucher would have been at the higher end of Stuff’s salary range. As advertising revenues declined sharply over the past year on top of Covid-19 era pressures, the business restructure could see other jobs disappear.

Caitlin Cherry announces the new name for the old Dominion Post. Photo: RNZ

It’s understood roles that under the former structure were at or near the top of journalistic management, both at digital and newspaper/regional newsroom level, are being re-cast, with the fate of the incumbents unclear.

Stuff launched a form of regional paywall, for digital subscriptions, on April 29, charging for news from The Press in Christchurch, The Post in Wellington and The Waikato Times in Hamilton. It did not apply a paywall to the main Stuff site and therefore does not have a subscription regime for the large Auckland market.

The company indicated it would not make its subscriber numbers public, with Boucher joking she could instead inform her annual shareholder meeting of one.

Stuff’s main publishing and digital competitor, NZME, has reaped the rewards of a decision in 2019 to introduce a premium content paywall for – in 2022 pulling in around $14m in digital subscription income.

The changes to the business structure, journalistic leadership and salary cost base are being led by the new broom of management. When Boucher bought Stuff she won strong personal kudos from staff and the brand has become synonymous with its owner.

As the time approached for surgery to the firm’s structure and staffing, it makes sense for it not to be the reputational responsibility of one person.

Revenues for media businesses that rely on advertising have been hard-hit through the cost-of-living crisis, with the housing market slowdown and retailer and entertainment sectors reducing spends and frequencies of ads.

The Stuff spokesperson did not respond to a question on the role of editor of The Post, held by Cherry for just under five months, being merged with the editorship of the Sunday Star-Times.

When Cherry was announced for the role, Stuff’s chief content officer Joanna Norris (who herself has had her role refined down to cover the print mastheads’ journalism and regional paywalls) said:

“We’re thrilled to have Caitlin leading our newsroom in the capital. She is a fierce advocate for the city and as a lifelong Wellingtonian, she is inherently aware of all that is newsworthy in the city and region.”

RNZ external inquiry under way

The number of RNZ stories altered by a rogue digital editor and highlighted on the public broadcaster’s website now sits at 41.

After an initial focus on Reuters’ copy covering the invasion of Ukraine – in which numerous stories had been changed to show the Russian perspective in a positive light, against the global news agency’s rules – an RNZ team has scoured other articles handled by the journalist, Michael (Mick) Hall, who worked remotely for the digital team.

RNZ has apologised and is showing high transparency, detailing all the stories it has restored to the original form on a report and links which are frequently updated.

Latest additions, beyond the Ukraine invasion and earlier identified reports from the Middle East, include stories on Ireland’s view on Israel, the origins of Covid in Wuhan, Taiwan, Colombian rebels and the EU and climate change.

The latest additions to the RNZ list of altered foreign news stories. Screenshot: Newsroom

Beyond the internal trawl through published stories, and the subsequent corrections and listing on the website, RNZ’s board commissioned a three-person external inquiry into its editorial systems.

The team of media lawyer Willy Akel, lawyer and former broadcaster Linda Clark and former director of editorial standards at the ABC Alan Sunderland, has begun its work. It will not come cheap, but RNZ chairman Jim Mather has vowed it will leave no stone unturned.

It would “examine factors and warning signs” that led to the international stories being changed, he said. 

“We have specifically and purposefully asked the panel to not limit the investigation in any way, shape or form.”

Which is laudable, and probably what the Minister of Broadcasting Willie Jackson and others would want to hear.

A possible issue, however, is that it increasingly seems the RNZ problem was isolated to the work of Hall, whose edits seemed to be a personal attempt to right what he might have seen as imbalances or wrongs in the international media perspectives on issues.

If that is so, it could limit the extent of problems for which the external panel is being paid to come up with solutions.

RNZ will surely face scrutiny and criticism for a journalist being able to work solo and unsupervised on major international stories. But charged with leaving no stone unturned, the panel is unlikely to leave it at recommending a fix for that problem.

Few external inquiries conclude a problem has been easily identified and can be easily fixed. RNZ staffers will be standing by for a broad and unforgiving examination and likely recommendation and implementation of added processes, for checks and senior sign-off, which could require additional time and resourcing.

The existing split between the staff handling digital and broadcast journalism could well be a victim of Hall’s industrious crusade putting the world to rights.

The panel has also been specifically asked to look at why a complaint made in October last year about changes to a story on Ukraine, and forwarded to RNZ from Willie Jackson’s ministerial office, was not pursued adequately and the Hall issue identified.

RNZ’s head of news and current affairs Richard Sutherland had announced his resignation well before the later Hall edits provoked this controversy. Its head of digital, Megan Whelan, and the chief executive Paul Thompson, will remain caught in the intense spotlight of the inquiry and board response.

New TVNZ chair to be named

Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson is understood to have settled on a new chair for state broadcaster TVNZ, with the final sign-off from Cabinet imminent. With Prime Minister Chris Hipkins away in China this week, it’s possible the announcement will follow his return and next Monday’s Cabinet meeting.

The current chair, investment banker Andy Coupe, steps down on Friday. The chief executive, Simon Power, also leaves by the end of the week, with TVNZ’s general counsel and corporate affairs director Brent McAnulty named interim ceo as the board conducts a search for Power’s permanent replacement. The company’s chief transformation officer, Cate Slater, has been mooted as a possible internal successor.

After the failure of the TVNZ-RNZ merger proposal, Jackson indicated he still wanted change at the television and digital company to ensure under-served audiences were better catered for. 

NZME’s games slammed by Commerce Commission

Media conglomerate NZME has come under fire again from the Commerce Commission over its sale of dangerous magnetic toys that resulted in ‘significant surgery’ being needed for a child who swallowed two magnets.

The commission announced on Monday it was appealing a High Court fine imposed in May on NZME Advisory Ltd of $87,750 over the dangerous and harmful products. It says that fine is “manifestly inadequate” and has highlighted its original submission that a fine of between $140,000 and $180,000 was appropriate.

NZME sold 213 of the dangerous products known as ‘buckyballs’ over almost a year from October 2020 through its former online store

“The magnetic toys supplied were made up of small, high-powered magnetic balls. They were supplied in breach of an unsafe goods notice which prohibits the supply of any magnets, sold in sets of two or more, that are a particular size and strength,” commission chair John Small said.

“The ban exists because if more than one of the magnets are swallowed, they can attract to each other within the body which is extremely dangerous.

“Unfortunately in this case, a child swallowed two magnets from one of the magnetic toys supplied by NZME and significant surgery was required to remove them.”

Small said: “The fines imposed on breaches therefore must be significant enough to deter businesses from similar conduct and encourage them to put the processes in place to ensure they comply with their obligations.”

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

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