Mediaworks' decision to replace its longtime news chief Mark Jennings with Hal Crawford, hitherto editor-in-chief and publisher of the Australian Ninemsn website, buys the company the kind of strategic expertise in digital publishing that – witness the Scout debacle – it has clearly been lacking.
It also deprives Mediaworks of a news manager with deep and locally unparalleled experience in broadcasting, the sector which currently delivers nearly all the company's revenue.
The space Crawford will have to fill consists not only of that understanding of broadcast news, but of the loyalty Jennings has shown – and thus had reciprocated – to his journalists. On The Spinoff, Hayden Donnell finds some evidence that Crawford himself has commanded loyalty among his staff at what appears to have been a troubled workplace (read the comments here). We can presume he knows how to use the internet well enough to have done due diligence on his new gig. It does bear noting that TVNZ has had a fairly sorry history with Aussie news executives flown in from sinking ships.
Crawford's most important skills lie in the relationship between the news and what the rest of us do with it. He's the co-founder of the website Share Wars ("How sharing changes news and those who tell it") and the related book All Your Friends Like This: How Social Networks Took Over News, which its publisher declares "does for the media what Freakonomics did for economics."
In a business increasingly being managed by people with no meaningful media experience, Crawford is a journalist and an editor (he's also an industry rep on the Australian Press Council). That's a good thing. But a quick look at NineMSN's home page – entertainers, viral video, sharks, extreme weather – underlines the fact that his job has been to present headlines we'll click on and share, rather than in conventional news and current affairs.
This is not a unique philosophy. In the past two months, the home page of the New Zealand Herald's website has been increasingly dominated by clickbait. In the hour after it was revealed yesterday that bomb threats had been made against several New Zealand schools, its lead story was the weirdly irrelevant tale of a woman in Texas who "publicly shamed" her racist father on Twitter, lifted whole from The Daily Mail.
So Crawford will arrive with the task of increasing revenue from what is not only a small market, but a crowded one. Would it not have made more sense to give him his own digital fiefdom, rather than putting him in charge of the broadcast business too? Did he regard that as too junior a role to bother with? Was Jennings unwilling to share with Weldon's pick? Did Weldon himself decide this non-trivial change of skillsets was what the company needed? We don't know.
Mediaworks' own Newshub reported the news via a corporate press release which says Jennings "will remain engaged in the near term in a mentoring capacity with the TV-led flagship brands." Crawford, meanwhile, seems to be setting up for a long and transformative stay:
"I am tremendously excited to join MediaWorks, and the Newshub team. The strategy of a fully converged TV, radio and digital brand, and a brand born outside the history of any particular platform is unique globally. This is an opportunity to move beyond the delivery method and focus on the stories and the audience. I am looking forward to meeting the team and working with everyone at MediaWorks -- senior leaders, producers, journalists -- to shape Newshub over the coming years."
Whether ditching existing brands for one without history is a good strategy we don't really know yet. Crawford's first job might be to get any of us to feel anything in particular about Newshub.
But one final caution. Sharing the news doesn't always go the way you want. Yesterday, the Herald reported the news by compiling tweets about it, including mine:
Mark Jennings, best and most influential news manager of his generation, has left MediaWorks. That feels like more than the end of an era.— Russell Brown (@publicaddress) February 24, 2016
Before long, BuzzTeller, "a multi-social publisher of interesting facts, trending gist, motivational and top stories" (ie: click factory) had lifted the story, and, apparently, run it through a translator and back. My tweet came out like this:
It is indeed a brave new world.