Michael Boggs: In the hot seat

by Guyon Espiner / 02 July, 2016

Michael Boggs. Photo/Simon Young

The man in charge at media giant NZME is not taking it for granted he’ll be in the top job if the merger with Fairfax goes ahead. 

Michael Boggs is a lovely man with an uncertain future. By the end of the month, he will be the chief executive of a New Zealand media company listed on the share­market, as NZME splits from its Australian parent APN and faces the brave new media world alone.

Or not: the Commerce Commission is deciding whether NZME, which owns the NZ Herald and commercial radio giant Newstalk ZB, can merge with Fairfax, owner of the Stuff website and major newspapers including the Sunday Star-Times, the Dominion Post and the Press.

Will Boggs keep his job or fade back into the role of chief financial officer, in the shadowlands where he’s spent much of his career, as a bean counter with telcos and insurance companies? If the appointment were to be decided on whether the applicant was nice, it would be no contest. Boggs is a friendly, gentle and welcoming man. He’s recovered from huge personal tragedies – losing a father and a stepfather to accident and illness – and is now a doting dad who rushes from soccer games to dance lessons after pulling 14-hour days at work.

That makes it harder for me to confess that I just can’t shake a comparison with Ricky Gervais. It’s not just the physical appearance that reminds me of The Office’s David Brent; it’s the heroic management aphorisms. But perhaps that’s just my journalist’s cynicism.

Boggs never wanted to be a journalist, let alone run a media company. When he was at primary school, he wanted to be a chartered accountant. Later, he became one. Now, he employs hundreds of journalists and thinks YouTube is the new journalism. He reveals the Herald website’s second-biggest day was when the Bachelor dumped Fleur Verhoeven and says this is because “there are some things people just want to know and are focusing on”.

He also has a genuine affection for his staff. I could see that as he showed me around NZME’s strikingly flash – even futuristic – HQ in central Auckland, greeting the journalists and joking with radio jocks Fletch and Vaughn.

Many of the people on these floors of radio, print and digital staff may pay for the NZME-Fairfax merger with their jobs. But so may Boggs. Welcome to the modern media world.

Photo/Simon Young

Big impact

Merge and converge or wither and die: that seems to be the media motto of the moment. Microsoft is buying LinkedIn for US$26 billion and local pay-TV giant Sky wants to buy Vodafone for $3.5 billion to create one of the largest listed companies in the country.

On a commercial basis, the NZME-Fairfax marriage is relatively small fry. But in terms of public impact – the effect on the media outlets that millions of New Zealanders read, watch and listen to every day – the hook-up is breathtaking: Fairfax has nine daily and three weekly newspapers, 61 community newspapers, 10 magazines and six websites; NZME has eight daily and two weekly newspapers, 24 community newspapers, six magazines, 10 radio stations and 38 websites.

I put it to Boggs that this is going to be a behemoth. “It’s going to be a sizeable audience,” he parries, but does eventually buy into my hyperbole. “There are some bigger behemoths. There are the Facebooks and the Googles and the Microsofts. All of them beat us on audience and all are taking substantial revenues from New Zealand.”

This is the crux of the pro-merger argument: that a New Zealand company needs the strength to compete with the multi­national media monsters.

“Fifty per cent of the traffic to our website comes from social media today, so they are becoming more and more dominant in our lives,” Boggs says. “On average, people who have Facebook in New Zealand are accessing it 14 times a day. Amazing! I would love to have people accessing nzherald.co.nz that many times a day.”

In any merger, the partners talk down their combined strength and talk up the power of their opponents; after all, they are making the case that their partnership won’t lessen competition. But even with that qualification, the 129-page document before the Commerce Commission, written by law firm Russell McVeagh, makes sobering reading for anyone who works in traditional media. The combined new company would double its digital ad revenue, but even then it would have only an 11% share of the market, well behind Google’s 37% and Facebook’s 16%.

CFO of the Year 2014, when he was at Tower.

