Hayden Donnell recently speculated on the meaning of a leaked internal memo from Stuff.co.nz. Today the site’s editor Patrick Crewdson tells him why he’s not really a slave to Mark Zuckerberg.
Before I begin, here’s a haphazard, non-complete listicle of great journalism being carried out in mainstream New Zealand commercial media.
1. Everything by Stuff Circuit, but notably their recent look into the death of a child at Gloriavale.
2. Matt Nippert’s work on Kiwisaver, which helped shame several banks into no longer investing in cluster munitions.
3. Kirsty Johnston’s investigations, particularly this one on the shameful treatment of Ashley Peacock inside our mental health system.
4. Henry Cooke’s always-excellent writing on Millennial Issues.
5. Adam Dudding’s features, including this one that deserves 18 Pulitzers about an insurance salesman and a suspicious fire.
6. The Christchurch rebuild coverage carried out by The Press.
7. Jared Savage, Harkanwal Singh, and Caleb Tutty’s painstaking efforts to turn horrible numerical turd-balls into pretty visualisations for the Herald’s data wing.
So when some righteous wastrel from an upstart organisation like The Spinoff comes along implying Stuff may be sliding down the toilet, it’s understandable some people get prickly.
But the truth is that all these journalists are thriving in an extremely tough time for the media. Doom prophet Steve Braunias calls our current age the End Times for journalism. The canonical account of the Apocalypse goes something like this: Traditional revenue sources are crashing. Digital revenue sources aren’t growing enough to cover the shortfall. In their desperation to grow online audiences to a sustainable level, media organisations can be prone to valuing things like clickiness and shareability – valid concerns on their own – above other stuff like “quality”. To make matters worse, huge and growing numbers of people are getting their news almost exclusively from Facebook, making media increasingly subject to the whims of Mark Zuckerberg’s mysterious algorithm.
I had that prophecy in mind when I wrote about a leaked internal memo from Stuff.co.nz on Wednesday. The memo contains choice quotes such as:
It seemed concerns of Facebook shareability had taken a central place in Stuff’s news meetings. Though that wasn’t all terrible news, I thought it could be bad for the future prominence of non-Zuckerberg friendly content, like court, local government stories, or investigations. Top level Spinoff sources (me) understand my article made a lot of people – particularly at Fairfax – very angry. I interviewed a slightly annoyed-but-polite Stuff.co.nz editor Patrick Crewdson about what’s really in the heart of New Zealand’s biggest news site.
This interview has been edited for clarity and barely at all for length. It is very long.
You did allude to some extra context that would change my perception of the memo that was leaked to us. Can you tell me what that context was?
Some of the analysis you’ve offered is fair and accurate. But I think in some key ways you’ve probably misunderstood the purpose of that email.
The way things are set up here is that we have two national news conferences in the morning and the afternoon. All the newsrooms dial in and Stuff coordinates that meeting. But that’s a layer of meeting on top of a lot of other ones that have already happened.
The other background point is that we have a shared national editorial diary and news list and everyone on the company is in on that, so the stories we work on are already in that diary. So the national meeting, we don’t need to use that to say “what’s going on today” because we can see that in that diary.
The national meeting is about the biggest and best stories of the day. The message we were giving with that email was “when you’re thinking about the biggest and best stories are, we’re asking you to view that through the lens of our two largest traffic sources – the homepage and Facebook”.
I guess that’s almost what I’m saying though. It’s gone from this old-fashioned way of asking almost exclusively “What’s the most important story?” to “Now we really do have to consider Facebook because a vast percentage of our traffic is now coming from there.”
I don’t agree with the premise of the question. I don’t think there has been a change where we’re not talking about what’s important to cover because we absolutely are. And I also don’t agree with the idea that because we’re also taking into account what our audience on Facebook wants that equates to low value content.
That’s not what I’m saying though. I’m not saying that social shareable content is necessarily low value, but there are some sorts of stories that don’t do well on Facebook, and those are often those ones mentioned in the memo – routine court stories, local government stories – and there’s concern for the future of those stories.
I think there’s a really wide variety of stories that do well on Facebook. I think it’s a mistake to characterise this as “Stuff is trying to be like Upworthy”. We’re not inspired by Upworthy. We’re inspired by Vox or the Washington Post, or the Guardian. There are plenty of [news] agencies that have really strong Facebook presences and do so without compromising their core identity.
On court reporting in particular – I think that’s really important for us to discuss – because there’s two questions being considered here. The first is do we need to cover procedural appearances – we absolutely do. But are we going to be publishing about people being remanded until another date on the homepage? We’re almost certainly not. So do we need to be covering it at that particular meeting? We don’t. It doesn’t mean we’re not doing that coverage… You’d be hard-pressed to find another organisation that’s covering more court than Stuff.
I agree, but it’s not a question of whether it’s being covered, it’s whether it’s being elevated up the homepage, put on Facebook, that kind of thing.
