John Drinnan: Jennings exit leaves big gap at TV3

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Broadcast news veteran has many fans among MediaWorks staff
Mark Jennings, pictured in the Three News production suite in 2003. Photo / NZME
Mark Jennings, pictured in the Three News production suite in 2003. Photo / NZME

MediaWorks' news boss Mark Jennings was tipped to leave the company for much of last year. This week, a little later than many expected, that prediction finally came true.

MediaWorks announced Jennings was leaving soon, to be replaced by a digitally focused chief news officer, Hal Crawford, currently editor-in-chief at Australia's Ninemsn.

However Crawford is not starting until July, leaving a large gap in the newsroom during a pivotal year for news media.

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Mark Jennings leaving MediaWorks

Jennings is one of only three TV3 news bosses in 27 years, and has been heaped with praise from staff -- current and former.

Insiders say he was caught between his wish to maintain traditional journalism values, and a move to more commercialisation of news content -- and between a blunt management style and sinking morale among news staff, sources say.

In my opinion, that was best illustrated by MediaWorks' untidy axing of Campbell Live.

The prolonged death of the show -- leading to the creation of the replacement programme Story -- left a long gap in which social media activists and Campbell loyalists launched scathing social media attacks on the company.

Jennings has delivered a clean-up and rebrand of 3News into Newshub, but sources suggest there are many more changes to come for news and the wider MediaWorks empire.

A source said that at the end of last year, Jennings was aware big changes were being considered. The initiative was to make news content -- traditionally a point of difference for TV3 over TVNZ -- more of a digital marketing profit centre.

Online media and changing ideas about the value of sharing content are a specialist area for Jennings' replacement, Crawford.

MediaWorks declined approaches to speak to MediaWorks chief executive Mark Weldon and Jennings.

Old school

Jennings, who is stepping down 27 years after starting with TV3, is the last of the old school at MediaWorks.

His departure leaves radio boss Wendy Palmer as the only survivor of the management regime before the arrival of Weldon, under the ownership of LA-based vulture capital company Oaktree.

The upshot is that Crawford will need to understand what makes TV3 tick, as well as what makes the digital audience click.

At the end of 2014, four senior executives were dropped from the company, and there has also been a loss of institutional knowledge in news.

Jennings was highly regarded among other journalists for maintaining strong bulletins and standards. However, one insider cautioned against crediting him with the survival of MediaWorks' style of news.

Jennings' departure followed the retirement of two long-time lieutenants, Mike Brockie and John Hale. In day-to-day terms, their exit had a bigger impact, the insider argued.

Radio Pakeha?

Radio New Zealand has been beset by concerns about abusive comments on the Facebook page for Checkpoint.

There have also been allegations from a media rival that it is delivering less news on Maori affairs.

Both issues relate to challenges facing the state broadcaster as it seeks to increase its audience and compete with the commercial stations.

About 100 offensive comments were belatedly taken down in the weekend after they were publicised by a right-wing blog, including one that made anti-Semitic remarks about the Prime Minister's mother.

RNZ's explanation was that the Facebook page had been inactive in the past.

Internally, there are also questions about whether some comments were planted by a third party, though RNZ declined to comment on that.

Radio NZ has recognised that it has historically had a poor record of representing Maori and promised to improve.

Meanwhile, though Radio NZ has made a policy of mainstreaming Maori content, broadcaster Willie Jackson says that has led to even less Maori news.

Jackson, who runs Radio Waatea and represents iwi radio stations, completed an "audit" through December and January, finding that Maori content makes up less than 1 per cent of RNZ news.

Jackson, who is also a presenter for RadioLive, launched a campaign for the state broadcaster to meet a quota of Maori news, and some Maori language content as well.

RNZ disputes Jackson's audit -- and he acknowledges it has its shortcomings. But even by RNZ's own figures, it estimates that about 204 hours a year (to June 30, 2015), or less than 4 per cent of its news and current affairs, is on Maori matters.

That excludes non-news Maori culture content and is 54 hours more than required under its Charter.

New head of content Carol Hirshfeld -- herself Maori -- has been credited by some with bringing an increased focus on improving the low profile that Maori news and culture have at RNZ. High profile Maori broadcaster Mihi Forbes was also hired in a bid to mainstream content, and she will be presenting a new TV3 show called The Hui.

Radio NZ has recognised that it has historically had a poor record of representing Maori and promised to improve.

But Maori content is seen as contrary to its push to increase its audience.

The reality is that most Maori don't look to RNZ as a source of Maori news and that making good on the Maori deficit won't help the broadcaster's bid for bigger audiences.

- NZ Herald

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John Drinnan has been 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.

Read more by John Drinnan

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