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New Zealand Herald signals a bigger shift to digital in the newsroom

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


The New Zealand Herald — part of publicly listed NZME, spanning newspapers, sites, and a big commercial radio network — has signaled a rapid acceleration in its progressive shift to digital.

At the newsroom centre of a shift planned in a series of rolling three-year plans is Murray Kirkness, now described on the organograms as chief content officer rather than editor-in-chief — though he reckons he uses that title so some people understand what he does.

The newsroom structure at The Herald — and NZME overall in a sense because Kirkness oversees news standards and news output across the business — has become more flat, with some significant job changes and losses at a senior level mostly in print-focused jobs.

It is all about a transition many news organisations are in but which is gathering pace at NZME as it starts another three-year cycle of planned digital investment in the future.

Another change in the organogram was the recent appointment of Matt Martel as managing editor/audience and platform curation with a mission to focus on digital growth as he had at BusinessDesk, which was acquired by NZME a couple of years ago and has grown rapidly. (Matt spoke to the INMA Newsroom Initiative about a fascinating application of generative AI.)

At a recent investor day, NZME described a hybrid approach to the newspaper-digital transition that all media organisations wrestle with but also made clear that its own commitment to digital would accelerate in the last few months of 2023 and into 2024. That means a shift to digital-first in the newsroom and “curating” the print products from content created initially for digital.

It is a familiar story, but it seems NZME is very much walking the walk as well as the talk having shed several senior staff devoted to much-loved print products.

“Print still gets care and attention,” Kirkness told me, “But we’re trying to think — especially in content generation — what we’re putting forward to the digital audience. And then we’re using the very best of that journalism.”

There is a strong thread through the NZME investor presentation about the importance of compelling journalism to the business model, something familiar to INMA audiences.

The Herald has been relatively successful at shifting its newspaper subscribers to digital — or at least making them digital and print subscribers — and that appears to give a sound basis to take the existing audience and revenues with the organisation as it accelerates towards digital.

“So the org structure reflects the need to be digital-first, to still put out newspapers of which we are proud and of quality and that are welcomed into people's homes,” Kirkness said. “The core of it must be quality journalism, and we should continue to be ambitious within journalism.”

The Herald has indeed invested in data journalism, investigative journalism, and podcasts (which it should be great at given NZME’s powerful radio network).

Kirkness knows NZME and The Herald can do better to build on a strong reputation for breaking news and expand its digital offerings to the kind of comprehensive attention traps newspapers historically have been — covering the spread from news to crosswords.

“We need to inform, entertain, distract, provoke, surprise,” he says in a twist on the familiar BBC mantra to “inform, educate, and entertain.”

Kirkness says his newsroom is adopting more sophisticated metrics to find ways to emphasise output that builds trust, credibility, and enjoyment. He is a fan of the Financial Times “quality reads” metric, which uses editorially relevant signals to work out if a story gets read, how deeply it is read, and to some extent how it promotes loyalty and subscription.

“The next pillar is probably the biggest change and that’s the one that Matt Martell is heading up, which is a real bridge. We’re calling it audience development — what audiences do we not attract that we should, what audiences do we attract only a thimbleful when it should be a bucketful … and what do we stop doing,” Kirkness said. (See Chris Moran from The Guardian in a Newsroom Initiative master class on how they did it.)

Kirkness reckons editors have always been measured with data, but it used to be just circulation. Now he has data about much more. It all adds up, he says, to running a news organisation that in his estimation is the Taylor Swift of New Zealand journalism: a scale product able to reach and serve the largest audience possible in a relatively small market — not a garage band.

“If you want to come and play here, we want to be Taylor Swift,” he said. “We’re not a garage band. And I have nothing but respect for people that want to be independent garage bands, and, you know, play in garages and Mom and Dad’s front porch or a pub and get 30 people in there that are incredibly passionate about it. That’s fantastic. We ain’t that.”

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About Peter Bale

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