It received the largest funding increase in its history earlier this year. So far, the most obvious thing RNZ has spent it on is journalists from a cross-town rival.
It’s become a regular feature of the Aotearoa Media Alert, a weekly email newsletter covering comings and goings from our news organisations. In late October it reported that Katie Kenny and Boris Jančić were leaving Stuff to take up new roles with RNZ.
In isolation, this is not news. “Person leaves job for another job” happens thousands of times each day. What drives that move can be many things – place or nature of work, financial considerations, wanting a change of scene. It also doesn’t explain whether the candidate was approached for the role, applied for it, or was facing redundancy or restructure.
Still, when it starts to happen at greater frequency, and at senior levels, it can feel like more than randomness at play. RNZ and Stuff are two of the most important news organisations in New Zealand, and have seen an unusually significant and one-way flow of staff in 2023.
At RNZ, Kenny will join Kirsty Johnston and Dana Johannsen – all award-winning members of Stuff’s prestigious National Correspondents team. Eloise Gibson, Stuff’s (now former) climate change editor, has gone to an equivalent role at RNZ; homepage editor Jančić will soon follow to do the same job there too. Emile Donovan, who had months earlier been a launch host of Stuff’s highly publicised Newsable podcast targeting younger audiences, will soon face a somewhat different demographic when he takes over as host of RNZ’s Nights.
July saw the biggest appointment of all: Mark Stevens, the head of news at Stuff, left to become chief news officer, a newly-created executive role at RNZ. Stevens had been with Stuff and its predecessor Fairfax media since the 1990s, has represented it on media industry boards and generally been central to its news coverage for many years.
They go to an organisation which is run by Paul Thompson, the former executive editor of Fairfax Media, now known as Stuff. He is supported by former Stuff editor Glen Scanlon, who now works at RNZ as head of transition. It’s the nature of industries for people to move around, and of former colleagues to reassemble in new organisations. But there is no other local news organisation which has seen so many senior staff move across to RNZ this year.
There’s a superficial read on this which is troubling for those who believe in a pluralist media with meaningful roles for both state and private sector organisations. Is RNZ using its relative stability to undermine one of its biggest competitors for news audiences? That’s a seductive narrative, but not a complete one. Sources at Stuff suggest that some of those leaving did so due to a major and necessary restructuring which has echoed throughout the organisation since new CEO Laura Maxwell took over earlier this year. Others likely looked at RNZ’s budget increase against a tough market for commercial media and saw a safe haven.
Still, it’s not solely those factors driving the movements. There are a number of staff Stuff would have loved to keep, and had planned around. The sheer volume of experienced and talented journalists leaving cannot help but hurt Stuff, which has had a busy year, launching three paywalls and completely reconceiving its business structure. RNZ issued a recent press release which talked of its role in part as “to ensure the broader media sector that underpins a healthy democracy flourishes”. Hiring so many important staff from the only other major media organisation headquartered in Wellington could be seen as contradicting that intention.
That said, motion within an industry is never uncomplicated. A spokesperson for RNZ pointed out that of 51 roles advertised this year, only seven have gone to Stuff journalists. It also has played an important role in modulating some of the chaos in private sector media, in providing jobs to a number of Today FM staff after it was abruptly shut down, including four in a single week. Also, because it has content sharing deals with most major news organisations, including Stuff, the work of the journalists it has recruited is still technically available to other platforms.
It’s not the hiring, it’s who they’re hiring
While the Stuff hires are not uncomplicated, they do open up a bigger, knottier question for RNZ. In the aftermath of the failure of the planned merger with TVNZ, RNZ secured a $25m funding boost under broadcasting minister Willie Jackson. It’s the biggest increase in the organisation’s history, intended to help it more vigorously transition to the digital environment, but also “ensure it could reach more diverse audiences which aren’t well served now”, according to a press release.
Specifically younger, pan-Asian, Pacific and Māori audiences. The lack of Māori in prominent roles within the organisation is a longstanding sore spot, and formed the heart of former senior minister Kiri Allan’s controversial critique of the organisation at an event to farewell her then-partner, Māni Dunlop. Dunlop’s departure left Nathan Rarere as the sole Māori hosting a prominent show – albeit one which finishes its broadcast at 6am.
Former broadcasting minister Jackson, who oversaw the funding increase, said he did so in part believing that it would help RNZ recruit Māori and Pacific journalists and create new products to reach those communities. He has been watching the organisation and its recruiting, and is not impressed. “I think it’s too slow,” he says. “We’ve shown some faith in them, but six months on and nothing’s changed.”
To be fair to RNZ, it’s not accurate to say that nothing’s changed. It hired Gaurav Sharma (the journalist, not the former MP) to head IndoNZ, a new vertical targeting New Zealand’s Indian communities. This will be joined by another vertical targeting Chinese New Zealanders. It also points to its Rautaki Māori strategy and fresh shows like Māpuna with Julian Wilcox and Mata with Mihingarangi Forbes. It has more than doubled the Māori content it broadcasts in two years. But it has also had three major on air vacancies this year, and filled each with a Pākehā host. The Stuff staff are uniformly outstanding, amongst the country’s best – but all are Pākehā too.
This is challenging for RNZ in that a recent annual report revealed its diversity significantly lags the general population. Its proportion of Māori staff is less than half that of the general population (8.2% at RNZ versus 16.5% of the general population, per the 2018 census). The same is true for Pacific peoples (3.8% versus 8.1%) and markedly so for Asian New Zealanders (4.5% versus 15.1%). While it’s true that this is an acknowledged issue for most large media organisations, RNZ’s charter and public funding give it a more pressing obligation to reflect this country’s population – and make its 2023 recruiting more open to challenge.
It’s not uncomplicated. Were RNZ to have recruited a large number of hosts from Whakaata Māori, Iwi radio or Tagata Pasifika it would be accused of kneecapping those organisations. The more trenchant critique is the way prominent Māori staff like Forbes, Dunlop and former head of commissioning Kay Ellmers have left without a solid pipeline to replace them.
Allan’s speech crystallised a critique I’ve heard from other Māori in the media when she said “there’s something within the organisation that will not and has not been able to keep Māori talent.” With Māori broadcasting icon Jim Mather as chair of its board, RNZ will hardly be unaware of this. Improving is not optional though, particularly for the only major media brand which is growing in a very subdued local market.
The scrutiny will not go away. Chief executive Thompson announced a very ambitious goal to reach 80% of New Zealanders each month by 2027, ironically in an interview with Stuff’s The Post. That is an admirably large target, one which it’s unlikely any news organisation currently hits. To achieve it will require a true transformation in what it creates and who creates it. With a new government likely to be less interested in media, and a difficult environment for commercial players, scrutiny of RNZ is unlikely to decrease in coming months. Who, and how, it recruits will inevitably be central to that.