After his visit to the then-recently opened NZME newsroom, Facebook chief creative officer Mark D’Arcy described what he saw as “incredibly impressive”. And this was notable because it came from a man who spends much of his life speaking about creative innovation for one of the biggest companies in the world.
Of course, not everyone was enamoured with the new office block or the idea of shifting out of the old Herald building. It was seen by some as leaving behind the tradition of the publication, a departure from a heritage of good journalism in favour of flash new alternative.
In some instances, the concerns seemed something of a projection of their worries about the decline of print and the growth of digital rather than a legitimate hope of staying in what most would admit was a pretty dilapidated edifice (as fashionably pointed out in Viva’s send-off).
Walking through the NZME building (which surprisingly still has a new car smell), it quickly becomes clear the conflation of the ‘growth of digital’ narrative with that of upgrading facilities, isn’t off the mark at all.
This is a structure built specifically for the digital age. The walls throughout are covered in digital screens that alternate between website analytics and a variety of news shows.
During the tour, NZ Herald managing editor Shayne Currie tells the StopPress team that the shift to the new building isn’t just physical move; it’s also about changing the overall mindset of the team.
“Traditionally, about two years ago, the Herald would save a lot of this content for the print edition, but that’s no longer the case,” says Currie. “We’re much more strategic about what we’re releasing and where we’re releasing it.”
He says the news team has to consistently think about how best to feed content to readers throughout the day.
“Now, it’s about having a consistent flow, rather than a single content dump at 5am. Every minute is a deadline.”
This does not mean NZME has given up on its print publications. In fact, part of the reason why Murray Kirkness was appointed as the Herald editor in June last year was because of how effective he was at maintaining the high print readership numbers of the Otago Daily Times at a time when publications across the nation were in decline.
And while running a national daily paper is quite a different task to that of running a regional, his strategic approach does seem to be working at the Herald as well.
According to Nielsen data, the Herald readership has risen 1.5 percent on the previous quarter to 404,000.
In addition, the Herald on Sunday (edited by Miriyana Alexander) grew by about one percent to 303,000 readers, making it the most well-read Sunday paper in the country as it overtook the Sunday Star-Times for the first time.
And this strong performance was also reflected in the yearly averages, which showed the NZ Herald and Herald on Sunday remain above 400,000 and 300,000 readers, respectively.
While these numbers are promising, they are however still down on the readership figures published at the end of 2014 (these figures are not directly comparable to yearly averages listed above and should be seen as more of a guideline).
While the dip in print readership will continue to pose issues in terms of their ability to generate revenue, the Herald’s website has enjoyed a period of strong growth, attracting 1.5 million unique readers in January, up 22 percent on the number recorded over the same period in 2015.
It’s difficult to argue with these numbers—leaving NZME with little choice but to evolve the way it produces the news.
Somewhat ironically, the real centrepiece of the newsroom is a distinctly analogue object: a large, oval table, called The Bridge.
There are no chairs situated around The Bridge. It’s specifically designed for quick meetings, so the news teams can return to writing and publishing their stories.
During an afternoon update we attended during our visit, editors and managers from across the various departments—including, but not limited to, Newstalk ZB, Radio Sport and the NZ Herald—stood around The Bridge and pitched ideas about what would covered on the agenda that day.
There was an urgency to Kirkness, as he moved from person to person, asking questions, cracking the odd joke, letting loose the odd swear word and recommending the best editorial approach to take.
Currie also attended this meeting, but was slightly more passive, interjecting intermittently with the same question each time: “Do we have video on that?”
Kirkness says over time he has also come to see how important video is to the modern newsroom.
He says that he had “an awakening” in 2013, when he attended a rugby league game with his son. During the match, a streaker ran across the field only to be tackled by former Warrior Ruben Wiki, who was in attendance as a trainer.
“I immediately got on the phone to our photographers and asked them if they got photos of that. Then, my son tapped me on the shoulder and he was 14 or 15, and said, ‘I’ve got video of it.’ We put it onto the ODT site immediately. It got picked up by the Telegraph in Sydney, and it got a ridiculous number of views.”
While he had his doubts, Kirkness has come to see numerous benefits of an integrated newsroom.
“I’ve long argued that the physical location of your staff shouldn’t make a difference. I’ve long argued that technology now allows us to work from anywhere. But I have to admit, I’m probably a bit wrong. Moving here has been a real eye-opener to how much more coordinated and operative we are with ZB and Radio Sport in particular.”
In elaborating further on the importance of having the team together, he points to an example that occurred on the day.
During the meeting, Newstalk ZB pitched a story on two men who were trapped in Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. And as the discussions proceeded, the sports editor suggested the team find out if the tide was coming in or going out—an insight that could potentially have had a significant impact on the outcome of the story.
Kirkness says that while the Herald and NZME Radio buildings were previously only 600 metres apart, this type of collaboration would never have happened.
As news teams at media companies across the country have been integrated over the last year, the word ‘efficiency’ has been thrown around considerably—and, in many instances, it’s understood to be little more than a euphemism for job cuts.
However, it is also a little more complicated than that. When all the teams were integrated, it quickly became clear how much overlap there was in what was covered across the various titles.
