Lessons from in-house CMS platforms and an ethical breach at Radio New Zealand

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


Welcome to the latest INMA Newsroom Initiative newsletter.

This week, I reckon all newsroom leaders can draw lessons from a nasty ethical breach at public broadcaster Radio New Zealand. Do you have your house in order?

We also look at another publisher ending its dream of being a technology provider.

My recommended follow is also the author of a remarkable new book on the history of print and the future of media.

Ethical crisis at Radio New Zealand has lessons for us all

Radio New Zealand, the public broadcaster and the most trusted news outlet in the country, has been rocked by an ethical crisis that would be a nightmare for any journalism outlet and which may offer lessons to other newsrooms.

The radio and online publisher has uncovered dozens of surreptitious edits — mostly in agency reports from Reuters — that twist the perspective of the original material. Stories about the war in Ukraine were edited to include lines that favour the Russian position, and stories about Israel-Palestine were changed to shift the tone of militants and the Israeli government. But there is a wide range of subjects in which balance or tone was moved or removed.

It is seldom a good thing when the news outlet becomes the news story. The edits quickly became a major controversy calling into question RNZ’s working practices and credibility in a media environment where mis and disinformation exploded during the pandemic and has become firmly rooted in the media environment ahead of national elections later this year.

That the scandal was uncovered only when a New York-based Twitter user noticed a pro-Russian talking point in what was labeled as a Reuters story on the RNZ Web site — leading Reuters to make clear the edit was not in its original — was cause for alarm. It emerged that a warning from a staff member about editing practices and a complaint from Ukrainian New Zealanders about the tone of some stories had not exposed a long history of poor edits:

The scandal will send a shudder through any editorial leader and prompt them to ask if it could happen in their newsroom. A shortage of editing resources, distributed working out of the office, and hard-to-enforce or unenforceable ethics policies are hardly unique to RNZ.

The editor involved has left RNZ and the service has appointed a three-strong inquiry team — including a noted media lawyer — to investigate. An internal audit covering perhaps thousands of stories edited by the same person has so far uncovered 49 stories (of 1,268 assessed up to July 17) which the news services says did not meet its standards and have been re-edited.

RNZ Chief Executive Paul Thompson described the case as a “serious breach” which led to what he called “pro-Kremlin garbage” being injected into otherwise clean Reuters copy.

The affair has engulfed RNZ just as it was awarded NZ$26 million (US$16 million) in new government funding to expand its online services after the Labour government scrapped a controversial plan to merge the radio service with Television New Zealand. It also comes as trust in New Zealand media continues to fall, though at a slower rate than many others.

Here’s my checklist of what may have gone wrong in this case and could go wrong anywhere:

  • Unclear policies on how to handle agency copy and add perspective or combine agency reports, often by adding a byline from the publisher or making clear reports have been melded.

  • Poor understanding of escalation policies and responsibilities where there is a clear risk to reputation requiring action at the earliest stage.

  • Supervision of remote-working staff and their output, including the core principle of having open conversations and avoiding a culture of blame that can lead to problems being hidden.

  • Inadequate reinforcement of or agreement with editorial guidelines on adding personal opinion to material without justification or transparency to users.

Radio New Zealand has a perfectly serviceable code of conduct which includes a section on injecting personal opinion that arguably should have covered this situation. It states: “Staff will have opinions of their own, but they must not yield to bias or prejudice. To be professional is not to be without opinions, but to be aware of those opinions and make allowances for them so that reporting is judicious and fair.” A PDF of the code is here.

However, the editor involved — whom I have contacted to talk to but who has not yet responded — told a radio colleague he had edited stories in the same way for years, adding: “In fact since I started RNZ and … I have done that for five years and nobody has tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I was doing anything wrong."

I wrote a commentary on the case for a New Zealand publication, BusinessDesk, in which I argued that the furore across the media, while understandable, was overdone and required some reflection on how such problems could surface in almost any news operation. It really is a lesson for us all in terms of process, but it is also a clear breach of trust.

