Horse’s Mouth: Sinead Boucher, Stuff

Sinead Boucher’s career on the Fairfax digital team started in what she describes as a “broom cupboard” at a time when the site was seen as a nice-to-have tag-on to the print business. Now, as she sits in the chief executive chair at Stuff, she reflects on how much things have changed.

On the early days in her career
I’d been a reporter for a few years and then I went over to the UK in about 2000, during what was the first dotcom wave, which was a great time to go on your OE because there were a lot of jobs around. I had a friend who had got a job with the Financial Times at FT.com, which was the website they’d just set up and were going for. He decided not to take it and suggested to me to turn up in his place and see what would happen. I did, and luckily the boss at the Times at the time said ‘fair enough, we’ll give you a go’. That was my entrée into a digital-first experience. 

On her role in New Zealand
When my husband and I had our first daughter in London, we decided to come home and I went to The Press. Paul Thompson was the editor at the time and he asked me to look after the website because no one was really doing anything with it. That parlayed into the first digital editor role at Stuff. When I came, Stuff only had a handful of people and they were virtually working in a broom cupboard. They were a fantastic team, but people in the organisation either treated them like some kind of foreign species or like pariahs. They were these upstart digital staff who were disrupting the nice comfortable world of print. 

On the importance of luck
When I think about the story behind my career, I think a lot of it has been about being in the right place at the right time. That was certainly the case with the FT job, but it was also about going into Stuff at a pivotal time when you could get away with doing whatever you wanted because there wasn’t so much interest from above in it. By the time the company’s focus shifted more to digital, we had already established ourselves as a pretty strong force. 

On the intensity of the digital shift
It was intense, but it was because we drove it to be intense. We tried to stay ahead and we always had that ambition to be as good as anybody else in the world. We weren’t so much looking at what was happening in the New Zealand landscape but rather at what great things were happening overseas. The Guardian, The New York Times, you name it. Anytime we saw something cool, we thought we’d have a go at it. 

On cultural friction during times of change
As with anything, there was a group of people who absolutely loved the idea of reaching an audience… there was definitely a group of champions, journalists and editors who loved that. But then there was a massive cultural shift through the rest of the business. This is not just editorial. Back then, newspapers were making piles of money and they had the authority and gravitas and people questioned: ‘what’s this site called Stuff? What a stupid name.’ It took a long time to get over that and I think we’ve only just achieved that in the last year, fully. Even then, there are probably some who in their deepest hearts want things to go back to how they used to be. 

On increasing digital revenue
Our digital revenues are growing every year, and we’re out-performing the market in our growth there. We realise that you can’t just rely on trying to transfer a model that was built on subscriptions and advertising in print and expect it all to be the same. It’s a completely different world. Google and Facebook have completely disrupted that model. For us, it’s about how we find ways to get sustainable digital revenue or revenue from digital businesses that will grow and continue to let us sustain that local journalism. That’s what we’re all about. 

On why scale matters
We’ve got an audience of about 2.2 million on Stuff. We’ve got Neighbourly, which has 700,000 visits a month and more than 500,000 members. There are massive platforms which can reach people not only nationally but also locally. And the power of that audience lies in the rich authenticated data, which we can use to grow into new revenues to fund journalism. Neighbourly and Stuff are obviously very strong from a traditional advertising point of view, but we also see an opportunity to leverage o our audience scale [with our own products and services]. We’ve already got Stuff Fibre, Energy Club NZ and we’ve got a couple of other exciting things coming out before the end of the year, which I can’t talk about yet. The common thing at the heart is that we can use our own audiences to market these businesses… We’ve been very focused on this plan of becoming a business able to be sustained by digital revenue, and to move away from classifying ourselves as a media business to one that’s more of an eco-system of digital businesses with these big platforms, Stuff and Neighbourly at the heart. 

On the merger
We’ve never counted on it going through. You shouldn’t place your eggs in a basket that someone else has control over… If it does happen, that’s great. When the merger first came up, I strongly believed that the merger was the easiest way for us to be able to protect New Zealand journalism at scale. And the reason for that is that the combined companies would be able to find a lot of efficiencies out of back office things, such as printing and distribution, and make it more stable for the newsrooms. It bought us some more time, even though we would still have to pursue the same business model of moving away from an advertising- and subscription-based reliance. I was really disappointed that the Commerce Commission didn’t see that would’ve been the best thing. I was also really surprised that they were so dismissive of Facebook and Google as competitors to us. When journalism is funded largely by advertising, and advertising has gone to these big multinationals, that leaves a real void about how we can continue to fulfil that role of the fourth estate here.

