The importance of unbiased journalism has been highlighted over recent years, of course with certain examples of voter manipulation and fake news. At the same time, the industry has faced unprecedented pressure from disruptive forces and new business models. It’s not all bad news though. We might still continue to make Mark Zuckerberg rich, local media organisations are evolving and cementing their relationship with New Zealand audiences and their place as a reflective, local voice.
Photography By Damien Van Der Vlist
Leading this charge for New Zealand’s largest news organisation is Stuff CEO, Sinead Boucher. Under Sinead’s leadership, Stuff’s stable of newspapers, magazines and number one news site, Stuff.co.nz, has grown record audience numbers and was named New Zealand’s most influential publishing brand.
I’m really interested in your perspective of diversity and inclusion in the media industry.
News media, newspapers and TV were once very male-dominated. When I joined the industry, there were quite a few women reporters but only the occasional female editor.
Now, over half of our editorial workforce at Stuff is female. Even the journalism schools are getting many more female students coming through and most of our senior editors are females.
There is a pretty even balance. Even on my executive team, it’s about half and half. But even beyond gender, one of the big things we’ve tried to push in the last few years is to get more ethnic diversity into journalism, because that’s actually been really hard. We need to work from our end and the news industry’s end to encourage that.
Only a few years ago, we were interviewing someone for our intern programme, who went on to become a fantastic journalist. She had a Tongan background and she told us how unhappy her family were about her pursuing journalism because it was really not part of her cultural background to challenge authority. There are different reasons why people don’t go into different professions and they’re not all what you might think.
I think we’ve got a diverse team here now across the business.
Our Head of People & Culture, Annamarie Jamieson, has created the most incredible programmes for us. One of her big initiatives when we moved into this building a couple of years ago was to launch a coffee business which is staffed by deaf baristas, so our staff order their coffees in sign language. She had been talking to someone who was deaf and described how hard it was to get employment, particularly in that kind of role.
She’s introduced another program called Creative Spirit which offers proper jobs to people with intellectual disabilities. She thinks about what we can practically do to help somebody get into the workforce, but also help our company. Her initiatives have really changed the mix of people that have come in.
Mostly, it’s about focusing on the ‘I’ side of D&I – but proper inclusion. That means becoming a more inclusive, accessible organisation so that anybody, regardless of their background or challenges they may face, is able to join and feel part of the team.
In terms of what you’re saying about the shift at universities and the graduates coming through, that’s been a real external thing.
I remember a couple of years ago I spoke to one young man who was a student and literally the only guy in his journalism class. Something which is a worry for us, is that a lot of the young people going into journalism school have already planned on a career in PR or communications. For them, journalism is a stepping-stone into that as an ultimate destination, rather than actually wanting to become journalists. That can be for all sorts of reasons – not least, some of the uncertainty that swirls around the industry.
That in itself is something really important for us to tackle because we need to make sure that bright, interesting, curious people want to choose journalism as a career where they can feel satisfied, and that they’re contributing to something – but can also have job certainty as well.
Is there anything that other industries could take from the shift that’s happening? Is it just about standing back and letting the universities deal with it?
As a company, you can’t just stand back and expect an external institution to do the things that are going to enable you to ultimately become a more diverse business. Companies need to be active and proactive, in the same way that we would speak to educational institutions about what skills are needed in a modern journey. We try to influence what the curriculum is so that people are building the skills they need for their prospective jobs.
If we don’t think that there is adequate attention being paid to the mix of students in the first place, that’s something we could also focus on. The biggest issue for journalism schools at the moment is making sure they’re attracting enough people of the right calibre into the industry, no matter what background they are, because there are fewer people applying to go into those courses in the first place.
There’s data and research that shows if you have better representation of your market, then you do better.
I think that is so vital for a news organisation, certainly one like Stuff. With its scale of audience and different publications that reach the entire country, we have to be able to reflect that back. Our readers need to be able to see themselves or something that’s relevant to them in the coverage we produce.
News organisations need to pay very close attention to that because otherwise they risk becoming a homogenous view of what’s important. We’ve got newsrooms and newspapers, not only in the big cities, but in lots of small places. The perspective of what’s important, what people are grappling with in those small towns, is totally different to what matters to people in Wellington or Auckland.
