Freed website is still under lock and key. It has been nine weeks since it ' />
Commercial model remains under wraps

The much-vaunted Freed website is still under lock and key. It has been nine weeks since it started advertising for numerous staff - including "drone operators". Freed has been tempting writers with generous financial packages to work on what has been given the rather antique label "Whaleoil 2.0".

Blogger Cameron Slater was promoting Freed on his site in August, just before Dirty Politics and Nicky Hager's allegations that Slater was taking undeclared money from lobbyist and PR man Carrick Graham to promote business interests.

It seemed Slater and Freed's financier, Tony Lentino, had found a business model to make digital media work. Much of the project's credibility has rested on the deep pockets of Freed's wealthy backer, formerly a business associate of Kim Dotcom and chief executive of Mega when it began. Lentino was unavailable to discuss the venture yesterday.

He said there was no need at this stage to spell out plans. As yet there's no indication when Freed will be let loose from its chains.


Lentino's company is Instra Corporation, and the name is registered to Regan Cunliffe, cofounder of television fan-site Throng, who also offers digital sales services to WhaleOil and other websites.

One Freed staffer is Dave MacPherson, a South Auckland sports photographer who has the title "production editor". Last week he was contacting trade unions, to put Freed on their press release lists.

Cameron Slater. Photo / Doug Sherring

Slater has been toning down the rabid content of his blog, in advance of Freed's launch.

Despite Slater's cruel streak, Freed is said to be "neither left nor right". The overriding ideology will be a love of click-bait items, such as Slater's attack yesterday on the "bludgers" lining up for food at the Auckland City Mission.

In my opinion the most viable funding source will be for Lentino to pick up the role of PR blog, allowing firms to buy opinions. That will depend on traditional media being drawn to Freed in search of strongly worded views.

Increasingly there is a crossover between paid content and editorial.

Advertorial - or "native content" as it is termed nowadays - has been around for years, sitting astride the border between advertising and editorial, using journalistic techniques to sell commercial stories.

A fundamental tenet is declaring that content to readers, maintaining the separation between journalism and advertising content.

One advertising consultant said Freed - whether or not it used advertiser-funded copy - was unlikely to have a big effect on influencing opinion or have commercial value as a direct media source. Its biggest effect would be if it was picked up by other journalists, and that's what would give it value as a public relations outlet.

Indeed, despite negative publicity about Graham and Slater and their ethics, media are still flocking to their side.

Graham - once a second-rung public relations player in the lobbying business - was recently described in media as a "supremo" and public relations guru, and he was unabashed about saying the sort of practices he was known for were here to stay.

Oh Henry?

I'm not sure that MediaWorks' plans for a combined newsroom will have as big an impact as chief executive Mark Weldon says it will.

Editorial staff in the interactive, radio and television divisions will be working together in an integrated newsroom at its Flower St headquarters. And it may be that it will be easier to link quick turnover items for radio and online.

But my sources say it is highly unlikely there will be any cost savings. The danger, as digital becomes the main vehicle for news reports, is that the longer-form television content - which is highly labour-intensive - will be diminished by the need for immediacy online.

Integration is important symbolically, especially for an organisation like MediaWorks which wants to sell the idea that it's a very different company from the one that went into receivership in June last year, leaving creditors to take a bath.

It's true that MediaWorks' past problems have been largely structural - most recently the debt burden of Ironbridge Capital's vastly over-leveraged buyout in 2007. After a huge writeoff, debt demands are well down, but like all media companies MediaWorks faces a rapidly changing market, both here and internationally.

Weldon has established himself as the man in charge at MediaWorks, to the extent that some staff I talked to have been taken aback by his interest in the firm's day-to-day operations. The former NZX boss once had a rather towy relationship with media, but he's not the first executive to be drawn to the glamour of TV.

Word has it that Weldon has taken a particular interest in the new Paul Henry breakfast show, which is understandable because it's such a big risk. But Weldon will beware of the dangers of seeing himself as a producer, or of being drawn into the emotional turmoil of trying to decide what people want - not that you can imagine Henry taking the boss' advice.

Soon after starting, his counterpart at TVNZ - CEO Kevin Kenrick - was often accused of taking an overly hands-on interest in the new show Seven Sharp, backing a format that led to disastrous ratings in the first year and cost a lot of money. It returned as a comment-based show run largely by broadcasters and less by marketers, and securing a big increase in ratings.

Secret squirrel

The debacle over the relationship between the PM and the SIS encouraged me to get an explanation of how government and secret squirrel spin merchants operate.

The communications function for the core New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC) was established in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the middle of last year, according to Antony Byers, director of national security communications.

"The focus of the work is to support the core NZIC (GCSB, NZSIS and the intelligence units within DPMC). During a reconfiguration earlier this year, the team became the National Security Communications Directorate," Byers said.

"As well as Communications, DPMC's National Security and Intelligence Group comprises National Security Systems, National Security Intelligence and Assessment, National Security Policy, and the National Cyber Policy Office."

Apparently there are communications problems for the communications staff.

"No recording or transmitting devices are allowed in our work area for security reasons, so no cellphones. That means if we're not at our desks, calls and emails can go unanswered for quite a while. But until recently, the agencies used to engage with media via an anonymous email address.

"We get to advise on amazing issues, with very clever people who are passionate about protecting New Zealand interests, and who very rarely get to celebrate success outside their small teams," said Byers. And you thought they were into spin.