MediaDecember 7, 2016

Late edition: A chat with comeback news bosses Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy


Last week plans for a new news-based site, run by Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy, thudded prematurely into public view. What are the former mainstream news chiefs’ plans for the venture, could they have done more to stop the crisis they now hope to remedy, and can they sign up John Campbell to cover the 2017 election? Cate Brett, another former editor, finds out

Spinoff editor’s note and disclosure: when the impending arrival of Jennings Murphy’s “Newsroom” venture emerged on Tuesday last week, we at The Spinoff were as surprised as anyone, but in part for different reasons. Different because we had spent a number of months this year engaged in a conversation with the pair about how we might fold a news operation into our emerging online magazine. These talks were more than cursory – they spanned a number of months, senior editor Toby Manhire and I discussed business models, editorial partnerships and recruitment targets with the pair. At its peak we debated at length company structures and equity arrangements. There was no formal conclusion to discussions.

As much as anything else this coloured our reaction to the story as journalists. The bizarre leak, via a NZME-Fairfax submission to the Commerce Commission, the scrambled response from the protagonists and the media more widely – these were precisely the kind of elements we look for in a story. And yet it was difficult to cover without acknowledging our part in the saga. Then former Sunday Star-Times editor Cate Brett pitched an interview with the pair to us. Yes please, we said.

– Duncan Greive

Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings reckon they need about $1m in capital and five major corporate sponsors in order for their much anticipated “pure news play” to succeed. That, and an audience of between 100,000 and 200,000 “thinking New Zealanders”. New Zealanders willing to abandon Stuff – or more pertinently, perhaps, the New York Times or Guardian – in favour of a meaty diet of national news “that matters”.

Their business model – subject to earlier scrutiny than convenient or comfortable following the publication of “marketing literature” for the proposed Newsroom project which had been leaked by an advertiser and published on the Commerce Commission website (PDF) as part of an NZME-Fairfax merger submission – depends on a spread of complementary revenue streams: subscription packages for those willing to pay for early business and political “intelligence”; corporate advertising; a share of contestable funding via NZ on Air; a spot of corporate consultancy work and “voluntary contributions” from ordinary New Zealanders – New Zealanders who have finally come to accept that journalism, as distinct from “spot news” and infotainment, doesn’t come free.

Those familiar with the industry will know that variations on these themes have been tried with varying degrees of success globally, and here in New Zealand, for a number of years. Local survivors include Scoop, BusinessDesk, and Bernard Hickey’s Hive News, as well as some qualified successes in this blogosphere. Most recently, The Spinoff has demonstrated that with the right connections and smarts it is possible to go from zero to 500,000 in a little over two years.

So why are Mark Jennings, 61, and Tim Murphy, 52, so confident they can replicate, or better, The Spinoff’s feat, with a somewhat drier diet of intelligent New Zealand health, education, law, business and political news?

To begin with, both men bring to the venture excellent journalistic credentials, founded on their respective careers as news executives for APN (now NZME) and MediaWorks. They have already secured a strategic alliance with the highly regarded Hickey (Hive News will be folded into the new business). And tech business investors Selywn and Craig Pellett  have apparently finally found the men and the media model they have been hankering for after a brief and costly dalliance with Scoop media.

So far, so good. But what makes these men (investigative journalist and long-time Jennings ally, Melanie Reid, is one of the few women in the line-up) so sure we are ready to turn our attention away from the freaks, fantasy, and faux scandal served up so successfully by Stuff and the Herald, towards something requiring more mental effort and engagement?

And does their success depend on recruiting a “John Campbell” to have a fighting chance against the behemoths Fairfax and NZME – or indeed the state broadcaster RNZ’s own rapidly expanding and diversifying online presence?

And what, if anything, could they themselves have done to mitigate the free-fall we are now experiencing while they had some of the country’s best journalists at their disposal as heads of news for TV3 and the New Zealand Herald?

By the time I pitch this interview to The Spinoff on Friday afternoon last week, Tim Murphy had decided it was time for chairman-elect, Mark Jennings to front. On the phone from his home in Auckland, Mark rather sheepishly reveals that his usefulness to his business partner over the past week had been hobbled, quite literally, by a badly broken ankle. Taking his son’s skateboard on an outing last Sunday. Ended up in an ambulance. Pure folly on his part.

Mark Jennings' leg. Photo: Mark Jennings
Mark Jennings’ leg. Photo: Mark Jennings

Resignedly, and with trademark humility, Mark Jennings spends the next hour or so patiently talking me through the narrative and “key messages”. In the process, perhaps, trying to convince me (and other would-be-believers, himself included?) that this may in fact be the Holy Grail we have all been searching for. “The first question we asked ourselves was ‘is there a gap in the market?’ And that is probably what concerned us most,” says Jennings.

