Wednesday, August 5, 2009

To use a cliche, it's a work in progress

(A speech given to the annual conference of Agcarm, Wellington, July 23.)

I want to talk to you today in very broad terms about how journalism and the news media are changing. Because they are changing at an unprecedented rate and we don’t yet know where that change is going to lead.

Some of the changes are positive, some less so. I’ll work through those changes as I go.

What’s important to grasp is that these changes don’t concern only the people employed in the media. They affect everyone in this room, because democracy depends to a very large extent on how well journalists and the media do their job.

Democracy can’t function without an informed public, which is why the work of journalists – whether we like it or not – is vital to us all.

Let me start by taking you back to 1968, the year I entered journalism as a cadet reporter for the Evening Post.

Back then, all four major cities still had an evening newspaper. The impact of television was just starting to bite. People were still in the habit of coming home at night and reading the paper.

Newspapers were conservative, complacent and prosperous. Classified advertising generated rivers of gold – remember those Saturday papers full of To Let ads and Cars for Sale?

Newspapers were passive gatherers of news. Reporters attended press conferences, covered courts and council meetings, turned news releases into stories and made daily calls on the police, the fire brigade and the ambulance service.

As a cadet reporter on the Evening Post, I was one of a team that covered every case that came before the Wellington Magistrate’s Court. On busy mornings we would occupy the entire press bench – as many as seven or eight of us, under the supervision of an older reporter named Fran Kitching, better known to some of you as Fran Wilde. (Fran of course later became a cabinet minister and mayor of Wellington, and now chairs the Greater Wellington Regional Council.)

If some of those court stories took days or even weeks to get into the paper, it didn’t matter. There was no great sense of urgency.

You couldn’t operate like that now. There are so many people coming before the courts that newspapers have to pick and choose which cases they cover.

On a typical day I’d guess the Dominion Post has two, maybe three, reporters to keep an eye on all the courts in Wellington, from the District Court right up to the Supreme Court, which means a lot of court news goes unreported.

In Britain, the journalist Nick Davies wrote last year that you’re just as likely to see a zebra in court as you are to see a reporter. It’s not quite that bad here. But it does raise quite serious questions if you believe, as I do, that press coverage of the courts is vital in an open society and can serve as a check on the abuse of judicial power. Police have told me it can also be an effective anti-crime tool, as there’s still an element of public shame in being named in a court story, especially in a smaller community where everyone knows you.

Looking back, things were pretty cruisy for journalists in the sixties, though we mightn’t have thought so at the time. Reporters didn’t do a lot of digging and they didn’t see it as their job to make life uncomfortable for politicians.

What we now call investigative journalism was still several years away. The phrase wouldn’t enter the popular vocabulary until after Watergate in 1972.

The newspaper business then was highly risk-averse. It was rare for a newspaper, other than the weekly scandal-monger Truth, to consult lawyers over potentially unsafe stories (and Truth had the advantage that it was owned by the country’s leading defamation lawyer, one Jimmy Dunn).

As a general rule, stories that were likely to cause trouble just didn’t get written. The mainstream press enjoyed healthy sales figures and saw no need to win readers by taking risks.

The only time the stops were pulled out was when a major news story broke unexpectedly, such as the Tangiwai disaster in 1953 or the sinking of the Wahine in 1968.

By way of a digression, I still remember the optimistic front-page headline on the first edition of the Evening Post that came out on the day the Wahine sank. It said: Wahine founders in harbour; one dead?

The Evening Post in those days was unique in that it devoted only half of the front page to news; the bottom half was classified advertising. The owners, Blundell Brothers, dithered for years over whether to join the popular trend and put news on the front page instead of classifieds, and eventually they decided on an extraordinary compromise: news on the top half, ads on the bottom.

I seem to recall that even when the Wahine sank, the ads stayed on page one for at least the first couple of editions before it was decided the news that day was so important it deserved to occupy the whole page.

Tragedies aside, the most testing event for a newspaper back then was likely to be a royal tour, which required all available resources to be mobilised.

I remember that when the Queen toured New Zealand in 1970, virtually every reporter and photographer on the Dominion – where I had moved by then – was assigned to cover her every move. That gives you some idea of how news values, to say nothing of cultural attitudes, have changed in the ensuing four decades.

That was the era when every city had its own journalists’ pub. The Journalists Union newspaper even listed the pubs you could go to in every city if you wanted to meet other journos.

In Wellington it was the Britannia in Willis St, which was conveniently close to both the Dominion and the Evening Post. Drinking was an essential part of the journalism culture, partly because there was so much spare time in which to do it.

