Image design: Bella Ireland
Image design: Bella Ireland

MediaJuly 6, 2024

Stuff’s 6pm bulletin is the boldest – and scariest – media bet in years. Will it pay off?

Image design: Bella Ireland
Image design: Bella Ireland

The stakes are incredibly high for New Zealand’s biggest news media company as it takes on a transformational challenge.

On Wednesday evening, Sinead Boucher and Juliet Peterson sat on stage at the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre in Auckland’s Aotea Centre, under a bright green screen headlined “it’s giving power couple vibes” in all caps. 

Stuff’s owner (Boucher) and the incoming head (Peterson) of Three’s parent company, Warner Bros Discovery (WBD), were the final act at Media Spotlight, an event attached to the annual Beacon Awards that brought together many of the most powerful people on the media side of the advertising industry. They represent businesses that decide where big companies spend their ad dollars, and their support can make or break local TV, radio, print and digital news and entertainment brands. 

Make – or break. It’s not an exaggeration. The pair were only on stage because this year’s advertising market for local media has been so soft, for so long, that WBD shocked the country by announcing a radical downsizing, led by the shuttering of Newshub. It aired its final bulletin last night. And tonight, there will be a new one in its place – one created by Stuff, and sold to WBD for a price rumoured to be in the $6m-$8m range. 

That’s around a quarter of the roughly $30m Newshub cost to operate – which was considered the smell of an oily rag next to TVNZ. That shows just how brave Stuff has been in taking on the challenge. It believes it can create a credible daily news bulletin for a small fraction of what was already a tightly squeezed budget, and has hired dozens of former Newshub staff to try to pull it off. For an organisation already undergoing a mammoth digital transformation, it represents a huge piece of work, with a highly uncertain outcome.

If it succeeeds, the prize is enormous: it gives Stuff a profound and consistent flow of high-quality video content. The hope is that this takes what is currently a largely print-descended newsroom and adds a whole new dimension, bringing video audiences and beefy video ad budgets with it. The risk is real too – this project could engulf what is already a sometimes fractious newsroom, weary from years of new projects. That’s why Stuff’s big swing is one of the most audacious media moves in years. 

It could transform the company. It could also blow it up.

What can we expect at 6pm tonight?

The conversation between Boucher and Peterson was fascinating, an engineered event reminiscent of the TV upfronts that WBD abandoned last year – an early warning sign that something wasn’t right with the channel. It was driven by Boucher’s characteristic enthusiasm, with Peterson less voluble, partly because she’s fresh in the role (she starts officially on Monday), but also because she was in the awkward position of having to farewell Newshub while also pumping ThreeNews.

There was a fair amount of tempering expectations. “We haven’t had much time, let’s be honest,” said Peterson, while Boucher noted that the project made Stuff confront big questions – “how do we take out the barriers, the insular thinking and being scared we’ll take something away.” There was also a nod at the impossibility of recreating Newshub (“the way it’s presented will feel quite different”) while also suggesting innovation, through the integration of audience participation. Which, to be fair, has been a part of radio since the 80s and TV since C4 and TVNZU.

It was accompanied by a slide deck in Stuff’s new ultra-bright colour scheme, using a bunch of slightly over-engineered gen Z-adjacent slang as they talked through the collaboration using the metaphor of a relationship. Still, the duo absolutely nailed the main task – showing up and talking it up to get the media agencies excited on behalf of their clients. 

The session all culminated in a minute-long teaser, couched as “reveal party”, which featured footage of the press conference announcing the collaboration, along with shots of various meetings and test shoots. 

A voiceover made the pitch. “The product will be fresh. New feel, new vibe, it will be modern, it will be progressive… The way we show up will be different.” Finally it cut to Sam Hayes, the last host of Newshub and first of ThreeNews, with a Macbook in front of her, welcoming us to the set of the first bulletin. 

It looked slick, and the mere presence of Hayes provides a powerful note of reassurance. You’re safe, you’re in familiar hands. A couple of seats down from me, TVNZ CEO Jodi O’Donnell was riveted, glimpsing what 1News will be up against for the very first time. 

