MediaJuly 4, 2024

Death of a newsroom: If only Newshub’s closure was mismanagement


The former chief news officer at Newshub reflects on, and explains, the end of a news era.

A version of this article was first published on Hal Crawford’s Substack, Crawford Media. Subscribe here.

This Friday will be the last day of broadcasting and publishing for my old newsroom, Newshub. It’s being shut down because TV is losing audience and therefore revenue, and closing the newsroom saves millions of dollars in costs. The newsroom has been operational (as 3 News) for 35 years. When I left in 2020, Newshub employed 280 news staff.

Fear and the first day

I don’t have a photo of my first day, so this is my last – in the same place (Newshub Auckland). I am on the right. Foreground are Sarah Bristow, Jack Matthews and Michael Anderson (L-R)

The first day I walked into the newsroom on Flower Street in Auckland in 2016, I was greeted by a group of people who had every reason to think I was the enemy. I’d been employed by a CEO, Mark Weldon, who many loathed on account of his approach to content and people. Before I even arrived, Mark had been forced out of the business by an across-the-board revolt. But there I was, a digital guy and an Australian, appointed chief news officer of an unequivocally TV and Kiwi newsroom.

3 News had become Newshub a few months before. It had been an enormous rebranding effort with clean graphic design and beautiful studio sets. To go with the new look they had an as-yet unborn content strategy that broke up traditional newsroom structure, replacing medium-focussed units (for example, TV reporters or radio reporters) with content-focussed units (for example, daily newsgathering) that would service multiple mediums.

I stood in front of the newsroom and told everyone we would be tearing that plan up. It was ideologically driven, rather than practical. The main problem was that the biggest single group, newsgathering, would be off the hook, too far removed from clear metrics like TV ratings and digital engagement. Evaluating the performance of the head of newsgathering, the chief resource allocator, was going to be difficult. I wanted none of that.

What I found

The Newshub branding, by Ant Farac, was beautiful, clean, and part of the reason I believed we could make a difference in NZ media.

Newsroom mythology painted Newshub as the scrappy fighter, the underdog with an ability to improvise. To a large extent I think this was accurate. There certainly was something of the youngest child about the place – cheeky, entertaining and irresponsible – and the relationship with older sibling 1 News (TVNZ) was central to newsroom identity. We were intensely competitive with TVNZ, although that competitiveness was mostly one-sided as far as I could see. That asymmetry is a classic part of the youngest kid dynamic.

Another aspect of the Newshub mythology was that we were underfunded. I struggled with that one. Underfunded compared to what? I came from digital where no choppers could be hired ever, and buying $50k news cameras would have been madness. We were spending more than $30m a year to produce our bulletins, website,and shows. Certainly, our ambition outstripped our budget – but isn’t that always the case? By the standards of TV, we did things cheaply, but the standards of TV demand high minimum spend.

When you ask TV news camera operators why they can’t make do with a DSLR, strap in for a long answer. In the end you will believe them. This is a Panasonic PX5100 and set up ready to shoot used to cost around NZ$50k.

It was those costs that would sink the place in the end. So it’s worth dwelling on exactly why TV news is so expensive. There are many different areas where high costs come in – for example, studios, camera equipment, talent costs, international content licensing, transmission – but if you take a step back there are two key factors behind the big dollars:

  • Real-time daily output
  • Original video/audio output

These two factors combine to create that high minimum spend. They seem so obvious to anyone in TV they wouldn’t understand why I am talking about them. But these are requirements not shared by other forms of news. Newshub made TV bulletins 365 days a year, live in the studio. That gives your TV channel a sense of presence – the lights are on – but it comes at great cost in staffing and equipment.

The audience and the industry expect in-house video content to be polished. Video/audio is cheap to do amateurishly and expensive to do professionally. This dichotomy has not changed despite Youtube and the sea of amateur footage available. If anything, the expectations for in-house video have increased, perhaps as a means of differentiation.

An aside on newsroom costs: many people believe newsreaders and well-known on-screen talent are paid salaries in the millions. This is fantasy. While there may be hangovers from the bloated past, on-screen talent costs are a minor part of the overall budget.

What’s being lost

The people losing their jobs at Newshub this week aren’t dying. They are going to move on and do their thing. This is part of the arc of their lives. I found them to be wonderful people. I was first given a fair hearing and then accepted, and as a group we achieved big digital growth and stability in TV ratings. As one of my final projects, I gathered data that showed, against received wisdom, that the newsroom was profitable.

That situation had changed by 2024, and it had nothing to do with me or my successor Sarah Bristow.  After the bump of Covid, audiences continued to drift away from TV. Combined with a cyclical advertising downturn, Warner Bros Discovery NZ was losing money. Costs had to be cut, and news was the single biggest pot. Because TV news has a high minimum viable cost, WBD decided to cut the lot and accept a much smaller TV business.

A newsroom is a particular cultural institution. It creates an environment where telling local short-term truths is rewarded with recognition and status. I say “local” and “short-term” here to differentiate news from science and the arts, which pursue truth in different ways.

The problem with local truths, and why they require an institution to tell, is that they are often unpleasant. Many stories of misdeeds begin as rumours which have to be substantiated. Reporting them requires either a sociopath or someone with an incentive to drudge through it. A newsroom provides that incentive, along with legal backup.

Subjects of unpleasant stories often ask “Why are you doing this?”. Without a newsroom, it may well be impossible to answer.

Keep going!