By two o’clock on a typical afternoon the public bar of the Brit was filling up with Evening Post journalists who were finished for the day. Many of them were still there at six, by which time journalists from the Dom were drifting in – though I have to say there wasn’t a great deal of fraternal goodwill between the two papers and they tended to drink in separate groups.

Newspapers back then didn’t have to be aggressive in pursuit of news because there was little competitive pressure to beat anyone else. There was no city where two newspapers went head to head, by which I mean two morning or two evening papers directly competing with each other. It was all very cosy.

As a general rule, newspapers didn’t like to rock the boat. They were respectful and even subservient toward politicians, and they were conservative in their editorial stances.

There were just one or two editors back then who were prepared to break ranks and take risks. The late Frank Haden, then editor of the Sunday Times, upset his proprietors by opposing the Vietnam War and publishing pictures of a topless Carmen.

At the Sunday News, Alan Hitchens caused a sensation before the 1972 general election by urging his readers to vote Labour. It was rare for a New Zealand paper to suggest that its readers vote a particular way at all, let alone that they vote Labour. And to make things worse Alan put it on the front-page under the banner headline, Big Norman, You’re Our Man!.

Television news was still finding its feet then. In fact broadcasting generally – radio as well as TV – was still struggling to liberate itself from political control.

Right through until the end of the Muldoon era, state-employed broadcasting journalists were subject to a high degree of political interference and intimidation. Even print journalists were subjected to harassment in the Muldoon era, as Tom Scott would be happy to tell you.

I mention all this just to demonstrate how radically the whole media scene has changed in the ensuing decades.

The first casualty of the changing environment was the metropolitan evening newspaper. New Zealanders who once came home from work and read the paper now came home and watched TV.

Dunedin lost its evening paper in the 1970s. Christchurch went the same way in the following decade and it was Auckland’s turn in the early 90s. Even the ground-breaking investigative journalism of Pat Booth and his team, who uncovered the Mr Asia saga, wasn’t enough to save the Auckland Star.

The last survivor was the Evening Post, which valiantly held on until its merger with the Dominion in 2002.

But enough about dead newspapers. I’d like to talk now about the ones that have survived, and how they’ve changed.

Survival of the fittest applies in journalism just as it does anywhere else. Newspapers today are far more aggressive, far more competitive, far more prepared to push the envelope and take risks.

The Dominion – or the Dominion Post as it is now – provides a good case study. In the early 1980s the Dom was a sick puppy, under-resourced and demoralised. The owners, INL, realised the paper needed urgent remedial attention.

To do this they hired a new editor from Britain, Geoff Baylis. Now Geoff came from a newspaper environment where journalists weren’t accustomed to being intimidated by politicians, and he made it clear quite early in the piece that he was prepared to stand up to Robert Muldoon. In fact Muldoon once told an interviewer that one of his greatest regrets was allowing Geoff into the country. The irony was that the government had given INL a special dispensation to do it, on the basis that there was no New Zealand journalist available with Geoff’s credentials.

Alan Burnet, who was managing director of INL at the time, told me a couple of years ago that Muldoon once rang him and demanded that he fire Baylis. Burnet politely but firmly told him where to go. Muldoon, who was nothing if not vindictive, later vetoed Alan Burnet’s name when it was put forward for a knighthood. Join the dots.

Now I invite you to fast-forward and look at some of the stories the Dominion Post has published in more recent years under the editorship of Tim Pankhurst.

Donna Awatere Huata, Clint Rickards and Tony Veitch wouldn’t need any reminding about the impact the Dominion Post has had on their lives. These were sensational stories that carried a high level of risk, but all were based on verifiable facts and in every case there was a compelling public interest in knowing about them. The fact that not one of those people sued the paper speaks for itself. Truth is a complete defence under defamation law.

A newspaper like The Dominion Post has lawyers on call around the clock. On big investigative stories, a lawyer will virtually take up residence in the office and work through all the material with the reporter. The paper must have run up eye-watering legal bills on the stories I’ve just mentioned, and there were others too.

The Dom Post was ahead of the pack in exposing secret donations to New Zealand First and it took a massive risk publishing confidential police transcripts about the so-called Terror Raids in the Urewera. Tim Pankhurst ended up before the High Court on a contempt charge, which he successfully defended.

My point is that stories like these were virtually unheard of 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Newspapers just didn’t have the balls to tackle them.

There were some honourable and courageous exceptions. I think you have to give credit to Pat Booth and his coverage of the Arthur Allan Thomas case for the Auckland Star in the 1970s for demonstrating that newspapers had a role in exposing wrongdoing and injustice when official checks and balances failed.