On the potential of mergers reducing journalistic diversity
In my personal opinion, I’m not sure the Commerce Commission understands how independent editorial is from the owners of the company. As far as an editor or journalist is concerned, it doesn’t matter who owns them because they are independent from any commercial aspects of the business. That’s always been the tradition in New Zealand and in many places in the world. I don’t think the public would have it any other way. Even if I or some member of the executive should wish to impose some type of agenda, imagine trying to wrangle 500 strong-minded, independent journalists. Their job is to serve the public good. It’s not to serve a corporate. I found it frustrating that the Commission would not accept that editorial integrity would not be compromised. 

On trust in the media
We take that issue of trust incredibly seriously. In the last 18 months, we’ve had two markers that show we’re on the right track. We had a Colmar Brunton poll that showed that Fairfax had moved into the top 20 most trusted brands in the country. We were the only media company, and that really mattered to us because it was going opposite to what the narrative had been around the media falling out of trust. There was a similar poll out several months ago that showed that several local media companies were performing really well. We’re lucky to have that. Every journalist and editor works to a very high code of ethics. If we lose that or let it slide, then what do we have left? It’s also a really strong counterpoint for us against the new social platforms.

On making the papers smaller
Starting the middle of this year, we’re going to move our whole Monday to Friday portfolio to a compact size. The move to compact is mostly a reader-driven approach because the one piece of feedback we’ve consistently had from readers is them asking when we’re going to make the paper smaller. We’re probably one of the last publishers to move our paper into the compact spread. The weekend paper will stay broadsheet, because that’s a different experience… We’re taking it as a chance to not only change the size but also to reimagine the paper. We’ve been talking to readers and advertisers to nd out what our most loyal subscribers want from a paper in 2018 and then making sure we deliver that rather than just doing the same old thing in a new format. The team is really excited about breathing new life into the print product. 

On the accusation of diminishing standards
The thing that frustrates me the most is the rhetoric about clickbait. We do not do clickbait. We don’t do anything that could even be categorised as clickbait. All of our journalists write New Zealand news from all over the place. One person’s ‘interesting’ might be construed as another’s clickbait. When I ask people to give me an example, they never have an example. It’s just easy to get into the bashing of Stuff.

On making mistakes and errors in digital news
We hate making mistakes and typos, but the reality is that we’re in a much faster-moving world. When I was a younger reporter, I probably made so many mistakes, but I had the luxury of about 15 other people handling that story after me before it reached the next day’s newspaper. Nowadays, we’re producing stories really quickly because people want to see the new immediately. It will go through an editor, but sometimes mistakes happen. If we see them, we’ll correct them and we’re always very happy for people to point them out. 

On the role of a modern editor
One project from this year that I really love was when the Nelson Mail ran a community mobilisation programme to wipe out wasps in their region. Victoria Guild, the editor, led that and really redefined what the role of a local newsroom is in the community. It wasn’t only about reporting on this terrible plague of wasps that was affecting tourism, but also about what she could do to harness the community and help to solve the problem. They wiped out 99 percent of wasps in the region. I’m really interested in finding out what tangible things we can do to help make New Zealand a better place. 

On job security in media
As revenues have shrunk, a core thing for me is to protect frontline journalists as much as we can. And if that means cutting costs further down the production line, then this is where I look first. To me, it’s still important to make sure we have enough people out in communities finding stories. This isn’t just the case in our industry. Any business that has heavy production in the middle is undergoing transformation to focus on the creation aspect. 

On leading Stuff into 2018
My plan is to do everything we possibly can to ensure we’re building a sustainable business to protect our ability to create New Zealand journalism. Our strategy is pretty simple. It’s about how we diversify away from reliance on publishing revenues to a range of things that will give us a more stable and sustainable fate. We’re really focused on that and, as I’ve said, we have a couple of things coming up that will build on that future. The other thing that has always motivated me is the recognition that we’re in a very powerful position in terms of how you can reach people. I want to use that responsibility to look at what else we can do to help the New Zealand community thrive. 

  • This story originally appeared in the Special edition of NZ Marketing magazine to celebrate the Stoppies.

  • The Stoppies event and magazine were made possible by Stuff. 

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