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Future Tense: MediaWorks' Mark Weldon on its new 'power news brand', the joy of integration and preparing for the future

In the first of two stories, Ben Fahy talks with MediaWorks chief executive Mark Weldon about the thinking behind its unified news brand Newshub, which has required a multi-million dollar investment, is modelled on the BBC and is set to kick off in Q1 next year.

By Ben Fahy | October 30, 2015 | features

Sitting down with Mark Weldon, who joined MediaWorks as chief executive just over a year ago, it’s hard to know where to start. He admits it’s been a “very big year” for him and the company and, on balance, there appears to have been more bad news than good since he arrived, with the Campbell Live saga having a big impact on TV3’s brand, regular departures from the executive ranks, and declining ratings for its news shows and major entertainment formats (the radio survey results and the first seasons of The Bachelor and Grand Designs are definite positives, however). But, even so, Weldon is confident the company is on the right track and the last year has been an exercise in integration.

“For the last seven years or so MediaWorks was run as three very rigid silos. And the reason it was done like that is because we might be forced to sell one of those assets. It was a silo-based company with finance separated across different areas, content not shared particularly well and not a lot of common sense of a mission or a vision, really. So the last year has been around making the infrastructure, organisational and sometimes visible changes that will allow us to move increasingly smoothly and with growing momentum over the next three years to what myself and the executive team see as becoming New Zealand’s leading integrated multi-media company.”

It’s already moved in this direction with its Paul Henry breakfast show, which operates across TV, radio and online; it has rejigged its sales structure and embarked on the very difficult challenge of trying to get sales people to stop protecting their own patch and flogging spots and instead start thinking strategically about what’s best for a client (as evidenced by the campaign it ran with V with Jono and Ben); and the next cab off the rank is news and current affairs, with a multi-million dollar project to eventually bring everything under one brand called Newshub.

Weldon openly admits that its news and current affairs output has had “performance issues” this year, as evidenced by its slide in ratings in comparison to TVNZ. A common response is to go right back to its receivership in 2013 when TVNZ poached its 5.30pm lead-in Home & Away, and the loss of that show was believed to have created a flow on effect for the rest of the night. But when asked if that’s a convenient excuse that might have been shielding some more systemic problems with its news and current affairs offering across multiple platforms, Weldon agrees.

“That just relates to the 6pm product. It doesn’t relate to the website or other products. The news for us is a lot bigger than the 6pm bulletin … We’re the biggest radio broadcaster of news in the country across the most channels and most day parts and we’ve got very deep digital assets that have news and news-like content on there as well … There’s a very clear sense of a transition that what’s about to occur is us going from being TV-led to being digital-led."

United we stand

He says the Newshub project is about bringing it all together. And it’s a "very big piece of work" that has taken six months and involved the whole company. And while he wouldn’t say when it will launch for competitive reasons, he said it will be kicking off sometime in Q1 and said there will be “subtle shifts” that will take place over time after that.

Weldon says the architecture of the new brand is extraordinarily flexible and the metaphor is almost like a subway system (the brand and the creative, which launches today, was all created in-house).

“You’ve got different colours representing different areas of specialisation, so weather or health, or technology or money, or politics, so we’ll develop a number of other sub-brands across it. It will play across TV, it will be the brand that drives all of our radio bulletins on all our radio stations 24 hours a day, it will be the brand on our website and on a new news app that is genuinely quite exciting. It represents a vision of moving to a 24/7 news service model, which is a fundamentally different model than a TV newsroom, so there’s a shift to occur which is very exciting, much more digitally-led. During the day we need more specialisation in digital so that’s something we’re doing, but it is something that’s accompanied by major investment both into digital platforms as well as a new TV set for 6pm news and our other flagship news programmes … The physical manifestation is bringing the teams that have been sitting across multiple premises across the company into a newsroom that is fit for purpose, future proofed, future leading.”