Another measure of how things have changed is that 40 years ago, most reporters would have had only a vague idea of what their paper’s daily sales were.

These days if you walk into the newsroom at the Dominion Post you see yesterday’s billboard prominently displayed along with a figure showing how many copies of that day’s paper were sold. Journalists who once thought it was beneath their dignity to worry about sales now realise their livelihoods depend on people continuing to buy the paper.

Ironically free-to-air TV, which killed off so many evening papers, is now fighting to retain its own news audience, because the past decade has seen the biggest information revolution since the invention of the printing press.

Information has never been more abundant, immediate or accessible. Thanks to the Net and satellite TV we can pick and choose our information sources as never before. There’s so much out there, and so freely available, that it’s been compared with trying to drink from a firehose.

The implications of this are huge and I’d like to discuss just a few.

In broad terms, the information revolution represents a profound shift of power from the so-called gatekeepers to the consumer. I think that’s a plus, though with caveats that I’ll come to shortly.

Who are – or were – these gatekeepers? First and foremost they were politicians, who have now been forced to accept that they can’t control information the way they used to.

Prime ministers were once able to keep the media under control, effectively telling them only what they wanted them to know. But as the late David Lange perceptively remarked as long ago as 1994, the global reach of information now is such that voters often know as much as the politicians. That makes it far less likely that the politicians are going to pull the wool over our eyes. In western democracies we have had never had a better-informed, more savvy public. That’s a plus.

The other main set of gatekeepers was the so-called mainstream media, or “old” media. By that I mean traditional news outlets such as newspapers, TV channels and radio stations. They controlled the news supply and could pick and choose what to publish. But the worldwide web has enabled the news consumer to cut out the middleman and select his or her own sources of information.

Is this also a plus? In most respects, I think the answer is yes. You can hardly have too much information. The digital information revolution has empowered people to seek out their own information and opinions, which is a good thing. And of course the blogosphere has introduced millions – in fact tens of millions – of new voices to the democratic ferment.

The old-style shapers of public opinion, and I include newspaper columnists like me, no longer have the field to themselves. That’s a good thing too, even if much of the debate on the blogosphere is of pretty poor quality.

If I have one misgiving about this revolution, it’s that there is a risk people will gravitate toward websites and blogs that reinforce their own world views.

One great advantage of the mainstream newspaper is that it presents its readers with a wide range of information and opinion. If you’re a hard-core conservative, it does you no harm to pick up your morning paper and read a left-wing opinion piece. And of course the same applies in reverse.

It might make you choke on your toast but it might also make you recognise that there’s more than one way of looking at things. So in that respect I think an objective mainstream press such as we have in New Zealand is good for democracy.

The danger is that people going to the worldwide web will go to sites and blogs that mirror their own views, and therefore won’t be exposed to a wide range of information and opinion that might challenge their preconceptions. A lot of the blogs I access, both of the left and right, are wildly one-eyed and extremely intolerant of opposing views. Is that good for democracy? I’m not so sure.

I should mention here that the mainstream media has many critics, mostly from the left, who can’t wait to dance on its grave. They are gripped by a paranoid fantasy in which the media is controlled by ruthless press barons who have engaged in a global conspiracy to keep people in the dark. In fact I think the “old” media, by and large, have been very conscientious about exercising their responsibilities fairly, accurately and impartially. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the mainstream media are now facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Most of you will be aware that in America, long-established papers are closing. Others have lost circulation and shed staff. There are similar trends in Britain, though not as severe, and newspapers are experiencing lean times here too.

To some extent this can be attributed to the usual cyclical swings of capitalism, exacerbated in some cases by corporate folly and greed. But there’s no doubt the effects have been magnified by the drift to the Internet, both of readers and of advertising.

Where this is going to lead is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime newspapers are scrambling to find a solution to the crisis. In some cases I suspect they may be digging themselves into a bigger hole.

Some editors have decided the solution is to reach out to a broader audience – by which I mean a younger, predominantly female demographic – by carrying more news about celebrities, entertainment and lifestyles. Soft journalism, latte journalism; lightweight personality stories and endless articles about fashion and food.

My fear is that in doing so, they run the risk of alienating their most loyal core of readers – who tend to be older people – without necessarily picking up enough new ones to make the exercise worthwhile. Of course I could be wrong.