Do you feel like there’s been an evolution in terms of that relationship between the media organisation and the community?
I think there’s definitely been an evolution and to be honest, there had to be. When you scroll back to the pre-digital days, news organisations were focused on ‘This is what we think is important and this is the view of the world.’ That’s not the way it works.
People can consume information and news from all kinds of sources. They can contribute, they can have their own platforms and become influencers in their own right. We really had to reassess what it is about a news or journalistic organisation that’s going to be relevant to this generation and that will keep us relevant and contributing something valuable to the community that we serve.
One of my favorite examples of how that has changed is a project that our Nelson Mail editor, Victoria Guild, started a couple of years ago. As the editor of a local newspaper, her role is to tackle the issues that are important to her community and hold local authorities to account or make sure stories are being told.
One of the big problems they were having in that region was a complete infestation of wasps. It was happening in the native forests, which are large tourism areas and it was having an impact on people’s experiences in those forests. It was damaging our native wildlife, and the whole ecosystem had been affected.
Victoria did a lot of incredible work on reporting on that issue. She then went a step further by finding a local provider who was making a special bait to kill wasps, and she crowdfunded through the newsroom to raise enough money to cover the region in bait. She activated our readers to get involved and to help distribute the bait. The community worked together and DOC verified that they eradicated between 95-99 percent of wasps.
It’s a different role for a newsroom. It’s not a news organisation’s job to tell communities what’s important to them. It’s their job to help communities deal with issues that are arising – that’s the modern way of doing it. But I think that has been a real deliberate reassessment of what role news organisations could and should play in a community.
In the media industry, we have a really unique position as we spend time focusing on what the audiences are into and what some of the motivations or problems are. Have you got an overall sense of the New Zealand psyche at the moment?
There’s been a deep underlying concern among New Zealanders about the growth in inequality and the impact on the poorest among us. That’s definitely something we pick up as a theme, urban or small town.
In the last year or so, one of the things we’ve really identified and responded to has been an increasing awareness of the climate crisis and the broader issues that come out of that – the impact on biodiversity, rising sea levels. Different elements of that worry people in different ways. Some people are worried about the rising sea levels because they live in coastal areas – while others are worried about their children’s future.
A year ago, our editorial team launched a dedicated climate section and the traffic from that coverage went from around 15,000 unique visitors to 700,000 unique visitors, super quickly. There was a real appetite to understand more about the issue, and to see what the solutions might be.
Our role is to try and identify the important things, small or big, local or national. We need to make sure we’re doing a really good job covering that for people and trying to champion those causes to people in power, on behalf of our communities.
Does it instill optimism in you that there’s capacity for the community to really rally together?
Absolutely, it does. And we see it in countless ways. One of the great privileges of being in a news organisation is that people let you into their lives, both at their lowest points and also at their best.
Particularly in those stories where someone is experiencing some form of tragedy, despair or hardship – you can guarantee that once that story has gone out, New Zealand will rally to help solve that problem, provide somebody what they need and help them through that.
I love that about New Zealand, that definitely gives me optimism. The wasp issue is a perfect example of our ability to facilitate knowledge and bring issues to public attention and show why things matter or what you can do about it.
For the community to be able to actually do something that makes a physical, tangible difference really fills me with optimism. We’ve seen the same mood behind our climate coverage. No matter what people’s personal reasons for thinking it’s a concern, the overarching response back from our audiences is, ‘Thank you for helping us see the solutions.’
There’s a sense of ‘What can we personally do? What can our government do?’ People don’t want us to give them a doom clock to count down. It’s us, helping them to see what’s ahead.
Can you talk about the psychological burden or the weight journalists feel when reporting on some of the more tragic stories?
That’s always been a part of the job of a journalist, you sometimes have to deal with some nasty stuff. More recently, with reporters covering cases like the Grace Millane trial – you hear and see a lot of really hard details.
In years gone by, the response to that would have been, ‘Oh, she’ll be right.’ But now we’re much more acutely aware of the impact that can have on people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing – I think there’s been a real shift.
Our Christchurch newsroom is a phenomenal team who’ve carried us and the community through a lot of difficult times. During the earthquake, our building partially collapsed and one of our staff members died. And the editorial team’s job was to get out and cover the story, while they were also worried about their own families and what was happening – they were experiencing the disaster as well – but they did such a superb job.
