Easy to say, hard to do: the thinking behind Murphy and Jennings’ Newsroom

The news this week of veteran news heads Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy launching a news service was widely celebrated across journalism circles, with many applauding the arrival of a publication dedicated to, as Murphy said, “doing the news”.

But while ideas are great, execution is everything and a lot needs to happen before the news release clearing house currently hosted at newsroom.co.nz transforms into the respected news organisation the pair have promised.

The idea of creating a digital news organisation based on quality journalism isn’t new to this market, with a recent example being journalism.org.nz, which was set up on the premise that businesses and people would be willing to fund news that mattered. 

They weren’t, and a DNS error at the web address offers a pretty compelling reminder that running a sustainable news site isn’t easy (The NBR has succeeded in this market by investing in journalism and charging for the privilege and Bernard Hickey’s Hive News is trying to do the same).  

 But Murphy doesn’t see too many parallels between journalism.org.nz and his venture. 

“Journalism.org.nz was set up as a philanthropic venture in 2012,” he says. “That was before repeated rounds of cuts to journalism numbers at NZ Herald, Fairfax, MediaWorks and TVNZ, and before the rise of Facebook (and Trump). Newsroom is being set up as a profitable venture able to reinvest and expand in quality journalism that readers and sponsors are happier to pay for then they might have been before now.”

The social circumstances might be different today, but publishing news on a daily basis remains an expensive, difficult and often thankless task, and getting Newsroom off the ground will largely depend on whether or not they can raise sufficient capital to sustain the business.      

Murphy hopes to prop the business up on the support of a family of five core sponsors, an idea, which, he says, was “unashamedly borrowed from the great days of Team New Zealand”.

The problem, however, is that none of these core sponsors have as yet been confirmed.

Part of the reason for this might be because the announcement came some time before they were ready to take the offering to market.

The official launch was only scheduled for a few weeks down the line, at which time they would’ve possibly had a financial backer in tow.

In fact, it isn’t altogether surprising that the leak itself came from the commercial side – as he pointed out rather aggressively on Twitter, from one of the biggest advertisers on the Herald – because these are the exact kind of people that Murphy and Jennings have been talking to over the last few weeks (Matt Nippert’s tweet humbly suggesting not to punish leakers as a news organisation was a beauty).  

But, as Murphy said (once again on Twitter), “loose lips launch websites,” and they now have little choice but to go with the flow, despite things not going exactly according to plan.

On the flip side, the pre-emptive leak could also work in their favour given that it’s made the broader market aware of the project (there’s a reason why Murphy and Jennings chose NBR and StopPress to elaborate further on the project).

Murphy says that some of the decisions behind the commercial structure of the site were informed by Politico, which combines sponsored free news sites with paywalled subscription services, and Vox and Quartz, which are funded by sponsorship and have a heavy focus on email and news tailored for lucrative audiences.

He says the sponsorship partnership will further be consolidated by content marketing, which will be produced in conjunction with the brands and published on the site.

“We’re very clear on the needs of transparency and accountability but also even more so on the need for all content produced to be high quality and high appeal to our readers,” Murphy says.

One of the best examples of a local organisation running a media business off a sponsorship and content marketing model is The Spinoff, which was started as a TV-focused publication sponsored by Lightbox but has since been able to branch into a range of other verticals on the back of brand support (based, in no small part, to the fact that it now has a sizeable audience of around 550,000 UBs a month).

However, this approach also comes with a few risks. Sponsors might be keen at first, but enthusiasm sometimes wanes or, even worse, leaves with a marketing manager who takes on a new role at a different company. And generally it doesn’t break news, it comments on the news. 

