American businessman Jim McCotter [formerly leader of Great Commission International] arrived in Christchurch in November 2000. Within 14 months, he'd set up a media group, bought ailing regional station Canterbury Television, registered 14 new media-related companies and launched newspaper and a weekly magazine. NICOLA SHEPHEARD asks if McCotter's embryonic media stable represents a serious challenge to media giants Independent News Limited (INL) and Wilson & Horton? What is McCotter's game-plan and does his religious-right background hold any clues?
Media watchers were perplexed by the arrival, in July 2001, of a new southern newspaper the Christchurch Citizen. Why start a newspaper in New Zealand when the only two new tabloids of the last decade each folded within a year of launching? Why do it in Christchurch when in late 1991 the Christchurch Star, once a robust competitor to the Christchurch Press, had to restyle itself as a twice-weekly give-away to survive?
When Christchurch letter-boxes were already jammed with at least seven other community papers? One media-watcher gave the newcomer three months - depending on the depth of its owner's pockets.
But neither James (Jim) Douglas McCotter, 57, nor fellow American and business partner Geoff Botkin were fazed. Nor were the more than 40 New Zealand staff recruited early in 2001 to produce the paper. Seven months on from launching, despite all expectations, the Christchurch Citizen is still there.
It's even gained a sister publication, magazine ES: Entertainment And Style, born January 2002. Canterbury Television (CTV), the station purchased by McCotter in March 2001, continues with much the same programming as it ran under its former owner, Christchurch millionaire engineer and knowledge economy investor Dennis Chapman.
On the face of it, Jim McCotter, mystery American, seems to have defied the odds and proved the gainsayers wrong. It could seem his newspaper has high hopes of playing David to media Goliaths Independent Newspapers Limited (INL) - owner of the Press - and Wilson & Horton - owner of the Star and five community give-aways. INL and Wilson & Horton between them dominate the New Zealandnewspaper industry.
But scratch the surface just a little and you'll find figures that don't seem to add up to a commerciallyviable operation and many unanswered questions about the business strategy behind the Citizen andMcCotter's other ventures. You'll also find large staff turnover: personnel lists show 26 out of 58 staff disappeared off the payroll between September 2001 and February 2002 and of the 17 editorial staffworking a week after the launch, only seven remain. In January and February 2002, while this story was being researched, Geoff Botkin resigned as CEO of McCotter's New Zealand Media Group, one-time model agency boss Denyse Saunders quit as editor of ES, and two more editorial staff on the Citizenhanded in their resignations. Jim McCotter left Christchurch in December 2001 for the United States, and he hasn't been sighted in New Zealand since.
A potted history of the paper shows there's a whole lot more to this Citizen than meets the eye.
On the morning of July 25 2001, Christchurch residents were delivered - that day for free - a new thrice-weekly (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday) newspaper to digest with breakfast. The then Citizen Today looked very different from the city's only surviving six-day newspaper the Press. It was smaller - tabloid sized - and both front and back pages were almost entirely taken up with pictures. Flicking through its 40 pages, readers found the standard sections: local, national and world news, business, entertainment and sports. Most of the national and all the international copy came from news agencies as is common in smaller New Zealand newspapers. The layout was modern and breezy - plenty of pictures, lots of colour.
In his inaugural editorial, editor Coen Lammers argued the case for another Christchurch newspaper, invoking high-sounding principles of press freedom: "We believe responsible local reporting is critically important for the order and progress of every free society, and we intend for our journalistic contribution to make a difference for the better."
Newstalk ZB talkback host Mike Yardley recalls the launch "went very well", judging by what his callers were saying. Most early reaction was positive: people liked the smaller size, the number and quality of photos. Others weren't so impressed. Onetime newspaperman, now head of mass communication and journalism at the University of Canterbury, Jim Tully, says he thought the new paper had "serious shortcomings journalistically in content, editorial direction and format". He was also concerned about "the heavy reliance on Reuters [international news wire] for a paper that editorialised about presenting an alternative view." Nor, in Tully's view, did the local coverage stand out much from the Press.
