NZME confirmed today there would be a total of 15 redundancies across the business as part of its decision to bring news staff across radio, print and digital together in a single newsroom, which will house 280 employees.
Speaking to StopPress during a stopover in Singapore en route to the Rugby World Cup final, NZ Herald managing editor Shayne Currie says this move is essential in terms of preparing the media company’s news brands for the future.
“Our audience patterns are ever-changing and we can’t expect that what we’ve done for the last 150 years will let us thrive in the future – we have to change with our audience demands,” Currie said.
“I don’t think anything dramatic would’ve happened to the Herald if we hadn’t made this change, but what this really does is build our future and set us up to build our existing audience and find new ones.”
The changes will see around 250 journalists from the New Zealand Herald, Herald on Sunday, NZME news agency, Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport relocate to the purpose-built media hub in central Auckland in December.
“There are so many opportunities in this new newsroom for journalists to expand their skills and also to draw in much bigger audiences,” Currie says. “Within the newsroom there will be several different, what I like to describe them as, heartbeats. So while there’s a central newsdesk core with all our senior radio, video, digital and print areas, right there with them will be social media and audience analytics experts who can tell us in an instant what our audience and readers are watching, reading or listening to. And that helps us in terms of what we have on the site.”
While publishers and editors would previously go to the ridiculous length of employing investigators to leer over the shoulders to find out what they were reading, those in the industry today can find out in real-time what type of content is popular.
Currie says that using the information available through analytics tools is integral to continuing to drive audience numbers as the Herald continues to evolve.
“We will obviously still use our instincts as editors in terms of selecting the best stories and photographs, but they [the social media and analytics experts] are now such a strong component to our newsroom as well.”
As with any restructure, there have been casualties at NZME, with Currie confirming that 15 staff members will be made redundant due to their roles being disestablished.
“It wasn’t about the people themselves. It was about roles and new skill sets that we need to bring in,” Currie says. “So while some roles have been disestablished, we’ve actually created a lot more. The newsroom is bigger than ever.”
The full list of redundancies includes: Kevin Hart (letters editor), Michele Hewitson (columnist), Greg Dixon (Canvas deputy editor), Alan Perrott (writer), Penny Lewis (Living editor), John Drinnan (media columnist), Brian Rudman (columnist), Elisabeth Easther (writer), Wayne Thompson (reporter), Geoff Cumming (feature writer), Linda Herrick (arts and books editor), Steve Deane (columnist), Lauri Tapsell (editorial resources manager) and Catherine Smith (weekend magazine editor).
When the initial list of redundancies was leaked to the media, NZME came under criticism from some who said the restructure was likely to negatively impact the quality of journalism produced at the Herald in particular. However, Currie strongly refutes these claims.
“The setup is in no way walking away from quality journalism,” Currie said. “We’re instilling a much stronger planning culture as a part of this. We’re setting up a new planning editor, and we absolutely want to build on our relevant and unique content that others can’t replicate easily.”
To do this, Currie says the Herald will be looking to bring a range of new skills into the newsroom to further consolidate its offering.
“Part of that is bringing across almost 40 production journalists that will have a very strong digital focus. Previously that role was outsourced. We’re creating new roles focused on data and digital journalism that reflect where our audience is.”
While this might be true, the loss of several key columnists—some senior—from the editorial lineup has led to a few raised eyebrows across the industry. But Currie says the Herald isn’t pulling away from strong opinions, and added that NZME has just added three new columnists to its staff.
“We’re by no means walking away from the best and most provocative opinions. That’s critical [to our offering]. So, as well as our current stable of columnists, we’ve announced three new columnists with Alan Duff, Raybon Kan and Lizzie Marvelly joining us.”
These columnists join Toby Manhire, Brian Rudman, Fran O’Sullivan, Brian Gaynor, Brian Fallow, Deborah Hill Cone and Mike Hosking.
In addition to these changes, Currie has also finalised the newsroom leadership team by announcing the heads of the various departments (see below for full list).
The structure and the design of the newsroom has been based on several international examples.
NZME commissioned the services of consultants Mike van Niekerk and Dietmar Schantin, both of whom have previously helped major news organisations to similarly transition their newsrooms.
“Dietmar worked on the Daily Telegraph newsroom transformation in 2008 and he set up a newsroom that a lot of other operations, including our own, are basing our design and architecture around. It has evolved a lot in that time, so we’re using best principles from that. And Mike … has just gone through two years of a very similar transformation project at the Irish Independent newspaper chain in Dublin.”
Currie also says recent visits to the newsrooms of several major US publications have also influenced many of the strategic decisions introduced by NZME.
“Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to go over to the States and visit the newsrooms of USA Today, Washington Post and The New York Times. They’re all at various stages of their own transformation projects. I guess this is all driven by the same mantra that we’re all absolutely focused on here in New Zealand, and that’s being much more attuned to our audience needs and setting ourselves up to build on our audience.
“I think USA Today is probably the furthest along of those three mastheads, but the Washington Post is also incredible because it has 47 developers working alongside journalists in its newsroom. And that’s so critical. That’s part of the skill set we’re seeing in newsrooms today, with developers working alongside journalists just to create much more interactive journalism and storytelling.”
The Herald is already producing strong visual storytelling through the likes of data journalist Harkanwal Singh, but Currie want this to increase in the future.
“Data journalism is absolutely critical to our future,” he says.
In addition to effecting changes in terms of what is produced, Currie also says that when journalists publish digital content is an equally important issue.
“We used to have a rule that we had in the past that we had to wait until 5am to release content digitally, but that’s no longer the case. All content is available for the digital editors, virtually once it’s filed.”
Currie says this approach is more in line with the always-on approach demanded of digital journalists.
“For 150 years, the Herald was geared up as a print newsroom with one or two deadlines at the end at the end of the night. But now, we can monitor audience habits much more closely and we know that people have an appetite for great journalism in the evening … We need to acknowledge that and meet the audiences needs by providing content at different times of the day. We have to be strategic about how and when we do it.”
The online space is a relentless and constantly demanding beast, which isn’t subject to a limited number of column inches. And while the whir of the printing press once invited journalists to take off their ties and relax, this is no longer the case.
In response to the enormous pressure to continue filling cyberspace with stories, many journalists at new media publications—such as Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post—are joining unions to protect themselves.
And while NZME is shifting to more of a new-age digital model, Currie says he isn’t concerned about journalists joining the local union.
“I haven’t seen an increase in the number of people joining the union at the Herald. We have a great relationship with the community and we’ve liaised very closely with them during this process over the last month or so. I’ve been in journalism for the last 25 years, and I’ve seen journalists both young and old come and go from the union. The union has role to play and we work very closely with them and their members.”
Whether more journalists do end up joining the union is yet to be seen, but one thing that is certain is that journalism is changing. And rather than waiting for the fast-paced digital age to render it an anachronistic legacy publisher, NZME is looking for ways to modernise its business. Whether the approach works is anyone’s guess. But taking active steps is certainly a better approach than doing nothing and waiting for 150 years of tradition to unravel.
Newsroom leadership team:
New Zealand Herald editor – Murray Kirkness
Weekends editor – Miriyana Alexander
Digital editor – Irene Chapple (previously at CNN Money in London)
General manager talk radio – Steve Kyte
General manager digital innovation – Marcus Forbes
Editorial manager – Laura Franklin
Head of lifestyle – Jacqui Loates
Head of entertainment – Joanna Hunkin
Viva general manager – Amanda Linnell
Head of presentation – Rob Cox
Head of visuals —Chris Marriner
Planning Editor – Chris Reed