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MediaFebruary 26, 2024

Above the Fold: Inside the mystery of Stuff Circuit’s controversial final project

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

One of the last great investigative teams in NZ journalism is no more. In the second instalment of his new media column Above the Fold, Duncan Greive examines the end of Stuff Circuit, and the multi-year investigation which will be its last work – if it ever makes it out at all.

The Long Game is in some ways Stuff Circuit’s magnum opus, and befitting its name, it has been years in the making. It’s a deep exploration of the influence of China and its ruling communist party on New Zealand, weaving original reporting with the work of other newsrooms to build a fresh narrative. Members of Stuff’s investigative unit believe the work functions as a kind of love letter to journalism – it features “the newsroom as a character”, one said, pulling back the curtain on the hard graft of reporting in an epic movie-length documentary. 

In many ways, it represents the apex of a particular era of news giant Stuff under Sinead Boucher’s leadership and later ownership: a commitment to hard, public interest journalism first, with all other considerations queuing behind. Stuff Circuit was for years the company’s premium investigative brand: led by TV current affairs icon Paula Penfold, it put out event projects which emerged relatively infrequently, but often created major waves when they did.

The Long Game was its most ambitious undertaking yet, taking on the biggest geopolitical story of the century to date. The cinéma vérité technique chosen is rare within journalism, and cynics might view it as self-involved – but Stuff Circuit believes it’s right for The Long Game, and offers a compelling window into the working and decision drivers of an operating newsroom. 

The Stuff Circuit team: Paula Penfold, Phil Johnson, Louisa Cleave and Toby Longbottom.

However, the documentary, which The Spinoff has not seen and which has had minimal distribution within Stuff, remains caught up in a protracted stalemate, almost three years after it was first commissioned. 

Discussions with multiple former members of the Stuff Circuit team have suggested various possible reasons for delay. These include the fact that Stuff’s former head of news Mark Stevens plays a major on-screen role in the film, despite him now working at rival RNZ. There was also suggestion of an over-cautious legal approach due to the controversial subject matter – or even the presence of a subject within the film with links to Stuff. 

These allegations are rejected by multiple senior Stuff figures in the strongest possible terms. Stuff Digital managing director Nadia Tolich says it is purely routine legal and editorial processes which have kept it from publication. “Sometimes it can take a long time, and deep work, to get a story to a publishable standard – one that meets our code of conduct and ethics, our legal responsibilities and other editorial standards,” Tolich wrote in a statement. (This story is based on interviews with multiple current and former Stuff staff at both senior editor level and Stuff Circuit, most of whom spoke under condition of anonymity. Stevens himself declined to comment).

This is not just an ordinary editorial dispute. Laying atop is the fact that three of the four core members of the Stuff Circuit team no longer work at the organisation, after a restructure late last year disestablished the roles of all its members except Paula Penfold, the revered investigative journalist who led the team since its inception in 2016. The Stuff Circuit brand is now out of commission, and unlikely to be used beyond this final work, if and when it emerges. 

While a senior Stuff staffer says that the fate of the project and the restructure of the Stuff Circuit staff is “correlation not causation”, that feeling is not shared by some from Stuff Circuit. One former member of Stuff Circuit I spoke with believes that the delays in publication were beyond the team’s control, but used against it to suggest a lack of productivity. They viewed this as the basis on which the redundancies were made. For its part, Stuff says its work was simply not as compatible with the new direction of the organisation, and that the cost of The Long Game – more than $1m, a Stuff source said, even after NZ on Air funding – was far too high. Stuff Circuit staff strongly dispute that cost estimate, saying it fails to acknowledge other projects delivered within the same timeframe.

It’s an ignominious end to a powerhouse of journalism, one which was for much of its existence considered the crown jewel of Stuff’s editorial operation. Thus it also exists as a microcosm of the desperate choices being made as news organisations scramble to figure out a way to sustainably operate, anxiously awaiting the fate of the digital bargaining bill currently before parliament.

It’s also a story which is by no means over.

A bright beginning

The origins of Stuff Circuit are emblematic of a particular journalistic era, one which feels both close enough to touch and increasingly distant. The brand was built around three individuals – Penfold, director Toby Longbottom and producer Eugene Bingham, all of whom had made their investigative reputations working in TV current affairs. The trio had been a part of a show named 3D, a local version of 60 Minutes or Panorama – the kind of agenda-setting current affairs shows which were for decades a staple of TV schedules. 

