One of our most famous magazines is facing cutbacks; RNZ misses website target; A legendary newsman, the ringing newsroom phone and the call that exposed a PM’s secret affair.
It is one of this country’s longest-established independent agencies and magazine titles - fighting the good fight on behalf of Kiwi consumers. It highlights rip-offs, offers advice and painstakingly tests products.
But even Consumer NZ, publisher of Consumer magazine and its associated website, is not immune from harsh economic winds, and is proposing job cuts in an effort to manage costs as it faces declining numbers of subscribers.
Along with TVNZ, MediaWorks, Stuff, NZME, and Warner. Bros Discovery this year, Consumer is now planning cost cuts across a range of departments, including editorial. It has 52 staff in total - or 46.5 FTEs (fulltime equivalent staff), which it is proposing to reduce to 41 FTEs.
About 30 staff in total are impacted by the proposals, but most of these will be largely cosmetic changes - for example, a new reporting line or team name.
Consumer magazine has been part of the media landscape for more than 60 years. Published four times a year - with its content behind a website paywall - it is renowned for its work on testing products.
For example, recent work has looked at Kmart products, kettles, home heating and dog care.
But its business model survives on subscriptions alone; the organisation does not take any advertising because of the nature of its work, and a desire to be seen as strictly independent. It’s also questionable if advertisers would rush to a site that might publish stories about their products failing stringent tests.
The agency’s subscription numbers have been steadily declining, from almost 60,000 10 years ago to about 38,000 today. Print circulation for Consumer magazine itself is down to about 16,000.
“It’s tough times,” Consumer chief executive Jon Duffy told Media Insider. “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be needing to look at headcount reduction as part of a broader exercise to reduce our expenses, but unfortunately, there’s not much choice.
“We’re now at a point where we cannot maintain a headcount at the level we previously did because membership [revenue] is not supporting that level of staff in the way it used to. That’s the brutal reality.”
The agency has recently increased subscription fees to try to boost revenue.
“That was not a decision we took lightly. In an ideal world, our information would be out there for free. It’s all about helping people make informed decisions but, unfortunately, we had to make the call to put prices up.”
Duffy said the organisation had some unique cost challenges - for example, it pays for every product that it tests and pulls apart. These costs total six figures every year.
Staff have been in consultation over the proposals and the agency is due to present back to them today.
Duffy said the organisation was a “multi-headed beast”.
For example, there were test writers and then fulltime investigative writers. A test writer was involved in, for example, actually pulling apart a washing machine to examine it. “They’re like a product designer or a technician.”
Fewer than 10 of the 52 staff would be deemed traditional editorial workers.
Duffy did not wish to disclose how much the agency was trying to save but he hoped the process could be completed within the next two to three weeks.
“It’s terrible for staff to have something like this dragging out.”
In an earlier statement to Media Insider, Consumer said: “Consumer has been advocating for consumers for almost 65 years. We’re a trusted source of valuable information and advice that many New Zealanders rely on.
“We used to be Government funded, but that hasn’t been the case since the 80s, so we rely heavily on members and donors to keep running.
“Any change is tough on staff at all levels. This change proposal is necessary so we can secure our financial position into the future and continue doing what we do for all consumers in Aotearoa.”
Senior TVNZ upheaval - sources
TVNZ is proposing more job upheaval and possible cuts, according to senior sources, this time at general manager level, including in its commercial teams.
The state-owned media business announced last week that its executive was being reduced by three, with the departures of chief people officer Nicola Simpson, marketing director Jonathan Symons and chief transformation officer Cate Calver, who earlier announced she was resigning to become CEO of Great Southern Television in 2024.
Sources say work has now started on structures at the next tier down.
“As I’m sure you can appreciate, we don’t comment on employment processes,” said a TVNZ spokeswoman.
“We announced changes to our executive team last week. If we make further changes to other leadership roles, we’ll disclose these once they’re confirmed.”