“At times we’ve waxed and waned on it and it is probably why we’ve been slower to get going on this because we didn’t want to be doing something that was a mirage… so we’ve talked to hundreds of people. We’ve been very careful about not being in our own filter bubble or echo chamber. So we’ve talked to people from all parts of society … and to a man people have said to us we do want this sort of product.”

More significantly, and perhaps surprisingly, says Jennings, the vast majority of people they asked said they were now willing to pay for something better than the current mainstream offering. A recognition that journalism needs to be paid for, just as newspapers were/are paid for, seems to be a relatively new and timely evolution in New Zealanders’ thinking says Jennings. Driven partly by people seeing where things are headed under the current “free” model.

But they are realistic about the fact that the number of people willing to make “voluntary contributions” for free access to hard news won’t be enough. Hence, the capital-raising, and search for equity partners.

Pressed, Jennings says it would be premature to identify which corporate investors they are approaching – particularly after being forced to acknowledge that a number of mooted content partners, such as the Guardian, the Otago Daily Times, and RNZ, were more by way of “example” than confirmed partners. Blame the leakers for that misunderstanding.

And while Jennings says neither he nor Tim Murphy were in a position to tip their homes into the venture, both have contributed financially. More importantly they bring their networks, sense of mission, and journalistic credentials to the project.

The package, he says, is resonating strongly and widely: Chief executives of corporates who want to contribute to the future of their country; similarly motivated technical, business and legal professionals, willing to provide pro-bono or at cost advice and support; and a daily stream of emails from exasperated and disillusioned journalists hungry for an environment where they can practise their craft again.

A slide from the leaked presentation
A slide from the leaked presentation

So are they intent on “poaching” from these distressed newsrooms? Or will they need to aim higher, snaring a John Campbell, a Rebecca Macfie or a Jane Clifton to get the type of cut-through that will be needed by a new player in the lead-up to a general election?

“Umm, that’s a good question, and I guess I don’t quite know the answer at this point,” says Jennings. “We are looking at journalists who have, or will develop, a profile in their areas. I think our success will hang on the content that we deliver in what would have been called in the old days a rounds system. Let’s take Eloise Gibson who is going to do environment and health. You know she is not a household name but she is very, very good and I think she will develop a significant following for everything she writes.

“Probably she will never have the profile of a John Campbell, or a Paul Henry or anyone else you might name – but I am not sure that is going to matter in the long run. I think people will come to us for the quality of the content … I am not saying that if John Campbell said, ‘hey I would like to write for you’, of course we would say yes!”

So are you going after him?

“Ha – I think he is pretty busy at the moment.”

Jennings acknowledges that to begin with at least, they will be hard pushed to match the salaries paid to many of the country’s top surviving journalists. But equally, there is no shortage of talented writers and subeditors who have been made casualties of the constant rounds of newsroom restructuring and who may be keen to contribute.

Moreover says Jennings, for those who can afford to settle for a little less money, there will be other rewards. Such as being relieved of the frenetic demands of the modern, all-singing, all-dancing newsrooms. Instead of having to produce multiple stories or iterations of the same story, journalists will be able to focus on producing one properly researched and well-told story a day.

Some of the 'partnerships' trumpeted in the document weren't so much partnerships
Some of the partnerships trumpeted in the document didn’t turn out to be partnerships at all

Jennings acknowledges that there is still much good work being done by New Zealand journalists, including important investigative work, but much of it surfaces only fleetingly before being buried under the dead weight of click bait, often never to be found again.

“This is something we hear quite often from some of the journalists who are approaching us. They say, ‘look, I wrote this really good piece, and it was on the home page for a few hours and now it can hardly be found.’”

“I think this is one of the reasons The Spinoff has done quite well, it leaves some of its good stuff up there for quite a while, you can find it,” he says. “There’s not so much volume that it is swamped and gone.”

The Spinoff. On the face of it, a highly successful venture which would seem to have a lot in common with Jennings Murphy: each contains sophisticated, intelligent, well connected journalists apparently coolly committed to something bigger than their own brands. So why aren’t they joining forces in the face of  such a tough and already fragmented environment?

“Ah, no one has asked us that question but it is a good question, because we are great fans of Duncan and Toby, two very, very talented guys and they have built a team around them of diverse and talented people.