Tully had been approached by Geoff Botkin in March 2001, and invited to become a consultant for the publication. He declined, envisaging "enormous problems in launching a viable newspaper in a city the size of Christchurch in which both INL and Wilson & Horton are major players".
Neither the Press nor the Star devoted much space to their latest rival, save for a May 25 2001 Press article that reported McCotter and Botkin had "extreme right-wing and religious connections."
Press editor Paul Thompson told North & South in late December 2001: "Our coverage of the Citizen has been minimal because we haven't seen it as particularly newsworthy". Thompson was wary of getting "introverted" and focussing on media stories which have little general appeal.
While the Citizen was announcing its birth, the Press was ticking up 140 years of business. Since the late 1990s, the Press has been, in Thompson's words, "refreshing itself vigorously" and recent makeovers include expanded features and new special-interest sections. At the time of the Citizen's birth, audited circulation figures for the Press stood at 91,003. An AC Nielsen 2001 media survey showed total South Island weekly Press readership as 405,000 - with Canterbury at 322,000. (Canterbury has 481,431 residents.)
Coen Lammers was originally hired as assistant editor at the Citizen, but took over from founding editor Grant Mealing in June 2001 when Mealing stepped aside for health reasons to become news editor.
Mealing, who had suffered depression, subsequently committed suicide in January 2002. His wife Chris still works as a receptionist in the paper's Manchester Street building.
Mealing and chief reporter Bryn Somerville both left jobs at the Press to join the Citizen. Two other former Citizen reporters, Phil McCarthy and Kris Herbert, say the involvement of such experienced, respected journalists helped inspire confidence in joining the venture. Former Citizen senior publications manager Gary Anderson - now working for Circular Distributors Limited - brought to his role a three-decade print background including turning The Picton Paper from a loss-maker to a profitable Marlborough newspaper in the 1980s.
After several free letterbox drops in randomly-selected streets, readers could buy the Citizen for 50 cents an issue at various dairies, supermarkets, petrol stations, and bookshops around town. The tabloid made a bold central city entrance at the busy intersection of Manchester, High and Lichfield streets.
Painted in big blue letters across the office block housing the newspaper appeared the words: "The Citizen, The Christchurch Paper." No escaping it: there was a new kid on the block.
The atmosphere buzzed in the second-storey newsroom during those early weeks. Speaking to North & South in his Somerfield backyard, on a sunny Christchureh Sunday in January, two months after he resigned from the Citizen, Coen Lamrners recalls camaraderie quickly grew among editorial staff. Dutch-born Lammers, 34, has the no-nonsense candidness you'd expect from a man who has worked in daily journalism in Holland, Australia and New Zealand and his sense of injury is unmistakable as he relates his experience with the paper.
He left a job as production editor for The Australian in Sydney to join the Citizen. Why leave that for an infant Christehurch tabloid? The chance to live in New Zealand again (his wife is a New Zealander), and "the challenge of starting up a newspaper from scratch. For a journalist it's a once in a lifetime opportunity, no one [starts a new paper] these days," says Lammers.
After Mealing moved to news editor, Lammers had six weeks and an editorial staff of 13 to produce the first issue. "It was just ridiculous." Still, they did it. Four more staff joined the editorial department in the first week of publication. But, says Lammers, "it all changed the moment McCotter landed".
Early in August, the company director, who had made several trips back and forth between the US and New Zealand, returned to Christchureh, and started spending time in the newsroom. Lammers' words trip over each other as he describes his wrangling with McCotter over editorial control. "Headlines that he wanted, wordings he wanted to use, stories that he wanted... He tried to get involved in all sorts of details, mainly [to do with] the look."
Botkin, too, advised on coverage of certain issues, such as Christchurch Central MP Tim Barnett's prostitution reform bill. "I got a bit of a sick feeling about the whole thing," says Lammers, "when [McCotter] started telling me what stories they wanted - basically stories I didn't agree with and I'd try to stop it as much as I could, or mould it into a way that was acceptable." Granted, Laminers says, management had taken a hand in editorial direction on other papers where he'd worked, but only at a more strategic, less detailed level. However, other comments suggest McCotter's influence with other media holdings in the US has never been all pervasive.
