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RNZ boss Thompson says content-sharing buys audience exposure it can't afford

Wednesday 13th June 2018

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Radio New Zealand's chief executive Paul Thompson says the public broadcaster is keen to expand on content-sharing arrangements with other New Zealand media outlets, which provide RNZ with advertising it couldn't otherwise get.

In a previously-confidential 2016 interview with the Commerce Commission, released last week as part of the Court of Appeal case into the merger of Stuff and NZME, Thompson said the revenue from its content-sharing arrangement with Stuff was "peanuts", but gave it the sort of exposure it couldn't afford to pay for.

Eighteen months down the track, Thompson told BusinessDesk the state-owned broadcaster has now done 25 content-sharing arrangements with various media outlets, and is looking to do more.

"Our ability to invest in marketing and advertising our services has been constrained. That may change, if and when new funding arrives - we're still waiting for confirmation on that, and we may be able to invest a bit more into raising our profile."

RNZ had its government funding frozen at $32 million for eight years, ending with Budget 2017 when the former government announced an annual boost of $2.84 million. Prior to the election last year, Labour promised a $38 million injection for broadcasting funding agency New Zealand on Air and RNZ, though the 2018 Budget delivered just $15 million of that.

RNZ is still waiting to hear what share of the $15 million it will get.

Thompson told BusinessDesk that sharing its journalism with other media outlets gave it access to those audiences.

"A good by-product of that is getting in front of people who we otherwise wouldn't be able to afford to connect with," Thompson said. "We think it has worked, and I also think it has helped the media environment and media outlets in New Zealand at a time when they're under a bit of pressure. It has given them some good content for their audiences."

Thompson, who was group executive editor at Fairfax Media NZ, now re-named Stuff, for six years before joining RNZ, said his intention in the 2016 interview was not to take a position on whether the merger should be approved, but to provide his own perspective on questions the commission had about diversity of editorial and independence of editorial arguments.

"The key point I tried to make is the future for those types of businesses is pretty tough, whether they aggregate together or they remain independent players. The short-term impact around quality and range of journalism would be minimal, possibly on a similar track to what might happen anyway. The big question mark really is what if different people own those businesses in five years time, would they be as good managers and leaders?

"I think NZME and Stuff are doing some fantastic work at the moment, they've really doubled down on the quality of their investigative work in particular, so there's a real commitment there. Whether that will be the case in five or 10 years time is hard to gaze into a crystal ball and think about, but it's one question."

In the 2016 interview, Thompson said his main concern would be that in future, as advertising revenue continues to plummet for news organisations, the businesses would stop being journalistic businesses and therefore lose journalistic muscle.

It was noted in the Court of Appeal by lawyers for both sides that since NZME and Stuff first applied to merge in 2015, both businesses have changed. In February, the New Zealand Herald said it plans to implement a paywall for some content, while Stuff will close or sell 35 percent of its New Zealand print titles this year, primarily its regional daily papers, as it follows a digital strategy.

Stuff is increasingly pursuing alternative revenue sources to stem advertising income losses, such as its Neighbourly community platform, internet service provider Stuff Fibre, and what parent company Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood described in May as "lead-generation partnerships with utilities, health insurance and financial service providers." The two companies have said they will renegotiate the terms of their merger if they successfully appeal the Commerce Commission's rejection of their amalgamation.

Thompson said for the time being Stuff is leveraging its journalism. "At the moment, good, high-quality journalism is pivotal to what they're doing. It's figuring out whether in future if they continue to change, whether that is going to continue to be the case. It's not a criticism or a forecast, more just a question."

Still, if the companies do move away from being purely journalism-focussed, Thompson said RNZ would still look to share content.

"They've got tremendous brands, and tremendous connections, I don't think that will change even if the emphasis of the business changes. It may be that there's more opportunity for us to provide excellent content to them. I'd like to think that type of sharing we're doing will grow in the future, regardless of what happens with the merger."


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