New Zealand’s privately-owned Stuff has warned it may have to scale back print operations as it progresses to being a platform business next year.
Chief executive Sinead Boucher – who bought Stuff for NZ$1 when new owners Nine Entertainment wanted to close it down – says worries about the cost and availability of newsprint are driving a push to make print “really cost efficient, really lean”.
Formerly a Fairfax subsidiary, Stuff has a stable of 15 metro and regional print newspapers in a country inhabited by only five million people.
Boucher (above) says she knows the “print bump” enjoyed in the early months of the pandemic was only temporary, and they have to focus on the best way to transfer the mastheads to digital. “While we’re still profitable, we need to make some big decisions about the future, and have acknowledged that this will be the year we have to ‘grasp the nettle’.”
With Google and Facebook “in the opposite corner”, Boucher says the opportunity to consider new business prospects followed Nine forcing the divestment of Stuff’s ISP and energy retailing investments. “We’re very committed to how we can have a positive impact,” she says.
Six months into development, the platform concept will provide a tech base for multiple users including other businesses, partners and individuals, with hopes of a May 2022 go-live. “We’re putting together a tech stack – like a Lego blocks – which will include a CMS, payment system and other elements which you will be able to assemble into all sorts of shapes.
“I think it’s an important that New Zealanders have an alternative to transact and converse, apart from the international (platforms).”
Boucher’s “follow no-one” attitude saw Stuff stop posting on Facebook, a move she says has led to a 20 per cent increase in audience since July.
Established 160 years ago, the company is now the largest media organization in the country, reaching about 3.5 million people through its websites, newspapers and hyperlocal Neighbourly sites, fighting back from when Google and Facebook were taking “about 90c in every dollar”.
“We’ve got a really unique position in New Zealand,” she says, “but you have to look at more than one income stream.”
The story of how Boucher came to own Stuff – ten per cent of which she has already passed on to staff – has been told before, but was related today to delegates to WAN-Ifra’s World News Media Congress, to which she was a speaker. Australian-based Fairfax Media had wanted to sell the business to its competitor, NZME, but was blocked by regulators.
Then, a year before COVID struck, Fairfax was sold to TV company Nine, which Boucher says “did not want to own us”. A protracted period saw the internet service provider, energy retailer, e-commerce and insurance businesses being divested, “taking us back to square one by the time COVID-19 happened.
“Despite the fact that Stuff was very profitable and the journalism most needed with COVID, they said they would prefer to close us down. I couldn’t bear that – all that legacy and the need to keep people informed – so I offered a NZ$1 in a management buyout, and in two weeks that was a done deal… new era for the business.”
The opportunity to reset the business, and “for the first time, be masters of our own destiny.
“We got to stop and think what we wanted to mean and be for New Zealanders.”
A new charter has formally adopted principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, the agreement signed in 1840 by Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown.
Boucher says she sees a new vision for the company, with responsibilities of participation and protection, “a strong north star”, and wants to be the country’s most-trusted organisation, “not just its most-trusted newspaper.
“If we don’t have trust, what are we for,” she says.
The new chapter will see Stuff supercharging use of data to understand the sentiment of New Zealanders and build a strong new data business with real competitive advantage, able to take on others.
On the community front, Stuff has helped post-earthquake Christchurch citizens buy a hill to stop it being developed, plant 10,000 trees, and crowdfunding bait to stamp out wasps, while a NZ$1 million investment fund is backing start-ups committed to key issues, with the first investment in plastic-negative cleaning company WildClean.
“It’s how we can use our assets and scale to amplify businesses,” she told Congress delegates. “Kia túpeke te toa – Let the brave leap,” she says.