Duncan Greive spends the day at TV3 before the debut of Newsworthy, a show staffed and fronted by young people who’ve finally got a turn at the wheel.
In a dark room, David Farrier sits silently, watching himself intently. The on-screen David Farrier is draped across a wooden bench in a wooden room, the sweat pouring off him. They’re editing something called ‘The Sauna Sessions’, for the debut episode of Newsworthy, airing in seven hours’ time. The on-screen Farrier looks years older and near death, but remains committed to the task at hand, thrusting his microphone up toward his subject, Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. The Sauna Sessions is a concept so foolish only Farrier could have dreamed it up: take popular figures and interview them in a sauna, while wearing a suit.
A little earlier I’d watched a test run, wherein Farrier had interviewed the comedians and ‘Worst Idea of All Time’ podcast hosts Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery in the same sauna. All three were puddles on the floor by its close. Craig though, as befits his reptilian reputation, looks relaxed and composed more than 20 minutes into the session, a faint sheen on his face the only clue that he’s in such a fetid environment. The only time he looks like he’s properly perspiring is when he’s talking about marginal tax rates.
Farrier and Calkin Rameka, the piece’s editor, are here to “bang something out”, as Farrier puts it, or “make some historic television”, as an older colleague corrects. Farrier entered the sauna be-suited, though by the end he’s shirtless and shoeless, and has time for one more question. He starts off phrasing it delicately, asking Craig about a situation which occurred during the tail end of the campaign which has been subject of much innuendo in the comments sections of certain political blogs. Craig’s rarely been asked about it, but Farrier, perhaps affected by the heat, follows up by phrasing it very directly. There’s a firm, unequivocal denial. The tension passes. The pair embrace, then shower together, wearing trousers and, in Craig’s case, business shoes.
A few cuts get it down to within shouting distance of the one minute and 40 seconds it’s slated for. Shortly after the show’s producer Jono Hutchison wanders in to watch it through. Hutchison’s slight and pale, wearing a slim suit and extremely skinny tie. He’s part of what those who work on the show refer to as the ‘holy trinity’ of Newsworthy, along with Farrier and Hayes, and while he’s produced news for years, this is the first show that he’s truly owned, and is thus both tense and exhilarated at this point. He’s also concerned about the final question, and asks them to leave it in while he runs it past a few people. Farrier wasn’t worried either way, but Hutchison is at pains to do the right thing wherever possible, even in an environment like the current MediaWorks, which can feel actively hostile to that idea.
An hour earlier 11 people had crammed into a cramped conference room adjacent to the TV3 newsroom for Newsworthy’s first production meeting. Hutchison took the head of the table, with digital producer Hayden Donnell to his left, followed by Sam Hayes in a linen shirt and Farrier in a Flying Nun tee shirt, shorts and no shoes.
The other side of the table is made up of various staff involved in the show’s graphics, direction and reporting. They start by discussing stories with which the website will launch. There are the TV3 debuts of both Farrier and Hayes, the latter aged 17 and interviewing Megadeth. There’s an advice column, ‘You Literally Can’, which exists to make fun of teenagers misuse of the word ‘literally’, and the big scoop – a column by Farrier discussing how much he hates his bird, Keith, a parrot and minor instagram celebrity.
The featured guest of the evening is Neil Finn, who’ll be playing a song to close. I promised Darryn [Fouhy, the show’s director] I wouldn’t do live music for weeks,” says Hutchison, looking guilty. “And it’s there in our first show.”
“I talked to Dave about that this morning, in the kitchen,” says Hayes of Finn’s interview. “If you didn’t know,” quips Farrier, “Sam and I live together.” No one in New Zealand does not know that anymore, thanks to its being the hook to all Newsworthy coverage to this point. They discuss how to use the song – could he play the weather music? Finn is asked later – it’s a firm no.
Tonight they’re scheduled to be on air at 10.25. “We really need to be on air at 10.30 every night,” says Hayes. It’s not going to happen. “Paul Henry couldn’t get it done.” If Paul Henry can’t get something done at MediaWorks, it is surely outside the laws of physics.
