John Drinnan 's Opinion

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

Media: Sunday Star-Times storm

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Merger creating turmoil at Fairfax newspaper, with a shift in editorial strategy tipped as readers fall away

Figures out today are expected to show a double-digit drop in readership and a fall in circulation at the Sunday Star-Times. Photo / Thinkstock
Figures out today are expected to show a double-digit drop in readership and a fall in circulation at the Sunday Star-Times. Photo / Thinkstock

Fairfax Media is merging its Sunday papers with its digital media in Auckland causing turmoil along the way at the Sunday Star-Times. Changes are likely and that may lead to a shift in the paper's editorial strategy and leadership.

Figures out today are expected to show a double-digit drop in readership and a fall in circulation at the SST.

The question is how much that is due to the challenges faced by newspapers and how much it is a result of the product that has been on offer.

It is understood SST editor Dave Kemeys has been handed a "restructuring document" related to his role in the new set-up.

SST staff tell me Kemeys' position as editor is in doubt.

Kemeys did not respond to calls and referred queries to Fairfax New Zealand Group executive editor Paul Thompson.

Thompson said Kemeys was not leaving but refused to comment further on his status.

In another move linked to the revamp, Fairfax has assigned its northern general manager, Dave Penney, to fill the vacancy left by Fairfax "Sundays" publisher Mitchell Murphy.

On September 13 Murphy returned to Australia to head the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association.

Kemeys was appointed to the paper in May 2010.

A previous editor, Cate Brett, had shifted the paper away from a focus on news but Kemeys, who came from a background in Auckland suburban newspapers, has not stopped the slide in circulation.

In recent weeks Fairfax head of news John Crowley has been working in the newsroom developing the news content of the SST, with some success.

All media organisations - especially newspapers - are facing upheavals due to changes in the way people use media.

Retaining advertising is a bigger issue for newspapers than circulation, says advertising consultant Martin Gillman. But with circulation falls the SST faced a double whammy.

In Australia the huge problems have been highlighted with restructuring at Fairfax and a big layoff of staff.

It appears editorial changes at the Sunday Star-Times may be an offshoot of those changes, not part of a wider plan.

MOJO RISING

The SST has plenty of talented writers but after an initial push, when Fairfax bought the paper and the rest of INL in 2003, it has lost some of its mojo.

The launch of the Herald on Sunday in 2004 introduced competition in the top half of the North Island where none existed before.

But Fairfax insiders say there have been other factors at play, including the culture born from its control in Sydney.

All Sunday newspaper people face the extra challenge of holding on to stories before the daily competition gets a hold of them.

But editorial challenges are multifold at Fairfax.

A former staffer said the "hub" structure at Fairfax, where copy was shared amongst its papers, meant the SST struggled to hold on to premium content.

Two sources said the SST did not make a big profit and Fairfax was focused on its daily papers such as the Dominion Post and The Press. That approach would be shortsighted.

The Sunday Star-Times is the face of Fairfax in Auckland, a market which is dominated by the Herald and the Herald on Sunday.

Fairfax's Australian bosses have not taken seriously enough the value of having a national title.

VALUES AND VISION

In my opinion - and with sporadic exceptions - the main news section of the SST has let the paper down in recent years. The talent is there but it has not been used.

The culture section is still strong and former books and arts editor Mark Broatch - who was laid off in recent cutbacks - made an interesting point on Twitter recently: "Let's hope they picked the right person to edit the SST. Probably the hardest job in journalism."

Interestingly, a former deputy editor of the SST from its heyday, Donna Chisholm, disagreed.

Chisholm, one of New Zealand's top journalists, said on Twitter that being editor of the SST was "probably the best job in journalism for the right person".

Broatch suggested the editor's role might be made redundant but Chisholm - who is now editor-at-large for North & South and Metro - said: "If you don't have a great editor you don't have values and vision. Is there a great paper anywhere without a great editor?"

Which raises the question - could Chisholm be coaxed back to the paper?

Other names suggested for the editor's role include Miriyana Alexander, former news editor and editor of the half-hearted Auckland Now website. Currently she is on maternity leave.

The other internal candidate mentioned most in dispatches is deputy editor Michael Donaldson.

SCREEN SCREAMS

A psychologist who specialises in dealing with screen compulsions has advice for parents getting tough on their screen-addicted children: Don't declare cyber war, because you won't win.

Nathan Gaunt says parents should talk to kids about the cost of their screen behaviour in terms of lost time and withdrawal.

But there may come a point they will not listen and that is when they are addicted like alcoholics.

Gaunt is a former staffer at Netsafe and says problems from compulsive screen behaviour are getting more common.

You pick that up listening to parents fretting about how children and teenagers flit between screens - from television, computers, consoles, phones and now games on social media.

Gaunt points out the choices for media are much more diverse than they were in the days of three TV channels and a VCR.

Users become immersed online with many accessing games now through social media.

The result, says Gaunt, is something that many parents will attest to - the angry and sometimes ugly response when they try to take kids away from screens. Some kids even threatened to commit suicide.

In the 1970s and 1980s, three-channel TV ended at midnight. Nowadays online entertainment and games ran on different platforms - including those that are hand-held - 24 hours a day.

"We have kids playing all night and sneaking out at night to a cyber-cafe. Some parents take power leads away to stop behaviour, but at the same time we have a generation of parents who do this themselves."

Gaunt says parents should analyse their own thinking before they throw the book at kids for their screen addiction.

Parents needed a good dialogue - and to be aware of new-toy phenomenon and whether kids are spending all their time on a device because it's a new thing or because it is a developing trend of behaviour. When they reach the point at which it becomes an addiction they do not listen to rational argument and the compulsion is similar to drink or drugs, he says.

PETRA AND MARK

TVNZ will not be upset about Petra Bagust leaving Breakfast with 12 months to run on her contract.

There were problems in the past - on May 11 this column reported TVNZ bosses had looked at replacing Petra Bagust, creating a new double act for Breakfast.

Bagust - who had not gelled with Rawdon Christie - was not at all keen on the idea of leaving and has a watertight contract for 18 months.

But she has opted out.

It's not clear whether TVNZ has paid her out of her contract in the same way it has Mark Sainsbury on Close Up.

- NZ Herald

John Drinnan

Media writer for the New Zealand Herald

John Drinnan is the media writer for the New Zealand Herald. A business journalist for twenty years, he has been editor of the specialist film and television title "Screen Finance" in London, focussing on the European TV and film industry. He has been writing about media in New Zealand since the deregulation of the television industry in the late 1980s. He is focused on the business side of the digital revolution in media.

Read more by John Drinnan

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