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It has been heralded as a “great new era”, a rare beam of light in a rather dark period for New Zealand media.
New Zealand’s biggest digital and print news company is now New Zealand-owned, and anyone with a skerrick of interest in the media landscape will be watching closely to see what happens in the coming months.
In a stunning turn of events on Monday, chief executive Sinead Boucher paid $1 for Stuff, and its massive news website and 49 newspapers, to take it off the hands of want-away owner Nine, the Australian media conglomerate.
It followed the almost bizarre drama of earlier in the month when rival NZME, which had previously tried and failed to merge with Stuff, went public with its bid to buy Stuff for the same price. It also comes during a rough spell for New Zealand media, which was already bemoaning the loss of tens of millions of dollars of advertising each year to rapacious digital giants Google and Facebook when the pandemic struck.
A management buyout has the whiff of romance about it — and given Ms Boucher started her journalism career as a regional reporter before making her way to the top, that whiff is powerful.
Certainly, the reaction to her bold move from within the sector has been uniformly positive. It was especially notable on social media that Stuff reporters, their futures perhaps looking much brighter than they did just a few weeks previously, welcomed her arrival as a white knight.
Now, though, the tough work and scrutiny really begins. As Newsroom reported, Ms Boucher told her staff the buyout was not a “silver bullet”.
How will she keep 900 staff, including 440 journalists, in jobs? And how will she reshape the business given her own company has spoken for years of the advertising-driven model supporting news being a dead duck?
Will she be able to easily shed the hangover from the long and painful process of the NZME merger drama?
Where will new revenue streams and capital funding come from? Stuff had an operating profit of $30million in 2018, but the world has changed drastically since then. Will pleading with the Government for funding be an easier sell for an ‘‘independent, New Zealand-owned’’ media outlet and not an Australian giant’s unloved Kiwi cousin?
What does ‘‘skin in the game’’ really mean and how will a proposed staff shareholding scheme work?
Above all, what are Ms Boucher’s plans for the company’s newspapers, including dailies like The Press and the Southland Times? Memories are fresh of the 28 rural or community papers the company closed just two years ago. Will more go on the block?
On the surface, this is a promising change in direction for a company that once appeared headed for oblivion. Significantly, by resisting the aggressive overtures of NZME, Stuff has ensured a retention of the level of plurality in New Zealand journalism that made the idea of the merger unpalatable to many.
“Editorial independence” is a concept this newspaper has treasured for nearly 160 years. Now it’s time for Stuff to make the most of the opportunities that come with that.
Cummings and goings
There is an old political maxim that when the adviser becomes the story it is time to step aside. Dominic Cummings, who is in overall charge of the Government’s media relations among other responsibilities, has certainly become the story but has no intention of stepping aside. Indeed, he gave an unapologetic defence of his actions at an extraordinary press conference in the garden of 10 Downing Street.
He showed greater emollience than has hitherto been evident and looked far from the diabolical Svengali character of popular myth.
He was not surprised that people were angry but this was because of the “false” way the media had portrayed what he had done, even if few of the central facts are disputed. He showed little regret and did not offer to resign.
The Prime Minister’s aide gave a detailed account of his movements at the end of March when coronavirus cases were spiralling. He drove his wife, who was sick, and his child to Durham to be close to family in case childcare was required. They did not stop en route and isolated in a cottage on his parents’ property for 14 days. Later he drove 30 miles to a nearby town to test his eyesight before driving back to London.
Mr Cummings gave a good account of himself but appears to have made personal judgments for the benefit of his family that were not obviously available to others who were in equally difficult circumstances. But for now, he stays in his position and we need to move on.