Following those events, I rang up the editor of a New Orleans paper and talked to him about what had happened after Hurricane Katrina, in terms of their staff’s mental health. He gave me some good advice about how they’ll all be fine at the time and then a few months later, the cracks will start to appear and you need to be ready for that.
That helped us to put in whatever support we could for our staff who were involved. And for their families, in some cases, because they’re also dealing with their loved one being out in the field in a dangerous situation.
It has really helped us over those years. Whenever a major event happens now, we think about what our staff will need in support. It’s not always at a big disaster level either. It can be the young photographer who’s seen many road accidents, or the police reporter who’s talked to many families of murder victims.
All those people are humans with a deep capacity for empathy, which is what makes them good journalists. That takes a toll on them. We have to make sure people understand that it’s okay to talk about that.
They’re not just the tough reporter out in the field – we’re all humans. I think that’s been a really big shift in the way we try to view the impact of hard things on journalists. Newsrooms are still, compared to a lot of offices, a very colourful place. There’s a lot of slightly risque humour. But all the rough edges of what might’ve been there before have gone. Journalists are very supportive of each other and aware of the impact that different kinds of news has on them.
Have you got any advice, from an organisational point of view, for any mechanisms to put in place to deal with stress and mental health issues?
In our own organisation, not everyone is dealing with the particular kind of stress that journalists deal with. But they are dealing with being in an industry that’s undergone huge disruption and has had waves of redundancies over the years.
It can be hard to see where the job path is in five years. That can cause enormous stress for people in terms of their own livelihoods and certainty around being able to pay the mortgage and rent. You can’t underestimate the effect of things like that – and so we’ve tried to look at “best practice”.
On one hand, our advice is to be very open and talk about it all the time, so that people know that it’s a normal part of the conversation, and something you can raise with your manager or colleague if you’re feeling stressed or worried.
Beyond that, we’ve got all sorts of support depending on what people need, and an external employee assistance provider that can connect people to different types of counselling. For some people, it could be around financial planning. For others, it can be more about dealing with the impact of reporting on tough issues and events.
We’ve tried to balance the fact that we can’t really do a lot about some of the external noise around what’s happening to media. So, what can we do? We can make sure people understand the purpose of who we are as an organisation, what our work can achieve and the value that journalism can contribute to a healthy democracy and society.
Everyone here plays a role in that. Recently, the investigative team, after spending a year on the story and going to Afghanistan, broke a big investigation about the deaths caused by ordinance leftover at the New Zealand deployment base. That produced an immediate response from the government and the defense force and a commitment to go and clean that up.
We try to make sure everyone here knows they’ve played a part in us being able to do this story. Whether it’s a salesperson who’s bringing in advertising money that funds that journalism or a product person who’s working on the story formats and tech that can allow us to produce that. It takes our whole team to get to that point.
We try to connect everyone into the sense of purpose that we have as an organisation. Even when there’s rough stuff happening, it’s critical to not lose sight of what you’re contributing. We’re all really fortunate to be in a position to feel that we can contribute positively to the wider community.
We’ve also tried to introduce policies that make it easy for people and don’t add to the stress that people might already be experiencing at home. That’s everything from running a flexible working policy for everybody in the business around where you work and what kind of hours. My executives and I are trying to be open about prioritising going to school activities with our kids or leaving early to pick them up when we need to.
But that’s not just senior roles, everybody in the company should feel they can do those things. We want to be vocal about it and do things like extending parental leave beyond the government minimum.
We also have a strong domestic violence policy for our staff experiencing that and consider what we can do to help them. That ranges from giving them cell phones that their partners might not know about, to financial support, to connecting them to help. Often the stress that our staff are feeling is not coming from work, it’s coming from everything else that’s going on as well.
Is there a balance between mitigating stress, flexible working hours, a great environment, purpose and performance?
Ultimately, our ambition is to be a high performance, high output, high impact company across the board. Our policies and initiatives are the right things to do as a modern employer – but it’s nothing special, we’re not doing anything that others haven’t put into place. Instead it’s about creating an environment that allows people to perform at their very best, which as a company, selfishly means the output is better, the thinking is better. We’re a creative industry, and the creativity flows better too.
