Friday, September 3, 2010

We know less about ourselves than we did

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 1.)

Five years ago, something happened that radically changed the way New Zealanders get their news.

The circumstances in which this occurred provide an interesting case study of a long-established New Zealand industry being forced, in the face of intense competition between new Australian owners, to change the way it operated. The outcome, I believe, is a less informed populace.

Let me explain. For 125 years, until January 1 2006, newspapers throughout the country pooled and exchanged news under a co-operative arrangement operated by the New Zealand Press Association.

Member newspapers from Whangarei to Invercargill supplied news from their own regions to NZPA and those news stories that were deemed newsworthy enough to circulate nationally would then be distributed to all other member papers.

NZPA was collectively owned by the member newspapers and each paper paid an annual subscription based on its circulation figures. It was a system that enabled a newspaper reader in Nelson to read about a murder trial in Timaru, a fatal accident in Tolaga Bay or a rowdy debate in Parliament.

Technological advances aside, NZPA had functioned essentially unchanged since 1880, when the introduction of the telegraph first made it possible for news to be distributed around the country almost instantaneously.

Many historians credit the Wellington-based news agency with helping foster a sense of nationhood and national identity because it enabled New Zealanders to be informed of events beyond their own regions and communities. At its peak, in 1917, 74 member newspapers took the NZPA service.

Commercial tensions between rival newspaper companies occasionally arose around the NZPA board table but the principle of exchanging news was never seriously questioned. One reason was that until the 1960s, there was little direct competition between newspapers. Each region had one dominant morning or afternoon newspaper – most of them independent and family-owned – and competition existed only on the periphery of each paper’s circulation area. So newspapers could generally afford to be magnanimous about sharing.

Even when the industry began to consolidate from the 1960s onwards – a period that saw most provincial newspapers (including the two in which this column is published) absorbed by two major companies – there remained a strong commitment to the co-operative arrangements underpinning NZPA.

The men who ran the two dominant newspaper groups, Wellington-based INL and Auckland-based Wilson and Horton, understood the importance of NZPA in the life of the country and were generally prepared to set aside their commercial rivalry where the interests of NZPA were concerned.

Mike Robson, effectively the last chief executive of INL and an influential industry figure, was himself a former NZPA foreign correspondent with a keen appreciation of the crucial role the agency played in informing New Zealanders. His sudden death in 2000 took out a key player who could almost certainly have been counted on to defend NZPA’s traditional method of operation.

Everything changed, however, when both newspaper groups were acquired by new owners – INL by the Australian Fairfax group and Wilson and Horton (publishers of the New Zealand Herald) by APN, an Australian company ultimately controlled by Irish magnate Sir Tony O’Reilly.

Bitter rivals on their home turf, the Australians found themselves sitting around the same boardroom table at NZPA, which they now controlled. The idea of sharing news was alien to them, and it wasn’t long before competitive tension threatened to tear NZPA apart.

Matters came to a head when APN challenged Fairfax’s monopoly in the Sunday newspaper market by launching the Herald on Sunday. Fairfax not only refused to supply news through NZPA to the new paper but threatened to withdraw from the agency altogether, which would have meant its collapse.

The choice facing NZPA was stark: restructure or die. What emerged was a compromise plan whereby the agency abandoned its traditional co-operative arrangement in favour of a strictly commercial model. Rather than being fed news by 26 daily papers scattered around the country, NZPA would employ its own staff and generate its own stories, much as news agencies in other countries do.

The result of that change, as detailed in a master’s degree thesis by former New Zealand Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis, was that NZPA went from effectively having hundreds of reporters around the country to being reliant on its own 44 staff – mostly based in Wellington – and a network of part-time correspondents or “stringers” in the regions.

What this meant in real terms was a sharp reduction in the availability of “non-local” news in our newspapers. In many papers the NZPA content halved.

Much of what people now read in their daily paper is either from their own region or from the major metropolitan centres (Wellington and Auckland), where NZPA’s limited news-gathering resources are concentrated.

Fairfax-owned papers share news among themselves, which means their readers have access to news from other cities where the local paper happens to be part of the Fairfax group. But areas where APN papers hold sway are “black holes” in terms of the availability of news to readers of Fairfax papers, and vice-versa. In other words, the universality of coverage provided by the old NZPA no longer exists.

NZPA’s distribution of news from the regions has dwindled to a mere trickle compared with the agency’s heyday, when in a typical year NZPA would dispatch as many as 40,000 news items. Provincial papers have felt this decline most acutely because they relied more heavily on NZPA than the larger metropolitan papers, which have big reporting staffs of their own.

What this all boils down to is that we know less about ourselves. As Ellis puts it, the information flows that help New Zealanders build and maintain a collective picture of themselves have been impaired.

Television and radio, with the notable exception of Radio New Zealand, have done nothing to fill the vacuum. Regional news coverage by television and commercial radio is negligible other than when major stories break, such as the search for little Lucas Ward in Gisborne or the recent spate of deaths in Feilding.

Ellis also noted that “inadequate coverage of a region has the potential to diminish that region’s sense of its own importance and relevance”. To put it more bluntly, some provincial towns and cities risk becoming invisible to the rest of the country.

NZPA has survived, but only as a shadow of its former self. It’s ironic that this profound change has happened with very little public awareness and even less debate, but reporting on itself has never been one of the newspaper industry’s strengths.


The probligo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The probligo said...

Your commendation of the OneNews presentation of the Chch earthquake is most warranted - and I say that as a more or less permanent watcher of TV3 news. Last night the latter made a desperate attempt to right the balance but I have to say that JC was not up to the job - he has gone too far, irretrievably, into the world of magazine journalism. Mike McRoberts was little better - the old vox-pop "human interest" well to the fore.

But I would go one step further in fact.

To what extent has our knowledge of the world and world events been affected by the loss of true investigative journalism, by the loss of truly objective analysis and criticism, and by the politicisation of presentation.

My favourite hobby-horse in this particular area used to be the "general release news video" (there was an acronym for it but it passes my failed memory) produced by the "presented" and shown as news without disclosure of the true source. It is now such a predominant force in the news (generally) that I have given up.

And it is that point where I believe the reason for "knowing less of ourselves" starts. I think that in NZ it goes back as far as Muldoon, at least that far back. Evidence? Remember Muldoon's refusal to attend his own weekly press conference until "that man" (Tom Scott as I recall) was removed?

In addition to the unattributed video, I have a strong and uneasy feeling that much of what is "news" in the print media (including the NZPA feeds) is little more than the direct quotation of prepared press releases.

Peter Calder said...

Old curmudgeons such as you and I aren't above the odd slip of the typing fingers I see.
Commercial tensions between rival newspaper companies occasionally arose around the NZPA board table but the principal of exchanging news was never seriously questioned.

Karl du Fresne said...

Aaargh! Well spotted. You're not a retired sub-editor, by any chance? I'll correct it this instant.