Most papers have also been panicked into putting all their content onto the Net where it can be accessed free. The corollary of this, which is so obvious it hardly needs to be pointed out, is that if people can access content free on the Net, then why should they buy the paper? How long newspaper proprietors will tolerate this suicidal tactic remains to be seen. I note that Rupert Murdoch, who’s usually one or two steps ahead of the pack, is now saying it’s time the news aggregators on the Web stopped getting a free ride.

Some newspapers are holding up reasonably well. Provincial papers seem to be doing a better job of hanging on to their readers than papers in the bigger centres.

I think the reason for that is clear: no one is seriously competing with these papers in terms of local news, which is their lifeblood. The same is true of free community newspapers, which have been a growth sector in the industry. What people in smaller cities and towns most want to know is what’s happening in their own communities. These are the sectors of the media that are least threatened by the Net, because local news, parish-pump news, isn’t seen as sexy.

Now let me talk about some of the other ways in which the media industry is different from when I started.

Journalists have changed. They are younger, better educated and more earnest. They don’t drink as much and I suspect they don’t have as much fun, though they might dispute that.

Today’s typical journalist has a university degree, which was extremely rare when I started out.

Most have also acquired a specialist journalism qualification, which is more or less mandatory now, though whether that makes them better journalists is a moot point. Some of us older hands lament the fact that journalism no longer seems to have room for the mongrel – the roughie who often sneaked into journalism through the back door, but had a natural talent for writing and could sniff out a good story 10 kilometres away.

Warren Berryman, founder of the Independent, was one of those – he was a former crayfish poacher. Another was Kevin Sinclair OBE, who as a teenager was steered into a messenger’s job at the Evening Post by a kindly probation officer in the Wellington Magistrate’s Court, where Kevin was appearing on a vandalism charge. Kevin went on to become a legend in one of the more colourful outposts of English-language journalism, Hong Kong.

When I look around a newsroom these days, it seems there’s no one over 40. All the old journalists have crawled off to die somewhere.

This is not entirely a bad thing because in the old days, many newsrooms operated on a hierarchical basis largely dictated by age rather than ability. The Evening Post seemed full of grey heads when I started there.

But there’s a downside too, and that’s the loss of institutional memory. There’s a place for the crusty old sub-editor who knows what year the first Labour government was elected, and how many tests the All Blacks lost in South Africa in 1949, and who can save smart-arse younger journalists from embarrassing mistakes.

Journalists today are required to have a much broader range of skills. In my day all you needed was a notebook, a pen and a basic grasp of shorthand – a very basic grasp in my case. Those are still necessary tools but now reporters must be multiskilled.

They are trained to shoot video so they can upload it on to their newspaper’s website, and to tape interviews so that anyone reading their story in the paper and wanting to know more can access the audio. My worry is that with all this emphasis on technical skills, the ability to tell a story well – which is still at the very heart of journalism – might be downgraded.

It might be just an old curmudgeon talking, but I seem to see fewer cleverly written stories than I used to.

I’m running out of time now so I just want to skim over several remaining points.

One of the worrying trends in journalism is the increasing tendency for fact and comment to become blurred.

In political journalism in particular, fact and comment is becoming so tangled that it’s often hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. TV3 political editor Duncan Garner, in particular, insists on giving us his own spin on everything.

I contrast this with Brent Edwards, Radio New Zealand’s political editor, who has strong political views of his own but manages to keep them out of his work.

What’s happening is that the model of the journalist as passive observer is under threat. Many journalists, particularly in the political sphere, now see themselves as active players in the political process.

They see it as part of their function to make things happen. That’s not my idea of how democracy is to supposed to work. Journalists are unelected and unaccountable to anyone but their bosses; it’s a perversion of the democratic model for them to be actively influencing the political process.

We’re also seeing a gradual drift toward advocacy journalism, in which journalists push issues, take sides and get directly involved in the controversies they’re covering.

I believe it was a big mistake for John Campbell and his crew to attend the after-trial party for David Bain. It just looked too chummy for comfort.

But you can see why things like this happen: Campbell Live is in a ratings war with Close Up and they’ll doing almost anything to get a competitive advantage, even to the point of appearing to compromise their editorial integrity.

And just in case you think I’m picking on TV3, I notice when I watch Q+A on Sunday mornings that Paul Holmes isn’t content merely to ask questions. He seems to think we’re interested in knowing what he thinks about whatever issue is under examination.

Speaking of political interviews brings me back to the relationship between journalists and politicians, which has changed radically in the course of my working life.

We’re no longer deferential to people in elected office. We’re not content to accept the occasional bone thrown in our direction in the form of a press statement or formal press conference. Journalists consider it their right to accost politicians at all times and in all places and thrust a microphone in their faces.