During the build-up to the October 2001 local body elections, Lammers resisted McCotter's push to back mayoral candidate and local media personality George Balani "all the way", because of the likely - and eventual - victory of the presiding mayor, Gary Moore. Another time he dissuaded McCotter from printing a psalm in every issue, knowing this wouldn't go down well with a Christchurch audience.
McCotter also switched the order of news: from mid-August to mid-October, the world news came at the front, then national and local. Lammers says McCotter's reasons, some of which he accepted, included the initial weakness of local coverage by the team of young reporters, many from out of town, and the need to distinguish the paper from community give-aways. The re-ordering seemed odd, considering the Citizen's attempts to market itself as an essentially Christchurch paper.
The inconsistent tone of the paper in its first few months bore the marks of this editorial tension. Some aticles espoused viewpoints and angles far removed from a religious-right stance, and the first story on the prostitution reform bill, which proposes decriminalising sex work, covered all sides of the issue.
However, of the following eight articles and one editorial published on the topic over the next two months, all but two centred on arguments against the bill.
More changes were in store. The original advertising sales staff left after their salaries were abruptly switched to commissions. In October, Anderson quit as senior publications manager after eight months in the job. (He is bound by a confidentiality agreement with NZMG, so was unable to comment on his resignation. He did say of his new job: "I have now found a company which respects its employees... and can be relied upon to adopt good business practices".)
Then in late November, staff learnt NZMG would contract out all editorial content for the NZMG media outlets, including the Citizen and CTV, to a new company, New Zealand News Network. Citizen journalists would be technically made redundant and some offered new contracts with NZNN. One of New Zealand News Network's company directors and its editor-in-chief is Jim McCotter's English son-in-law, Jonathan Hunt, formerly European bureau chief for Rupert Murdoch's Sky News. Hunt arrived in Christchurch with his wife, McCotter's daughter Shannon, in October 2001.
In the next two weeks, chief reporter Bryn Somerville and another reporter left. Editorial staff were sufficiently concerned about the terms of their new contracts to seek advice from their union, the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union. The contracts defined them as contractors rather than employees. As such, they would lose standard employee rights and protections like holiday and sickness day and guaranteed hours of work, and would be essentially barred from freelancing for competitors in the same market.
Four reporters authorised a union representative to call McCotter on their behalf and request time to consider the contract. One meeting with management and three days later, three of the four found their contract offers withdrawn. By February, Lammers counts only seven from the August editorial staff of 17 still with the paper.
According to new editor-in-chief Jonathan Hunt the restructuring was simply improving the paper. In a January interview, Hunt said, "We looked at the staff and kept the ones who were talented and could take the organisation forward, and parted company with some who weren't up to scratch." Dressed in a fashionably-cut dark suit, Hunt emanated an unassailable confidence. He dismissed suggestions of staff unease over the restructuring - "Our staff seemed perfectly happy."
The NZMG code of administration, listed on its web site (www.nzmg.co.nz), includes the following: "NZMG values... professional ethics and the wellbeing of our staff and their families... It is our goal to demonstrate that media operations which respect decency, integrity and community can and will be successful." Links take you to three articles on corporate ethics by former CEO Botkin. When North & South suggested to Botkin that some former staff do not feel their "wellbeing" was valued by NZMG during the restructuring, he said it was inappropriate for him to comment, as he was no longer with the company.
Lammers was dismissed as editor and offered a new contract with NZNN for what he describes as a "nondescript job" that would have meant a pay cut of about 35 per cent. In the Saturday November 24 2001 issue of the Citizen, the first without Lammers at the helm, the paper launched what Lammers calls a "full frontal attack" on the Press. It centred on the previous Thursday's front-page coverage in the Press of the police shooting of Motueka man Jason Williams.
