MediaWorks launched gossip site Scout amid much fanfare just two months ago, yet today it appears to be hanging by a thread amid resignations and troubling news stories. Duncan Greive spoke with a number of former Scout staff members and MediaWorks employees, and was given access to a large cache of correspondence, recordings, data and other documentation to create this portrait of a modern media debacle.
On Wednesday September 16 of 2015, MediaWorks CEO Mark Weldon sat down in the TV3 news studio for the latest in his series of company-wide briefings. These happen weekly, and appear, in Orwellian fashion, on screens throughout the company. In them he talks to his employees about news and developments across the company’s media properties, sometimes accompanied by sales people and occasionally on-air talent.
That morning he had the company’s latest recruit waiting just off-camera, her sleeve sometimes flickering into the frame to his right. She had been brought on to run an entertainment site called Scout, and in that moment, he looked in no doubt about the quality of his decision. “It’s a site that has at the essence of its brand fun, entertainment, celebrity and positivity,” he says brightly, before moving to introduce his companion.
“When we looked at developing this as a business,” he says, “there was a shortlist of people in the country who had the networks, the contacts and the strategic nous to create a brand that would be successful in that area.
“And that list really comprised of Rachel Glucina.”
Soon we cut to second, wider angle, revealing Glucina herself, there to “talk about the content side”.
Glucina is slightly nervous, but also excited. She talks about how they wanted to make a splash, so “we’ve gone a little bit tabloid”, as if it’s something she’d rather not be doing. She’s more comfortable outlining plans for “unique original webisodes”, starting with their original series starring Paul Henry’s daughter, Bella Finds a Fella and another called Celebrity Mansions.
Weldon listens intently, sitting unnervingly still, occasionally rubbing his clasped fingers together. He doesn’t flinch when she, echoing his own statement earlier, talks about how the company had been “lacking in entertainment news”. That statement particularly shocked the company’s long-serving entertainment reporters, watching at locations across the city. After eight minutes, the video ends.
The object of all this talk, Scout, was just two days old when the video beamed around central Auckland. But while Weldon and Glucina – “tired, exhausted, extremely excited” – were putting on a brave face, already the site was in turmoil.
The Man-Hoovers-Car Scoop
Scout came together at breakneck speed. Exactly three months earlier Glucina had announced her resignation from the Herald, where she’d produced scurrilous and supremely clickable gossip for nearly a decade.
While she was recruited in June, the first Scout staff weren’t appointed until August, with the bulk arriving in early September, just days before the site went live. The group really coalesced in the week leading up to the September 14th launch, writing features and columns with an air of excitement pervading their offices, atop the More FM building on Ponsonby Rd – hers with a spectacular view across the city; theirs nicknamed ‘the cupboard’ due its cramped, low-light nature.
On the Friday prior to launch, Glucina told staff about their lead story: the instantly infamous ‘exclusive’ video of Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking cleaning his car. The reaction among staff was one of shock – particularly on hearing the price-tag for its purchase from a local tabloid photographer, rumoured to be in the region of $5000.
“Is he vacuuming up drugs or something?” wondered one. “Because that’s the only way this is in any way newsworthy.”
Still, they tried to put it out of their minds. They remained excited about the opportunity the site represented: a chance to write about fashion, music, movies and celebrity culture. The first recruits were for the most part young, in their twenties, and only dimly aware of Glucina’s reputation. While she was loathed by much of the TV3 newsroom, Scout staff didn’t want to pre-judge this venture. What’s more, Glucina was exceedingly charming to them in person, praising their work and talking up the potential of the site.
The small team, numbering around 10, worked through the weekend, uploading content and chasing stories. Making sure the site looked perfect, ready for when the lights came on at 5am Monday. Finally, at 11pm on the Sunday evening, the last of them left the office, exhausted but exhilarated.
A few hours later they were back, ready for the big reveal. They were concerned about the Hosking story, but thought people would look deeper, into the features they were really proud of. But as New Zealand awoke, and its social media community came to look at the site, their excitement turned to anxiety, then hurt. Traffic flooded in, but for the wrong reasons.
“The worst day of my life,” says one. “We got annihilated,” says another. It became swiftly clear that the site was being toured as if a hilarious media zoo, mostly by people trawling for jokes they could make to their own social audience at the site’s expense. The most hurtful part was that it was their own colleagues spearheading the campaign.
Beyond the Hosking story, a list of the most influential New Zealanders under 25 came in for particular scrutiny, and become amongst the day’s most read. It was authored by Stephanie Lai, a then-unpaid intern (she was later put on payroll following a damning news story on the site’s search for unpaid interns in the National Business Review) who had recently featured on TV3’s show Reality Trip, and was the site’s fashion blogger.