Jesse Peach is on the line from Wellington, complaining about the Milo recipe change coverage. Lots of murmured agreement, but no story commission. Today’s features are locked in: Farrier’s “super gross” Sauna Session and a far more serious one from Hayes, on the battle to allow cannabinoid oils to be used on Alex Renton to try and ameliorate his seizures. They’re using some footage from a series of reports she’s conducted for 3D, to air in the future.
This comes from a desire to have new news, rather than just replaying 6pm coverage. That would’ve been the easy option, but Hutchison in particular seems at pains to ensure that Newsworthy is different to the average late night bulletin. Farrier’s weird stuff will form part of that, but so will exploiting Hayes’ credentials and experience as a feature reporter. That balance is one they want to see as a defining element of the show, and have manifest itself in this debut.
“People are going to be watching tonight thinking that they’ll see what we’ll be doing forever,” says Hutchison. “So it’s important to have some meaty news in there.” After 25 brisk, efficient minutes the meeting wraps, and everyone scatters to desks and edit suites. There’s exactly seven hours until they’re live.
While Farrier is cutting up Craig in the sauna, Hayes is scripting her cannabis oil story in front of a pair of Acer monitors. One plays segments of her hour long interview with Renton’s mother Rose, the other is filled with a depressing series of windows, which need filling with words. She’s finding it hard work. “All I want to do is write the long version,” she says. During the earlier meeting she talked about the difficulty of shrinking her work. “I haven’t cut anything shorter than 13 minutes in two years,” she said. “So how long have I got?”
“A minute twenty,” replied Hutchison with a smile. Now she’s scratching for seconds. “That’s better. Six seconds, not 16.” Hayes is very earnest about all this stuff, proud of the fact that she and 3D have earned the credibility to be allowed access to Renton’s hospital bed. “We’re the only ones who have this footage,” she says.
That’s a reflection of the credibility the TV3 news operation has developed over 25 years, during which this private company has often had the most agenda-setting broadcast newsroom in the country. It’s a pleasantly egalitarian place, with stains on the carpet, mismatched furniture and Hilary and Mike typing away at a pair of adjacent desks across the room. They sit directly opposite Donnell, who started at the company on Thursday. I wonder briefly about who might have occupied it prior to to Donnell – John Campbell, perhaps? He’s gone, but his show’s signage lives on. Campbell Live’s posters remain up on edit suites, which feels like a small act of defiance by the journalists who work there. Hutchison, who has been very open about his immense admiration for Campbell, seems aware of the extra scrutiny all the channel’s news product is under at this point.
He reluctantly turns down the idea of putting a donation page on screen at one point, perhaps aware of the criticism Campbell Live copped at times of becoming Givealittle Live. Or perhaps he just wants Newsworthy to have its own distinct identity. A thornier issue is the Colin Craig situation, and he enters a conference room where Farrier and Donnell are discussing the website, to discuss it.
“I ran it past [TV3 head of news Mark] Jennings,” he says. “We agreed that we’re not going to use it.” It’s bold but probably correct call – the short term gain of a news scoop weighed against the long term brand erosion through the question’s tabloid air. The following day Hutchison emailed me to elaborate on the reasoning, saying it bothered him that the person Craig was being asked about “has no say in the matter, and bringing up unfounded gossip puts her in a really horrible position”.
Hutchison seems to sweat every decision: even the channel’s YouTube password is generated by an encryption app and is 30 unintelligible characters long, including the memorable segment “UB)cf&Ncm”. It takes Farrier four tries to get it right. “Jono: he’s cool, but sometimes he’s uncool,” says Farrier. “This is one of the times he’s uncool.”
Farrier’s getting into their YouTube channel so he can upload a 30 second cut of the Colin Craig interview. They’ve been working so hard on figuring out what the show is that they’ve barely thought about promoting it. Thankfully MediaWorks’ core competency is promoting MediaWorks products. They’ve arranged for the 6pm news to throw to Farrier and Hayes at its conclusion, and Hayes is doing Duncan Garner on RadioLive at 5.45pm.