TV3’s then-boss, brash ex-Olympian Mark Weldon, came in and set about sweeping away much of the station’s longer form news programming, most famously Campbell Live, but also 3D. There was consternation within journalism, in part because Penfold and her team were rightly lionised for their crusading coverage that, among other scoops, included the work which helped overturn the wrongful conviction of Teina Pora.

Stuff Circuit created a series of ambitious productions, including The Valley, which took them to Kabul, and Emma, shot partly in Putin’s Russia.

It was a bitter and public end, but they did not have long to dwell on their fate, as a major digital news brand saw opportunity where TV3 was retreating. Within weeks the trio were recruited by then-Stuff executive editor Boucher to create a new brand, Stuff Circuit. The task? To produce major investigative work for the platform. “Paula, Toby and Eugene are an exceptionally talented team who have created some of the most compelling journalism in New Zealand,” said Boucher at the time. “Their flair for hard-hitting investigative journalism and innovative storytelling will be a real asset to our audiences and I am thrilled they have chosen to join forces with us.”

Over the coming years, Stuff Circuit created a series of increasingly ambitious productions including The Valley, which took them to Kabul, and Emma, shot partly in Putin’s Russia. These created headlines and won awards, but were always somewhat incongruous within Stuff. The vast bulk of Stuff’s work remained text-driven journalism for its print newspapers, which also ran on its digital platforms, while its premium investigative unit worked predominantly in video. For a few years, while print remained profitable enough to subsidise digital news, that tension could be overlooked – but not forever.

In 2019, Bingham left Stuff Circuit to work on a range of other projects for Stuff, leaving an opening for a producer. Louisa Cleave had spent over a decade at TVNZ working on various current affairs shows, the bulk of them on its flagship Sunday programme. It was nourishing work on a beloved show, at an institution with the relative job security provided by state ownership. Stuff, by contrast, was then-owned by Australia’s Nine group, and starved of resource and attention. There were persistent rumours it might be sold or worse. Yet such was the power of Stuff Circuit that she joined the team in early 2020.

Before she even started, the pandemic hit and advertising vanished. Yet the following month, Boucher rescued Stuff, buying it for $1 and setting about re-focusing the company with a rare sense of mission. That year saw an internationally lauded withdrawal from Facebook, and the historic examination of its coverage of te ao Māori, Tā Mātou Pono

For a while, it looked like the best place to work in the business. A few years ago there was a lunch arranged by then-Pou Tiaki editor Carmen Parahi, featuring some of the galaxy of star women journalists assembled under Boucher’s watch. Around the table were social issues reporter Kirsty Johnston, climate specialist Eloise Gibson, #MeTooNZ champion Ali Mau, along with Penfold and Cleave. It was an illustration of the extraordinary collection of talent Boucher had assembled, and the breadth of Stuff’s brand, which could contain both mass market entertainment and some of the most credentialed reporters in the country.

Today, Penfold is the only member of the group who remains an ongoing Stuff staffer. Parahi recently announced her resignation as Pou Tiaki Matua, following departure of Johnston, Gibson, Mau and Cleave, all within the past 12 months.

Short Circuit

In between times, Stuff Circuit had some major successes, most notably Fire and Fury, a documentary covering the 2022 occupation of parliament and the key identities behind it. Stuff Circuit sources say it drove over a million views, a number which would place it among the highest rating TV programmes most years. The group also won a major international award for Disordered, a deep look into foetal alcohol syndrome, which was celebrated by Stuff. Yet senior Stuff sources suggest that such successes led to a creeping loss of focus for the Circuit team, saying that potential for awards began to be prized above audience or organisational need by the team.

Stuff Circuit sources reject that characterisation, and point to work they did upskilling reporters by seconding them to projects, or mentoring more junior staff struggling with complex assignments. These are routine day-to-day tensions within most large organisations, and the Circuit team remained dedicated to The Long Game, commissioned in 2021, which attempted to create a single narrative out of a number of complex news stories involving Chinese money and influence. This included following the realtime reporting of Catrin Owen, along with footage of production meetings with Stevens as commissioner.

Stuff Circuit won a global award for Disordered, a deep look into foetal alcohol syndrome.