The November 22 Press's main headline read: "Police shoot grieving dad", and the story opened: "The man shot and seriously wounded yesterday by police after a chase in Canterbury was the grieving father of a five-year-old girl who died three weeks ago in a Granity house fire." The shooting, the story said, followed a suspected hostage-taking and a police chase from the North Canterbury town of Rangiora.
Directly before the shooting, Williams had "allegedly approached police brandishing a machete."
Across the bottom of the front page was an article headlined "Police have shot 28 in the last 50 years."
Finally, down the right hand side, ran a single-column story: "Officers aim to save life in crisis."
Reader reaction was heated and the paper's November 23 editorial headed "The wrong impression" was openly placatory. "Some readers of The Press were clearly unhappy at the headline over yesterday's front-page coverage of the [Williams] incident. That was apparent from the many telephone calls and other messages received by the newspaper... In this case our headline did give a wrong impression about the police handling of the incident. In no way was it intended to indicate criticism of the action taken by the police."
Certainly, the headlines on that day's front page - "Shot man's chilling threats" and "No surprise, says former partner" - gave rather different "impressions". But the Citizen was not so easily pacified. Here was a chance to capture the moral high ground. On Saturday November 24, the Citizen ran a scathing page three article, "Press won't say sorry". It began: "The Press newspaper has refused to apologise for its 'sensationalist' coverage of the police shooting... City residents and the police were outraged by Thursday's Press headline which appeared to accuse officers of overreacting." It quoted three "furious Christchurch residents" and a Newstalk ZB source who said more than half the calls received on the talkback show that Thursday morning were about the Williams stories. "In an extraordinary admission," the unnamed reporter finished, "Press editor Paul Thompson told the Citizen he accepts Thursday's headline was 'inappropriate' and says he wasn't surprised at the reaction... But offered the chance to apologise... Thompson declined, dismissing the idea with the words, 'We've dealt with it'."
Another article, on page two, also carried no byline, though Hunt told North & South he wrote it and stood by its claims. The headline ran: "Citizen grows; Press grows concerned". The story outlined changes to the Citizen - including the name change from Citizen Today to Christchurch Citizen, to reflect the paper's local orientation - and drew acerbic contrasts between the Press and the Citizen. The Press was "owned by a man who left Australasia to set up home in the US [Rupert Murdoch], while the Citizen's owner, Jim McCotter, had "moved from the United States to settle here, injecting significant amounts of cash into the Christchurch economy". The Citizen was a "modern paper for a modern city", while the Press was a "media dinosaur, struggling to keep up" which had "resorted to old-fashioned bullying tactics".
"We just want a straightforward fight over who provides you... with the sharpest news, the best stories, the most colourful sports coverage. They'd rather run and hide behind their big corporate parent, and hope that Mr Billionaire Murdoch gives them enough money to see off the Citizen."
Beneath this, a shorter article "Phone faux-pas" pilloried the Press for allegedly not contacting the Citizen for comment on a story about the paper: "Reporters at the Press may face retraining after apparently forgetting how to use the telephone." All three articles appeared in the local news section.
Fighting talk indeed but it seems the no-holds-barred attack backfired in some quarters. Newstalk ZB's Mike Yardley said talkback callers "thought it was petty [and the Citizen was] playing tabloid games".
Paul Thompson refused to be drawn. Stolidly non-committal, he told this reporter much what he told National Radio's Mediawatch in December: he would answer to his readers, but not to the Citizen. "We broke the story... we wrote a headline which some readers found offensive, which I felt was ambiguous, and the next day we said it gave the wrong impression. From my point of view this is not about anyone else except our newspaper responding to our readers." And the other attacks on the Press? Thompson's diplomatic skirting faltered for a second. "That's just self-serving puffery."
Meanwhile, Lammers was dismayed. "I got calls from the media, asking what the hell I was doing, then I had to explain to everyone I had nothing to do with it any more." At the time of writing, Lammers was suing NZMG for unfair dismissal and damage to his reputation.
