Date posted: 18/08/2017 11 min read

The future looks good on paper

Ask Michael Boggs CA, chief executive of New Zealand media conglomerate (NZME), whether he sees a bright future for newspapers and the answer is a resounding “yes”.

In Brief

  • Michael Boggs, CE of New Zealand media conglomerate NZME, believes the mainstream media can continue in the digital age if it tailors its products to modern – digital – consumption preferences.
  • NZME is putting increasingly more effort into “planned and unique” content, rather than just reactive news reporting.
  • Boggs believes one way of making people pay for news when there is so much free content available through the internet is by using a balance of free and paid content.

Michael Boggs CA was appointed in April 2016 to steer NZME through turbulent times that have seen conventional newspapers withering on the media vine.

The CEO and former numbers man believes that “mainstream” media can be sustained through this digital age, provided they get smart in tailoring their products to a public increasingly reliant on mobile devices for their news headlines.

While many journalists are being forced to consider alternative careers, Boggs is confident that reporters working for NZME will be sought after for years to come.

“I absolutely think we have a bright future,” Boggs tells Acuity. “It’s not just because of the New Zealand Herald – which is a print and digital edition – but we [NZME Group] also have a number of radio stations and e-commerce sites, including GrabOne.”

Having previously worked in telecommunications and insurance, Boggs is focused on breaking down the traditional silos that have seen print, radio and e-commerce divisions operate as largely separate businesses within NZME.

But what of the numerous challenges ahead? On both sides of the Tasman, media companies are undergoing a period of profound change, with newspaper circulation under threat and digital giants such as Facebook and Google siphoning off advertising revenues.

Headline risk

Australian media companies have put aside decades of fierce rivalry to call for the federal parliament to overhaul archaic media laws.

On 31 May, more than two dozen media CEOs joined the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House in an unprecedented display of unity. Among those who were on the reform podium was Greg Hywood, the CEO of Fairfax Media which is currently considering an offer from private equity firm Hellman & Friedman. 

In New Zealand, Fairfax has tried to merge with NZME, in a move that would create a company with more than 3,000 staff. However, the Commerce Commission opposed the deal, arguing that it would have taken concentration of media ownership to an “unprecedented level”.

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The decision disappointed Boggs who – at the time of this interview – was waiting for the High Court to set a date for an appeal hearing.

“We would expect to get a hearing this side of Christmas, but probably unlikely to get a result this side of Christmas.”

But NZME is not waiting for the appeal and instead is undergoing a process of reform, reaching out to new audiences while attempting to consolidate existing readers and listeners.

In a classic piece of corporate re-engineering, Boggs has overseen changes to the structure of NZME, so that what were once separate publishing, radio and e-commerce businesses have been moved into a new “horizontal” structure, based around news and sport, entertainment and digital/e-commerce.

“The actual channel we use – whether it be a printed publication, a digital asset, a radio station, or one of the e-commerce sites – actually becomes the very last decision. So the way we go to market, engage with customers, and then attract an audience is actually significantly different to what we were doing even just 18 months or two years ago,” he says.  

Content still king

Many journalists fear the future will see a further dumbing down of content with media executives focused on clickbait journalism to boost the number of internet hits.

Bluntly, Boggs says there is no turning back, but he believes NZME can attract new audiences with the right content.

“We are putting more and more effort from the journalistic point of view into what we call ‘planned-and-unique’ content,” he explains. “So there might be a car crash outside my office and lots of people turn up to report exactly the same story. (Instead) we are putting much more effort into planned and unique, so that we are planning some content in advance, it’s going to be unique to us, and it will be something that our advertisers and our audiences might be more interested in being involved in.”

The CEO cites a recent story on burglaries by the New Zealand Herald using data journalism methods as an example of how this might play out.

“We would have (acquired) a whole lot of information from the New Zealand police about burglaries then started (writing) in the New Zealand Herald print edition with stories around burglaries, interviewing burglars, interviewing those who have been burgled, and giving insight into that,” he says.

“The killer question for media CEOs remains, how do you make people pay for news when there is so much free content available through the internet?”

Next, readers could access and enter their address. This brings up a heat map allowing them to compare the rate of burglaries in their suburb, even their street, against other suburbs and cities around New Zealand.

Following this interactive exercise, NZME radio station Newstalk ZB uses the same material to generate an on-air debate. And with people ringing in with their own stories, this information can be channelled back to the New Zealand Herald as part of a virtuous media circle.

Show me the money

While that seems a smart use of resources, the killer question for media CEOs remains: how do you make people pay for news when there is so much free content available through the internet?

Again Boggs says NZME is working on a future strategy, using a balance of free and paid content. 

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“We do not have a paywall across our New Zealand Herald website and I do not believe that we would ever have a paywall across our entire site,” he says.

But he sees opportunities in better engaging with readers and listeners, providing access to particular personalities or writers.

“I think particular types of content definitely allow us to have some digital monetisation into the future.”

He also hopes that a merged NZME/Fairfax will get the nod from the High Court, arguing that this is necessary to give the companies sufficient scale to compete against Facebook and Google who, he says, “are taking more and more share of every dollar of advertising today”. 

Not that Boggs portrays these digital giants as mortal enemies.

“More than 50% of the audience that comes to the New Zealand Herald website is coming from mobile devices, and more than 50% of the traffic on those mobile devices is coming from social media today, so they are obviously a substantial driver of the audience that already comes to our sites,” he says. 

“So in some regards they are already giving us the ability to monetise our sites.”

Numbers and responsibility

It’s a nuanced stance from a media chief executive who has worked his way up through the corporate ranks since graduating in accountancy.

“From a young age I really knew that I was going to be an accountant and it was really because a friend of mine’s dad was one – and they seemed to have a pretty good life. So I remember in my very early schooling years going ‘I want to be like one of them’,” he says.

He believes that having that training in numbers has been invaluable in helping him understand the inner workings of the companies that have employed him, including NZME.

“I joined [NZME] in April 2015 as the chief financial officer and I joined it partly for the business opportunity and partly for the person I was coming to work with,” he says.

That person was former CEO Jane Hastings, who left NZME in mid-2016 to cross the Tasman for a role as chief operating officer at Event Hospitality and Entertainment Limited.

“She was an absolutely dynamic leader and she was the one who brought me to this industry from the telecommunications and insurance industries.”

So what are the biggest changes in moving from the role of CFO to take the helm of a company? 

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“The thing that absolutely hit me immediately in becoming the CEO was really two things. Firstly, I certainly get more calls from people saying ‘I have got some new, great, innovative idea’. People are much more likely to come and pitch to the CEO than the CFO. So the ability to engage in the future, the things that are going to take the business forward, present themselves much more easily.

“And then the other thing is you have got a team that you are leading, so assessing the cadence of the business, the tone of the business, the culture and the levels of engagement is something that I have certainly stepped up and taken much more seriously as the CEO.

“The buck stops with me now.”

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