As the world awaits the supposedly inevitable collapse of the "dinosaur" newspaper industry, here’s something to ponder.
If newspapers die, other news media will be left floundering. Where will they get their stories?
Notwithstanding the cutbacks made by newspapers, they are still by far the most industrious and prolific breakers of news. Day after day, news editors in television and radio pounce on the morning paper for ideas. TV and radio piggyback on the print media to such an extent that their bulletins would look very anaemic if they no longer had newspaper stories to chase up.
Take TV3’s 6pm news bulletin last night (Thursday). The lead item was Michael Laws’ squabble with a group of Otaki schoolgirls over the spelling of Wanganui, a story broken by the Dominion Post. Later came a human interest item about a teenager in the Waikato who had unearthed the remains of warplanes buried at the end of the Second World War – another story lifted from the Wellington paper.
Campbell Live followed up two newspaper stories: one from the New Zealand Herald about a North Shore octogenarian who had been told to vacate a Navy-administered piece of land where she had spent 16 years planting native trees, and the other from the Dom Post about a Muslim woman who was barred from Hastings District Court for wearing a headscarf.
I don’t make a point of monitoring these things systematically but my impression is that this was a fairly typical night. And I’m not picking on TV3; One News is equally dependent on the print media for story ideas.
Radio does it all the time too – even Radio New Zealand, though it has a comprehensive news-gathering operation of its own. I noticed this morning that RNZ’s nine o’clock bulletin had a new lead item about off-duty police officers being charged with assault. Since this story suddenly popped up out of nowhere, I assumed it had been taken from today’s Herald – and so it turned out.
There’s nothing improper in this. News organisations have always felt free to plunder and plagiarise each other, usually without giving credit to the source. But the flow of ideas is overwhelmingly one way, from print to electronic media.
Television, in particular, is journalism’s equivalent of a carrion eater, swooping on road kill left behind by print reporters.
The reason TV and radio are so heavily dependent on the print media to unearth stories is that newspapers, even in today’s straitened times, still have the greatest number of reporters out there “on the ground”.
Newspapers also invest more resources in investigative reporting, which is why the most spectacular “exclusives” of recent years (did anyone mention Louise Nicholas, Donna Awatere-Huata or Tony Veitch, all Dominion Post stories?) have been broken by the print media. All the above stories generated a running feast of sensational items for TV and radio bulletins. Was the Dom Post paid a royalty each time? Of course not. That’s not how it works.
TV current affairs programmes do some excellent investigative work too; TV3’s exposure of serial Christchurch sex abuser Dr Morgan Fahey comes to mind, and there are others. But the scorecard is heavily in favour of print. A methodical study would show that TV reporters spend a far higher proportion of their time on follow-up stories than those employed by newspapers.
Newspapers do the legwork and then the TV crews turn up in their big station wagons and rehash the stories, dressing them up with visuals, for the six o’clock news. It’s a form of freeloading, but it’s been going on for decades and there’s probably not much newspapers can do about it.
What makes things different now is that newspapers are under unprecedented economic pressure. Not only has advertising, the main source of newspaper revenue, migrated to the Net, but news junkies are greedily gorging themselves online without having to buy a paper or give any thought to where all this news is coming from and who’s paying for it.
As newspapers retrench in response to these pressures, it’s possible that the flow of news that has sustained downstream feeders such as TV and radio for so long will start to dry up. It may be happening already.
All this helps put into perspective Rupert Murdoch’s increasing irritation at the amount of free news available on the Net, and his determination that people should start paying for it. Murdoch is right when he says good journalism is expensive, even if not everyone agrees with his definition of “good” journalism.
It also helps explain why Murdoch’s son and heir apparent, James, is gunning for the BBC’s expanding news empire. “Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet,” Murdoch Jr said in a speech last week. “Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.”
I’ve seen no suggestion that newspaper proprietors are looking at ways of making their electronic rivals pay for the stories they rip off, and I’d be surprised if it happened. But I bet they grit their teeth as never before when they see other media feeding off stories that they have spent a lot of money, and sometimes taken a lot of risks, to break.