Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONMediaNovember 19, 2021

RIP centrism: Why Stuff is gradually moving left while the Herald inches right

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The days of news outlets attempting to reach as broad an audience as possible are likely gone for good, writes former Mediaworks head of news Hal Crawford.

Before I landed a job in New Zealand, I had to do a crash course. I grew up in Perth, I’d lived in Europe, and I’d worked in Melbourne and Sydney. I really didn’t know the first thing about Aotearoa, including how to say Aotearoa.

It was a steep learning curve, and I was going for a big gig: news director at a national TV and radio newsroom. Naturally, I was afraid my ignorance would be exposed and I’d be sent back on the next flight. So I read New Zealand novels and history books, watched TV, and consumed a lot of news.

One of the most surprising things I discovered was the prevailing decency of the New Zealand media landscape. No truly tabloid news in either TV or text, and no explicit pan-publication political campaigning.

I got the job, dived into the waves, and learned some more. That “decency”, I realised, was really a kind of political and stylistic centrism emerging from the overall small size of the market, its development in geographical niches, and yes, something to do with the national Kiwi character.

I believe the forces that created this centrist media in New Zealand have now mostly disappeared, and increasingly we will see ideologically differentiated editorial offerings. That means more overtly political news reporting and more identity-based coverage of all kinds.

I see the change arising from market forces. Here’s the essence of the argument: in a consolidated national market for attention, with contracting local news coverage, there is a strong impetus for competing publishers to differentiate ideologically.

Is NZ media really ‘centrist’?

It may come as a surprise to some readers to hear they have a centrist media. Surely NZME (NZ Herald, Newstalk ZB) is a veritable nest of conservatism? Others may see Stuff and RNZ as totally woke. But compare these outlets to publishers in other markets and the differences diminish. My point of comparison is Australian media.

Let me tender evidence. Could you imagine this front page running on a New Zealand newspaper any time in the past two decades?

This 2013 front page from Sydney’s tabloid Daily Telegraph is quintessential News Corp. There’s no hiding of agendas here: that’s doomed PM Kevin Rudd, about to lose the election.

I went looking for this page’s equivalent in New Zealand, and couldn’t find it.

Right now, in terms of editorial approach there’s little difference between the two biggest news sites in New Zealand. A small and unscientific survey I ran asking media professionals to identify headlines as either belonging to the NZ Herald or Stuff showed that for most people there was no discernible difference. The results came in at 55% correct, or just over chance. The equivalent test for The Australian and The Guardian Australia (two ideologically opposed Australian outlets) returned 73% correct.

Why the difference?

Australian media is starkly divided because the two biggest media markets, Sydney and Melbourne, evolved two-tier structures where News Corp ran the popular papers and Fairfax (now Nine) serviced the elite.

Contrast this with the smaller city markets in New Zealand, where papers died back to leave a single dominant daily player: The NZ Herald in Auckland, owned by NZME and The Dominion Post in Wellington and The Press in Christchurch, both owned by Stuff. Where media markets are dominated by a single player, they tend to be centrist. For example, the newspaper in my hometown Perth, The West Australian, has always been middle-of-the-road in every respect. You get the biggest possible audience in the middle of the political and stylistic bell-curve.

This dynamic changes if someone comes in and begins to carve your market up. Note in the graph below, which shows the political leanings of Australian audiences by news outlets, the city-based tabloid outfits (Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun) tend to the right. The city-based elite publishers (The Age, SMH) tend to the left.

Source: University of Canberra’s 2021 Digital News Report Australia

This data comes from the University of Canberra’s “2021 Digital News Report Australia”, and is based on methodology from Reuter’s News Institute global surveys. Unfortunately there is no equivalent data for New Zealand. It would be absolutely fascinating to see the relative positions of RNZ, NZ Herald, TVNZ, Stuff and the like. My guess is that there’d be a much smaller spread in the main players.

Competing directly on ideology

The era of geographical competitive insulation is over for big New Zealand media. If you run a general commercial news operation, your revenue is shrinking, you are incentivised to maximise your audience – hence to go national in scope – and at the same time you want to differentiate from your competitors. This is the same dynamic historically at play within the big Australian city markets. The strategy for smaller players is to target niches and go hard (for example, within financial news). The strategy for the big players is to move ideologically outwards in the above graph.

This is happening in a limited way already in New Zealand. Stuff’s new home-grown ownership has allowed it to move leftwards, with the “Our Truth” investigation and subsequent apology to Māori a strong social justice play. As an example of where the NZME is heading, the NZ Herald’s digital lead story on Sunday, “Man fed up with antisocial Kāinga Ora neighbours” sits on the edge of tabloid territory. NZME already has its right-wing commentators such as Mike Hosking and Matthew Hooton, and it will find solid audience engagement in differentiating itself further from Stuff. The way to do this in the modern social environment will be to reject “correctness”, move further right, and perhaps engage in explicitly political campaigning.

The digital overlay

Overlaying all this are the now well-known feedback loops that reward divisive and emotionally arousing content on digital networks. Stuff has eschewed Facebook as a distribution channel – again a bold ideological stance – and therefore may appear to be free from this particular influence. There are still strong forces at play here encouraging ideological differentiation. Take the example of The Guardian and its very successful campaign for contributions from readers. As former Guardian Australia marketing director Margy Vary points out, Guardian readers give “money for nothing” because they believe in the mission. The more Stuff relies on contributions, the more incentive it has to make “the mission” central to its operation.

This is a complex and dynamic environment. New Zealand’s media both shapes, and is shaped by, the wider society. If the Strong Public Media project contemplating the future of RNZ and TVNZ results in a true amalgamation, it will create a cultural monolith with a powerful pull back to the centre. We’re due to hear the next update on that in February 2022.

Both individuals and company cultures matter to what happens next. When I first came to New Zealand and began working in Mediaworks’ Auckland newsroom, I was surprised to find a much greater appetite for what I perceived as “worthy” reporting. I had to adjust to different cultural priorities – like the centrality of Te Tiriti and even the importance of the British royals – and I had to be ready to accept a different media reality.

I also learned that within that reality, underneath the appearance of decency, was a burning competitiveness. People could be vicious, and were willing to use news media to further their business interests. This happens the world over. What also happens the world over is that publishers are rewarded for dividing and provoking audiences. It’s that dynamic that is now beginning in earnest in New Zealand media.

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