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How StuffMe looked from the regions

by Andrew Frame

Just after the Commerce Commission announced its rejection of Fairfax and NZME’s “#StuffMe” merger bid yesterday, Sinead Boucher, Executive Editor for Fairfax Media, tweeted her reaction. The decision was, she said, “Very disappointing for NZ journalism”.

I scoffed, because to my mind the merger going ahead threatened something very important in New Zealand journalism and media – a wide range of information and opinion from a wide range of people and places.

In the months between ComCom’s initial and final decisions New Zealand media operations had been under the spotlight. TVNZ was planning to cut costs with a “regional-focused” restructuring plan, while on Stuff they focused on how Facebook (one of the biggest threats to NZ media according to #StuffMe supporters) was affecting people’s lives and changing the media landscape.

Stuff also featured an opinion piece by former Mediaworks news chief and now Newsroom website co-founder Mark Jennings on the TVNZ restructure that got far less attention than it deserved. Because at its heart was the problem that has caused NZ media to slide down the slippery slope to this point where the newspaper companies saw merger as the only option.

Jennings was right on some points. As a "cost cutting" move this saves very little. TVNZ just spent $60 million refurbishing its Auckland headquarters, and at the quoted wage of $60,000 the network could afford to hire 16 or 17 new regional TVNZ staff for the price of their one CEO’s $1 million salary.

If TVNZ was truly serious about covering the regions it would invest far more than just one multitasking “video journalist”. It would build a studio, hire local camera, sound, editing and reporting staff – that would be a commitment to the regions.

But Jennings got one thing very wrong in his opinion piece and it drives a chronic problem in New Zealand’s broadcast media. One that has seen  viewership and advertising revenue fall and the audience rely less and less on traditional New Zealand media. Jennings doesn’t believe TVNZ having reporters in regional centres is a good idea because:

Viewers in Invercargill don’t give a toss about Whanganui’s sewage problems.

There are simply not enough stories of national significance in Nelson or Queenstown or Tauranga to justify a full-time TV reporter in those areas.

In other words: New Zealand’s regions don’t matter.

Apparently nothing newsworthy (other than the odd murder or natural disaster) exists outside of the main centres – especially Auckland, where New Zealand’s main broadcast media are based.

Auckland is indeed a big city. With around 1.4 million residents a fair bit of stuff, some of it newsworthy, happens there. But New Zealand’s population is nearing 4.5 million; less than one third of New Zealand lives in Auckland.

Yet what do we see plastered across our news websites every day and on national television news every night despite our location?

Auckland issues.

Over recent years, Auckland house prices, homelessness and traffic congestion have taken a lion’s share of national news media coverage. (Ironically, Aucklanders may not be home in time to watch 6pm news items on traffic congestion because they’re still stuck in it.)

Do those same Invercargill viewers Jennings refers to "give a toss" about those Auckland issues? Is something that might be relevant to a third of the country’s population "nationally significant" to the other two thirds?


Using Jennings’ theory, reporting on what could be a serious public health problem for the people of Whanganui caused by corporate shortcutting for profit or council graft (problems not just limited to the main centres and deserving of airing nationally so those responsible can be held to account and the same problems don’t happen elsewhere) is shelved because "no one cares about that".

Yet everyone from Cape Reinga to Bluff needs to hear about a breakdown on the North-western Motorway causing a 15-minute commuter delay?

There’s something very wrong with that ideology and it’s not just limited to New Zealand television.

Non-commercial Radio New Zealand, by comparison, does cover the entire country. Stories from regional New Zealand are commonplace and it RNZ produces them on a far smaller (and rather criminally frozen) budget than its commercial radio compatriots. It also soundly beats those same commercial networks in their almighty ratings quest.

The only gripe I would have with RNZ is that while the likes of The Panel do at least feature opinions stretching the length and breadth of New Zealand, main centre media, PR, political and pollster voices are still a bit too commonplace and not necessarily representative of a true New Zealand voice or opinion.

Aside from Radio New Zealand, the widest geographical coverage of New Zealand by network broadcasters comes from Māori Television and TVNZ’s Te Karere. Both cover Māori issues in places like Northland, East Cape, King Country, Whanganui. Māori media, at least, readily present stories of “national news significance” outside of Auckland and other main centres.

Of all broadcast media, radio has always been the most “personal”. It’s just you and your radio. Indeed, one of the first things they teach in announcer training is that you aren’t talking to hundreds or thousands of people, but to just one person listening at home, or in their car.