I used to work at the Herald on the homepage. And we had something called Chartbeat, and I’m sure you do as well. And the goal of the day was to get the green arrow to point upwards on stories, which showed the numbers were doing well. Doing that, I think I did get numbed to quality a bit. The main thing I cared about was whether that green arrow was pointing upward on a story.
You’re right that’s a fundamental challenge in an era where we have much greater direct feedback on what our readers are responding to. But it’s important for us that that’s only one of the factors we’re taking into account. Anyone who works with me will say I expect them to be paying attention to the analytics and be aware of them but don’t let them make your decisions for you.
I guess the question is why? Why would you pay attention to anything else? In a business model that prioritises being the biggest site – getting the most traffic – and selling that traffic to digital advertisers, why pay attention to anything but analytics?
We’re an agency that has multiple missions. We’re a commercial media business and we exist to get an audience and to grow that audience and to make money. But we also have a public service element, and we do plenty of stories, which if you’re going to view them through a commercial lens, we wouldn’t do. We recently published a 20 minute video on racism in the justice system for instance.
I absolutely agree. You do. And the question for me is “Why do that stuff when it doesn’t make sense within your business model?” And does that business model limit you doing these stories that don’t move numbers in places like Facebook or on the homepage?
Again I think we’re going to have to disagree. I think it absolutely does fit within our business model. Our business model is to publish stories and video that our audience is going to find valuable or relevant. That’s going to be a mix of things. They might find it valuable because it’s entertaining to them. Or they might find it valuable because it reveals something or informs them or contributes to their understanding of the community or reflects their personal identity.
I guess the question is, how does that translate into digital advertising revenues or native advertising revenues? Audiences might feel good about that story but it might not get as many clicks, or it might be more expensive…
Why are you assuming that people don’t read those stories?
Some people do. I’m more saying, for the effort and expense that they take to produce, really “good stories” aren’t able to be justified in the same way when you could get the same or more clicks from putting up a Daily Mail story – so why invest the money?
I think it’s wrong to assume that content doesn’t do as well.
We think of it as a buffet. We serve up everything from the nutritious through to treats. But you can’t have contempt for the audience’s choices. You can’t assume that if you serve people a diet of candyfloss that’s all they’re going to eat. If it’s our buffet, we serve candy floss, we definitely do, we serve entertainment and lifestyle content, that’s a part of a broad church kind of mix, but we also serve broccoli and a very large portion of our audience will eat broccoli.
I used to believe that. I really did. But my faith has been shaken recently, particularly with the Herald’s new approach to social, where they do a lot of Daily Mail-style block caps, literal clickbait, I mean “you won’t believe what happened next” style stuff, and as I understand it, you’re seeing them having success and eating into your lead quite a lot.
So is it that people want broccoli, and is there as much damage from giving people candy floss as we thought there was?
You’d have to talk to the Herald about their social strategy. But I’d have to say we’ve invested more in high quality content. You look at the Stuff Circuit team, and their projects on Gloriavale or Malcolm Rewa. Those tentpole projects. But we do superb journalism every single day. And it’s that relevant local content that’s the heart of the site. And we look at our top stories list at the end of the year, and that local content figures really strongly.
So how much of your traffic does now come from social, particularly Facebook?
That’s an important question to ask, thanks for giving me the opportunity [Author’s note: This was probably sarcastic]. We’re not as reliant on social as many other media organisations are. The single biggest source of our audience is direct visits.
So in many ways The Spinoff is much more fucked if Mark Zuckerberg turns on us than you are. But go on…
Yes, direct visits are still the largest chunk of our traffic. It’ll be less than 30 per cent of traffic that comes from Facebook.
So roughly 30 or less than 30 per cent?
Less than 30.
So between 25 and 30?
Look, I’m not going to give you a number, but like I say it’s not the dominant source of our traffic. And in fact we get as much if not more traffic from search as from social.
Is that amount of traffic that’s coming from social trending upwards?
All of those sources are trending up. But yeah, the figure is bigger for social.
So the question is – and you’re right in pointing out that a lot of good stories get shared on Facebook – but with so much of people’s media consumption coming from Facebook in future, will that change your priorities, and is that reflected in this memo? Does your news organisation have to swing more toward stuff that’s going to do well on Facebook?
It’s a really complicated issue. Every media organisation would have concerns about the impact of Facebook on the business and on its way of operating and the embrace of Facebook is sort of tentative. But I don’t think it has the same impact on what we choose to cover that you’re suggesting that it does. The fact that we choose not to publish most court stories on our Facebook page just isn’t a factor in whether we choose to go cover those cases. It’s just never discussed.
But why not? Because it seems like you’re just doing charity work if you’re going to cover stuff that’s not going to be shared or clicked on.
It can still be shared. We just don’t share them. They’re definitely still being read but many of those cases are important to cover regardless.
