There was more flatulent corporate blather yesterday from Stuff about its proud heritage.
In statements accompanying the announcement of a corporate restructuring, former Christchurch Press editor Joanna Norris – who now becomes managing director of Stuff Masthead Publishing, which apparently means she will take charge of metropolitan mastheads and websites – said: “Drawing on our 160-year history of journalism, we are reinvigorating and growing the portfolio of iconic journalism brands which are embedded in communities across New Zealand.”
Stuff likes to cite its journalistic legacy when it suits, but it has shown precious little respect for it. Often quite the contrary.
When it announced the phasing out of the Dominion Post masthead in April, it heaped scorn on the name Dominion, depicting it as a shameful hangover from colonialism. But the Dominion, although it was one of the younger daily papers in the country (established in 1907), was the starting point of what is now the Stuff group. It’s a strange thing for a company to skite about its heritage while simultaneously disowning a paper that formed its very foundation.
On that note, I should record again that when Alan Burnet, former managing director and later chairman of the Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL) group, died last year aged 101, I offered to write his obituary for the Dom Post. They weren’t interested.
The significance of this was that Burnet was the prime mover in creating the newspaper group that is now Stuff (although it was an infinitely stronger company then than now). The only reason Stuff owns those “iconic journalism brands” that Norris proudly refers to – the former Evening Post and Dominion, the Press, the Waikato Times, the Sunday Star-Times, the Southland Times, the Nelson Mail, the Manawatu Standard, the Taranaki Daily News, the Timaru Herald, the Marlborough Express – is that Burnet and his successor Mike Robson pulled them all together to form the nationwide group known as INL, which eventually morphed into Stuff.
To put it another way, Stuff wouldn’t exist had it not been for Burnet. Yet they declined to honour him with an obit, I suspect because he was an old white guy and they didn’t want to be reminded of their ideologically unfashionable roots. In the end my obit was published by the BusinessDesk website and by Burnet’s original home-town paper the Whanganui Chronicle, although it’s owned by Stuff’s rivals NZME.
Stuff doesn’t appear to be entirely ignorant of its own history, embarrassing though that history may be to its current management. The last edition of the Dom Post (now simply The Post) on April 28 announced the killing-off of the old name in a story headlined “Standing on the shoulders of giants” – an apparent acknowledgment of the generations of talented, dedicated journalists who worked for the Dominion and Evening Post and made them the successful and respected titles they were. Perhaps that headline was sneaked through by a subversive sub-editor who understood the paper’s history better than its owners do.
It wouldn’t have escaped the attention of long-term readers that two of the three stories the Post’s editor, Caitlin Cherry, cited as evidence of the paper’s supposed commitment to rigorous journalism happened long before the present regime took over. And the third example she pointed to – the coverage of last year’s parliamentary protest – seemed a curious choice, since the paper did no more than should have been expected of any half-competent news organisation. After all, the story was breaking in full public view right outside the centre of government. If that was the paper’s proudest moment under Stuff’s ownership, the cupboard is worryingly bare.
Incidentally, Stuff’s story about the launching of The Post included a message to readers that contained the sentence: “All of this innovation and rebranding doesn’t mean we are turning our back on our proud history.” Oh, but they have. Under its current management, Stuff has followed the example of its former proprietors, the Australian group Fairfax, by continuing to methodically eradicate much of what made the precursor company, INL, so successful. The gutting of its titles, the hollowing-out of its newsrooms (the casualties of which included some of the company’s most capable journalists) and the inevitable subsequent collapse of its readership can only partly be blamed on the impact of digital technology, catastrophic though that was.
And what about that weasel word “proud”? This is the same company that, three years ago, indulged in an extravagant, breast-beating mea culpa, complete with front-page apology, about its supposedly racist history. In the process, it casually defamed generations of former employees, most of whom didn’t have a racist bone in their body.
Obviously, Stuff needs to make up its mind about whether or not it’s proud of its heritage. Either it is or it isn’t.
As for Norris's statement that Stuff is "reinvigorating" its brands ... really? That will come as news to employees who have been through repeated downsizings and are reportedly bracing for a further round of redundancies. Who do Stuff think they're kidding? If credibility means anything to them, they would spare us the hollow, hypocritical rhetoric.