It used to be each regional centre had its own radio station, or two. Broadcasting was  “live and local, 24 hours a day” (I know – I did the midnight to dawn part of the 24 hours). If there was a fire in Hastings, you heard about it straight away. A crash blocked a road in Napier? They gave you detour directions as it was cleared. Some minor local celebrities were created, but it also kept you close. You often met announcers in the street.

In the 90s, profits started to take over. Individual stations were bought up, joined into networks nationally simulcast from Auckland and local content was stripped back and in many cases away completely lost.

Call your “local” station today to ask about a fire in Havelock and you will be asked “Is that Havelock near Nelson, or Havelock North in Hawke’s Bay?” There’s no longer that closeness or community, because in New Zealand media “the regions don’t matter.”

Last time I checked the reach of one of NZ’s major radio networks, it had 25 frequencies/“stations” across the country. Each broadcast five to seven different shows per day with one to two announcers hosting each show. Seventeen of those stations had a sole local announcer, usually on a breakfast show, and three stations had two local announcers – again breakfast duos. Four stations had no local announcers at all – their “local” announcer was simulcast from a neighbouring region.

In total, the network had 31 “local” announcers, given that the eight announcers who were simulcast throughout the country from the network’s main studio in Auckland were technically “local” in Auckland. This means around 158 announcing positions across the country – once covered by local broadcasters, covering local issues – are now covered by the same 8 people in Auckland.

That hardly seems fair on local listeners, local broadcasters or local issues.

But it’s no longer good enough for these Auckland-based networks to try and dominate one media platform – they must dominate all platforms across the country! We now have the same “media talent” (rather than common, decent journalists) on simulcast breakfast radio, with regular opinion columns in newspapers and websites owned by the same networks, as well as being the headline act nightly television news and current affairs shows!

As the reach of New Zealand media has expanded the range of content, opinion and input has drastically narrowed. #StuffMe would have only exacerbated that.

And it’s not just news shows.

No matter how dire, repetitive, convoluted, or just plain rubbish New Zealand’s “reality television” offerings are, the networks that screen them will still promote them and sing their praises through their print, radio and online arms.

“Hey, did you see ‘Show Z’ last night, wasn’t it great!?” they will broadcast, tweet and opine.

“Oh, look! Who just happens to be walking on to the set of “My Kitchen Garden Rebuild is New Zealand’s Top Singer” – it’s Dave and Jane from ‘Bland FM’ with the contestants’ latest challenge!”

Need a host for your new show? Why have auditions for someone new, when you can just shimmy a current staff member over from another of your network’s brands?

New Zealand’s media “talent pool” has become a puddle and it’s evaporating fast.

Can’t someone else have a turn, please?

Yes they can!

This is where the wonder of social media comes in and why our current “traditional” media networks seem so scared and threatened by it. Because the likes of Facebook are doing the job TVNZ used to do with shows like Top Half, Town and Around and Today Tonight.

The BBC, by comparison, still has regional news shows following national broadcasts and has done so for years. TVNZ and other media chould still be doing this today if things weren’t so Auckland-centric and fiscally focused.

New Zealand’s network media gave up on two thirds of New Zealand years ago. When they did, they cut out two thirds of their potential viewership and advertising revenue, because guess what? People like seeing their home town, issues relevant to them and familiar brands on the television, reading about them in the newspaper and hearing about it on the radio.

So it’s only fair that if the majority of media coverage in New Zealand ignores them, the majority of New Zealanders switched off their televisions and radios and turned to Twitter and Facebook on their computers, Ipads and smartphones for issues relevant to them.

Social media does what it says on the packet – it's social. It has a worldwide broadcast range, but it can also have the most personal of touches and community spirit. It works superbly. Ask online about that fire in Havelock and you will be told precisely where it is, when it started, how big it is and likely get pictures and video live from the scene.

People disenchanted with a lack of local coverage will create their own groups covering the news and issues important to them in their cities and regions. If traditional broadcast media’s income, reach and influence are hurt by that, then they have only themselves to blame.

Because regional New Zealand does matter. Two thirds of the country is too big to ignore. New Zealand viewers, listeners and media consumers – regional and metropolitan alike deserve better.

But what would I know – I’m from Hawke’s Bay!

Andrew Frame lives and blogs in Napier.

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