Hottest publisher: Newsroom
Nominees: The Spinoff, NZME, RNZ Newsroom
People’s choice: NZME
Two and a half years since going live, Newsroom has made a name for itself as the source of journalistic integrity and stories no one else got the scoop on. We sat down with founders and co-editors Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy to hear how they’ve made their mark.
It was 18 minutes past 7am on 13 March 2017 – 18 minutes late due to a server issue – that Newsroom.co.nz began to carve its way into the New Zealand media landscape.
Headed up by co-editors Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy, Newsroom launched with a dedication to doing the news.
Talking to journalists about that aim shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in a digital world with an established clickbait culture, it’s easy to go off the rails.
“At the start, we always said: ‘hold your nerve’ because it would have been easy to see that there was an audience to be made in Jacinda’s baby, or house prices and entertainment,” Murphy says.
You won’t find entertainment, car crashes, weather or lifestyle pieces on Newsroom.co.nz because there’s plenty of that on offer from New Zealand’s other news media.
“When we first started, we thought there was a niche but we weren’t 100 percent sure. Now we know there is and it’s a comforting factor really – particularly from a business point-of-view,” Murphy says.
Going in deep
Newroom‘s investigations have helped create the brand’s impact in the news media market and get word out about who they are.
Though a natural part of a journalist’s job, their in-depth investigations have had real-world impacts and for their audience. And Jennings and Murphy are happy to be known as the “guys who do the big investigations”.
One of the most notable Newsroom investigations uncovered a string of allegations by summer interns of serious misconduct against two former lawyers at Russell McVeagh in Wellington.
Over six months, Newsroom exposed sexual assaults and harassment at the firm and the findings sparked action.
At the end of 2018, Newsroom summarized that the investigation had prompted New Zealand’s #MeToo movement, and has been followed by surveys looking into lawyers’ workplace environments.
There was also an internal inquiry into the conduct of Russell McVeagh.
The two male lawyers at the centre of the allegations also left the firm, followed by the chief executive retiring and head of human resources leaving.
Murphy calls it “a minefield of an investigation” as journalists worked through risks in reporting on the law firm and the perpetrators alongside managing the fears and legal needs of the victims.
But with the Russell McVeagh stories, as well as other Newsroom investigations prompting changes, the challenges are worth it for the outcomes.
“Seeing how quickly governments or other statutory organisations, whether it’s Russell McVeagh or someone else, actually change and do something — that’s what I’m most proudest of.”
A step-ladder approach
While their investigations have proven popular, it was its election coverage that set the bar.
Not only was 2017 the year Newsroom launched, it was also an election year and the news site was kept well fed and readers flocked.
“We were small but we had an enormous election season because of our political effort and we had an astonishing result,” Murphy says.
“It was one of those ones we thought, ‘we’ll never reach it again’.”
And while the pair admit they didn’t come close to reaching their election peak last year, its base audience has continued to rise and this year, three of the last four months have seen audience numbers reach new peaks.
Supporting the cause
While their audience growth is a positive sign that Jennings and Murphy are on the right track, the work of the team is also recognised through the donations it received through PressPatron.
Newsroom.co.nz was one of the first news organisations to employ PressPatron, a service allowing users to make donations, and today the number of donors continues to grow.
The numbers have gone up seven percent in the last two months, with donors committing from $10 up to $100 a month.
Last year, PressPatron founder Alex Clark told NZ Marketing the service can be a good source of feedback for journalists as donations will often spike hard-hitting investigations and stories readers care about.
This is reflected in the behaviour of Newsroom’s readers and Jennings says it’s a good reinforcement of how valuable its investigations are.
A more substantial part of Newsroom’s funding comes from its Newsroom Pro subscribers, with about one-third of its revenue made up from those committed to having access to Newsroom’s stories first.
It has payment options available for small, medium and large business as well as a household package which is a ‘buy one get one free’-type deal, and Murphy says this year it hopes that subscription base goes up 25 percent.
