TVNZ finds its repurpose, embraces journalistic ‘Jack of all tradism’

As broadcasters around the world increasingly focus on the internet to distribute their news and content, as print media invests in additional video and audio assets to enhance its online offerings, and as previously separate mediums seem to become more and more alike, the quest for media convergence means many of these outlets are being forced to cut each other’s lunches and create content that can be used across different platforms. And, despite stellar ratings for its traditional free-to-air news and current affairs shows in recent months, TVNZ is preparing for this new digital frontier with what it says are the biggest changes in 20 years.

Like the division between sales and editorial (or subs and journalists), there have always been separate fiefdoms inside large media organisations. That’s certainly been the case within TVNZ and, by all accounts, there is still a noticeable separation between the print and online departments at the NZ Herald. But TVNZ’s head of news and current affairs (NCA) Anthony Flannery hopes to change all that with a new proposal that aims to group TVNZ’s NCA department into four areas – newsgathering, daily programmes, current affairs and operations.

Newsgathering will get the daily stories, daily programmes will decide how they would be shaped for the programmes and platforms they will feature on and operations will take care the logistics. As for the maths, 31 roles will have to be disestablished under the new scheme, but 14 new roles will be created, which means that out of the 258 strong NCA team, about 15 people, including two current affairs reporters and some producers, editors, camera operators and support staff, could lose their jobs.

Flannery says the current TVNZ model is based on the hero bulletin of yore, the 6pm news. And while it’s obviously still important, rampant digitisation means people can now get their news anywhere, whenever they want it. That’s what consumers of news are demanding, so, in response to this evolution, he says a group of news and current affairs managers spent one year looking at how different broadcasters in Britain, Europe and North America had responded. They had all changed their processes and practices over the last ten years to create multi-media operations, and TVNZ, while lagging behind slightly on this front, is now officially following suit.

Part of the strategy is to create a group of journalists, producers and camera operators that are more comfortable creating content that will, as the slogan goes, be able to inspire New Zealanders on every screen. As such, 150 staff will soon undertake a training programme for six months to learn editing skills. Some TVNZ staffers already edit their stories, particularly when overseas on assignment, and it’s common practice for reporters working for major news networks.

Flannery calls the new structure, which will cost $1.5 million to implement but save around $3 million a year, “programme and platform agnostic” and says it is based on the philosophy of ‘make once, publish many’.

“Instead of a number of different programmes all chasing after the same story and duplicating resources, a reporter and a producer will see a story through the whole day across a number of programmes and platforms.”

So is this a logical response to the challenges of a digitised world? Or is it media homogenisation in the face of shrinking journalistic resources that merely limits the variety of content on offer? TVNZ already ‘repurposes’ stories from its broadcast arms and puts it on tvnz.co.nz; Close-Up will always take a different approach to the 6pm news; and there are already plenty of stories that flow on from one news bulletin to the next. There are, of course, some obvious changes with this new approach, but in some ways it seems slightly reminiscent of  the way Fairfax spun the closure of The Independent, saying it would enhance the business journalism offering in print and online.

Like the demise of The Independent, it also raises some interesting questions about journalism because story ideas and follow-ups will be driven from and gathered back to a central hub. When Fairfax moved a big chunk of its subbing resources to a central hub it reduced costs, but anecdotal evidence from the writers, mostly in the regions, who had their copy sent there said this centralised approach also reduced accuracy.

With information now expected almost instantly online, media speed is increasingly of the essence. And as The Independent’s Jenni McManus said on NZI Business after the closure of paper was announced, competing in this space often means being first and wrong is considered better than being late and right. As news and current affairs slowly moves away from filling pre-determined timeslots (and, if this new structure is any indication, away from filling space on dedicated shows that have specific producers and editors) and with reporting teams under increased pressure to write, voice and file from the field and provide stories for online, mobile and hourly news bulletins, it will be interesting to see if the quality of journalism seen on these many screens will decrease.

Of course, TVNZ has been talking up its move to multi-screen media for a while now. Some believe the national broadcaster is rearranging the deckchairs. But in this revealing interview that featured in the latest issue of Idealog, TVNZ’s new head of digital Eric Kearley he says the future is exciting and for him it’s all about adapting to change and co-operating with what were once competitors in order to prosper.

Interestingly, while big changes are afoot with TVNZ’s NCA structure, the numbers for its good old FTA TV shows are looking fairly healthy: Breakfast had its biggest increase in average audience since 1999, with ratings 20 percent higher for the first six months of this year compared to the same time last year and it also had its highest ever audience a few hours after the All Whites drew 1-1 with Slovakia.

Between January and June this year Breakfast averaged 174,000 viewers per morning compared to 122,000 viewers during the same time period in 2009 (after three fairly embarrassing journalistic mishaps as a result of the Jono Project’s media tomfoolery, maybe everyone’s watching just to see if they get punked again?). Men made up 60 percent of that growth and while the cessation of Sunrise certainly bolstered its numbers, Sunrise only had around 20,000 viewers per day, so the extra 52,000 viewers in total can’t be attributed entirely to that.

In June, the 6pm news averaged 700,000 viewers per night, Close Up notched up an extra 88,000 viewers per night than in May, Fair Go and Sunday attracted over half a million viewers per episode and, with over 200,000 viewers per night Tonight lured 40,000 more viewers on average than Nightline.

And in comparison, 3 News averaged 419,180 viewers per night and Campbell Live averaged 260,810, so there certainly hasn’t been too much trumpet blowing from the Mediaworks camp of late.

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