More than a dozen roles across multiple teams signal a major change in direction at TVNZ, which some trace to the continuing fallout of the Kamahl Sanatamaria scandal.
A major restructure has been proposed within TVNZ’s newsroom that will impact as many as 13 roles across three different digital teams, and is seen by some as connected to a continuing fallout from the Kamahl Santamaria crisis which convulsed the organisation last year. Most impacted is the audience development team, founded just last year, which creates original news and current affairs content, largely for distribution across social platforms.
Audience development was championed by a trio of executives who have all since left. Those working in the unit feel it has been sacrificed in much the same way that Today FM was by Mediaworks – a vision of the future of media that quickly became the subject of envy and suspicion. One former TVNZ staffer draws a parallel with Spark Sport – a bold business venture which would lose money for years, but ultimately win if everyone held their nerve. Spark Sport was ultimately shuttered when a new CEO arrived who didn’t share her predecessor’s belief in the project. There are a number of ex-TVNZ news staff who view this as their organisation losing its nerve too.
The new approach was driven by then GM of digital news Mereana Hond under the supervision of then head of news Paul Yurisich, two very senior news staff members hired after long stints at Al Jazeera. The pair were tasked by former TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick with completing a digital transformation of a newsroom perceived by some senior figures as lagging the entertainment and commercial sides of the business. They unfavourably contrasted the news division’s progress with the digital revolution which ran through the newspaper industry years earlier. Yurisich and Hond unveiled a fresh strategy and hired new teams at the start of 2022. By the year’s end, all three executives had resigned – and now the last vestiges of their approach are being dismantled.
TVNZ confirmed the restructure, and told The Spinoff in a statement that it “has entered into a consultation process” with its digital news team. “We are proposing to disestablish some current and vacant roles, as well as create new ones.” The statement says the changes were driven by strategy rather than cost savings: “we are not planning on reducing the current headcount of our newsroom”. Those impacted are being encouraged to apply for new jobs, but some audience development staff view them as significantly diminished in terms of scope and authority, and that the move has exploded what they say was the newsroom’s most diverse team.
It all rises from a maddening dichotomy: everyone wants there to be news for younger audiences who only stay on social media, but no one knows how to fund it. This story is based on conversations with 10 current and former TVNZ staff, all of whom were granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, and the fact that the restructure is currently unresolved.
A bold vision
It all began with Yurisich. He succeeded John Gillespie, TVNZ’s long-running and well-respected head of news, in mid-2020. Multiple sources have suggested that CEO Kenrick had a fractious relationship with the newsroom, viewing it as obsessed with the 6pm news bulletin, in contrast with the progress the entertainment and commercial sides of the business had made with TVNZ OnDemand.
Yurisich was meant to be the solution. He was a former TVNZ staffer who had spent years in key roles at Al Jazeera, a 24-hour news network with a very strong online news service. He was given a licence to grow TVNZ’s digital capabilities, and recruited a number of former Al Jazeera staff in the coming months. Yurisich made speeches expounding his vision for a more digitally adept newsroom. “You all have to think that in five years’ time, maybe 6pm doesn’t exist,” Yurisich reportedly told staff not long after he started, ruffling the feathers of some reporters who were proud of the legacy and impact of the country’s most-watched programme.
Still, TVNZ had a company-wide drive to attract the 18-35-year-old audience that is prized by advertisers but gone from linear TV. Yurisich’s efforts were seen as related to that mission, and he started to build out a digital team, picking up a number of ex-Al Jazeera staff, most prominently Hond, who returned home after more than a decade in Doha. Early last year she hired Nibras Kardaman, another ex-Al Jazeera staffer, who became the newsroom’s first head of audience development. The big idea was to create an offering that spoke to fresh audiences on social channels like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, providing news content for younger New Zealanders which fulfilled the same mission that the 6pm news still does for older audiences.
The trio built out digital news teams which set about creating purpose-made content for platforms that had previously hosted largely repurposed content from news and current affairs programming. Some in the TVNZ newsroom, both news chiefs and marketers, were sceptical of the social news offering. Not because they didn’t see it as valuable, but because they did not understand how it would ever drive enough revenue to justify the expenditure. “There was hostility from the newsroom,” says one audience development team member. That divide would fester in the months to come.
At the same time, TVNZ had set some very ambitious web traffic goals including a weekly target of 1.5 million unique browsers to the 1News site and app. This is a level routinely exceeded by Stuff and NZ Herald, but one which was double a typical week for 1News. A TVNZ source suggests Yurisich signed off on the target, but that it was understood as an aspiration which would take months or even years to be achieved. When Yurisich resigned, it began to be wielded as an immediate KPI, say some digital staff. The target became a persistent source of acrimony among the digital news team, who viewed it as unachievable in the immediate term, and incongruent with the work they were doing on social platforms.
The strategy worked in some ways, with 1News coming from nowhere to become one of the biggest local news accounts on TikTok, with over 130,000 followers. Yet there was no correlation between increased social presence and traffic to the 1News site. To some in the digital news division this was predictable and unproblematic – they viewed their work as akin to a startup within the newsroom, one whose impact should not be judged in its first few months.
The past few years have seen a huge change in social media platforms, which has seen link-sharing plummet in favour of content designed to keep audiences on platforms, where in most cases the platform itself keeps the vast majority of advertising revenue. The backdrop of the planned merger with RNZ, confirmed in February of 2022, made the case even more clear, the new digital team felt. They were doing classic public media work, putting news content in front of audiences which might never watch linear television at 6pm, or head to 1news.co.nz, but were nonetheless deserving of quality news content.