By the middle of 2023, the Stuff Circuit team filed what they believed was a near-finished product. At 90 minutes, it was by far the longest duration they had ever made – but allowable under the terms of their public funding agreement with NZ on Air. Stuff Circuit sources say it was essentially signed off with only minor notes by Stevens. They were excited to see it released prior to October’s election, believing the questions it raised should have been in the public domain during the campaign. 

Yet senior Stuff editorial sources I spoke to said there were significant issues with The Long Game that meant it had almost no chance of emerging prior to the election. Some of these were associated with legal challenges, they acknowledge, which were partially solved by re-cutting it to be episodic rather than feature length. But Stuff sources say the delay was as much about editorial matters, such as right of reply for key characters, and even its fundamental quality as a product. They made reference to recordings of production meetings conducted on Zoom which Circuit believed showed the inner workings of a news organisation, but other Stuff sources thought were just dull.

The election came and went – then a NZ on Air funding round became public, pushing all of this into the public domain. Stuff Circuit has attracted millions of dollars in NZ on Air funding since its inception. Investigative journalism, particularly shot for video, is very costly work, and sources say that the funding did not come close to covering Stuff Circuit’s salary costs through the years. Because public funding for journalism is rare, news organisations typically scrutinise NZ on Air’s decisions each year, both due to professional jealousy and for clues about what the opposition is up to. Newsroom’s Tim Murphy was first to note that Stuff Circuit was absent from the most recent set of results. 

It was not just of prurient interest – there were major financial stakes too. NZ on Air typically will not release funding for a new season of a show until the previous one has been delivered. Because The Long Game was attached to the 2022 funding round, it meant that Stuff Circuit’s 2023 allocation – around $370,000 – had not even been drawn down. Murphy’s reporting was followed by Stuff arch rival NZ Herald media columnist Shayne Currie, who raised questions around Circuit’s productivity. He wrote about “an argument that some journalists need to be more attuned to their output.” 

The game, called off

This was also a question being asked within senior levels at Stuff, and ultimately, Stuff Circuit believe, formed the basis for the unit’s breakup. Within the team this was seen as grossly unjust – they viewed their output as being unfairly judged by the scale and gestation of The Long Game, rather than the full sweep of their work. They also put forward an offer to change their approach during the restructure process, making content at greater volume and even with room for a sponsor. 

Stuff management were unmoved. Under new CEO Laura Maxwell, the company had spent the year reorganising into three divisions representing commercial, the newspaper and paywall business, and Stuff Digital, encompassing its free-to-access content. As part of this process, leadership adopted a “day zero” approach, asking which parts of the business they would build if starting from scratch. They say that Stuff Circuit did not naturally fit in any of those categories, joining the powerhouse National Correspondents team as legacies of an ambitious era, now ended.

Today Stuff’s video offering looks a lot like TikTok’s. Short-form vertical video featuring reporters explaining the news, trends or commercial partnerships. Stuff itself aims to be “live and lively”, with shorter stories and rolling coverage of breaking and ongoing news beats. Harder and longer form journalism is more likely to be paywalled on its Press, Post and Waikato Times sites. Its management said this is driven by audience demand, and by the financial realities of a much more digital news business. One former Stuff staffer expressed dismay at the evolution, and was aghast at the prominence of the weather blog, saying sadly that “it’s not the place I went to”. 

Still, it’s hard to know what else Stuff could do. The sad reality is that investigative journalism is inherently very costly. Even with a paywall, its public interest value almost always outstrips the financial return which can be attributed to it through most metrics. Without a paywall, it becomes near impossible. While Stuff retains some superb investigative talent, including Steve Kilgallon and Tony Wall, its ranks are notably thinner. With NZ on Air still mostly committed to funding video journalism, and the fate of the digital news bill far from certain, it seems that the brief golden age of investigations in the ‘10s is fading fast.

There are strong and hurt feelings all around. Yet there is hope for a form of resolution. The Long Game was seen as drifting, likely never to surface, until a meeting between Penfold and Boucher earlier this year. It prompted a fresh look at the project, which is now working its way toward a fairly imminent release, sources say. Given the scope and style of the project, its emergence will allow it to serve as a requiem – not just for Stuff Circuit, but a journalistic era too. 

Keep going!