Most of the ex-Citizen staff North & South spoke to have since gained new jobs. At least two are back at the Press, while Lammers started as editor of the Ashburton Guardian in January and has employed two ex-Citizen staff Former staff and observers remark on the smallness and closeness of the print media industry in Canterbury and wonder at the long-term fallout from the Citizen's staff hiring then shedding.
Even as the Citizen was being pared down a new sister publication was on the brew. The tabloid sized 32-page ES: Entertainment And Style magazine hit newsstands on January 18 accompanied by much NZMG in-house fanfare. In a front page launch announcement the Citizen trumpeted "Christchurch is the most stylish city in New Zealand. And that's official" and quoted editor-in-chief Jonathan Hunt: "ES is a revolutionary concept... shaking up the publishing world... written by a crack team of entertainment and style gurus..." On page two a headline promised: "ES Magazine 'huge boost to economy'."
In a complicated pricing arrangement ES cost just $1 when bought in combination with Friday's Citizen "weekend edition" but was marked at a rather hopeful $4 when bought separately any other day of the week. Proclaiming itself a "revolutionary... Christchurch/International" magazine, ES is a rather self-congratulatory, insubstantial mix of fashion, lifestyle, entertainment and food.
The very day the magazine that was "shaking up the publishing world" arrived, it lost its editor. Denyse Saunders quit and her PA and sales consultant went with her. In an email to business associates and editors nationally Saunders wrote: "Whilst I am extremely proud of the Collector's Edition of ES, my position over the last week became untenable - that made it necessary for me to resign."
Saunders, now running her own events company, Denyse Saunders Ltd, declined comment for this story. She had ended a five-month stint as editor of a Christchurch giveaway magazine Metropol to start ES.
Jim McCotter's daughter Shannon Hunt was brought in as new editor of ES and, in another family twist, Simon Hunt, Jonathan's brother, also fresh from England, became production manager. Hunt's "editor's letter" in the second issue begins: "A band's second album, they say, is always more importantthan the first. Just so with a magazine." Direct mention of Saunders' departure was left to McCotter. His note below the editor's letter lauds Saunders' contribution: "If she was on stage now I would give her a standing ovation". But, "while ES will continue to carry a certain Denyse influence it is time for the magazine to move onwards and upwards". The cover price on the third issue slid to $2.
Just how much does all this cost?
In an April 20 2001 National Business Review story Jim McCotter is quoted as describing NZMG as a charitable trust aiming to use its assets and profits for the community. All indications are that the Citizen is running at a substantial loss, which is not unusual. New publications usually take at least three years to turn a profit and Canterbury media personality and former newspaperman Phil Gifford suggests any new Christchurch paper would need at least five or six years to make an impression given the Press's strong hold.
Current losses must be significant. Advertising revenue is crucial for most newspapers. Press general manager Don Churchill says his paper's rule of thumb is 75 per cent of revenue from advertising and 25 per cent from sales.
By the time ES was launched, advertisers had mostly deserted its parent, the Citizen. The paper's first few issues carried over 45 ads. The January 18 edition had eight larger ads and six small classifieds. Of the first eight, five were part of a continuing education spread, one was for a company owned by McCotter and one was a full-page ad for Rick Armstrong Motors. An Armstrong Motors spokesman says its Citizenads were part of a package deal that included CTV and another NZMG company, Billboards.
Several early Citizen advertisers contacted by North & South said they bought space in the new paper as a gesture of support. Some companies stopped because the deal was only short-term or their needs had changed. Satisfaction with rates and customer response varied: some businesses said rates were "competitive", but one found them "quite expensive".
Asked in January 2002 about the scantiness of Citizen advertising compared with other Christchurch newspapers, Hunt said it wasn't his area, but, he ventured, "I don't think we're dependent on advertising. You look at the great national newspapers all over the world and they're not full of advertising. I mean if the Press wants to look like a sort of freebie daily that is funded entirely by advertising then that is up to it."
That leaves revenue from sales. In January 2002, when asked about circulation figures Hunt said he would email them to North & South. None came.
