Is Stuff stuffed? That’s a question that will inevitably be asked after the announcement of a restructuring that a rival media outlet predicts will result in savage cuts to staff numbers in the company’s provincial newsrooms.
According to RNZ, the Manawatu Standard, Nelson Mail and Timaru Herald will have their newsroom numbers cut from seven reporters to three. Two other Stuff titles, the Taranaki Daily News and Southland Times, would keep four reporters each.
The New Zealand Herald’s account of the pending changes isn’t quite so bleak. It reports merely that “positions are under review in several regions where [Stuff] has a presence”. But anyone familiar with the loaded phrase “positions are under review” knows it almost never results in a good outcome.
No one should be fooled by the anodyne assurances given by Stuff in response to the Herald’s inquiries. The paper quotes Stuff’s chief content officer, Joanna Norris, as saying the company is “proposing some changes in tasks and roles in our local newsrooms.”
Norris went on: “The changes will strengthen our local news operations and ensure we continue to have journalists based right across New Zealand, deeply connected to covering local issues and people.
“This will allow our journalists with boots on the ground in our regional newsrooms to produce unique, enterprise [sic] journalism relevant to their readers and to engage regularly with our subscribers and future audiences.” But anyone who has followed Stuff’s fortunes in recent years will know there is a vast credibility gap between the company’s buzzword-laden rhetoric and reality. It’s a measure of Stuff’s decline that former journalists such as Norris unblushingly use empty corporate blather that any self-respecting, sceptical reporter should treat with disdain.
RNZ quoted Norris as saying Stuff would establish a new regional team made up of a group regional editor, four news directors and nine breaking news reporters in what she described as “a proactive step to strengthen our local reporting”. But how local reporting is strengthened by further eviscerating already gutted newsrooms isn’t clear. The changes foreshadowed today simply look like more desperate floundering by a company that lost its way long ago.
If RNZ’s report is correct, two points seem immediately obvious. The first is that Stuff’s journalist numbers in the provinces will be cut to the point where it will be impossible to maintain any pretence of comprehensive, quality news coverage.
The second is that it’s hard to see how the company’s editorial operations, at least in the regions, could ever bounce back from this degree of degradation. Stuff’s provincial titles are locked in a downward spiral where a continuing decline in editorial quality can only lead to further loss of support from advertisers and readers.
The impression is that Stuff is planning a retreat to its Auckland and Wellington metropolitan bases, but even there its future hardly looks bright. One sign of the company’s decline is that the Audit Bureau of Circulation no longer publishes Stuff’s newspaper sales figures. The reason can only be that they are so dire as to be embarrassing.
As someone whose association with papers now in the Stuff group goes back to 1968, my immediate emotional response to today’s announcement is one of regret that a once formidable and competently managed newspaper company should have come to this. Naturally I also feel sympathy for journalists whose loyalty has been betrayed by a company that has made the wrong decisions at almost every turn and, in the process, systematically squandered a proud legacy.
Some of those mistakes have been operational: for example, placing blind faith in providing free, online news at the expense of the traditional paid-for printed product – a baneful trend that began under the evangelistic leadership of then group executive editor Paul Thompson (now head of RNZ and a contender for the top job in the state-owned media giant hastily being cobbled together, despite the absence of any compelling business case, by the Labour government). That resulted in a devastating hollowing out of news-gathering operations and a huge loss of talent and institutional experience as some of Stuff’s best editorial staff – notably including non-believers in the brave new world of digital – were “let go”.
Other wayward decisions could more correctly be described as philosophical, such as the fervent editorial embrace of identity politics and the culture wars. Somewhere along the line, Stuff abandoned journalism’s traditional role, which was to reflect the society it served, in favour of a radical new model in which the company’s newspapers and journalists promoted the type of society - a very different one - that they thought New Zealand should become. In the process Stuff alienated its most loyal readers, instead apparently seeking to attract a new, woke audience who would rather (to use the words of legendary British tabloid editor Kelvin MacKenzie) turn their left testicles into kebabs than read a paper.
The results are now all too plainly evident, and much as I feel sorry for the Stuff journalists whose jobs appear to be on the line, no one should be in any doubt as to where the blame lies for the company’s precipitous decline.