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‘Read all about it’
The Citizen has gone, ending its push into the Christchurch newspaper market. What was its American backer, still with local TV interests, hoping to achieve?


By Matt Conway

A phone is ringing. Former Christchurch Citizen editor Kim Triegaardt reaches for it and greets the caller instinctively. “Newsroom.”

The gaffe draws a smile. She is, in fact, sitting in her lounge, legs curled beneath her, a glass of chardonnay in her hand.

It’s been an incredibly stressful week for Triegaardt, who has no idea when she’ll next get to answer the phone as a working journalist.

The Citizen closed last Friday, along with its companion magazine ES, and Norwest, a minor Christchurch community paper. An unsuspecting Triegaardt was one of about 40 staffers to lose their jobs.

The publications were owned by New Zealand Media Group (NZMG), a company owned and dominated by wealthy American businessman Jim McCotter.

But while one of Christchurch’s most colourful and chaotic publishing ventures is over, the story behind it most definitely is not. Furious Citizen staff are speaking out about McCotter’s ruthless and, at times, bizarre business regime, about empty promises and weasel words.

NZMG swooped on Christchurch early last year, snapping up ailing regional television station Canterbury Television (C1V) for $500,000.

Next came word of an aggressive approach into the Christchurch newspaper market, with the thrice-weekly Citizen.

Murmurings began about McCotter, NZMG’s big-spending, brave-talking backer, who even expressed a casual interest in buying The Press, the country’s second-largest daily (audited circulation: 92,713).

Who was this guy, media watchers were asking? And what was his agenda?

A background check revealed McCotter as a man with extreme right-wing political and religious connec­tions, who tended to suspect the mainstream media.

McCotter was listed in the United States as a member of the Council for National Policy (CNP), a highly secretive and conservative organisation which has been described as a “secret society of the righteous” and “virtual Who’s Who of the Hard Right."

The CNP is said to despise mainstream media and contains members with far Right Christian viewpoints, in some cases anti-gay and anti-abortion.

Pressed for his views about the CNP in a rare earlier interview, McCotter reportedly replied “… most in the Republican Party… would consider it an honour to have a leadership role in the CNP.”

Two of McCotter’s nine children, Shannon and Liz, have also featured on unofficial membership lists for the CNP. Shannon would later surface as editor of ES (Entertainment and Style), launched in January as a “Christ-church international magazine” and inserted with the weekend Citizen in a vain attempt to kick-start sales.

There were other gimmicks too; a cheesy Citizen Game Show, new car giveaways, subscriber incentives and, briefly, a breathless “Press-bashing” campaign pedalled by Shannon’s husband and editor-in-chief, Jonathan Hunt.

At one point, presumably starved for real news, the Citizen used editorial space to sneer at the way a Press reporter answered the telephone.

Triegaardt says her reporting team cringed at the strategy, which was clumsily meant to provoke the Press into a slanging sideshow.

“Nobody shared Jonathan’s enthusiasm for Press bashing,” she says.

“His idea was like the little yappy dog biting at the ankles… but little yappy dogs get kicked into space.”

The full extent of staff unhappiness at the Citizen is only now emerging. There were many casualties as McCotter drove relentlessly towards his ambition of becoming a NZ multi-media baron. (Cross-ownership of print, radio and television interests is prohibited in the United States).

At least 30 staff — including former Citizen editor Coen Lammers and four others in senior positions with NZMG — walked or were pushed in the 12 months of the paper’s existence.

The Press is aware of at least eight former NZMG employees who sought legal advice over employment disputes. At least five cases were settled, with the disaffected workers receiving thousands of dollars.

Last November, through one of his holding companies, McCotter paid $800,000 for a Christchurch luxury home with spectacular ocean views. That same month, editorial staff at the Citizen were effectively made redundant. Many were offered harsh new contracts for less money and fewer entitlements.

Lammers, who had worked around the clock to get the Citizen started and had just become a first-time father, was asked to hand back his company car and take a 35 per cent pay cut. He walked, and is now editor of the Ashburton Guardian.

“The way it was explained to me, I was going to become this multi-faceted, multi-talented journalist, but really they wanted me to keep doing 12 hour days for half the money,” Lammers says.

“McCotter didn’t really care much about what happened to anybody. He was dealing with his employees as if they were toys.”

Contract offers were withdrawn from three Citizen staff who dared to seek union advice about their rights. Behind the scorched earth industrial tactics, the Citizen was hemoraging. One highly-placed former Citizen staffer who declined to be named said McCotter was “pissing money from every orifice” to keep the paper afloat.