“I guess the thing probably – and we don’t rule out working with them and collaborating with them because I am sure we will, because we all get on really well – but one of the things I suppose, six months ago – and they may be evolving too – they were mainly an opinion and commentary site. They are a really interesting niche, it’s probably bigger than niche, in the market. They are also have a style and attitude which resonates with its audience …

“The thing with Tim and I is we see ourselves more as news guys … We see ourselves as not being so opinionated or looking to commentate as much. Our style is different … so we kind of came to the conclusion that we might, in a way be a negative for the Spinoff if we join them.

“We certainly, to be fair, have had discussions with them, because we do have a lot in common as you point out, but in the end I guess … we just felt that our strengths are more in that pure play news area.”

So are you saying your brands are not quite compatible because you are looking for more gravitas in that hard news area?

“I hesitate to use that word gravitas, because I think Duncan and Toby in their own way have gravitas … but yeah, I think our approach is a bit different and we didn’t want to pollute their brand and they are going extremely well and you know the other thing I suppose that came to our mind is how many editors and bosses do you want … You know what I mean? You have Duncan and Toby and me and Tim – I mean we would all be sitting around a table staring at each other.”

Which brings me to the question, will you and Tim be contributing editors?  Will you be rolling up your sleeves and reporting and writing?

“Yes, yes we will,” says Jennings. “One, out of necessity and because this is where our roots lie. For 22 years I was in MediaWorks I never considered myself to be anything other than a working journalist. I think in a way it probably frustrated other senior management in that as soon as a breaking story or a big story broke, I would leave whatever meeting I was in and go straight to the newsroom and be working on it and would not be at all focused on the other requirements of the company at that point.”

A mocked-up Newsroom page from the leaked presentation
A mocked-up Newsroom page from the leaked presentation

I guess the irony is that now you might be obliged to have your elbows deep in the commercial realities of your new venture?

“We have some very good commercial people and to be honest I think our strengths are in the content and journalism. You know, cash flow and stuff, we will look to other people to do that and that will make our investors more comfortable, too … Both of us actually love it; you write a piece for the The Spinoff and it’s like when you were a junior journalist. You still get a kick out of people commenting or responding or criticising.”

Which brings us nicely to the final question. I am not the first, and won’t be the last, former journalist to ask whether these two buccaneers could not have done more themselves to alter the trajectory of mainstream journalism in this country during the decades in which they were at the helm of New Zealand newsrooms. That in some way they present themselves as coming back to save something they watched burn.

Jennings gives a typically humble and self-critical response. He feels he should have pushed harder for a stronger digital play at MediaWorks. And then a gentle reproach for the would be merger partners:

“Saying it will be tricky,” says Jennings, “but I really think that NZME and Fairfax should somehow, without necessarily colluding, have come to an agreement to start paywalls way way back. Because the genie has kind of been let out of the bottle, and now we all know that people need to pay for journalism just as they have paid for buying newspapers.

“But it’s really difficult now, and I am not being critical, because it is a highly competitive world, the media or journalism – we got it wrong right back at the beginning. We needed to introduce paywalls …

“I think it has been highly problematic for the industry and now we are trying to get the genie back in the bottle and it’s very difficult. The Herald didn’t go ahead because Fairfax wouldn’t.”

And what about Tim Murphy, as Herald editor-in-chief?  Could he have exerted more influence on the direction of the company’s online offering, including potentially pushing for a paywall?

“The paywall is running already,” says Murphy, by email. “It’s just set at something like one million stories before you hit it. It can be applied instantly to parts, or all of the site when there is something of value to sell!”

Murphy argues the Herald did not have to follow Stuff into the abyss. All it needed to do was hold its nerve.

“We had far better engagement – substantially more time spent per story and on site per visit than Stuff. It was real, sellable and that did translate into more revenue and greater profitability than Stuff. The Herald engagement rates are now lower than Stuff. As well as losing on ‘uniques’.

“I constantly intervened, alongside Jeremy [Rees, online editor] to try to keep our nerve – go for the engagement time and value and disengage from the ‘unique’ arms race. I think Stuff sucked the Herald into a battle for clickbait supremacy that it could never win, given relative size of resource deployed. The reputational damage to the Herald is high and lasting as a result.”

The million dollar question is whether the stance Jennings Murphy have now staked may provide their former mainstream colleagues with the courage to chart a new path, surfacing their journalistic power and meeting the challenge face on.

Conflicts of interest? Let me count the ways. A former NZ FFX editor. An admirer and friend of Mark Jennings; a nemesis of Tim Murphy; a friend and fan of Rebecca Macfie, Toby Manhire and Duncan Greive. And a friend of Weekend Herald Editor Miriyana Alexander.

This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our members. If you value what we do and believe in the importance of independent and freely accessible journalism – tautoko mai, donate today.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox