‘A real slog’: How one New Zealand media company is trying to make trust pay
Over the past year, one of New Zealand’s news giants ditched Facebook, pivoted to ‘trust’ and gave shares to employees. Can it survive?
The question of trust has dogged journalists for decades. “A kind of confidence man,” Janet Malcolm labels the journalist, in The Journalist and the Murderer, “preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them”. That view seems to resonate with the public. Asked to rank their trusted professions, people rank journalism in the murky depths – beaten to the bottom only by politicians.
For reporters who prefer to see themselves as truth-tellers, holding power to account, or at least providing a useful public service, that rankles. For others, trust becomes a point of fascination – the missing piece in the puzzle of how to make digital news pay for itself.
Sinead Boucher lands in the latter category. An ex-reporter and editor, last year she bought Stuff – one of New Zealand’s largest news organisations, including its largest collection of regional and metro newspapers – for $1. One year into local ownership, Stuff has been treading its own path: breaking with Facebook, allocating large chunks of resources to public service climate change reporting, apologising for its history of racist reporting, giving 10% of the company to employees, and replacing growth with trust as its primary metric for success.
It’s a pathway that has won the company accolades. But among the public, trust can prove elusive.
After a year of betting on quality and public service reporting, Stuff slid out of Colmar Brunton’s most trusted brands survey this year, after rising in the previous two years. A recent report on trust in media in New Zealand found “media pushing certain social/other agenda (including climate change)” was one reason for mistrust. For mass-media companies operating in small ponds like New Zealand, alienating conservative readers can be a financial and existential risk.
“Believing in the independence of journalism, believing that you’re not politically driven one way or another … Somehow, it’s still a real slog to get people externally believing in that,” Boucher says.
Harnessing readers’ values
For the time being, Stuff is leaning into high quality and keen attention to social injustices. Those projects, and the promotion they receive, appear to be a culmination of a gradual overhaul of Stuff’s strategy and its public image.
The company’s journalists always did some of the country’s best public-interest reporting. But for years, its website was also known for salacious click-chasing. An overview by RNZ of the less-reputable moments included features on “Athletes in Undies” and “Who has Hollywood’s best breasts? (+pics)”. In a 2009 editorial, then-editor Mark Stevens responded to a question about “tits and arse” coverage. “The answer was simple: we report what people want to read,” he wrote. “We do not set out to be sensationalist but if our most popular story on any day is about “tits and arse”, as they put it, well it is the readers who put it there rather than the editors.”
Today, the company dedicates significant resources to prestige projects. It published a sweeping investigation into years of racist coverage, apologised to Māori, and established a new vertical dedicated to coverage of indigenous affairs and diversity.
Boucher says the shift in Stuff’s approach has been a “maturing” rather than a revolution. “Some of the content that was run was certainly not as worthy or as serious as some of the work that we always created,” she says. “But the goal was never to chase clicks at all costs.”
Harnessing the values of readers can certainly work in some contexts. Overseas news organisations benefited from the “Trump bump” – partly a subscription boost from liberals who saw journalism as pitted against Trumpian politics and untruths. “Operators in the subscription business – which includes cable and a growing share of online and print outlets – have found success in… signaling that they are, in some sense, on your team,” wrote New York Times media columnist Ben Smith.
Stuff may be seeking to tap passionate readers, too, with its projects on the climate crisis, #metoonz, and campaigns like a crowdfunding effort to buy a slice of conservation land. But New Zealand is a small market, with a population of just 5 million. For the country’s large news organisations to survive, they have to sustain their appeal to the masses.
The missing link between trust and profits
The reorientation toward trust over clicks aligns with the company’s financial strategy as well as its moral stance, says Hayden Donnell, producer for Mediawatch. “The click maximisation approach never had a lot of financial underpinning to it,” he says. “It was like a graph, with 1. Maximise clicks . 2. Missing Link? 3. Profits.”
Today, he says, newsrooms are re-orienting subscribers and reader loyalty. Many are pushing for increased government funding to support journalism as an essential public service.
But while credibility and trust might be a precondition for financial investment from readers, nonprofits, or governments, they’re not a guarantee. You can end up with a new version of Donnell’s ‘missing link’ problem.
“There are still these underlying things that no one’s really talking about,” says one senior Stuff newsroom manager who has since left the company. “How is it financed? How will it be financed into the future? I don’t think those questions are being fully answered.”
At some moments, the trust and economics seem happily intertwined. In 2019, the company stopped paying for advertising on Facebook after the 15 March mosque attacks, during which the terrorist had uploaded a livestream of the shootings. Around a year ago, they stopped posting on the platform altogether. The move was “inspired by principle” – but there were financial bets at play too. Many news organisations commit substantial budgets to promoting stories; the social media giants also annex local publications’ advertising revenue.
“We were kind of trying to get data on what would happen to traffic,” Boucher says. “And then nothing happened to our traffic.”
There were other unexpected results. Subjects of stories, especially minority groups, said they got less abuse and trolling now that the stories did not appear on Facebook.
“The environment for that abuse to happen dropped away,” she says.
‘There is still significant reorientation to come’
“Of all the people running these media projects in New Zealand, [Boucher] is by far the most excited by and driven to create great journalism – almost to a fault,” says The Spinoff co-founder Duncan Greive.
“The business side of it and how you pay for all of it seems maybe less interesting to her than driving this huge amount of change through Stuff, and really rewiring it as an organisation.”
He is optimistic that the company will win back the trust of its audience. “It’s already happening, and it’s inevitable that they will succeed.”
Whether Stuff – or any of the other major players in the media landscape – can get through the coming years without consolidation or closures is less clear to him. “It feels like something has to give there,” he says. “I think there is still significant reorientation to come.”
Boucher doesn’t disclose financial figures for the company, but says digital advertising has almost returned to pre-Covid levels. Print advertising, a crucial revenue stream, is still down. She says the company is “cautiously optimistic and happy” with its financials.
She’s also satisfied with the company’s editorial emphasis on trust. “Unless we can grow that back to the point where people are happy to believe what they read from us, trust us to be presenting them accurate information, unbiased information, then what have we got?” she says. “We’ve got nothing. Everything else falls away.”