While he says MediaWorks has “fantastic and very strong content brands, if you look at them across the day, from Paul Henry, to 3 News, to 3D, they don’t have a coherent sense of tone”.

He says its research continues to show that where MediaWorks generally succeeds is when it is entertaining, humorous, approachable and real. And that needs to be across the whole organisation, including its news and current affairs offering.

“That’s really important for us to centre our entire organisation around. It’s always easy to focus on the issues but one of the other things in business is to say ‘what are we really good at and how can we do more of it?’”

News isn’t always entertaining or humorous, of course, although as TVNZ’s Kevin Kenrick argued, most people would prefer their information to be delivered in an entertaining fashion. And some will be fearful that the apparent Great Dumbing Down of the Modern Era is set to continue, something MediaWorks was accused of after the announcement it was launching the entertainment and gossip site Scout with Rachel Glucina (and something NZME is also being accused of as it says farewell to a number of experienced journos and moves to an integrated newsroom).

So can you have both?

“I think you can. The content and the tone are two quite different things. We’re not the establishment, we’re not government owned, we don’t report to a select committee like TVNZ does. Any attempt to replicate a position they’ve carved out and own, we’re going to come second. We need to establish a clear tone and recognisably across everything we do.” 

Cut and run? 

Private equity firms like MediaWorks’ owner Oaktree aren’t renowned for investing in media brands and Weldon is open about the fact that he is there to create a more efficient business and manage costs. But he says the job of the executive team and the board is to show the owners how to create the most value. And rather than stripping costs out, he says the Newshub project is being backed by a “major capital expenditure programme”.

Weldon wouldn’t discuss specifics as far as investment goes, aside from saying it’s “multiple millions of dollars”. And when asked about the possibility of redundancies among reporters, MediaWorks said the organisational structure was still being determined and so couldn't comment. 

All around the world, media companies are battling with this shift to digital and bringing assets together. In New Zealand, Fairfax has recently cast off its print shackles through its News Rewired programme. NZME has just announced its merged newsroom and is set to move into one office soon. TVNZ is trying to re-orientate its business around digital. And Sky (which outsources the production of Prime News to MediaWorks), is soon to launch its ondemand offering via its boxes. But Weldon thinks MediaWorks is different.

“Other people are doing it, but no-one’s doing it across TV, radio and digital. The only others we’re aware of who have done that are the BBC. But there could be others. We’ve looked quite closely at where they’ve been successful, we’ve employed some people who have been part of their integration team, and we’ve learned from their wins and from things they didn’t get quite right.”

Some of those BBC staff are on secondment to MediaWorks to “help the leadership work through the issues and opportunities”. And it has brought in experts to assist with this project when required, for example, when choosing the right camera equipment.

So what did it learn from the BBC?

“We’ve had a review done on the mechanics of it and the workflow so we can move to a much more agile and flexible workforce … Getting a flow throughout the day is really important. Upgrading our analytics capability is major. Having a few rallying cries and a brand that genuinely represents your mission. Having a brand that isn’t tied to any particular channel. So you won’t see the word 3 News anymore. It’s not a TV brand anymore. It’s a power news brand.”

While news is increasingly consumed throughout the day, a large—and for some, a surprisingly large—number of people still watch the 6pm news. So does this mean the idea of the ‘news of the day’ is now an anachronism?

“No, it’s not gone, but it has to take a different tone and fulfill a slightly different function. The days of holding stories back to break at 6pm are gone. Because they don’t hold. Twitter breaks them. And the days of people watching the news and not knowing most of what happened during the day are also over. It’s about a different level of depth, it’s about the news behind the news, it’s about the personalities in the news. It’s less about it being a bulletin and more about it being an informative and engaging hour of news content.”

Henry everywhere

He says the Paul Henry show is a good proof point of what it can deliver on a cross platform basis and he says the morning day part is quite a fundamental one.

