Integration central: inside NZME

Enter NZME

APN News & Media’s freshly listed New Zealand business NZME is looking to merge with Fairfax Media’s NZ assets, but how does this integrated company operate?  LACHLAN BENNETT visits the group at the centre of the country’s game-changing media deal.

At just after 6pm every Thursday, New Zealand Herald business editor at large Liam Dann takes the short walk from his desk to the studio of NewsTalkZB. His weekly appearance on the radio station is an opportunity for the veteran journalist to leverage content produced in print and online by him and the broader NZME team.

It is also a chance to cross-promote his video news show The Economy Hub which he films earlier in the day. He has previously chatted economics on rock station Radio Hauraki, speaking to an entirely different audience to that of the Herald or ZB.

Dann is the model example of what is possible within NZME’s new integrated newsroom, NZME Central.

Opened in November last year, the Auckland facility is a monument to APN News & Media’s ambition to unite three separate businesses – its publishing business, The Radio Network and GrabOne – into a single entity: New Zealand Media and Entertainment.

Yet while NZME Central presides as a magnificent showpiece with its slick studios, lofty work and event spaces and collaborative-friendly design, platform consolidation is only part of the story. To be successful, the commercial operations had to undergo the same transformation.

The formula to make this happen across the company was 20 per cent physical change; the remaining 80 per cent was developing a different mindset.

. . .

The News Desk

You can see this cultural shift in action at the 7:30am news meeting, where representatives from across NZME’s audiences and brands in print, digital, radio and video converge around a white, oval table they call ‘The Bridge’. At the stand-up meeting, editors, managers and experts in analytics, social media and video discuss the big stories of the day and how they’ll be executed across different platforms. They are surrounded by a swathe of TV monitors that display the properties of NZME and its competitors, and analytics tracking the performance of stories.

The Bridge is smack bang in the centre of the newsroom and with no walls or chairs, any staff member no matter how big or small is free to participate. It is also a space for teams to converge and collaborate throughout the day.

NZME has re-organised its business around three broad audience categories – news, sport and entertainment – although there is a great deal of overlap.

Entertainment brands like video on demand service WatchMe, music streaming service iHeartRadio, Radio Hauraki and ZM reside on the ground floor of NZME Central with glassed, sidewalk studios and an events space.

Level one is the home of e-commerce business GrabOne and commercial content division CreateMe, among others. Level two is the dominion of the New Zealand Herald newsroom, where tessellating desks are bordered by the studios of NewsTalkZB and Radio Sport.

In a digital age where deadlines pass from minute-to-minute, NZME often talks about the three speeds of the newsroom: the fast-paced breaking news, developing stories where the rounds journalist seek out exclusives, and the planned and unique content such as multimedia long form and data journalism on the Herald’s Insights microsite.

Shayne Currie, NZME managing editor and editor of the Herald, describes the new newsroom as a thriving hub of activity that inspires journalists to think about the array of options for presenting a story.

“Before a reporter even picks up a phone, or hits the front line, you want to be talking about how the story is going to be presented, particularly on mobile,” he says. “The story can be told in so many different ways these days.”

Currie put forward a piece by Dylan Cleaver on rugby and dementia as a classic example. “It has a brilliant interactive feature presentation online, it had a news story with video, a big radio component in terms of talking with the experts and with Dylan himself,” he said.

The integrated newsroom is also a great asset in attracting great interview talent.

Prime Minister John Key, for example, could start with an in-depth discussion at ZB, then head next door to shoot a video interview for the New Zealand Herald, then to the photography studio and finally to youth station ZM.

Within the hour, any talent could potentially reach more than a million New Zealanders.

However, management stresses that the proximity and collaboration between platforms won’t lead to a homogenisation of content. Not all stories are suited for every brand, and each brand must pay close attention to the needs of its own audiences.

Similarly, while journalists are encouraged to pursue opportunities in radio, video and online, specialists in certain areas still have their place.

. . .

The Journey

The integration process, particularly for the newsroom element, was guided by study of global media players like New York Times, Bloomberg and German newspaper Die Welt. However, finding one company that mirrored NZME’s mix of assets proved difficult, so management resolved to study the best companies from each of its three content fields: news, sport and entertainment.

Former chief executive Jane Hastings directed NZME throughout the complex integration process, taking up the reigns in 2014 when the company was formed and resigning this year as the process reached completion.

Hastings says if the company had focused on all the challenges and difficulties of integrating, it probably would have never started the merger of the three businesses.

“When you’re a channel business, you can spend all day talking about how your channel is different to another channel, but a channel is just a pipe,” she says.

“So we went through an exercise of finding out what was core to our teams, our people and the future and it was content and it was passion.