Samantha Hayes and Mike McRoberts presenting Newshub Live at 6

The stakes for Stuff

For many years, New Zealand’s media landscape has been complicated by large players having reluctant or absentee parents. Three’s former owners MediaWorks were cursed by being laden with debt and ending up in the hands of Oaktree Capital, which still co-owns the radio side of the business. WBD buying Three was meant to be its salvation, but WBD ultimately found the weight of its own debt sufficiently troubling to force the drastic moves that ended first The Project, then all of Newshub.

Stuff was different, with owners Fairfax and later Nine just over the Tasman Sea, but not hugely interested in the New Zealand business. When the Sydney Morning Herald was getting a beautiful, high-functioning paywall, Stuff was drifting on a near pure advertising revenue model. That changed during those heady early pandemic days of 2020, when then CEO Sinead Boucher bought the business for $1, and set about swiftly refashioning it into a mission-first news company. 

It made international waves by withdrawing from Facebook, then by its historic Our Truth: Tā Mātou Pono apology for its historic coverage of Māori. It also opened The Forever Project as a newspaper insert focused on climate change, and Pou Tiaki to cover Māori and marginalised groups. It dropped the Dominion from The Dominion Post, a decolonising move. All powerful purpose-centric work, all completed during a strange Covid-19 micro-climate, which was unexpectedly buoyant for the major media companies.

It would be unfair to suggest that was all it was doing. Stuff made a major play into podcasting, completed a rebrand and ultimately a replatform of Stuff and launched three paywalls for the Post, The Press and the Waikato Times while organising into three major divisions under new CEO Laura Maxwell. Still, it can feel instructive that The Forever Project and Pou Tiaki now sit at the very bottom of the menu of the new Stuff platform, a metaphor for what some at Stuff see as a company always chasing the next thing. 

For some staff who found all those missions and initiatives and the corresponding rounds of reorganisation too much, the news it was signing up to make a 6pm bulletin was worrying. They saw it as a further stressor, only one guaranteed extremely public scrutiny, and that took an erstwhile partner in TVNZ and made it a rival, alongside the NZ Herald, which was certain to delight in every mis-step.

Sinead Boucher in 2020 (Image: Supplied)

There is an upside

I have spoken to dozens of people inside and outside Stuff over the past few months. Not since Mark Weldon left MediaWorks has the media business been so transfixed by a single story. In the early weeks, few gave the prospect much of a chance – most figured it would be a train wreck. Getting an organisation forged from dozens of newspapers to learn how to make a 6pm bulletin seemed an impossible task.

Over time, the tone has changed. Stuff quickly and confidently hired a large number of key Newshub staff from both sides of the camera. The arrival of some Newshub people into Stuff’s newsroom seemed to bring a bit of the joy of making news back to the Auckland office. Early test stories came out, and they looked good. 

The narrative started to shift: what if they pull this off?

It hasn’t been easy. Stuff sources suggest there have been raised voices at times, and upset at others. Still, that’s inevitable with a venture like this. In recent days there has been a palpable excitement from some around the project. Like they can’t wait to start making it.

This remains an audacious task. Every single day, they go live at 6pm, creating a news product on top of their daily print deadlines and 24/7 rolling digital news. The team is bigger – but not that much bigger. And because so many Newshub staff were still employed by WBD up until last night, there has been very limited opportunity to really dry run at this thing. In some crucial ways, they’ll only find out whether this will work tonight.

For all the risk and pain, though, this is a move to be admired. Stuff is building a subscription business. A little late, but it’s working hard at it – The Post in particular has a real swagger and coherence about it. Even with this week’s news about the digital news bill, it’s still fundamentally an ad-driven business. And in a digital context, rightly or wrongly, video inventory at scale is what media agencies want to buy. If successful, this could be seen as a chess move of unparallelled vision – one that vaults it over NZME on a crucial commercial battleground. 

There is precedent here. A few years ago another company got excited and made a huge play into an adjacent space. It recruited some powerhouse talent and spent up on new technology. Spark Sport had a horror beginning, glitching out during an All Blacks game. But it came right quickly, and found its footing and place in the market. Ultimately though, Spark decided that cost and complexity was too high and too far from its core business. It offloaded the rights to TVNZ.  

Will this time be different? That will be clearer after tonight, but it will be a year or more before we see how the TV news product develops, and whether Stuff can build a major audience and revenue model for its video content.

But the prize is worth it. There are so few opportunities to step-change a business in news media. Stuff just took one of the last ones available. And at 6pm tonight we get our first sense of whether this big bet is likely to pay off.

Keep going!