Flexible working doesn’t mean working from home all day, doing all your housework, and checking your email occasionally. Nobody, that I’m aware of, has abused those privileges.
I myself do like to take a day to work from home, away from all the noise and distraction to get through some things or come in late because I’ve taken my child to the dentist. It really is all swings and roundabouts. You try and treat people with respect and acknowledgement that they’ve got full lives in various ways. They return the favour in terms of the work and the input that they give.
That word ‘purpose’ is coming up more and more across many industries, particularly in terms of attracting new talent.
I think it’s so important. Our purpose is to help Kiwis connect and thrive in their communities. It’s worded like that because it covers everything we do, from the journalism, to platforms like Neighbourly, which is about connecting communities and neighbourhoods. It’s about us helping small businesses connect customers. It fits in that way.
The wording is reasonably modern, but it’s what our organisation has done for the last 160 years. They didn’t talk about purpose and vision and value many years ago, but essentially, that’s what our role is. That has not changed over those years.
How do you personally deal with stress?
I don’t know whether it’s my editorial background, or I’m just fortunate to be someone who can let things roll off me once I get home, but I always try to keep things in perspective.
I’m lucky I’ve got a really supportive husband who’s full time at home. He used to be a journalist as well – we met at journalism school many years ago.
I’ve got two kids and when I walk in the door, they don’t care about anything that I’ve done during the day. I try to not be sitting there checking my email at night, creating a barrier to spending time with them.
People often say to me, ‘Oh, it must be such a stressful job being the CEO.’ I actually think it’s less stressful when you’re at a seniority level where you can delegate to people, you can arrange meetings around the times that might suit you. You’re more in control of your day, your weekend, your month than someone who might be just starting out or who might have a manager chasing them for results.
There are many more stressful times in your career than being the person who gets to have everything organised around them. It’d be far more stressful for someone in one of our lower paid roles, who hasn’t got the luxury of somebody else at home to deal with things.
I often look at people in our team who I know are dealing with a lot of stuff in their personal life; health problems, children, trying to get from A to B – I’m amazed at how they do that and keep such a positive attitude.
But you must have more of a weight of responsibility, right?
The weight of responsibility is not necessarily the same as stress. Definitely, I feel the weight of the responsibility to ensure that the company is delivering back what our shareholders want from it, but also to make sure we can sustain purpose and journalism right into the future.
There’s a weight of responsibility, but I think that’s a slightly more abstract thing than a stressful reaction to it. You’ve got to take that weight seriously, that’s why you’re here. I also think you have to be objective and approach it from that point of view.
My responsibility is to do these things and I definitely feel the responsibility around, not only what our owners need from us, but what our staff need from me in terms of some surety around their livelihoods.
There’s also the responsibility around what the communities need, whose newspaper might’ve been there for 160 years. All the decisions that come along with that are not ones you can take lightly, but you’re being paid to make those decisions.
There’s been a lot of criticism about the Commerce Commission being oblivious to global competition and so focused on minimising monopolies here. Do we need to wake up a little bit and really look at what is happening here with the local industry and how much pressure there is from overseas?
It’s not for me to criticise the Commerce Commission’s perspective on things. The reality is news media have been one of the first and most disrupted industries in the digital revolution over the last 10 to 15 years.
It’s not the internet per se, but the last decade has been particularly challenging for us because as a business, we have been able to build a much bigger audience and have been able to make a whole lot of new revenue from digital that we never had.
The real concern for us has been the rise of the social platform. I can’t blame Google or Facebook for disrupting our business model because, ultimately, consumers choose what they want to consume.
What I do worry about is that the news media and social media are not the same in terms of what we do and the role we serve. News media provide a fundamental service for people and communities, but we’re competing with social platforms for advertising funding. Digital advertising has grown and the lion’s share of that has gone to those social platforms at the expense of news media.
That diminishes our ability to produce the kind of journalism that is about showing people truths, and gives a trusted, honest, balanced perspective. It’s enabling the funding, particularly in the case of Facebook, of a platform that is facilitating the opposite to that. We’ve all heard of fake news, it’s a term that’s been thrown around a lot this last year, but it’s not the news industry that is disseminating fake news.