The chaos is real, but so’s the excitement. These kids – the whole crew are under 40 – are figuring this thing out for themselves. “It’s an incredible undertaking,” says Donnell. “And it’s a huge amount of trust for Mark Jennings to invest in young people. Who are talented, but really haven’t done anything like this before.”
That’s true. But there’s also a sense that it’s their time. TV3 has always had a great eye for talent, and its newsroom has worked hard to develop it. Now it’s Hayes and Farrier’s turn, and those working alongside them think they’re good and ready. “Jono’s fucking good,” Rameka tells Farrier after Hutchison leaves the edit suite. “The general consensus was that when we saw you three’s names associated with it that we knew it would be mean.”
I return to the newsroom a little before 10pm. Donnell pours some wine, while Hayes eats a mandarin. Farrier walks in, wearing a blazer over a t-shirt, and now shoes. It’s time to head down to the fourth floor, the subterranean studios from which Newsworthy and all the other news product transmits. We emerge from the lift and I glimpse Neil Finn waiting patiently in the green room. Hutchison and I turn left to the control room, while Hayes and Farrier head straight on into the studio.
There are two desks, one helmed by director Darryn Fouhy, the other by Hutchison, with director’s assistant Monique Luker perched at a smaller station in between. A bunch of screens play various cameras, along with One’s late news show, testament to the forever war which exists between the channels. The atmosphere is tense, but alive with anticipation too. Everyone’s excited about seeing their plans finally roll out on screen. Hayes and Farrier appear on the monitors, getting their microphones attached. Hayes is all business, reading headlines to check her voice. Farrier is being a dork, saying the name Spagnolo over and over, in increasingly operatic terms. Spagnolo is the freshly-fired chief of staff for the Green’s. Now he sounds like a new and particularly corny brand of pasta sauce.
“Just remember,” says Hutchison, “Spagnolo has just lost his job. Don’t make his day worse.”
“SPAGGGGNNNNNOLLLO,” responds Farrier. He is incredibly relaxed: when all around are wound extremely tight, he’s almost too loose. But it helps everyone else involved de-tense a little. Hayes looks at the pair in a monitor, and realises too late a fashion error. “I promise guys – next time I’m not going to wear a top that’s the same colour as the background,” she says. “Shit.” It makes her head seem like it’s floating, disembodied, in the pretty blue scree of the backdrop. But it’s not a terrible head, and besides, it can’t be helped at this point..
With two minutes until they go live, they find out the credits of the movie are forcing them to air three minutes late. Prolonged agony. They crawl across the screen. “These credits are so long,” says Hutchison. Farrier remains an oasis of calm. “Can I hold a pen? Is that alright?”
Then, finally, the big moment. Credits roll. “Kia ora and welcome to Newsowrthy…”
The show closes. “Boom, that’s us,” says Fouhy. “Well done Jono.” Jono looks like he’s been shooting free throws with the game on the line for 30 minutes straight. But the last one went in – he’s washed out, but elated, theatrically drying his palms on his suit. His dad texts him straight away: “Seamless and classy with a touch of Farrier craziness :-)”
Which is pretty much how it went. The story mix felt right, Finn was terrific talent and his closing song – a haunting ‘Distant Sun’ – gave the debut an air of consequence. We wander through to the studio. Finn tells a great story involving English TV institution Richard and Judy and a two strum-long TV appearance. Farrier says Kim Dotcom is thinking about joining him in the sauna.
They’re thrilled by what they’ve done, but more so by what they have the license to do. For this channel, which has been so derided, and this newsroom, which has lost its lion, the birth of Newsworthy means something. It’s not hard news, and it’s not changing lives. But it’s a small group of people, all the same age and with a shared goal, setting out to make something meaningful in the midst of this chaotic era. I leave them to drink wine, high five and debrief.
The next day, they got up and did it all again.
Newsworthy airs on TV3, each weeknight at around 10.30pm
Full disclosure: I went to journalism school with David Farrier and Hayden Donnell, and have played basketball with Donnell and Hutchison. All three have written for The Spinoff at least once.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.