Remarkably, politicians seem to accept this as the price of democracy. There is now an almost masochistic quality to the relationship between politicians and the media. They virtually queue up for the pleasure of being disembowelled on national television, because media coverage is the oxygen of politics.

Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. Politicians have to be made accountable to the public, and I would never suggest that journalists should kowtow to politicians the way they used to. But we seem to have swung from one extreme to another.

Now, this thing called citizen journalism. This is what some people fancifully think will replace the current journalism model in the brave new world.

The idea of citizen journalism is that anyone with a camera, a tape recorder and access to the Net can be a journalist; you actually don’t need trained professionals at all.

It’s true that in some situations, citizen journalism can be invaluable. Much of the TV footage from the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 was taken by amateurs, and the same was true of the recent riots in Tehran. But it’s a huge leap to suggest that citizen journalism can take the place of mainstream journalism.

Citizen journalism is anything-goes journalism, because its practitioners operate outside the ethical framework that professional journalists work within. There’s no obligation on citizen journalists to be even-handed or to get things right; there’s not even a company you can sue if a citizen journalist defames you.

We’ve recently seen problems created by amateurs making wild statements in the blogosphere about the Clayton Weatherston trial. Unlike properly trained journalists they don’t know the laws of contempt and probably didn’t care that they might prejudice the outcome of the trial. At best, citizen journalism is only ever going to be an adjunct – though potentially a significant adjunct – to mainstream journalism.

Now, television news: TV news once had some concern for editorial integrity but I’m afraid that in the race to win the ratings, that’s largely gone by the board. TV news is dictated by visuals; if you can’t create pictures out of it, it doesn’t make the cut. The problem is that this often hampers rather than enhances good journalism. Because everything hangs on the visuals, the cogent facts of the story often get obscured. The story is tailored to fit the images rather than vice versa.

It’s not helped by the fact that TV editors believe viewers have the concentration span of a goldfish and you risk losing them if any item runs longer than two minutes, unless it happens to be about Michael Jackson or the new GI Joe movie.

And it’s helped even less by the fact that most TV reporters these days are attractive young women who seem to have been chosen more for their looks than their ability. I thought it said everything about the prevailing values at TVNZ that when it laid off several journalists earlier this year, one of the casualties was Owen Poland – to my mind one of their most capable reporters. Sorry, Owen – too old, wrong sex.

The other thing about TV news and current affairs is that it’s often less about reporting the news than about evoking an emotional response from the viewer. Stories that ooze sentiment always get a good run and reporters are clearly briefed to tug on the viewers’ heartstrings at every opportunity. Getting people to break down in tears on screen is a surefire winner – I used to be convinced that the producer of the Holmes show got a generous bonus every time someone started weeping.

So if I could sum up what I’ve just said.

There are some very good things happening: journalism is more aggressive and fearless. We’ve got access to more information than at any previous time in human history. We can pick and choose to an extent that was unimaginable only 10 years ago. And I should also stress that here in New Zealand, we have one of the freest news media environments in the world – freer even than the United States, Britain or Australia, according to most surveys.

And the not so good things? More froth and less substance. Too much journalism focuses on conflict and personalities or goes for the cheap emotional angle. We’re doing a worse job than we used to in covering boring but important nuts-and-bolts stuff like parliamentary debates, select committee hearings and council meetings.

Journalistic objectivity is under attack by left wing academics. Newspapers are struggling and I’m not confident that the blogosphere will provide an adequate replacement. At the moment it’s a hubbub of partisan, conflicting voices.

So it’s a mixed picture: some good things, some bad. The news media are going through a period of unprecedented upheaval. It’s a work in progress, to use a cliché, and it’s too early to know how it will play out. Thank you for your attention.


Unknown said...

As a junior journalist, I found your speech very interesting. Thank you.

Could you, or anyone else, recommend blog sites that discuss issues in a way someone of a differing political persuasion could appreciate. Conservative or left.


Many blogs have a blog roll.
The No Minister blog has a decent blog roll, which also incldues my own blog.

pk said...

Great read Karl. We will know more about the future for newspapers if Murdoch actually does this
He is firming up on the earlier hints you referred to but will massive news web sites such as the BBC - paid for by the taxpayer - kill his experiment?

adamsmith1922 said...

Excellent and insightful Karl.

If you have not read it I commend Clay Shirky's essay to you

Unknown said...

Ah, the Imperial 66.

The Zephyr Mark 6 of the newsroom. It could take a heap of abuse and still function.

Unknown said...

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