One source believed the new proposals were “widespread”.
“We will comment if or when changes are made, but we won’t do that before,” said the spokeswoman.
“While we are publicly owned, we’re still a commercially funded organisation and we’re required to run our business in that way. Changes we make are in line with that.”
‘Always pick up the newsroom phone’
One of New Zealand’s finest journalists and editors, Fred Tulett, died this week.
Tulett, 77, was renowned as a fearless, daring newsman and he was responsible for a legion of ace reporters to emerge from newsrooms that he led in his unflinching style.
Herald senior newsroom leader Oskar Alley’s tribute on Facebook was typical of the industry’s unanimous praise.
“You were my biggest inspiration in journalism and a brilliant mentor. Listening to you tear apart a feckless comms person over the phone in The Dom smoking room has always stayed with me. And even after you were no longer my boss you always gave a shit and delivered many kicks up the arse when required.”
Tulett could also personally speak to one of journalism’s great lessons: “Always pick up the newsroom phone”.
On a Saturday in November 1989, Tulett, the then chief reporter of The Dominion, had whizzed into the newsroom on his day off. He’d just finished mowing the lawns and - according to his daughter Lou - wanted to pick up a copy of the racing fields.
He heard the news hotline ringing.
Over the years he told several people he was ready to ignore it.
He picked it up.
On the other end of the line was David Lange’s recently estranged wife Naomi, wanting to speak to a reporter to expose her husband’s affair with his speechwriter Margaret Pope. Lange had only just stepped down as Prime Minister that month.
Then Dominion editor Karl du Fresne wrote on his blog this week that Naomi was “angry and resentful”.
“Cool and quick-thinking as ever, Fred’s first reaction – counter-intuitively – was to ask Naomi to hang up so he could call her back,” wrote du Fresne.
“We had the Langes’ home number in our files and he wanted to be sure it wasn’t a hoax call.
“In Lange’s own words in his autobiography, Naomi ‘poured out her anger about me and Margaret’ in her interview with Fred. Naturally, his story was all over the front page and dominated the national conversation for days. It seriously damaged Lange’s reputation.”
Tulett, who went on to edit The Southland Times for 15 years, died in Queenstown on Monday. He will be farewelled in Alexandra today. A livestream of the funeral can be watched here.
MediaWorks gets tetchy with its own industry
MediaWorks CEO Wendy Palmer has sent an internal email to staff, once again pointing the finger at media over coverage of her company’s financial struggles.
The Australian reported this week that MediaWorks’ private equity owners were working with Goldman Sachs on a strategic review of the business. The news website said it understood “the main option being floated is a separation of its stake in the out-of-home advertising business QMS from the radio operation. QMS is then likely sold”.
In a media statement following that article, MediaWorks said it had been working with Goldman Sachs “in connection with its ongoing refinancing discussions”.
It said: “The Board is not considering an imminent sale of MediaWorks in whole or part. MediaWorks is entirely focused on delivering outstanding results for its customers, audiences and employees”.
The word imminent in this context leaves the possibility entirely open of a sale.
In an internal email to staff, leaked to Media Insider, Palmer said: I know this continued media speculation is unsettling and we are doing what we can to shut down the rumour mill. Please feel free to use this messaging with your partners and customers.”
It’s not an easy time for Palmer and not an easy time for her staff to be at the centre of these reports.
But The Australian has very good sources and shooting the messenger is a questionable strategy.
MediaWorks declined to comment further to Media Insider.
RNZ website numbers falter
A deep dive into RNZ’s annual report this week reveals a concerning number for the public broadcaster.
Its target of an average four million monthly users for rnz.co.nz by the end of the financial year (to June 30, 2023) was well off. In fact, the broadcaster was more than one million users short, averaging 2.981 million users a month.
Every major New Zealand news website has seen a drop in numbers, not helped by Facebook virtually walking away from news.