It’s malicious groups, individuals, or bots, via social platforms – in particular Facebook. Increasingly, we’re trying to be more vocal about the differences between a journalistic-based organisation and a social platform, both because we’re concerned about the increasing undermining of democracy and what’s the truth in a platform of global reach and the power that it has.
As the fourth estate, we’re concerned about that because we’ve seen countless examples of massacres and violence being livestreamed, as in Christchurch, and private data being used to undermine election processes or facilitate what ends up being genocide.
We’re the opposite of that. As journalists, we must abide a strong code of ethics that our newsrooms adhere to that’s all about fairness, accuracy, and balance. The funding of that journalism is increasingly hard to find, while Facebook is essentially, through its advertising, facilitating this spread of really worrying behaviour.
The answer for us as a business is to be proud and loud about the value of the work we do and why it’s important. There’s a balance in how you do that in a way that doesn’t just sound self-serving.
We’ve seen in the States, in particular, where many newspapers have closed down over recent years and a lot of research that shows that when news organisations leave a town, there is an immediate rise in corruption, a drop off of civic engagement, a rise in nepotism. Those things flash up because there’s a loss of a watchdog there.
It’s really important that we keep journalism strong and healthy at every level, local and national. You’ll have seen over the last few years, there’s new business models being followed, such as an increase in online news subscriptions. Even though there’s some promising things coming through, it’s a much smaller amount in terms of dollars than it might take to fund the journalism that different people produce at scale and to the same level.
That’s the weight of responsibility; we have to find a way to make sure we keep doing that. I probably have become stronger and more vocal in the last several months about trying to show advertisers that if they spend their advertising money with news media, we reach all New Zealanders and can give great results for their business. They’ll also be contributing to work that has a positive and definite impact on a healthy community and democracy. It might be easy, there might be all sorts of complicated data about “value for money” spending on a social platform like Facebook, but they’re actually enabling the funding of some pretty detrimental things.
One of the things that’s concerning to our industry more broadly is that even our own government spends massive amounts of money on those platforms. Shifting that back into local media or platform would make a material difference to being able maintain quality journalism.
On one hand, we have our Prime Minister rallying world leaders behind the Christchurch call and trying to regulate the behaviour of social platforms closely. But on the other hand, our own government is also funding and enabling these social platforms. We’re not trying to close down Facebook’s business, but I do think there needs to be more of a level playing field.
Facebook, no matter what they say, is a publisher. And what they publish has a massive influence on the people who consume it. They have to be able to take responsibility and be held accountable in the same way that a news publisher would be.
We’re successfully regulated by the media council, where people can complain and hold us to account. We have to make sure we’re not breaching any kind of defamation laws and we pay tax. I don’t know if you’ve seen the article that Sacha Baron Cohen wrote for The Washington Post, but that really summed up a lot of our own concerns about the impact of those platforms.
There’s something really fundamental going on beyond revenue. There’s a real shift in power away from platforms with a really defined code of ethics.
I fundamentally disagree with the comeback – ‘Oh, You can’t blame Facebook for the problems of the news media.’ I’m not blaming Facebook, we live in a society where any business can start up and if they’re providing a service that customers think has value, then fine. It’s the way the world works.
Where I really object, is the broader impact that they can have on our democracy and our society. It’s the complete opposite from news media, which is a pillar of a healthy democracy. There’s an uneven playing field around how you can operate, how you’re funded and the implications of the work that you produce.
I do think that the government is concerned about it, but we’d like to see a more urgent movement around things that could introduce a more level playing field. Both from a regulatory point of view on the social platforms, but also on the types of things that could make it much easier for news organisations to remain on that sound financial footing.
For example, in Canada they’ve introduced measures like tax breaks for people who have new subscriptions or tax breaks for companies based on the number of journalists they have. Spending your own government advertising money to support that is one easy one. It’s not about asking for a hand-out or bail out, it’s about evening the playing field.
In terms of the revenue side of things, do you think there’s potential for collaboration amongst players in the industry?
The industry is very collegial in terms of recognising the major issues that we’re all facing and how we tackle those. I think you need to keep a healthy competition between your different businesses. It’s the right thing to do.