Overall, Facebook is not our primary source of traffic, But I guess what the general trend for us is that media organisations have been caught out by not going to where their audience is rather than being arrogant enough to assume they’re always going to come to us.
Do you think the arms race between you and the Herald is sustainable, with both of you going after the top of the totem pole – the Daily Mail position in New Zealand – where you’re both looking to be the most-clicked on organisation?
I think it’s important to acknowledge we’re in a unique position globally. If you look at the States or the UK or even Australia and you look at the top 10 sites, you’d be lucky to find a media site in there. But if you look at New Zealand, Stuff is, and the Herald is. We’re lucky with the size of our audience. Stuff’s position here is viable and I think that comes because we are serving our audience with content they find valuable and relevant.
I guess my case is the Herald should be the New York Times – the prestige brand – and maybe Stuff could be the more click-driving brand.
I think that’s a pretty narrow perception of what a site could be and it’s a bit insulting to the great journalists doing good work around the country [Delivers long list of journalists doing great work].
You can rattle off an incredible list of really great journalists at Stuff. So why do people hate you so much? There’s a genuinely large reservoir of hate out there.
I don’t accept that’s representative in terms of what average people think.
This is just an example, but on the weekend we published a story about Aaron Smith, and a huge number of the comments were people being really negative, hating on Stuff. You must be conscious of that.
When you’re the biggest game in town, you’re certainly going to get critics. And that’s fine. Obviously people should feel free to critique what we do. And we’re obviously not always going to get it right. But we also have 2 million uniques every month so to a certain extent people are voting with their feet.
But are they voting with their feet towards your [quality journalists]?
I think quality local content is at the core of what we do.
You don’t think there’s a perception out there – and I’m not necessarily saying it’s fair – but there’s a perception that Stuff is kind of trashy. When you reflect on it, where does that come from?
I accept that some people feel that way and they’re absolutely entitled to their opinion but we also have a very large number of loyal readers out there that visit the site every day.
Back to the memo! Can you explain this quote I’m going to give: “The 8am and 4pm national news conferences have been extremely successful in identifying the biggest stories of the day and treating them as such. But it’s time to evolve. From now on the meetings will focus on your best social/shareable content along with stories that can make the homepage.” What does that mean that it’s time to evolve from focusing on the biggest stories of the day?
We are focusing on the biggest stories of the day. But when we’re asking people to focus on the biggest stories of the day we’re asking them to view it through the lenses of our two biggest traffic sources: the homepage or our Facebook page. So this is not necessarily what each newsroom is doing that day – it’s what they’re talking to us about at that particular meeting.
I guess the things that go well on Facebook or the homepage have a particular aesthetic to them – and they’re not necessarily trashy – but they are a particular type of slightly more salacious story?
Maybe spend more time looking at our homepage and our Facebook page and what we share over the course of the day.
The other thing, and this is a slightly awkward point to make, but that was an internal email, so it was going to staff. So if you’re looking to change the way people operate within a business or within a newspaper, are you going to be more effective if you say to people “hey you’re doing a great job, but we need to tweak something”, or do you say “hey this is really terrible, you need to do better”. If you say the latter then you’re demotivating people. So you need to say it in such a way that you get your point across.
Was that part of the problem? People around the regions didn’t understand what was going to go well on Facebook or on the homepage and you were telling them to focus more on that stuff?
Yeah, like any media business we’re going through a lot of change and that means that we’re constantly updating staff on what our priorities and expectations are and what our reader behaviour is. That pool of knowledge has to be shared and updated at all times.
Another thing that people were quite concerned about in that memo was where you talk about “Is the audience best-served by the traditional ‘talking heads’ wire service type report? Is this story, with ‘balancing’ quotes and an inverted pyramid structure, actually interesting to read? Or is it predictable and/or just not terribly enlightening?”
That’s about the storytelling formats that people might try. So our reporters all round the country don’t necessarily need to be restricted to thinking about what they write in terms of what’s going to fit a 450 word print news hole.
This is a huge change that the internet has brought about. These structures and strictures of journalism can be thrown out.
Yeah, that’s right. And I saw people reacting to the word “balancing”. This will sound like I’m dancing on the head of a pin but that was “balancing” in inverted commas. It’s not saying “don’t put balance in your stories”. But one of the problems that’s been diagnosed in journalism is this problem of fake balance. So when you have a scientist who’s talking about human-made climate change and you get a climate skeptic to get a balancing quote. That doesn’t serve the readers.
This structure of point and counterpoint might not necessarily be best serving the audience.
The memo then goes on to mention that dreaded word… listicle.
Yeah I feel like we may have underestimated the abilities of people who create listicles.
So can we expect more listicles on Stuff?
Yeah, we’re probably going to go “all-listicles” from now on.
I’m glad we got some breaking news at the end there. Thanks.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.