Meanwhile, Hunt contacted North & South twice, accusing this reporter of "harassing" his staff. Hunt's complaints and the language and tone he used echoed similar broadsides levelled at Press journalists in the Citizen's November articles and two similarly trenchant articles about the Press in December and January.
Christchurch retailers were somewhat more helpful about sales. Of eight contacted mid-February, most reported they sold between none and five copies of the Citizen per edition. An exception was Fresh Choice supermarket in the affluent suburb of Merivale, which sells about 25 of 50 copies of the Citizen on Fridays when it's on sale for $1 together with ES. ES seems to have made little impact in other outlets.
The Cashel Street branch of Whitcoulls stocked about 70 copies of the newspaper and magazine combination on Fridays, compared to 15-20 of the paper alone. On average the branch sold five copies of the Citizen over all three days. The same store generally sold most of its 60-copy stock of the Press. BP Edgeware averaged two Citizen sales a day compared to 115 Press sales.
Circulation figures were not freely available to staff, either, but several former staff offered estimates. Two sources believed combined casual and subscription daily sales hovered around 1000-1100 copies in November 2001. Another source indicated the figure might have reached about 1600. Neither figure tallies with the 30,900 readership claim made on the Citizen's front pages in November 2001. Lammers says McCotter arrived at that total by multiplying the number of copies printed by three, on the assumption each copy would be read by three people.
Ashburton printer and president of the Community Newspapers' Association Frank Veale estimated a 10,000 copy run would cost roughly $5000 per edition to print. So, if 10,000 copies of the Citizen were printed three times a week, printing costs probably totalled around $15,000 weekly. Another ex-Citizen employee believed the print run was cut to about 2500 in early 2002.
Former media consultant for NZMG Bert Dunn says the initial print costing for ES was $40,000 per issue. He says the plan was to distribute 21,000 free copies in higher-income neighbourhoods for the first few months.
Staff are a major cost. An email from McCotter dated February 18 2002, with the subject heading "Message from Jim to Staff", listed 51 addressees - presumably NZMG's staff list. When North & South contacted these people two were no longer with the company. Several others were working in other arms of NZMG or part-time. But this staff list, in terms of salary outgoings would still represent a significant draw on company finds.
North & South asked McCotter and Hunt how much money had been budgeted to set up NZMG, the Citizen and ES, when they expected to start making a profit, and how much revenue was incoming from advertising and sales? No reply was forthcoming.
What kind of businessman is Jim McCotter? Why did he come to New Zealand? Why plunge into such a notoriously risky industry? And why Christchurch?
McCotter and his family's immigration status in New Zealand is not known. If he has secured a long-term business visa to start up his Christchurch ventures he would have had to submit a business plan with forecasting for three years and prove he could support himself and his family for that time. After two years long-term business visa-holders may apply for residency under the category of entrepreneur provided their businesses meet certain conditions.
McCotter is described on the NZMG web site (currently under revision) as an "international business leader and American entrepreneur [who] has started a number of innovative companies". Nine are listed and among them are: two media-related companies, a software company, two mountain resorts in Wyoming, an investment firm, and McCotter Aviation - based in Penrose, Colorado - which advertises in the Citizen.
McCotter gave a Colorado address when registering several of his New Zealand companies but not one of the editors of the state's five main newspapers contacted by North & South had heard of him.
An internet search turned up more information about McCotter Aviation. According to the December 2001 issue of internet aviation magazine AIN Online, in March 2001 McCotter Aviation purchased majority shares of Maverick Air Inc, which manufactures a twin-engine personal jet in kitset form. Maverick Jet's internet site contains a personal message from McCotter, mentioning a price tag of $US750,000 for the jet. The AIN Online article says seven kits had been sold by December 2001.
McCotter's earliest publishing experience seems to have been linked to his founding role in a campus-based "born again" Christian movement stemming from Colorado in the early 1970s. The movement has since evolved into an association of evangelical churches in the United States and 20 other countries, dubbed the Great Commission Association of Churches. (A spokesperson for the organisation confirmed McCotter first formalised the movement, then called the Great Commission International, in 1983. He abandoned his leadership role in 1986.)