All of the media companies look for ways where we could work together to reduce costs in a certain area or a certain project, so that we’re able to focus our resources back into producing content.
An example would be that we print our papers at NZME’s printing plant. We share distribution runs. There’s no competitiveness. We’ve worked together where it makes sense.
Stuff has opened up its platform to any other publisher to put their content on. That’s because we’re of a scale similar to Facebook and Twitter. We’re the biggest Kiwi platform in New Zealand. We don’t have to act just as a publisher.
We can be a platform and open that audience for others to reach their customers and expand their audience or launch a new business off. That’s actually worked well for us, those partnerships are fantastic.
We’re happy on both sides, but it also has allowed us to bring in a lot of content that we might otherwise not have had the capacity to produce ourselves, such as Maori-focused content from Maori Television. We can give that content much greater exposure.
We have another partnership with Radio Tarana, with the Indian community. I get quite a lot of people saying to me, ‘I didn’t know you had such a big Indian team.’
They’re providing all the work and we’re giving them the platform. We have a revenue sharing partnership. Any work that another media publisher or broadcaster produces that we publish, we split the revenue.
For them, it’s often a much bigger audience and therefore more revenue than they would’ve been able to get on their own anyway, especially in that digital space. And for us, it’s great new content we’re able to spread to our audience with some extra revenue as well.
In terms of that collaboration, why doesn’t something like KPEX take off?
KPEX actually worked well for a period of time and then it got to the point where the shareholders were starting to get different business models and different priorities. Stuff was doing its thing and NZME was doing its thing. We were starting to diverge on where we were going and it just naturally ran its course.
It was a great example of collaboration between the news media companies to do something for themselves against the global platforms. I look at KPEX as being a huge success for us, but one that just came through its life cycle. At the time, programmatic formed a tiny part of the whole ad landscape and now it’s a big part of digital advertising.
It makes more sense for each company to run their own teams. As far as I can gather, I think we’ve all been pretty happy with the post-KPEX world. While we can’t and don’t want to be a Facebook or Google, we still have to be able to be sophisticated enough to provide the kind of products that advertisers actually need to reach people.
We do offer some data products and geo-targeted or demographic-targeted products. But we don’t offer that micro targeting to the same level and we don’t allow advertising that contains lies or that’s about subverting something. We keep the content at the standards that the ASA, for example, would be happy with.
Can you paint a picture of the media landscape in 10 years time?
I still think we’re in a period of enormous transition and change and in the next few years, there will be consolidation, there will be casualties. There’ll also be exciting new players, as there has been with the likes of Newsroom and The Spinoff.
We’re still in a period of change. But ultimately, I’m optimistic about the survival of journalism and local news media, which I think is essentially the most important thing that needs to be strong. Individual companies in all industries come and go. That’s the way it is. I certainly plan that we’re still here in 10 years.
I’m optimistic because I can feel a growing awareness of the peril that news organisations face and therefore the peril that our democracies and communities face. We just have to make sure that we get to the place where we our audiences, our readers, our communities can see real value in the work that we produce and are prepared to fund it.
Will print still exist?
I think it will because how many years have people been saying ‘print is dead’. During our own budget cycles and planning reviews, we always keep an eye on the health of individual products and cast ahead to the next six months, the next year.
Over the last couple of years, there have been a group of newspapers that we have closed. They’ve been very small freebie type of ones and they’ve always been in markets where we’ve either had another publication or there were three or four other publications.
But now, we’ve reached this point where we might’ve looked ahead and thought, ‘Okay, that might be the point where that print publication runs into trouble.’ But the closer we get to that, the further away that point has got.
What we’re concentrating on is how do we make print as lean and effective and as efficient to produce so that the manufacturing and distribution side of print is a well-oiled, lean machine, so that we can keep focusing on the actual reason people buy it for, which is content.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
That’s a really difficult one because I quite often reflect back on different things that people have said to me over the years. Ultimately, the best piece of advice that I’ve been given was don’t sweat the small stuff.
You’ve got to keep your eye on the big picture. I interpret that as being, remember why you’re here. Remember what you’re trying to achieve and don’t become overwhelmed by all the noise and all the things that can get in the way.
We’ll be having some sort of internal crisis about something and you have to step back and think about how much it really matters. It all boils down to that.