Saturday, November 1, 2014

Not everyone wants the news in "real time"

(First published in The Dominion Post, October 31.)
I ALWAYS make a point of reading Mike O’Donnell’s contributions in the Saturday business pages of the Dominion Post. He’s an entertaining columnist who shatters the peculiar conceit that the only people capable of writing well are those who do it for a living.
He’s smart, witty, perceptive and well-informed. You can see why he’s highly regarded in the business and digital technology worlds where he made his name.

Even more appealing is that he seems an unpretentious bloke with an enthusiasm for cars, motorbikes and shooting, which makes his columns all the more readable.  
Until earlier this year, O’Donnell was the chief operating officer for TradeMe. He now heads a new $5.3 million project set up to market New Zealand public sector intellectual property to other governments.

I translate that as meaning, in essence, that his job is to persuade other countries to pay for the right to copy clever ways of doing things that have been pioneered by our public sector – a position for which he seems admirably suited.
Given my respect for him, you can probably understand my reluctance to challenge him, least of all on an issue where he’s regarded as an authority. But I balked at his column last Saturday in which he speculated about the impact of social media on journalism.

O’Donnell suggests that by the time of the next general election, social media may have rendered the evening television news bulletin extinct. His theory seems to be that consumers of news (a ghastly phrase) will no longer be prepared to wait until 6pm for their fix, but will update themselves constantly throughout the day by accessing news on their smartphones and tablets.
People have the capability to do that now. But do the vast number who still get their news from newspapers, TV and radio really have such a voracious appetite for information that in future they will demand it in (to use another ghastly phrase) “real time”?

I somehow doubt it, and I wonder whether people like O’Donnell have been misled by their own enthusiasm for the digital revolution and their missionary desire to promote its assumed benefits.
O’Donnell is certainly correct when he says that digital media – Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and online news services such as Stuff – have changed the way journalists operate.

Reporters no longer write only to fill the morning paper or the 6 pm bulletin; they’re constantly updating stories or breaking news online. Competition to be first is more intense than ever. But in a sense, it’s artificial competition.
There may be prestige and status to be gained (and bosses to be impressed) by being the first journalist to break a story on Twitter, but does it really matter to anyone besides other journalists, politicians and a minority of tragic news junkies?

Again, I doubt it. Once something has happened, it’s happened – and I suspect that to most people, it doesn’t really matter whether they learn of it instantaneously or wait for tonight’s TV bulletin or tomorrow morning’s Dom Post. 
Not everyone is so obsessed with politics or news in general that they feel compelled to constantly check Twitter, Stuff or Cameron Slater’s latest blog post.

People who are so obsessed – and O’Donnell may or may not be one of them – could easily fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else is, too. But most people I know, and they represent a reasonably wide demographic cross-section, seem to have a healthy grip on life’s priorities and manage perfectly well without getting hung up on Twitter or any other online news outlet.
If they are on Twitter at all (and I know few people who are, or at least who are prepared to admit it), then it takes its place along with all the other things going on their lives. It doesn’t occupy their every waking thought.

And thank God for that, because what sort of world would it be if police officers, bus drivers, construction workers, shop assistants, schoolteachers, forestry workers, nurses, farmers and plumbers constantly interrupted whatever they were doing to look at their digital devices for fear they might have missed something?
Call me a Luddite, but I think it still suits a lot of people to get their news from the 6 pm bulletin, the morning paper or Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. Trouble is, the noise from those predicting the end of the traditional media often drowns out everyone else.


Brendan McNeill said...

Unfortunately the tabloidization of the 6:00pm news and subsequent 7:00pm ‘slots’, has made it almost unwatchable. Conflicts are shown without context, and the desire to entertain trumps the need to inform.

It may still be watched by many Kiwis based upon its historical ‘pull’ but I dare say that few people who are interested in news go their TV stations at 6:00pm expecting to find it.

Tinman said...

I would be seriously concerned if anyone at all gets their news from radioNZ's morning report or television's 6 O'Clock bulletin.

What is produced has only the fact that the reports come from North, East, West and South (and invariably left) to justify the title "news".

I suspect it is mainly the convenience of sitting down in front of the television to eat dinner at a regular time that keeps viewer percentages above single digits for television "news".

John Spavin said...

Were I looking to where news and advertising dollars were heading over the next 5 years, the last person I'd take advice from, with all due respect, is a newspaper man. Newspapers sleepwalked to financial ruin as geeks invented the internet and stole newspapers' lunch. In the US it was Craig's List and here, Trademe, while newspapers looked on uncomprehendingly as their classifieds walked out the door.The Dominion didn't go online for heaven's sake till nearly 10 years after the web was invented. "what's this new-fangled interwebs thingy? It'll never take off. Let's ignore it". For an idea of where TV audiences are heading, Google something like, "Why are TV ratings dying?" and see the millions fewer viewers that the US networks and cable channels suffer year-on-year. 3-years may be too early for their complete demise but I won't be reading any newspaper predictions to find out when - I'd trust a former Trademe employee every time. And as for the hopeless bunch still trying to foist a BBC look-alike channel on New Zealand, God help us; they are well meaning but utterly clueless.

Mat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mat said...

Hi Karl I hope this message find you in cheerful spirits.

In 1979 W.P. Reeves wrote an article on the Māori Gang Phenomenon. I found the article whilst on a research drive to write a history of the Black Power and the Mongrel Mob.

I googled his name and your blog on his comments about Rupert Murdoch arose in the search. So I read through the blog and I was surprised to find that you knew this man personally.

The impressions I have of his article 25 years ago is that I find it strange that this man's insight was so striking to the point where a lot of his observations still ring true today. I am eager to have a conversation with him about this article and his thoughts if he has the time.

Might you have a contact address for a letter I might send to him?

Many thanks,

Mat Mullany

Karl du Fresne said...

Bill Reeves died in 2009. I wrote a tribute to him here:

Karl du Fresne said...

My column wasn't about the quality of TV news, or of newspapers and radio for that matter. I think we probably all agree that there has been a huge deterioration in the quality and breadth of mainstream news coverage. In the case of newspapers, this has partly come about because papers diverted resources to their unprofitable digital platforms, thereby effectively cannibalising their print products.
Obviously they couldn't ignore the digital revolution, but I believe they made a fatal strategic error by allowing themselves to be panicked into making content available free of charge online and even directing readers to their websites - effectively saying, "Why bother to buy the paper anymore? You can read it free online."
Am I biased? Probably no more than Mike O'D, who is a cheerleader for the digital revolution and who I believe overstates its reach and influence - as many do.

Mat said...


Ngā mihi nui ki a koe. I appreciate your guidance. When I reflect on the blog impressions you gave of this man, you honor him with your kōrero.

To my way of thinking, he was a man in many respects ahead of his time - a genius of sorts.

Thank you for your response.

Go well,