In the 1970s, McCotter was involved in publishing a Christian circular Today's Student for the church movement. According to Larry Pile, a former church member now living in Ohio, the paper folded in the early 1980s after failing to attract sufficient advertising or financial backing.
Reports in two Florida newspapers reveal more about McCotter's media experience. A June 1988 story in Central Florida Business and a January 1991 story in The Weekly outlines McCotter's 1987 purchase of news programme distributor Florida Radio Network. In March 1988, McCotter and a partner agreed to buy for $250,000 60 per cent of shares in another radio programme syndicator, Sun Radio Network. Three months later, the Sun seller took McCotter and his partner to court alleging they diverted assets to the Florida Network and failed to make payments on Sun Radio's debts. In a counter-suit McCotter alleged the seller misrepresented the network's finances. The outcome of this litigation is not known.
The 1991 Weekly article also recounts the downfall of a tabloid community paper chain that McCotter bought in October 1989. In four months the Orlando, Florida-based Sun Newspapers Group expanded from one to 18 community editions. The group folded in December 1990 after mass lay-offs and the collapse of a buy-out deal.
Parallels between the Sun and the Citizen stories are striking. Both raised local eyebrows in terms of their timing - the United States was going through a newspaper industry recession in the late 1980s. In New Zealand the most recent newcomers to the New Zealand newspaper scene, NZ News' the Auckland Sun, and Horton Media's Manukau Daily News (later the Daily News), had both folded within a year of their respective launches (the Sun in July 1988 and the Daily News in 1999).
The editorial quality of the McCotter papers was questioned by media experts in both the US and New Zealand, and both the Sun and the Citizen printed highly critical stories about their main competitors (the Orlando Sentinel and the Press), accusing them of liberal and biased reporting.
Staff quoted in the US article echo Lammers when they mention McCotter's attempts to influence content - though, as with the Citizen, this influence was not regarded as all-pervasive. In the Citizen's case, former editor Coen Lammers was conscious of rumours sparked by stories in other New Zealand media that sketched McCotter's and Botkin's alleged right-wing or religious backgrounds. The stories focussedon Botkin's campaigning on Christian home schooling in the US and McCotter's membership of US policy group Council for National Policy. "When I was there," says Lammers, "we managed to keep every right wing and/or religious hint out of the paper." Now Lammers has gone there is still no evidence of a clear right wing bias.
Both the Orlando and Christchurch papers underwent major restructuring, with reshuffling at management level and lay-offs in their first few months. Finally, in both cases McCotter was quick to expand.
Jonathan Hunt did not divulge to North & South NZMG's expansion plans, but Christchurch's West Media Group chairman and CEO John McEwen says McCotter approached him about buying Now TV, CTV's main competitor, on two occasions.
Trevor Laplanche, the director of Christchurch publishing firm Metros, says McCotter also mentioned possible plans for a radio station when he approached Laplanche early in 2001. Certainly, the concept of media convergence - where different media outlets owned by the same company overlap content, staff advertising and market - is a big theme for NZMG which owns internet and billboard companies as well as CTV and the Citizen.
Fourteen companies registered in 10 months suggest a broad long-term vision. Again, without any clarification from McCotter or his partners, we can only speculate what this may be.
McCotter admits he chose Christchurch because of the possibility of purchasing CTV. The official line, in a June NZMG press release, is that four things recommended Christchurch: its highly-regarded computer industry; the fact "Christchurch people seem receptive to new ideas and technologies" and its amenities and the recreational activities on hand. Others conjecture it may have something to do with the fact that New Zealand is one of the few places in the English-speaking world where you can legally own both a television station and a newspaper in the same market. In the United States this is illegal.
Meanwhile, Citizen sources say an air of anxiety, insecurity and confusion lingers post-restructuring. Yet still the paper continues to arrive on shop newsstands and in subscribers' homes three times a week. McCotter appointed Jonathan Hunt as new CEO for NZMG in February, and the paper has wooed back several former staff.
