Skip links

New Zealand’s biggest news website has left Facebook – but not their traffic!

Stuff is New Zealand’s biggest media website, prints many of the nation’s daily newspapers, and employs about 900 staff, including 400 journalists.

Sinead Boucher, who worked at Stuff since 2007, became the company’s latest CEO when she bought it for NZ$1 (one New Zealand dollar, yes) from her kitchen table, during lockdown. Business was not exactly booming during the national coronavirus shutdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 and the Stuff employees agreed to 15% pay cuts last April after advertising revenue “fell off a cliff,” while the CEO, Sinead Boucher took a 40% wage reduction herself.

And this is background that makes this story even more interesting, as it was exactly under these circumstances, in July 2020, that Stuff decided to walk away from its audience of over a million followers on Facebook and Instagram. This followed a move to stop advertising on the platform the year before.

Sinead talked yesterday to Meera Selva Deputy Director of Reuters Institute about the reasons, the impact and the dangers of a news outlet turning its back to one of the biggest social media platforms:

Sinead says she wants to sustain, nurture and grow journalism, but that this has become increasingly difficult to do in a changing information environment. “We have a strict set of rules to follow, and we are up against platforms who operate with none of that,” she says.

And yet they control the audiences, the technology, and the advertising stacks. “I would love to see some of that bargaining power returned to audiences,” she says. While she acknowledges that Stuff is in the unique position of being in a small country and having a vast digital presence, she would still encourage other outlets to experiment with leaving the platforms. “We were prepared for a big drop, and that didn’t happen,” she says. Instead, they’ve benefited from huge public support, growth in trust, and happier newsroom staff who are no longer being trolled in unruly Facebook comment sections. One question remains: what to do about audiences who may have been left behind on Facebook?

Started with stopping the advertising spend

Sinead describes how it all started, in March 2019, following the terror attack at a mosque in Christchurch that was live-streamed on Facebook; Stuff felt the response from the platform was deeply unsatisfactory, so Sinead and her colleagues made the decision to stop boosting their content because they did not want to support a company that had facilitated this happening.

“That action had zero effect on our traffic,” she says. “We were prepared for a drop in our audience but it had zero effect. It made us realise we should think more about our decisions, instead of buying into the idea that you have to work with all the social media platforms.” 

So, seven months ago Stuff proceeded with stopping all content on Facebook

Stuff is of course still evaluating the true impact, as this has more than one dimensions– but the traffic dip has not been statistically significant. Stuff’s unique visitors are up 5% year-on-year. However, given it was a strong news year, it would probably be fair to consider this as flat, clarifies realistically Sinead. “If we said, look, there was an election and a pandemic, we think we could have expected to grow more, then we think being off Facebook has probably cost us between 5% and 10% growth. But it hasn’t been disastrous by any means.” Instead, the site’s direct and search traffic has gone up. They’re still seeing between 10-11% of their social traffic being referred organically by Facebook because readers still share story links on their own news feeds.

Still called an experiment – not a final decision: lots of positive conclusions, but also some question marks

There is for instance a valid concern about Stuff’s journalism reach to communities who primarily get their news from Facebook; Sinead said their metrics showed they were failing to reach the wider Pacific Islander and Maori audiences, who had previously accessed Stuff via their news feeds. From a journalist point of view, they can have a fear that of failing their mission when it comes to the impact their work can have, when they cannot reach parts of the population with vital COVID information for instance.

Stuff reached out to Facebook to discuss this problem, and they say talks are still ongoing on how they could continue to reach under-served populations with reliable news content.

“The initial response was, ‘We can teach you to reach them with paid targeting’ But to me that is not the answer, why should a news media organisation have to pay the platform that allows misinformation to spread, in order to clean it up?,” says Sinead. “There hasn’t been much reaction from Facebook – here in New Zealand we’re not really the centre of their universe. […] I think they understand our point of view. But Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t called me, no.”

News media has no future if they cannot gain and retain the people’s trust

Following their sale last year, Stuff has redefined their metrics of success to focus on growth of public trust as a core mission. “That’s given our journalists a chance to ask themselves: ‘Why am I doing this piece of work? Will it build trust?’ We were able to launch projects like Our Truth, an examination of our publishing over the past 160 years, and whether it had been racist,” Sinead recounts. “That culminated in the editorial team making a public apology for some of the work we had done.”

At the start of lockdown last year, Stuff implemented a reader-contribution model (like the Guardian’s), and it has become something of a barometer for public approval. They have seen big donation spikes surrounding their coverage of COVID-19, following the Our Truth project, and around their decision to leave Facebook.


Regarding the future of the company, Sinead had earlier said that she has plans for a staff ownership model and a charter for editorial independence, although it is not yet decided what the exact model would look like – but plans for a merger with another company or laying off staff are off the table.


If you have the time, the interview is really an interesting watch:


Moonshot News is an independent European news website for all IT, Media and Advertising professionals, powered by women and with a focus on driving the narrative for diversity, inclusion and gender equality in the industry.

Our mission is to provide top and unbiased information for all professionals and to make sure that women get their fair share of voice in the news and in the spotlight!

We produce original content, news articles, a curated calendar of industry events and a database of women IT, Media and Advertising associations.

    Do you want an experienced opinion on a job issue?
    Moonshot Manager is here to answer!

      Moonshot community sharing thoughts and ideas, in a anonymous, safe environment.