“There’s a lot of talk about SVOD and Netflix and all the rest of it. What we’re seeing in terms of user behavior is that that stuff’s really kicking in at 9-9:30 at night. The traditional idea of primetime is between 6-10pm and if we look at where the audience is it’s more like 5.30 to 9.30 so it’s moved earlier. The other thing that’s happening in the US, there’s three percent growth of people watching TV in the morning. People aren’t waking up at 7am and watching House of Cards. They’re watching TV. They want to be entertained and informed and we think the Paul Henry breakfast is a perfect mix of that and its performance is growing week after week. Every week we hit a new ratings high on that show.”

He says it’s also working across radio and “it’s the best performance we’ve ever had on Radio Live Breakfast”.

“It’s 17 percent up on what we’d achieved in that slot previously. The flow from TV to radio is seamless. Paul and Hilary are extremely talented broadcasters who are fluent in both mediums and there aren’t many who could do that and Sarah Bristow the executive producer is working extremely well and hard and there’s such a good feeling in that team.”

Story, which replaced Campbell Live at 7, isn’t quite as cross-platform, although co-host Duncan Garner does have to rush to the studio from Radio Live. The ratings are lower than Campbell Live, so how is he feeling about that?

“Ratings are made up of two different things: how many people come to your party and how long they stay. We’re getting a lot of people coming to the party, but they’re not staying long enough. That’s a much better problem to have than not coming to the party. We’re pretty happy with the brand of the show and how it’s tracking in terms of coming at a position that’s different what TV2 and One are offering in that slot. As we said to Paul Henry and Sarah Bristow before that show started: we’ve got your back, you don’t have to worry about anything in the short term, we just expect you to continually improve’. So they same applies to Story. They’ve got a good lead time to work on it.”

Competing media don't seem particularly keen to give MediaWorks time to prove itself and there’s been a swag of stories about its performance this year. So does he think he’s had a fair crack? And does he have a perception problem?

“That’s a vexed question,” he laughs. “I think what you would like is for all media to treat all media fairly because media organisations are not toll roads, they’re a bit more emotional. I’ll leave it at that.”

Weldon was criticised by some for perhaps not fully comprehending the value of John Campbell and other personalities to the business. And, to be fair, intangibles like this are something hard-nosed business people regularly underestimate. But he admits that’s something he has learned now and he sees the big group of intangible talent as one of its biggest assets, particularly as advertisers increasingly want to work with them. 

As for the apparent dancing on the grave, he says there’s an element of damned if you do, damned if you don’t in a situation like this. 

“But if you want to take a business to a different place, you do have to shift. So what I’ll think you’ll see is a shift in resource over time. That’s quite obvious to say. But it’s important to point out. Because when the world, your audiences and your customers are moving really quickly, if you keep all your resources in the same place, you become obsolete. And if you become obsolete you go out of business. Business is not that complicated. There are certain laws of gravity. If your customers and audiences move to a different place than you are, then you’re redundant.”

There have been a whole heap of shifts since Weldon took over. And plenty of whispers that morale is low. So is that the case? And does he think it’s improving?

“I think it’s good. We’ve got some people who wear their hearts on the sleeve and are quick to tell you how they feel and those people are telling me they’re feeling pretty good. There’s some momentum in the business. We have been through some difficult periods. It is interesting, some people naturally like change, some people are neutral and some don’t like it. And, oddly, MediaWorks, which has been through receivership a couple of times, has been quite unchanged for about a decade. Everyone in the business rationally knows that remaining unchanged is not a good strategy. Everyone understands the why, but sometimes the what isn’t exactly what they want. But everybody understands that as well.”

He says the current media landscape is changing so quickly that it’s not going to be super smooth sailing over the next three years as its strategy comes to fruition (“and I’m sure our competitors will be quick to tell us when it’s not”). But in his mind, you’ve got to integrate a few eggs to make an omelette.  

  • We'll be publishing another story about Weldon's view on ratecards, competition vs. collaboration and re-organising the business on Monday. 

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