This David is not lying down at its Goliath's feet.
As this story was going to print, the Citizen made a fresh attack on INL. Front and page three headlines on March 1 screamed "Murdoch bully-boys to sue ES magazine", and "Murdoch goes after ES mag". "Media magnate Rupert Murdoch's bullyboys are targeting Christchurch and the new, successful lifestyle and entertainment magazine, ES", began the story. The main claim was that INL lawyers had begun action to sue NZMG for infringement of the INL TV Guide trademark, which appears four times down the edge of the ES cover.
The article put it this way: "[the INL] lawyers seem to be accusing the people of Christchurch of stupidity, implying readers here might confuse Murdoch's small, cheap-looking product with the large-format glossy ES magazine, just because ES has the generic words TV Guide printed on its front cover."
Jonathan Hunt exhorted readers to "support our new campaign to convince Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen that we're not stupid down here in the South Island... write to either the INL lawyers, or to Paul Thompson". He offered sample letters and gave contact details for Thompson and INL company secretary and legal counsel Sarah Hard.
When North & South spoke to Hard that afternoon, she had received several emails from Citizen readers. In a fax, she said: "I find it extraordinary that the Citizen should name me (or anyone else at INL) as a 'bullyboy', and I am frankly appalled the newspaper should encourage its readers to write or phone me to convey abuse." She forwarded this magazine copies of two letters to NZMG which, presumably, triggered the article. The first, dated July 24, 2001, noted that the Citizen was using "TV Guide" as a heading for its television listings, pointed out it was an INL trademark and asked NZMG to "Please make the necessary changes immediately."
The second, dated February 4, 2002, repeated the demand with respect to the ES cover, closing "Please desist immediately or we will be forced to instruct our solicitors to issue proceedings." Hard said at that date no proceedings had been issued by INL.
The lines are drawn, the battle proceeds, but just where this quirky and expensive war of words and Christchurch readers will end is anybody's guess. Clearly a matter of watching that space.
Footnote: As this story went to print some emailed responses were received from Jim McCotter. Many questions remained unanswered, but McCotter did respond to the following:
Why Christ church? "...the deregulated media market in New Zealand presented an opportunity that may not have been achievable elsewhere. Also, Rupert Murdoch has a monopoly in the Christchurch market which needs some competition.
What he says about the Council for National Policy: "...most in the Republican Party... would consider it an honour to havea leadership role in CNP".
When asked about his involvement in a US campus-based evangelical movement in the early 1970s, and the Great Commission International, renamed the Great Commission Association of Churches, he said: "I personally grew up as a Protestant and have tried to contribute most of my life to Christian or charitable organisations. However, I am not remotely involved in any way, in any "Church Movement" as you suggest, although I do go to church."
He confirmed past ownership of the businesses below, but did not expand on his current involvement: Media Management Group, Smart Software, Big Horn Mountain Ski Resort, Wyoming Mountain Reports, McCotter Capital Group, BJR Investments, Media Net, Gold Eagle Construction, McCotter Aviation, Profit Group Corporation, Capital Advancement Inc, American Investments, Destiny Film Productions, Florida Media Broadcasters
His Citizen role?: "When I have been there I have functioned basically as a CEO."
His response to one claim that he once considered closing the Christchurch Citizen: "No, sorry, we're growing stronger now every day."
How would you describe the Citizen's relations with the Christchurch Press? "Well, I'd like to buy them if they would sell, or it may be a long war."
Circulation figures?: "Citizen, Approximately 29,500 copies going to hand per week; ES Magazine 21,000 copies per week going to hand."
Expansion plans?: "There isn't anything we wouldn't like to do in continuing to expand our coverage and penetration for our advertisers. We are growing faster than any media group I personally know of."
Newsflash: On March 11 the New Zealand Media Group, owners of the Christchurch Citizen, ES magazine and CTV announced the company's sale to an undisclosed American media group.