Because of the separation between the various teams, there was rarely any communication leading to different shades of the same story being told across the online titles. However, now that all the journalists sit in the same room, it’s far easier for them to collaborate on stories.
“Our breaking news team are sitting in pods with the radio reporters, because they’re covering similar stories,” says Currie. “This way they can share angles and interviews.”
‘We can’t get enough video’
In addition to facilitating collaboration on story ideas, the newsroom also makes it easier for journalists to share video around and discuss an integrated strategy of how to visually represent their stories.
“That’s part of this whole new planning culture of the newsroom, which now requires us to consider what we release, when and how.”
Currie points out that the same story could be streamed live on the radio, filmed in its multi-million dollar studio and then also published on the Herald (with video of course).
“We’re reinforcing to agencies and PR shops around town that this is a one-stop shop for their clients. When they come in, they can do the Hosking, Larry or Leighton interview, then we take them into the video studio and they can be interviewed by one of the reporters. And then, if it’s relevant, we can take it down to one of the entertainment brands.”
Currie says spending half an hour at the NZME building could result in a message reaching up to a million people—which is certainly enticing for brands looking to get scale.
The push for video has also seen NZME upskill its journalists to ensure that they’re constantly feeding in new footage to be published on the Herald.
“We can’t get enough video,” Currie says in pointing to a graph that shows the performance of stories with a video element.
“So part of the whole change here was equipping our reporters with the iPhones and training them. There are different levels to this, of course. There’s the short and sharp clip shot by a reporter out in the field and then there are production levels about that, right up to what we’re doing in our studio.”
The video play is also important commercially, because this is what clients increasingly want. And by giving its teams across the business access to state-of-the-art video facilities, it presents an opportunity for the creation of interesting video plays. And Currie says that NZME is happy to experiment in this space.
This has already led to the development of larger projects like creative WatchMe, which has fed a range of new shows onto the market. But these facilities aren’t limited to the creative types. The news teams can also pitch ideas—either commercial or editorial—that could be given video treatment.
And if ever there was a good reason to move from the old Herald building to the new one, perhaps it exists in the fact that the new building has a sound-proof recording studio.
“In the old building we were in a closet, basically, right next to the men’s toilet and a lift. So if there was an extraneous noise, which there often was, we would have to stop filming,” Currie says.
C’mon Herald, it’s not news!
A common criticism levelled at the Herald’s online publication is that it publishes too much fluff and doesn’t focus on the big news stories.
During the editorial meeting, there was certainly some evidence of this as the NZME team discussed a shark story and another about one Australian cricketer groping another.
However, it is worth remembering that what the Herald publishes is often reflective of what people are reading.
“Social and the newsroom are really inseparable,” says NZME digital audience engagement general manager Lauren Hopwood.
“I work across so many different brands and they’ve all got different audiences, so a big part of it is working with the various teams so we can ensure we know who the audiences are and that we’re speaking to them in the right way.”
Hopwood says around 50 percent of the Herald’s mobile traffic now comes from social—which is important, because the social algorithms and targetting play an important role in determining what is fed into your feed.
“Facebook has a feature now that was only ever previously available for advertising clients, where you can actually drill down into very specific targeting. You can drill down into their interests, their ages and their demographics. And we really leverage that because we now have an audience of over 400,000 people. And they’re all going to be quite different. So we’re really quite tight with how we target our audiences.”
In other words, if your feed is filled with celebrity gossip articles, then that might have something to do with your tendency to click on stories about Lorde potentially dating Diplo.
Currie also makes the point that it’s about balance, which means embracing different forms of journalism in different contexts.
New Zealand simply doesn’t have the population of the UK, which allows for disparate publications like the Daily Mail and the Guardian to exist in the same context.
To be sustainable and to keep its audience numbers ticking over, the Herald (and Stuff) has to be a bit of everything. And this means that you end up getting the fluff, breaking news and long investigative pieces all in the same place.
Different gears, different peaks
Currie points to its popular ‘Big Read’ series as an example of the Herald’s continued commitment to quality journalism. And what’s interesting about this is that it was an initiative led by audience demand.
“We noticed about six months ago that there’s a new peak in the day. We’ve got the morning peak, the lunchtime peak and now there’s a night-time peak.”
He says during this evening peak, readers are more inclined to become immersed and read these longer pieces, which is why the Herald generally publishes it ‘Big Reads’ a little later.
But striking this balance between quick breaking news throughout the day and getting longer pieces ready for the evening isn’t easy, says Currie.
“We talk about having three speeds in the newsroom: there’s the minute-to-minute breaking news, which involves the battle of being first; there’s the developing story, which involves the next few hours and what we’re planning over the next few hours; and then there’s the unique content aspect, which our competitors couldn’t easily replicate.”
Currie says that the truly unique examples of journalism most often come from the investigations team, headed by Jared Savage, and the data team, headed by Harkanwal Singh.
However, Currie admits there’s room for growth in terms of the percentage of exclusive stories published on the Herald.
“While we’re producing a number of exclusive stories, we want to lift the percentage that can’t easily be replicated … We’re aiming to have at least a quarter of our content fall into this category.”
And he says this commitment to investigative journalism applies even if it requires the Herald management to be as generous as the Boston Globe editors were in terms of the time they set aside for the Spotlight team.
“If we found a story out there that needed that amount of time, we’d do it.”