Saturday, June 10, 2017

I wrote this 11 years ago, and it's pretty much all still true

In a very distant past life I played bass guitar in the house band at Wellington’s fabled Majestic Cabaret. One of the two resident singers there was the gorgeous Marise McDonald. (The other was Alan Galbraith, later to become a record producer of note and now a maker of hand-crafted “cigar box” guitars.) Marise’s younger brother Nick was a journalist in Masterton to whom I devoted the following tribute in 2006, when I was providing occasional commentaries on Radio NZ’s Mediawatch. I dug it out a few days ago after Marise mentioned to me that she hadn’t heard it. Reading it again after all this time, it occurred to me that apart from the references to Palestinian elections and Don Brash’s speech to the Orewa Rotary Club, it’s all still true and relevant today. In fact if there’s going to be a revival of the newspaper industry, it could well start at the local level.

I recently attended the funeral of a journalist whose name would be unfamiliar to most of this programme’s listeners. He was Nick McDonald, managing editor of a community paper called the Wairarapa News, who died suddenly aged only 51.

His funeral took place in the Masterton Town Hall, and it was full. Journalists may rate poorly in public opinion surveys, but here was one who obviously enjoyed the respect and affection of his fellow citizens.

I had never met Nick but I attended his funeral because I admired a whimsical column he wrote called Take It Easy – a column that I thought deserved a bigger audience. On occasions I emailed him to say how much I had enjoyed his latest piece, and I always received a courteous reply.

But there were lots of things I didn’t know about Nick until I heard the tributes at his funeral service. I learned from these that he came to journalism relatively late in life after a few false starts in other careers. I learned that he started out by acquiring an old printing press and producing a news sheet for local rugby fans. That got him a part-time job writing feature stories for the Wairarapa Times-Age and eventually he became a full-time reporter, rising to become deputy chief reporter of that paper before taking over as editor of the Wairarapa News, a weekly paper that goes into virtually every home in the region.

I also learned that he had become a bit of an identity through his calls to a local talkback station, where he assumed the persona of a hard-case bucolic character named Larry and soon acquired a cult following.

He was obviously a man who made a deep impact on his local community, both as a personality and as a journalist.

Why am I telling you this? Because Nick McDonald represented a breed of journalists who deserve more recognition than they get. I refer to those who toil in the unglamorous field of community and suburban newspapers – those papers that turn up free in your letterbox every week.

For many young reporters, a stint on a community paper is a stepping stone to bigger things – a rite of passage that has to be endured before they have enough experience to step up to a bigger paper. But Nick appeared to have found his niche in community papers and seemed content doing what he was doing – reporting the generally unexciting community news of a provincial town, while providing himself with an outlet for his writing skills through his column. He was clearly capable of bigger things, but as far as I can tell he had no aspirations to wider fame. 

There is a temptation to regard journalists like Nick as being well down the food chain in the journalistic eco-system. They’re not national names and they don’t break sensational stories that destabilise governments. But no journalists are closer to their communities or their readers. And as much as we focus on the big national and international stories of the day, local news is often the news that impacts most directly on the reader. The local cinema that’s being restored; the street that’s being closed to traffic for a day to accommodate a bike race; the couple around the corner who’ve just celebrated their golden wedding; the heroic effort of the local rugby team against a vastly superior visiting side – no stories are closer to the daily lives of people in a small community.

It’s in the community paper that people read about people they know and institutions that they are intimately familiar with.

It’s these stories, in fact, that help create a sense of community. The early European settlers recognised this, which is why newspapers were often among the first businesses to be set up in newly established towns.

If anything, the role of the community journalist has taken on new importance as mainstream news outlets have withdrawn from the field of local news. Television has almost abandoned the local story, and under-resourced radio stations make only a token stab at local bulletins. Even daily newspapers no longer have the space or resources to cover the minutiae of community life that once filled their pages.

That leaves the field to the community paper – and here’s an interesting thing. While many daily newspapers struggle to maintain readers in the face of consumer indifference and aggressive competition from other news outlets, circulation figures show that most community papers have posted healthy gains in recent years.

What does this tell us? I think it confirms that for many people, news about an increase in local swimming pool fees, or an outbreak of vandalism in the local park, is at least as relevant to their daily lives as Orewa 3 or the Palestinian elections. I know of many people who don’t bother to pick up a daily paper or watch the TV news, but who will always skim through the community paper.

Pat Booth, arguably New Zealand’s most distinguished journalist, chose to spend the last few years of his career on suburban papers. He points out that in our bigger cities, some of these papers now engage in quite sharp, aggressive reporting on important local issues – and the politician who ignores them does so at his or her peril, given that they reach hundreds of thousands of readers.

Yet as Pat points out, it’s still the local paper that people will go to if they’ve lost their dog, or want to save a notable tree that the council has decreed must come down.

There’s no glamour in reporting these stories, but someone has to do it. And the job demands a particular type of journalist.

It has to be someone who doesn’t feel it’s demeaning to report what some would consider to be parish-pump news. To some extent it requires a suspension of ego, since the journalist must accept that he or she is never to be going to be famous and still less rich. And it helps if the journalist actually belongs to the community he or she is reporting and understands its concerns and interests.

Nick McDonald seems to have been that sort of person. By all accounts he was an everyman who loved his family, who enjoyed a beer and a punt on the horses, but who retained a sharp and perceptive eye for everything that was going on around him.

And here’s something else that I think is significant about Nick. He had no formal training in journalism, but learned by doing it. That was once the norm in the news media, before we became obsessed with tertiary courses and qualifications.

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that such courses be dismantled and the qualifications abolished. But the question should be asked: was Nick poorer as a journalist for having no formal qualifications? Unquestionably I think the answer must be no. He reminded us that there is, in fact, no great mystique in journalism that can be learned only in lecture rooms. That’s a relatively recent misconception.

An inquiring mind, a degree of tenacity, a facility with words and a commitment to report honestly and impartially – these are some of the key attributes of a good journalist. Some journalists never acquire them, no matter what courses they complete, and some possess them naturally. Nick McDonald was clearly in the latter category, and I believe it’s essential that the news media always keeps the door open for roughies like him.

And I don’t use that word “roughies” in a pejorative sense, but in the horse racing sense – to indicate someone who’s a bit of an outsider. I’d like to think that Nick, as a keen student of the turf, would take that as a compliment.


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