What’s interesting about the Newsroom Pro, compared to other paywall models, is the stories are only behind the paywall for 24 hours. After that, they are free to all readers.
So why subscribe to Newsroom Pro when you could wait a day and have it for free? Because those subscribers like that they are supporting journalism that is open.
“They are supporting not just a personal interest but a public one too,” Murphy says.
Alongside its subscribers and donations, another source of financial support comes from sponsors, some of which are in their third year of supporting the site.
Right now, sponsors include Bell Gully, KiwiBank, Vodafone, Eco Store, Chorus, Victoria University and The University of Auckland.
There’s also Beca sponsoring its Auckland section and Cannon sponsoring its Rugby World Cup coverage — two sections Newsroom has created since opening.
With sponsors able to come onboard for a category, Murphy says there are more they want to fill and they will continue to look for opportunities in different sectors.
But that’s not to say it’s open to any sponsor.
“If you talk to the CEOs of our sponsors, they all have similar views with how they engage with New Zealand. If we have a company that sells high-sugar fizzy drinks in there, I don’t know how comfortable they’d be with that,” Jennings says.
And how comfortable are sponsors funding a journalism platform with the potential of covering their own mishaps?
Jennings says it hasn’t experienced its sponsors encroaching on editorial decision and says there’s an understanding that should a negative story be published, the sponsor will be given a fair opportunity to comment — which Jennings says is common practice in all journalism, anyway.
No doubt strengthening that partnership is the relationships Jennings and Murphy have with the decision-makers of its sponsors.
“Being smaller, we have a close, personal relationship with sponsors. We know the CEOs, we know their marketing and comms people well and we understand what they are trying to achieve,” Jennings says.
It’s a different story to what he’s experienced in other news organisations where the commercial relationships have been left to the sales team.
“Now, because we are selling those sponsorships – not quite personally, but we are connected to it much more – you tend to have a more connected relationship,” he says.
Though it’s been beneficial in earning sponsors, it’s that running of the business-side of things that both Jennings and Mark cite as a challenge they’ve had in starting Newsroom.
“The business side is harder than you think,” Jennings says. “The journalism side, doing these big stories, the investigations, formatting them and getting them into readable forms is not hard for us, but Tim and I are constantly involved in the business side and as a journalist, it can be a bit frustrating to spend so much of your time in the business side.”
Murphy agrees, and says while they’re pleased to be developing the business it can be demanding.
“We are relentless in our journalism and we have to be relentless to make sure everything behind it is successful.”
Helping to take some of the pressure off the pair is their experience as journalists as well as that of their team.
There’s about 16 in the team, though not all full time and Jennings and Murphy say they’re a quality team that’s self-driven and operates efficiently.
That efficiency is not only beneficial to Newsroom’s books, but also the taxpayer.
It’s received public funding for a six video investigative series called ‘Newsroom Investigates’ with Melanie Reid. Being a small organisation with a streamlined way of operating, Newsroom is able to produce all six investigations with the same amount some larger organisations would spend on one.
In recent months, Newsroom has received funding through the RNZ/NZ On Air Innovation Fund in the creation of The Detail podcast. Newsroom has been commissioned by RNZ to produce the podcast and it will do so with the help of reporters from around the country.
The daily podcast aims to give listeners the stories behind the headlines in a way that can be consumed while on the go or completing another task.
It’s the second time RNZ and Newsroom have teamed up on a podcast after launching the business podcast Two Cents Worth last year.
With Newsroom now spanning multiple platforms, it would be fair to say it’s growing. However, Jennings and Murphy aren’t chasing growth in that sense.
“We haven’t looked to grow quickly we want to make sure we keep everyone focused,” Murphy says.
“Growth of audience numbers is fantastic but we never ever have to think we want to be the same size as Newshub or be the same size as Stuff – that’s not a pressure.
“The lesson I’d have for people, is make sure you set what you want to be and therefore you can keep to that target. If you have an open-ended idea to grow, grow, grow then it’s harder because you have to meet it and if you don’t meet it you are falling behind.”