The derision wasn’t entirely fair to Lai, who, Scout sources say, had Lorde, the obvious candidate, atop the list – until Glucina told her to alter it to place Max Key at its summit.
Still, the team remained busy throughout the day, and were grateful when the launch party arrived, meaning they could down tools and have a drink.
The Launch Party
There were very much two camps at the event. One, led by Glucina and Weldon, was celebrating the huge numbers the site had put up, so vast that it reached its monthly target within hours. They viewed the cruel jokes and incredulity at the site’s stories as sour grapes and jealousy.
The second camp, comprising most of the site’s content producers, were deeply affected by what the outside world was saying about them. Worse, by what their friends and acquaintances were saying to them. They found themselves blocked on social media, and received private messages saying that longstanding relationships couldn’t be maintained while they worked for Scout. This animosity was also felt as they worked the phones – when they called asking for an interview or quotes, they were nearly always turned down flat as soon as they revealed they worked for Scout.
As a result some were near tears at the launch party, the doomy mood of which was exacerbated by the tiny turnout: just 25 to 30 at the swish Wine Chambers on Shortland Street in downtown Auckland, a venue designed for twice that. In attendance were Glucina and her family, Scout staffers, Weldon and a bunch of salespeople. The newsroom was represented solely by Head of News Mark Jennings, a man never again sighted by Scout staff.
Two other noteworthy guests were a Scout social media operative, who had already made a kind of minor history by becoming Scout’s first official resignation – after a matter of hours – and longtime Glucina pal Judith Collins.
The evening was capped off with a celebratory dinner at MooChowChow in Ponsonby – Weldon’s favourite spot, perhaps because it stocks his own Terra Sancta wines. These would soon become subject of an embarrassing story in the Herald, after Matt Nippert revealed MediaWorks had purchased thousands of dollars of its CEO’s wine for “hospitality and events”. Weldon led a discussion about Terra Sancta’s wines which lasted for around half an hour, according to sources who attended the dinner, before conversation finally turned to the site’s launch.
Weldon and Glucina were excited. They viewed Scout’s huge opening numbers as vindication, both of the decision to open the site, and of the strategic move away from hard news – Glucina was hired just weeks after Campbell Live was cancelled – toward gossip and celebrity driven reporting. Scout’s team were shocked to hear talk that news wasn’t a priority for the company, that the TV3 newsroom was outdated and needed an overhaul.
Those who had come from that newsroom were dismayed. They found the entire dinner troubling, capping off a day which made them question their decision to join this enterprise.
A Second Scouter Quits
By week’s end, a second resignation had occurred – that of Francis Cook, the site’s news editor. He had left Scoop and moved to Auckland from Wellington to take the job, and prior to his arrival staff had been told about the strong political reporting skills he would bring to the operation. While there though, his output consisted chiefly of music reporting or reviewing. Staff wondered privately whether MediaWorks had made the same mistake many on social media did when his position was announced – thinking that they had hired Fran-ces Cook, the well-regarded Newstalk ZB political correspondent.
Cook’s time had been brief but fraught, thanks to an appearance in the NBR’s internship story – which allegedly infuriated Glucina – and being sent on an assignment which instantly became Scout lore. After a tip came in that Jemaine Clement was eating at The Langham, Cook was sent down to try and get a story. On arrival a very reluctant Cook showed a fatal decency, asking Clement’s permission to speak with him. The Conchords star’s declined.
Before the week was out Cook had resigned, and his colleagues now think that he figured out the site wasn’t going to work early. He certainly seemed happy to be leaving, and scored a job at the Herald not long after.
Scout entered into a period of relative stability through the end of the month. Their numbers fell away, as many sites do after a splashy launch, and pressure came on to find scandals, using staffers’ friends. They refused, and eventually demands stopped. Staff started to find their feet, and the TV3 newsroom’s animosity was less palpable. But if they were in any doubt as to their pariah status within the company, their treatment during Justin Bieber’s whistlestop media tour put paid to it.
The Bieber Effect
The considerable cost of the pop star’s visit was covered by MediaWorks, chiefly Jono and Ben, and the company’s properties were given priority access to the star. He was interviewed on everything from Story to The Edge, and the company expertly exploited their proximity to the singer at the apex of a new peak of fame and credibility.
This access pointedly did not extend to Scout, with their reporter Dan Lake – also known as Dan News, a blogger and longtime 3News stalwart recruited just prior to launch – forced to jostle with the crowds at the airport just to get grainy paparazzi-style footage of Bieber.
