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NZ Media Profile: Newsroom co-founder Mark Jennings

John Drinnan speaks with Newsroom NZ co-founder Mark Jennings

The Kiwi news website Newsroom has had an encouraging start passing a 12-month target just six months after it launched.

Founders Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy had aimed to have 100,000 unique visitors a month by the end of its first year.

And by month eight in September it had set a new record of 156,000. Admittedly, that was the middle of a raucous election campaign. You would expect the numbers for a news website to be up. But there have been a couple of scoops. Politics stories on the Newsroom site are always among the most popular, and Jennings predicts that the political news cycle will continue.

It’s early days though, and it is tough in a small news market where corporate media are vacuuming up ad revenue.

But Newsroom does appear to have found a market for serious news by “kicking the football into space” in areas other media are not aiming.

Before the launch, Jennings and Murphy had talked to the Australian New Daily about the way ahead for an independent news site.

“They were good guys and gave us some good advice,” Jennings told Mediaweek.

Newsroom had taken a different approach and is not challenging mainstream news directly as The New Daily is doing now.

Jennings believes that Newsroom’s editorial approach – focusing on news rather than opinion and avoiding stories that simply touch the surface – had been vindicated.

Eight months after start it has nine staff and six other regular writers.

Were there any wrong turns?

“We thought people might be interested in sport. But we found it was something the mainstream media were doing quite well and and we scaled it back.”

Jennings started out in media at TVNZ but he spent his formative years in journalism in Melbourne where he worked from 1979 to 1989. He worked for Seven, Nine and the ABC on shows including Willesee and The 7.30 Report.

He returned to New Zealand for the launch of TV3, rose to be head of news and then 1995 to 2016 he was head of news and current affairs for MediaWorks

At TV3 he came to be pals and competitors with Tim Murphy, a longtime newspaper journalist who had risen to editor-in-chief.

They were both key players in the local media freedom committee. Both were dyed in the wool newsmen.

Reader numbers for Newsroom are encouraging.

But like all media there are some tough challenges in a small crowded news market.

Australian media suffer less from clickbait than New Zealand does. Jennings says it is driving people to sites like Newsroom.

Both of the big news sites operated by NZME and Fairfax know that it is not sustainable, he says.

“That is why they want to extend the runway of the merger to come up with some other solutions. Australia has moved further towards paywalls. They have got a way to go yet – but at least they are moving. Here we have two major companies [NZME and Fairfax] who have said they have no plans for paywalls.

“This is where New Zealand has really dropped the ball. The longer they leave it the worse it is probably going to get,” Jennings said.

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