Another well-placed source says NZMG was losing an average of $200,000 a month producing the Citizen. The reason was simple: high production costs were nowhere near being offset by sales and advertising revenue.

NZMG budgeted $538,415 to set up its newspaper division, according to a copy of a business plan prepared several months prior to the launch of the Citizen. The plan includes a rallying cry for “a full on media battle,” with the ultimate goal being to usurp its main competitor, The Press.

McCotter and his team hoped the Citizen could reach a paid circulation of about 32,000 in its first year, according to NZMG projections.

But the tabloid barely made it out of the blocks. No audited circulation figures were ever done, but inquiries by the Press paint a very bleak picture.

ES was launched in a fit of self-congratulatory hype with a print run of 21,000 copies, to match weekend Citizen numbers. But at least 13,000 copies of each publication were given away each week, a source in the printing industry has confirmed.

In late May, the ES and weekend Citizen print runs were slashed to 5000.

Through all the staff disputes and business worries, McCotter maintained, outwardly at least, an air of breezy optimism.

In an email to staff in February of this year, McCotter said he appreciated “the terrific camaraderie that all of you have shown together as you continue to build NZMG into all that it is becoming.”

Another message to three NZMG managers suggested they go out for coffee together. “Talk. Have a little fun. Look at each other… see how three women are going to work together to help each of their respective media companies (the Citizen, ES and CTV)… become more powerful.”

Another email ended with the words “go for it!”

In mid-December, the charismatic McCotter — whose patter reminds Triegaardt of a TV evangelist — outdid even himself.

Before heading off to Aspen, Colorado for a Christmas ski trip, he gave a pep talk to despondent Citizen staff.

I’ve bought a house, McCotter said, and I’ve planted some trees. “He would watch them grow and the paper grow alongside them. He was here for the long haul,” Triegaardt recalls. Staff presented McCotter with a small NZ flag as a housewarming gift.

But secretly, a number of senior reporters were nauseated by the display — a feeling only aggravated by the Citizen’s closure.

John Adeane: “I’ve put down roots,’ he (McCotter) said. Like bloody hell. They were pretty shallow bloody roots.”

Triegaardt: “No-one bought into this American ‘ra-ra-ra’ stuff.”

Sports editor Ken Nicholson: “While he ranted and raved about his ambitions for the Citizen I’d sit back in the corner and think ‘American bullshit.’

“I can’t stand the man,” Nicholson continues.

“My first impression was that he was a slimy, greasy American and my impression since is that for all his supposed religious beliefs he has absolutely no caring for people at all.

“All it would seem McCotter is interested in is money and more money.”

By yesterday, Citizen staff spoken to by The Press had all received their back pay and money in lieu of notice.

McCotter, who was yesterday said to be in Chicago on business, did not respond to a series of questions put to him by The Press.

Two Christchurch-based managers for NZMG refused to comment on the shutdown of the Citizen.

Offers above $1m have been sought for the McCotter’s Scarborough Hill home in Christ church.

But it would be foolish to write off McCotter as a potential major player on the local media scene. In something of a surprise move, at least to broadcast media analyst Paul Norris, NZMG has moved to consolidated its NZ television holdings.

An estimated 40 staff from Christchurch’s Now TV are jobless after a buy-out of the station’s assets (for an amount understood to be just under $900,000) by NZMG-owned rival broadcaster CTV.

The deal was announced to staff at Now (owned by London-based international media company West 175 Media) and CTV the day before the Citizen was closed.

The Press understands McCotter wanted to sweeten CTV for a proposed sale of NZMG to an Australian-led consortium.

When the deadline for that deal expired last Friday afternoon, sources have confirmed, McCotter pulled the plug on the Citizen. CTV was yesterday believed to be close to signing a deal for Dunedin’s Channel 9 — another West 175 Media subsidiary.

Norris says Now was thought to be performing better financially than CTV in what has, until now, been an extremely tight market. CTV has plucked the financial winners from Now’s programme schedule (including the P.O.W.A. youth show and Shopping With Jo) but has abandoned Now News.
“It’s a complete disaster. Two years ago, Christchurch had three local news programmes. Now there is none. The explanation is a sorry tale of mismanagement and a salutary saga of the whims of foreign owners.”

McCotter had effectively “damaged the regional television product quite severely” by shrinking the operation down and knocking the news out of it, Norris said.

“Regional television is usually founded on local news and if you don’t have that, what have you got? What are you there for?

“It’s pretty obvious that foreign companies don’t really care when the chips are down about the interests of the locals.”

Christchurch, New Zealand: The Press, July 13th, 1988