Others in the newsroom, executive and board viewed the work differently. They just saw a pricey new division which was teaching an audience to get their news from Instagram or TikTok and not TVNZ’s own platforms. To their mind, that was raising revenue for big US or Chinese companies, but had little prospect of ever doing so in New Zealand. The two factions co-existed uneasily for over a year, each feeling misunderstood by the other.
A scandal breaks the newsroom
In parallel, a scandal was brewing. Along with Hond, Yurisich also hired another Al Jazeera veteran, presenter Kamahl Santamaria, who joined the Breakfast team, replacing one of TVNZ’s most beloved stars in John Campbell. When the Santamaria scandal broke it convulsed the newsroom and led the 6pm bulletin for days. There’s no good time for a situation of that nature, but it was particularly unfortunate that it happened in May of 2022 – two months after Kenrick had left the company, to be replaced by former National cabinet minister Simon Power. This left the ex-Al Jazeera crew without their champion, the person who had recruited them, atop the company.
Yurisich had already created tensions with some in the newsroom, due to a more low-key style than Gillespie, and his perceived emphasis on digital over 6pm. Now a close colleague he had recruited was embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, which some believe unfairly tainted anyone else with Al Jazeera on their CV. In the aftermath, Yurisich went on leave while a review was conducted into circumstances around Santamaria’s hiring. He would never return, ultimately resigning when the review came back at the end of July. It found that Santamaria was hired “without meaningful input from key individuals”, but that the fault largely lay with TVNZ’s hiring policy around key on-air talent.
“Once Paul left, it became open season on digital,” says one TVNZ staffer, and Hond was now the last remaining ex-Al Jazeera staffer in a senior role. The two key executives who had backed her strategy – CEO Kenrick and her boss Yurisich – had both gone within a matter of months. Their replacements took a more incrementalist approach to change. Hond went on special leave by September, and by December she too had resigned, leaving those she hired feeling isolated. The digital news team would go without an in-room leader for more than six months.
The Willie Jackson Show
While the Santamaria scandal unfolded, a new broadcasting minister was appointed. Willie Jackson replaced Kris Faafoi, meaning one ex-TVNZ staffer replaced another. However their styles could not have been more different, Jackson garrulous where Faafoi was reserved. Jackson had one big mission in his new broadcasting portfolio: combining TVNZ with RNZ. After Power critiqued the proposed structure of the merger in September of last year, Jackson went on the warpath, saying the merger was “going to require a change of culture” at TVNZ.
Despite the battle of wills at the political and board level, TVNZ’s newsroom had to carry on regardless. In this context, the audience development team’s prized TikTok channel could be viewed as a major asset. Part of Jackson’s critique of TVNZ was what he saw as a lack of interest in serving younger and more diverse audiences, in part, he believed, because TVNZ didn’t think it could make as much money out of them. This view was shared by some of the digital news team, who believed some of the proposed $100m in post-merger funding could go to the new audience development approach.
Then came Jackson’s pugnacious interview with Jack Tame, Jacinda Ardern’s resignation and the end of the merger, as new PM Chris Hipkins focused on “bread and butter” issues. All of a sudden the whole organisation had to change from readying itself for an epochal merger to a swift return to business as usual.
For the news team, the first priority was finding a digital news lead. In March Veronica Schmidt, the former head of RNZ’s investigative and longform team, was announced as Hond’s replacement. While well-regarded, she came from RNZ, an organisation with a very different approach to digital, one which largely eschews the kind of social-centric strategy deployed by Kardaman and the audience team. Sources within that team say they were initially excited by Schmidt’s appointment, but quickly came to view her as disengaged with the work they were doing. (TVNZ declined to make Schmidt available for this story).
‘Bring a support person’
On June 1st, less than three months after Schmidt started, an email went out to at least 13 digital news staffers, asking them to a meeting and encouraging them to bring a support person. Multiple TVNZ sources suggest that while relations had frayed with some in the newsroom, it was still a shock to discover their roles and teams were being cut, especially because they considered that the growth in audiences proved that they had succeeded in creating a viable audience on social platforms. They contrasted management’s support for the Re: digital news brand with what they perceived as indifference to their own achievements. “Only Re: is allowed to concentrate on younger audiences,” says one audience development team member.
Others in the TVNZ newsroom are more sanguine. That lofty website traffic target had not changed, and they believe Schmidt has every right to evolve the strategy and personnel to try and achieve it. They also think it would be far easier to create revenue out of owned platforms like 1news.co.nz and TVNZ+ than it is from social media audiences. In the aftermath of the cancellation of the merger, with TVNZ given no extra funding – while $25m per year was allocated to RNZ – they saw no financial justification for continuing to create content for social platforms with only marginal revenue possibilities.
That side sees a commercial business responding as best it can to a choppy ad market and political climate. The statement provided by TVNZ is pointed, concluding that “the digital news space is rapidly evolving and we need to respond to that. We’re focused on building 1news.co.nz to its full potential. This involves creating a sustainable digital news product that engages audiences, generates revenue and ultimately supports our journalists’ mahi.”
The emphasis on the website as the centre of TVNZ’s digital world, and pointed reference to revenue, strike some current and former TVNZ digital staff as a betrayal of both their intentions and of younger and more diverse audiences. Some of those impacted by the restructure view this as typical of figures at TVNZ who they feel reflexively resist modernisation, and only selectively consider their public media obligations. They also see as a marked conflict with the approach advocated for by Jackson, and think it particularly noteworthy given that the positions of most of the board and the CEO are currently vacant.
Other senior staff view it as a pragmatic response to a rapidly changing environment. That the Al Jazeera crew have largely left, and their replacements have every right to re-strategise, particularly given the changed economic environment. Emotions are running hot on all sides, but one has definitively won out. TVNZ has now taken a very different path for digital news, and those who helped build the previous one feel like all their work was for nothing.