Despite that, as September ended the site remained a priority for MediaWorks executives, who still thought they could convince the rest of the business to stop the extreme company-wide resistance to the project.
One thing it didn’t lack for was funding. Scout remained well-heeled compared to the asset-stripping happening in TV3’s venerable newsroom. One staffer caught a $45 company-funded taxi to work each day, another inadvertently drained all that remained of the site’s $9000 monthly Getty contract in an afternoon downloading fashion images. It wasn’t a huge deal.
And regardless, a “major fashion brand” – later revealed to be Parallel Imported – was reportedly nearly ready to sign on as naming rights sponsor of ‘Scout in 60’, the pacy minute of gossip which precedes the news. This segment was an object of pride for Glucina, who saw it as something which might become a show – or even a channel – and she couldn’t resist a dig at some of her enemies across town.
As the site rolled into its second month Weldon’s contention that only Glucina had “the networks, the contacts and the strategic nous” to make Scout work remained plausible – just – and by all accounts the pair retained a good working relationship.
That would change with one disastrous story, published the following day, after the results of the first radio ratings survey in a year were delivered.
Scout’s Vicious Turn
MediaWorks’ vast radio staff gathered to venues across town – the bulk to the Cavalier Tavern in College Hill, others to MooChowChow – intent on celebrating what had mostly been a good result for the company’s market share. As the parties started to ramp up, Glucina emerged from her office into the ‘cupboard’ at 239 Ponsonby Road and told Lake that he had to write a story about the survey results. She said she’d help, pulled up a chair, and, in front of a number of startled staff, proceeded to dictate, word-for-word, a story.
This itself wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Glucina remained somewhat tentative about the CMS – content management system, the back-end of the site – and would always ask Scout staffers to post her stories. Though, as one noted acidly “she did know where the edit button was”. The lack of technical understanding struck staffers as real, though they did wonder whether it also helped give her plausible deniability about authorship – bylines have always been notoriously shifty at Scout.
Glucina dictated to Lake a story which was oddly vicious toward certain MediaWorks stars, including Simon Barnett and RadioLive – save for Paul Henry. She laughed her way through its construction, then told him to post it. The story went up mid-afternoon – without a byline, as was often the case at the time.
Then all hell broke loose. Witnesses who were at a radio party describe a volley of text messages being received, and dozens of phones being whipped out. In the midst of celebration – survey results day is the event for commercial radio – all eyes were on Scout’s story.
Then the wave rolled back to Scout. Phones were “ringing off the hook”, according to staff, and not long after Weldon stormed in, his face a mask of fury, and headed straight to Glucina’s office.
They argued loud and long behind closed doors. After a spell, the CEO emerged, and terrified Lake by asking how he was doing. Lake replied that he was fine, but staff instinctively knew the implication – that Weldon thought he was the author of the story.
It was the first of a number of situations which arose in Scout’s small team which would keep the ‘People Officers’, as they’re known in MediaWorks’ HR department, busy for weeks.
The survey story was swiftly amended – not without other media noticing – but lurking in the background was another bomb waiting to go off. Way back on launch day, Lake was sent out with video producer Matt Warner to shoot a pilot for Celebrity Mansions, the show Glucina had excitedly referred to in her video address with Weldon.
Julie Christie’s ‘Mansion’
They were told to head to a house recently sold by MediaWorks executive and reality TV producer Julie Christie on the North Shore. Everyone involved knew it wasn’t her home, but all were told that the video was merely a prop for Sales to take to a prominent real estate firm, who were being courted to sponsor the series. Neither Christie nor Lake and Warner thought it was ever going to be made public.
Lake hammed it up in a bowtie, asking fluffy questions, and ended the segment immersed in a wooden spa pool still leeching out its cedar oils, the smell of which attached itself to him for the rest of the day. The story in the can, Lake and Warner returned to the office and readied themselves for the launch party that evening.
The footage was later edited and shopped to a potential sponsor. But despite it being manifestly a charade, and never intended for a public audience, it suddenly appeared on Scout on September 29. Glucina tweeted “EXCLUSIVE: Inside Julie Christie’s Mansion”, along with a link to the clip, despite knowing full well it wasn’t a house Christie had ever lived in.
We at The Spinoff dug into the story behind the house, discovering that it was built on spare land left over from season two of The Block. This had been made by Eyeworks, the production company Christie formerly owned. The tax implications looked suspicious, and we put some questions to her.