Press freedom

It’s not hard to find people who think the merger is a bad idea. Labour’s commerce spokesman, David Shearer, says less competition would reduce press freedom and put more power in fewer hands. Green MP Gareth Hughes says the losers will be media consumers who want choice and journalists who will lose their jobs.

Former Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy – who with former TV3 news boss Mark Jennings is now running a hybrid PR and news business – has a more nuanced view. He is concerned about the loss of voices in the media. Will the vastly experienced and diverse parliamentary press gallery staff from the Dominion Post, the Herald and ­Newstalk ZB all keep their jobs? Indeed, as the business model collapses, could continuing with the status quo put the very existence of NZME or Fairfax under threat?

“I think it is the right thing to do for the ongoing viability of this sort of business as it struggles to compete in the digital world,” Murphy says, coming down reluctantly on the side of the merger.

Murphy worked with Boggs and describes him as “pleasant and capable” and “one of the saner executives” at NZME. But he doesn’t think that Boggs will get the chief executive’s job in the new, merged company. Murphy predicts the directors will overlook Fairfax boss Simon Tong, too, and go for new blood, in an attempt to forge a new culture from the two old empires. As for other jobs, Murphy estimates that staff numbers could drop from a combined 3300 to about 2600.

So is he right? How many jobs will go? “I can’t answer that today,” Boggs says. “The two businesses have done no due diligence on each other.”

The language of the merger document does hint at job cuts, but it doesn’t call them job cuts, of course. It talks of “de-duplicating coverage” – for example, by “having one journalist at a particular accident scene rather than two”.

With wife Jodie and Jonah Lomu just before the Rugby Word Cup in 2014.

Boggs says it’s a matter of survival.“You have to become more efficient every day because media is a tough industry. My argument is that the two organisations coming together gives us a better chance to actually invest more in journalism and actually have better content in the marketplace.” He claims audiences will benefit, too. “We will be in a much stronger position to give them the content they want. It will be great for New Zealand.”

But won’t the newspapers read and enjoyed by many simply disappear in the merger? Is there room for Fairfax’s Sunday Star-Times and for NZME’s Herald on Sunday? He certainly isn’t guaranteeing it. “Those are the sorts of things that in six months’ time – or whenever the appropriate time is – we’ll be saying, ‘Let’s work this out.’”

Perhaps my question line is like demanding details of what music the violinist is playing while Rome burns. Newspapers themselves are on death row, to use the language of the merger document. It says that “at some point in the future it is likely that some newspapers will no longer be printed every day and there may come a time where certain publications are only available online.”

So do newspapers have a future in New Zealand? “Absolutely. But at some point in the future, that may well change, and I don’t know when that time is.” Newspapers, it seems, have a future until they don’t.

He seems more certain about retaining the two websites, stuff.co.nz and nzherald.co.nz. “They are targeting different audiences, providing different content, so let’s make sure we continue to service those needs.” In this scenario, the Herald site would be the “high-brow” one and Stuff the populist offering, although Boggs joins me in a chuckle about the relative use of those terms. “Two weeks ago, we had our second highest day on our website, in terms of traffic, and why was that? That was because the Bachelor broke up with his girlfriend. So while we say slightly higher-brow and a different audience, there are some things people just want to know and are focusing on.”

Boggs rejects the obvious criticism that all this amounts to a dumbing down. “The things that you might refer to as dumbed down take the least amount of effort in our business. Where our focus and effort in journalism is is actually on data journalism or campaign topics.” And the Herald still does this well. It has run excellent series on burglaries, domestic violence and debt in recent weeks.

“More and more I am focusing the team on that planned and unique content. That is where we are investing our time and our effort.”

Photo/Simon Young

Lucky breaks

Boggs likes change. “It was the change of this business that really got me excited,” he says, “which was exactly the same as when I joined Tower.”