“It really was a journey of discovering commonality rather than identifying all the differences and trying to check them off.”

Challenges did arise on a daily basis: a satellite dish went astray, staff needed training, IT systems needed to be synchronised.

There were also tough decisions to make about what areas or products to invest in, and where to cut costs.

Every area of the business was examined to evaluate its viability. Even products on new media like iHeartRadio have been retired.

At the same time, money was poured into new products like WatchMe and CreateMe and experimentation was rife.

. . .

The Sales Team

Former chief financial officer, Michael Boggs, has been part of this complex journey and took over from Hastings as CEO in March this year. Boggs is optimistic about NZME growing to its full potential, building on the “passion and dynamism” of journalists exploring cross-platform storytelling opportunities.

“What that has seen us do is invest more into talent who can help with that storytelling, more into people that can help with data journalism as an example,” he says.

“Previously journalists may have been a silo on a particular product or a particular channel, where as now they actually can look right across the whole business.”

Boggs sees the e-commerce and transaction space as a big growth opportunity and is exploring how NZME can play in that area.

“There’s a large competitor in the market today who has taken much of our classified advertising over the years, and so we’re investing to see how we can get some of that revenue back,” Boggs says

Deals website GrabOne could be a big part of this. For group revenue director Laura Maxwell, GrabOne isn’t just about revenue; it’s an investment in one of the most important currencies of a modern media business: data.

“Having that e-commerce capability not just closes the loop from a pathway to purchase perspective, but it also gives us purchase behaviour, not just intent, but actual purchase behaviour,” Maxwell says.

“We are streets ahead from other traditional media companies that don’t have that purchase data.”

“It’s what marketers are demanding and we’re just scrapping the surface of that now, being able to really delve into that more deeply and being able to create custom segments for advertisers is going to be phenomenal.”

For sales teams, conversations with clients are becoming less inventory-driven and more results-focused; establishing a client’s objectives and target audience takes precedence over which channels will be used.

And by offering bespoke commercial content creation through CreateMe, NZME can produce solutions for clients that might not ever feature on NZME’s own assets.

Revenue can be generated through campaign ideation, managing social media accounts, app development, video creation or hosting events in places like the iHeart Lounge, a chic café/bar on the ground floor of NZME Central.

The flexible events space has played host to black-tie dinners, Asian leaders’ events and with the lounge opening out onto a spanning outdoor terrace, a performance space for bands.

. . .

The Talent

By tearing down the barriers between channels, NZME is able to build upon the reputation of its key talent. Matt Heath is a breakfast host on Radio Hauraki, but he is also a columnist for the NZ Herald and features as talent and producer for programs on WatchMe. Group director of entertainment, Dean Buchanan, says having cross-platform personalities like Heath opens up a world of opportunities for advertisers.

“The opportunity is to be connected with this talent, where the audience is. Not necessarily via this show, 7pm on XYZ TV channel, but to be associated with this great content and this great talent wherever people are consuming it,” Buchanan says.

“I think the fascinating thing is the more things change, the more things stay the same: the best talent and the best content wins.”

Appearing across different platforms isn’t a stretch for Heath – he has been in showbiz for over a decade – but NZME has been recruiting some talent with backgrounds in TV as it seeks to ramp up its video offering.

Training sessions have been made available to existing staff to get them up to speed with the realities and expectations of an integrated news business, although much of the learning has been done on the job and through experimentation.

Investigative journalist David Fisher wrote his first story in 1989 on a typewriter in a smoke-filled newsroom.

Nowadays he takes an iPhone when he heads out to a story to capture multimedia content, although he is still perfecting his filming skills.

“The change that we’ve had has been at such a break-neck speed that nobody’s actually running at the same pace. You’ve got some that are sprinting and some that are trying to work out what a job looks like,” Fisher says.

“Reporters have (now) got a much clearer idea of what their expectations are. Although having said that, it’s quite possible for those to change in six months and then six months after that.”

Two years ago NZME set out on a transformative journey and there was talk of a big, shiny bus waiting outside to take away anyone who didn’t want to come along for the ride.

But for those that remained, opportunities abound, as NZME continues to grow, staff continue to learn and as the media landscape continues to transform.

Perhaps the best indication that the integration works lies not in the output of the NZME’s assets or the testimonials of management, but in the culture of NZME Central.

The culture that has emerged has seen scores of staff from different media, brands, audiences, priorities and skill sets seeing themselves as part of one united newsroom.

This has even entered into social activities. Every year, the radio teams would go away for a weekend on a big, bonding road trip. Now that they have moved into NZME Central, they have thrown the invitation open to the New Zealand Herald. There can be no clearer sign that the integration has been successful than such merging of traditions.

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