But RNZ’s numbers paint one of the starkest pictures of the challenge for new news boss Mark Stevens, who has come from Stuff.
“RNZ like many media organisations saw an increase in website visitors during the Covid-19 pandemic that was followed by a period of ‘news fatigue’ that has disproportionately impacted websites with a news focus, such as RNZ’s,” said a spokeswoman.
She said it was important to recognise RNZ’s widespread content-sharing arrangements - much of its journalism was being read on other websites.
“Overall, we remain pleased with the reach of our website and know that we have a particularly engaged online audience that typically stays online to read or watch more than one piece of content. Our own research tells us that nine in 10 New Zealanders are aware of RNZ’s content on at least one of our platforms.”
Paddy’s ode to journalism
This weekend, I wrap up the two-week Great New Zealand Road Trip - Media Insider has been pulled together from the road over the past two weeks.
Three’s Patrick Gower kindly took the time to answer my Nine Questions With... for tomorrow’s menu of Road Trip stories. He’s provided some cracking responses, two of them are republished here as an early tease.
What are your passions?
I have one passion, journalism. It is a calling for me. I love helping people. I try to help someone every day, be it through journalism or even just by smiling or telling someone they are great. Journalism means I get to help people through my job. I love doing the mahi and trying to bring great stories and ideas on how to make Aotearoa New Zealand a better place. Other than that, I am quite passionate about road cycling in my lycra, surfing, going for massive walks and mountain biking.
What is it that you most dislike?
Inequality. I don’t like it when people punch down, and when power is used in the wrong way. I hate seeing ordinary Kiwis being on the receiving end of stuff they don’t deserve, and facing problems that should be fixed for them. That’s bullshit. I actively dislike bullshit.
See the other seven questions and answers tomorrow.
One Good Text
This week we catch up with legendary sportswriter Suzanne McFadden.
Sky poaches top Three exec
Sky Television continues to raid some of the best media talent, poaching one of the industry’s leading corporate communications practitioners.
Warner Bros. Discovery corporate communications director Karina Healy will join Sky in the New Year, as head of corporate communications. It’s a blow for WBD, which has already lost commercial boss Donna Gurney earlier this year while news boss Sarah Bristow leaves in the new year.
“It’s an exciting time to work at Sky and I’m delighted to have Karina join us with her strong sector knowledge and relationships,” said Sky TV chief corporate affairs officer Chris Major.
“I’m looking forward to welcoming her to Team Sky in the new year, where she’ll help us share the Sky story with customers, partners, investors and media.”
Robin Scholes honoured
Veteran screen producer Robin Scholes will be honoured by her peers next week, announced as the recipient of the SPADA/The Data Book Industry Champion Award.
Described as a “driving force” in the film and TV industry, the champion award is presented annually to a person who has “demonstrated passion and professionalism in making a significant contribution to Aotearoa’s screen production industry”.
Scholes produced a range of acclaimed films including Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994) and Andrew Adamson’s Mister Pip (2012).
“Once Were Warriors was Scholes’ first feature, and it achieved international acclaim as well as earning blockbuster box office status and state-of-the-nation debate in New Zealand,” says a press release from Spada.
Television dramas include The Bad Seed (2018), Black Hands (2020), and both series of The New Legends of Monkey (2018-20) for Netflix, ABC and TVNZ 2.
Spada says Scholes is a “pioneer in creating a sustainable career in the screen industry”.
She was a founding partner of the independent television company Communicado in 1983. It later merged with Screentime.
“As an independent producer, Scholes has continued to be a driving force in the New Zealand film and television industry and is a sought-after mentor to a new generation of filmmakers.”
Scholes will be presented with her award next Thursday as part of the 2023 SPADA conference in Wellington.
- Editor-at-Large Shayne Currie is one of New Zealand’s most experienced senior journalists and media leaders. He has held executive and senior editorial roles at NZME including Managing Editor, NZ Herald Editor and Herald on Sunday Editor and has a small shareholding in NZME.