He came to NZME last year as CFO but with an eye to taking over as CEO, and he credits former NZME boss Jane Hastings for smoothing the way. “Jane has been excellent at including me as her business partner,” he says. “I think I’ve been lucky in my career that most of the CEOs I’ve worked with have said, ‘Come for the ride, Michael.’”

My mind drifts back to David Brent and The Office. I’m imagining what it would be like to be CFO at an insurance company but I snap out of it. What he is saying about his experience in insurance is actually interesting. When he joined Tower, he brought four businesses – life insurance, medical insurance, general insurance and an investments – together as one. “So that was the first two years of my life there: pulling them all together. I then spent the next two years pulling apart the four I had put together and selling off three of them.” So the first thing NZME staff wanted to know when he arrived was whether he had come to pull it apart and do the same as he had done at Tower. “And categorically that is not why I am here.”

So why is he here? Is a media company just the same as any business or does it have a special democratic role? “Probably yes to both questions,” he says, hedging his bets. “It is different. You are being judged every day. I think a lot of people think that I wait here until 11pm to read what is going to be on the front page of the Herald and push the ‘yes’ button. I’m okay with those stories, but you’d know that is the last thing that happens.”

He says he has “really no relationship with what is published” and is strict about editorial independence. “When you have a large customer ring you and say, ‘you’ve just said something bad about me’, I think the good thing is I can say, ‘Well, I’m sorry’. As long as we have treated them fairly and taken the right approach to allow them to talk about it, then I think that is fine.”

Boggs is relishing being the boss now after years in business playing second fiddle as CFO. Hours after APN shareholders had approved splitting off the New Zealand assets, clearing another hurdle for the share listing, he told me from Sydney that he would be “delighted” to be the chief executive of the new company, but admitted there are no guarantees he’ll get the job.

He says his is a consultative management style, but that he can be tough when it’s called for. He recalls scanning the room when it was announced he would be promoted from CFO to CEO. “I could see some of the people’s faces weren’t as excited as other people’s.” The less excited people were those he’d had “tough conversations with” as the chief bean counter. “I recall going up to one of them and going: ‘I can’t wait to find the CFO who is going to do all that stuff with you going forward because we are going to do the fun stuff now.’” My mind wanders back to The Office.

It’s not by accident that Boggs has spent his professional life looking at ledgers and balance sheets: it was his childhood dream. “When I was at primary school, a friend of mine’s dad was a chartered accountant. They seemed to have quite a good life and I thought I’d like to be one of them one day.”

His own dad died when he was two years old. “I didn’t know my dad. He was a champion waterskier and he was waterskiing out the back of Waiheke Island. He didn’t have a life jacket on, the boat broke down, he came off and they couldn’t get him.” Boggs grew up in Mangere Bridge, attending Seventh Day Adventist schools out of respect for his late father’s faith, which neither he nor his mother shared.

“When I got to seventh form, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? It all seems so similar to last year.’” But his childhood dream was about to be realised. “It was a time when people were screaming out for chartered accountants.”

He’s an only child, whose mum remarried when he was six or seven. “He was a welder for the [New Zealand] Motor Corporation putting together all the cars before we had all the imports. He passed away with melanoma when I was in my mid-twenties and so my mum remarried again.”

Boggs’ own family life has been much more stable. He has been married to Jodie for 15 years and they have a 13-year-old daughter, Maddie, and an 11-year-old son, Cooper. Boggs rushes between soccer, work, dancing competitions and black-tie events. He’s often in the office from 6am to 8pm. The family goes to Fiji once a year.

I leave with two thoughts. One is that he seems like a good man – a kind, genuine, family man. The second is that he could lead one of New Zealand’s biggest media companies and not know what journalism is. My two thoughts come together with his answer to my final question: would he recommend his kids go into journalism?

“My son is a Minecraft addict and so the last few weeks have been about setting up his own YouTube channel,” Boggs says. “He can record his own videos and put them on the YouTube channel. He just thinks it is fantastic. So that is the new journalism, isn’t it?”

This article was first published in the July 2, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.  

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