Reuters and other agency reports are generally written by experienced journalists in the field and edited in line with their own strong ethical policies and traditions. I am yet to be convinced that an editor handling that copy at another publisher should require what we called “a second pair of eyes” when I worked for Reuters unless they have added context or combined reports.

“Reuters has addressed the issue with RNZ, which has initiated an investigation. As stated in our terms and conditions, Reuters content cannot be altered without prior written consent. Reuters is fully committed to covering the war in Ukraine impartially and accurately, in keeping with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles,” a Reuters spokesman told me.

The RNZ inquiry is still underway, and I will let you know what it comes up with.

Further resources:

Vox abandons its proprietary CMS

Media companies, especially online pure plays, have often believed they can generate revenue and create better products by developing and licensing their own content management systems (CMS). But the latest to abandon that strategy shows how hard it is to succeed.

Vox Media, arguably one of the most innovative publishers of the past decade, has abandoned its Chorus CMS, which it created as its own platform but also as a product to license to others.

The writing was on the wall at the turn of the year when Vox said it wouldn’t take on new clients and gave existing clients 18 months to find an alternative. Now Vox has said it is moving its own titles of Chorus and move instead to WordPress — widely used by large and small outlets.

Many have gone down the road of believing they could create bespoke CMS — especially in a period when some of the historic vendors to the newspaper and early online operations were clunky, costly, inflexible, and still rooted in a print production mindset. However, the investment and skills needed to develop, quality test, and service technology products are huge and not natively in most media companies that struggle to compete with tech for talent on systems.

“Chorus is an amazing platform. But when the pandemic came, it just became a harder market," Axios quoted Vox Media CEO Bankoff as saying in a comprehensive report on the shift. “It is an entirely different market going out and servicing SaaS [Software as a Service]  clients — one that we were succeeding in but one that we said, All right, if were going to focus as a company, let’s focus on our audience-based businesses.

Axios spun off its own CMS business when it was acquired by Cox Communications last year. The Washington Post has reportedly started to “fork” its own publishing system from the ARC CMS it created and markets to other publishers. Gawker, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and others have all had various types of attempts to create and offer clever CMS platforms.

Rafat Ali, founder of the travel industry site Skift and of old media news site PaidContent, described the shift as the end of an era of media companies trying to dress themselves — seldom successfully — in the clothes of more highly valued technology companies.

In my experience having been involved in CMS choices and development of in-house CMS platforms in many publishers, there is almost always a better off-the-shelf solution to every part of what one has to now think of as the “stack” of technologies that need to be knitted together — from content creation to user verification to subscriptions and indexing, let alone advertising.

My colleague Jodie Hopperton has covered this subject of CMS choices and stacks extensively in the INMA Product Initiative, including this on the modular approach and this on the stack

ICYMI: The history of print in its glory and lessons for the future

Jeff Jarvis, the noted journalism educator, author, and all-around-booster for new media, granted INMA his first interview to promote his new book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis: The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet.

The book is redolent of lead-type and printers’ ink but is also profoundly optimistic about the future of media and the choices we all have — and the responsibilities publishers have to get better at what they do and that consumers have to make judgments.

“Publishers try to protect the capital structure that they’ve had, the ownership they’ve had, the special status they’ve had,” Jarvis told me in the interview published here on INMA. “This is the last gasp of old media, traffic for traffic’s sake, scale for scale’s sake. All that came out of the advertising business model and I think that changes now.” 

Recommended follow

Jeff @jeffjarvis and @buzzmachine might as well be my recommended follow this week. He’s big in sharing and adding pithy commentary and should be in your “journalism” list.

Talk back

Tell me what you want to read and what you like or don’t like in this newsletter, please. E-mail: peter.bale@inma.org. There’s also an INMA Newsroom Initiative Slack channel. Do tell me, please, what you think is working or not working as I’d like to develop that community.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Peter Bale, based in New Zealand and the U.K. and lead for the INMA Newsletter Initiative. Peter will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global newsrooms.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Peter at peter.bale@inma.org or newsroom@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Peter Bale

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