“I’m not sure we are doing Breaking News – if by that you mean happening events, spot news, instant update kind-of stuff.  We are consciously not doing much at all of that. We will have an outside source providing Latest News items in a box atop the home page and our journalists will cover the biggest stories that may break – but we’re not chasing rabbits down holes all over Auckland and New Zealand. The majors do that kind of police press release stuff adequately. If by Breaking News you mean will we try to break stories, then that’s a different matter. Yes, definitely. As a priority.  We need our team to find new and important topics and revelations to serve that mission of doing the news. It is expensive only in that we need to provide staff with time and our collective judgement and reputation to advance these stories to the public. Paying for staff to write opinion, criticism or student magazine riffs is no less expensive, in many ways.” 

One of the major problems with this approach is that the internet doesn’t tend to value quality, it values impressions, something Frederic Filloux has been writing about a lot recently on Monday Note. A click is a click, and when the revenues of many major news organisations are declining despite record audience levels, that shows the economics of digital media are all at sea at the moment. 

Big names in the mix

Although there are a few similarities between The Spinoff and Newsroom, there are also some core differences, particularly when comparing their origin stories.

The Spinoff was built on the talents on a small group of young, talented writers, many of whom weren’t conventional journalists. Over time, they gained momentum and attracted bigger names like Steve Braunius, Toby Manhire, former Metro editor Simon Wilson and, yes, Jennings and Murphy. This seems to be the way modern media brands are built these days. 

Murphy and Jennings have, however, gone a different route, unveiling a lineup of highly experienced (and presumably quite expensive) journalists, who have years of experience in the industry. The staff includes Melanie Reid (investigations editor), Melanie Reece (commercial adviser), Troy Rawhiti-Forbes (social media editor), Bernard Hickey (economics editor), Steve Deane (sports editor), Suzanne McFadden (contributor), Rod Oram (contributor), Eloise Gibson (environment and science editor) and Alexia Russell (EDM editor).

Asked if a crew of more traditional, perhaps older, journalists would have the skills to run a successful digital news organisation, Murphy responds with little doubt.

“Mark Jennings claims he’s the only old one on the team and he has enough energy to outlast seven heads of news at TVNZ,” he says.

“But seriously, we do have some heavy hitters who know this game, this purpose inside and out.  We need journalists of experience, judgment and indeed some profile. Our paying subscribers and our open readers will hopefully turn to us to get that person’s take, their informed interpretation of what has occurred.”

Murphy also points to Troy Rawhiti-Forbes as a reminder that they haven’t just assembled a collection of silver foxes/vixens for Newsroom, and he adds that he doesn’t buy into the notion that younger journalists are better at digital journalism.   

“I heard a presentation by Frances Valintine the other month in which she said no one is truly a Digital Native unless they are aged 16 and under,” Murphy says.

“So people in their 20s and 30s may be more au fait with digital journalism but maybe not as markedly so as is assumed. And we have people who are steeped, infused, osmotically transformed in digital news and content. And are bursting to get into this and make it work … Young journalists are great and add enthusiasm, great ideas and connections to new audiences. But a mix of youth of experience can make 1+1 =3 in terms of effort and ideas to produce useful journalism.”

Having a few bigger names in the mix could also be helpful in terms of attracting a few sponsors to the mix, in that brands usually want to associate with the best in the business.

But brands also want scale. And that’s something that even the heaviest hitter in journalism can’t guarantee from day one. It usually takes time for a digital publishing brand to build a regular audience. And this task is made even more difficult when there are a number of similar competitors in the market. 

Bauer recently added Noted to the list of available news sources, and this, when viewed alongside The Spinoff and the mainstream news sources, does raise the question of whether there is space for another player in the market. 

Murphy and Jennings seem to think so. And the trick now will be getting the market to believe it too.

The pair have become go-to media pundits since departing their senior roles, often commenting on their old places of employ. Murphy apparently said at his leaving speech that he would never become a media critic, but some NZME staffers have taken to calling him ‘Gavin’ (a reference to ex-Herald editor and regular media commentator Gavin Ellis) on social media to remind him that he hasn’t kept that promise – and that it’s always easier to be on the outside looking in than it is to be “doing the news”. 

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