Hard News by Russell Brown


Radio New Zealand: changing the channel

The role of Head of News would disappear under a new organisational and management structure being proposed by Radio New Zealand CEO Paul Thompson to set the broadcaster on a "new path" to becoming a "multimedia organisation".

Head of News would be replaced with the new post of General Manager of Content, with responsibility for news and current affairs, Radio New Zealand International, drama and music. (The full title also includes the description Editor Radio New Zealand News and Thompson envisages the job would go to a candidate with "proven achievement and credibility as a senior journalist and/or broadcaster".)

It's one of three new GM roles proposed to staff by Thompson. The others are General Manager Radio (Radio NZ National, Radio NZ Concert, Broadcast of Parliament, Scheduling) and General Manager Digital (radionz.co.nz, The Wireless, apps and other online products, "visual journalism", online platforms and content management systems).

The remaining three groups would be headed by GMs of communications and customer, technology (IT and transmission) and business services, which reflect existing roles.

A background paper circulated to staff earlier this month says the rationale for change is that "the future of content delivery is digital multi-media, and multi-platform" and describes problems with "a lack of a collaborative culture", poorly-defined responsibilities and "a lack of opportunity and reward for staff ... Radio New Zealand is radio-centric and has yet to value and invest in digital opportunities." 

The need for Radio New Zealand to increase both the size and diversity of its audience is emphasised throughout the material distributed to staff.

The proposal carries through on Thompson's recent commentary about the slow, steady decline of the traditional broacast radio audience and the need to prepare for a multi-channel, multimedia future.

The widespread redundancies predicted in some quarters don't seem to be reflected in the documents, which say only that "some senior management jobs will be dis-established". All affected staff will be able to apply for the new roles, but they will also be open to outsiders.

Inevitably, some concern will focus on what could be seen as a demotion of the position of news -- and perhaps a move to news managerialism. The General Manager of Content will have very broad responsibilities, from news to drama and music.

There is a role of News Editor overseeing reporting teams, Morning Report and Checkpoint -- but the Parliamentary Gallery team and a Specialist Reporting/Editorial Policy Manager (responsible for the Special Correspondents in Health, Education, etc.) would report directly to the Content GM and not a Head of News.

The lack of opportunities for career advancement with Radio New Zealand is an issue of long standing and this shakeup certainly provides those opportunities in the short term. In the longer term, perhaps it provides more paths for advancement.

We can only hope that the proposed changes don't break things that don't need fixing. Compared to the dogs-breakfast content management systems in the newspaper world from which Thompson hails, Radio New Zealand's automated system is remarkably effcient. We take it for granted that we can access an on-demand version of an item on Checkpoint within minutes of its live broadcast, but that kind of automation is fairly miraculous.

On the other hand, most of what's on the Radio New Zealand website is repurposed radio content. So what could be a substantial story today on the leak of a memo on what looks like a developing debacle around the new Crown Company Health Benefits Limited is sold short online with not much more than a newsbrief.

But will a management restructure provide the resources required to develop news delivery for non-radio platforms? The documents make clear that Thompson's transformation will have to take place under existing budgets -- which reflect the funding freeze of the past six years. If the expansion assumes that it will be posssible to get even more work out of already modestly-paid editorial staff, I'm not sure it's going to succeed.

The other thing Thompson and his staff will surely wish to avoid is the awful dysfunction of the news management structure at TVNZ, which is the product of some similar ideas about content. But surely nothing they do could be that bad.

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