The subsequent story was headlined ‘A Bargain From the Block – The Curious Case of Julie Christie’s Mansion’, and the Herald quoted Labour Housing Spokesperson Phil Twyford as calling it “the perfect Auckland postscript to The Block”. Christie said at the time she’d complain to the Press Council – though that hasn’t yet eventuated – and the original post and video were soon removed from Scout completely.
Cutbacks and Relocation
As staff dwindled, the remainder had to shoulder an ever increasing workload. They worked long hours during the week, but resented particularly the intrusions into their weekends. Emails and texts supplied to The Spinoff show Glucina repeatedly sending the Monday-Friday staff lists of stories to be posted on Sunday mornings, and complaining that about the lack of new stories on the site. Working seven days a week was considered routine, on top of weekday shifts scheduled to start as early as 5am.
Worse than the workload was the working environment. Scout’s original Content Producer was Ines Lotfi – a Belgian who moved to New Zealand two years ago. She was engaged to be married, as was Gwen Taylor, Scout’s Senior Online Editor.
This delighted Glucina, who thought Scout could exploit the coincidence with content about their own staff’s love lives, which could then be used to attract sponsors. Lotfi was initially excited by the idea, as was Taylor. But that quickly turned to humiliation as Glucina repeatedly said in staff meetings that only Taylor – an actor and brand ambassador who appeared in Spartacus – was sufficiently attractive to work on camera.
This was not an isolated incident, but instead part of a pattern – other staff had their aesthetic suitability for on-camera work negatively appraised too. There was also a common habit of attributing stories which attracted derision to the staffers who had posted them, when they had not been authors of the material.
In recent weeks, MediaWorks HR seemed to become aware of the issues, and take steps to remedy them. These included approaching staff to ask if they wanted to talk about Glucina. Most recently the staff were removed from the offices at 239 Ponsonby Road, and taken down to the MediaWorks building at Fountain Court in Three Lamps, with Glucina remaining in her loft-style office.
Sources say Glucina is no longer seen at Flower Street, and that her relationship with senior executives, including Weldon, has become strained. He is, of course, dealing with fires on multiple fronts, the most recent of which is the decision of TV3’s long-form current affairs staff to assemble a legal team in response to threats to their jobs.
A Gossip Site Without Gossip
Through all this, Scout is still alive, still posting, leading Tuesday with a story about Richie McCaw joining Movember, sourced from his facebook brand page. Despite its premium advertising slot ahead of the news and a major publicity campaign, its numbers have dropped away since the giddy highs of its launch day. Its unique browsers averaged around 2000 per day through the middle of November, according to figures leaked to The Spinoff, and have sagged below 1000 on occasion. These would be fine numbers for a political blog, but represented abject failure for such a well-funded mass-market property, and hinted at the site’s real problem – that it was a gossip site without much gossip.
It’s a sad state of affairs for a venture which began life as a bold, brave move, one which saw a number of excited young journalists tasked with building something new. Unfortunately it was born into the heat of public anger at Campbell Live’s cancellation, making the hard task of building a brand that much more difficult.
This was compounded by the hiring decision to place Glucina at its heart. Weldon appears not to have been aware that, as Russell Brown noted ahead of the site’s launch her “columns since 2012 read increasingly like the work of someone no one would talk to any more”.
It seems Weldon underestimated the depth of animosity toward her which surged through key news and entertainment personalities, due to the stories she wrote about them and their friends during her time at the Herald. That made both her job, and that of her staff, immensely difficult.
Despite all the site has been through in its short life, Weldon himself still seems to cling to the hope that it can be saved. On Monday he emailed all staff an update on the business, based off his experience briefing customers around New Zealand and Australia over the past couple of weeks.
“The Exec Team and I have spent the last two weeks briefing our customers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Sydney – it’s been very exciting, keep reading to watch some highlights of the sessions.”
It linked to a video set to pounding music, featuring this voice over:
“‘And to top it all off we launched first digital entertainment brand Scout, which is quickly becoming Kiwis brand new obsession’.”
That was true for one glorious day in September. It’s tough to argue that it has ever been since.
The Spinoff has approached MediaWorks for comment, and will update this story should that arrive. Any correspondence regarding the story can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org
Further reading from Duncan Greive:
12.03pm UPDATE: The original version of this story had Francis Cook approach Jemaine Clement at Ponsonby Food Court for a photograph. He was in fact at The Langham, and it was for an interview. The Spinoff regrets the error.
12.18pm UPDATE: We originally reported that the cost of Justin Bieber’s visit as being $100,000 – this figure has been denied by industry sources – though MediaWorks did pay a large sum to facilitate the visit.
12.36pm UPDATE: We have been supplied the original radio survey story and included a screengrab in the text