Wednesday, January 24, 2018

50 years as a print hack

This week marks a significant anniversary for me. Fifty years ago on Monday, I began my career in journalism.

Looking back, it seems like it was a different century. Oh, that’s right, it was.

Three of us started together in the reading room of the old Evening Post in Wellington. I’m the only one still in journalism. The others dropped out decades ago.

The reading room was where everything printed in the paper – classified ads and all – was checked prior to publication for typographical errors, misspellings and other potential embarrassments.

I was a copyholder, the most menial job in journalism. It was mind-numbingly tedious work, and poorly paid at $21 a week (unless you worked extra hours  on Saturdays for the Sports Post, in which case you earned the giddy sum of $23), but it was the first step on the career ladder.

All three of us who started that day were male and straight out of secondary school. There were women in journalism then, but they were very much in the minority.

Frances Kitching, now known as Dame Fran Wilde, was one of a handful of young women in the general reporting room. She covered the Magistrate’s Court, but most female recruits were assigned to the journalistic ghetto known as the women’s pages.

Of course the gender balance has largely been reversed since then – just one of the many changes in journalism since I reported for work in the rabbit warren that was the Blundell Brothers' Evening Post building (actually three buildings, linked by a maze of corridors and walkways) on January 22, 1968.

Another change is that no one now goes straight into journalism from school and learns on the job. From the late 1960s onward, the training of journalists was gradually taken over by tertiary education institutes and universities.

I lament this. Admittedly the old system wasn’t perfect; training was haphazard and we were largely left to learn from our mistakes. (As a green cadet reporter, by then working for The Dominion, I remember a notoriously cantankerous sub-editor bellowing at me, for all the newsroom to hear, that if I didn’t learn to spell “accommodation” by the following day, he would stand me on the subs’ desk and kick my fucking arse.) But overall, it worked.

And notwithstanding all the talk now about diversity in newsrooms, the old off-the-street entry model attracted recruits with a wide range of backgrounds and life experience. Many came from working-class or lower middle-class homes. They had never been near a university and probably wouldn’t have entered journalism had they been required to study for a year beforehand.

What’s more, the system, such as it was, allowed them to develop their own individual and sometimes idiosyncratic styles – far more so than today’s academic assembly line, which tends to produce bland, cookie-cutter journalism, mostly devoid of wit or story-telling skill.

And here’s another concern about the academic takeover of journalism training. There are still journalism tutors with solid newsroom experience. Some of it was acquired so long ago that over time, they have morphed into academics. But of far greater concern are those who come from an academic background, and whose view of journalism is rooted in theory – sometimes overtly neo-Marxist theory – rather than practice.

Many of the latter type inculcate their impressionable students with the idea that the purpose of journalism is to change the world. It’s not. The purpose of journalism is simply to tell people, as objectively and even-handedly as possible, what’s happening in their world. What people choose to do with that information is over to them. 

That was the understanding implanted in previous generations of journalists, and transgressors were quickly pulled into line. Journalists who privately held strongly left-wing views, as many did, were conscientious about not allowing personal opinions to influence their work.

It all seems quaintly old-fashioned now. While many of today’s journalism graduates go out into the working world with frighteningly skimpy knowledge of history, geography, science and the English language (supposedly their stock in trade), they are exquisitely schooled in matters of class, race, sexism and inequality. One word they can all be relied on to spell correctly is “inappropriate”.

The politicisation of journalism training is just one of several adverse trends to have influenced the profession in my lifetime. Another was the takeover of our two biggest newspaper groups by Australian interests.

The Australians who acquired what were previously Wilson and Horton (owners of the New Zealand Herald group) and Independent Newspapers Ltd (publishers of The Dominion, The Evening Post, The Press and others) didn’t understand New Zealand, probably didn’t want to, and had little interest beyond making money. They had no emotional stake in the country and therefore little incentive or commitment to protect the New Zealand newspaper industry when the digital revolution kicked in and the going got tough.

Early evidence of their inability to understand this country, and their disdain for our way of doing things, came with their dismantling of the old New Zealand Press Association – an act of corporate vandalism that unravelled decades of news sharing by papers around the country. Under the NZPA arrangements, someone in in Tauranga or Invercargill could read about events of significance in Nelson or New Plymouth. We know far less about ourselves as a result of its demise.

I’m going to stick my neck out now and suggest that New Zealand journalism has also been damaged by feminisation. I hasten to emphasise that I’m not arguing, and would never argue, that women are not good for journalism. I have been fortunate to work with innumerable talented and sometimes formidable female journalists. I won’t name names because if I started, I wouldn’t know where to stop.

What I’m referring to is the feminisation of newspaper content. Pages once devoted to news of substance – so-called “hard news” and journal-of-record stories about parliamentary debates, court cases, council meetings and suchlike – are now filled with “soft”, lifestyle-oriented content: food, fashion, health, interior design, personal finances, travel and entertainment. I can’t imagine that the distinguished women journalists I’ve worked with would be any happier about this trend than I am.

But of course the most damaging development of all has been the devastation inflicted on the print  media as a result of the digital revolution. Tragically, newspaper owners have been complicit in this process. Panicked into joining the online revolution, they diverted precious resources from print and thus made inevitable the decline of their most valuable assets. In the process they brutally shed many of their most talented and experienced people, plugging the holes with younger, cheaper and (dare I say it) more compliant staff whose editorial judgment was often suspect.

I have sometimes asked myself whether the people who controlled the industry in the 20th century – distinguished New Zealand newspapermen such as Mike Robson of INL and Michael Horton of Wilson and Horton – would have succumbed so easily. I don’t believe they would have.  Cautious and conservative they may have been, but they had ink in their veins and would have regarded newspapers as worth fighting for. It’s no coincidence that the paper which most successfully weathered the ravages of the Internet era, the Otago Daily Times, is one that remained in New Zealand hands and under the control of an old-school proprietor.

To an old print hack like me, the devastation of the New Zealand media over the past 10 years has been heartbreaking. I console myself with the knowledge that I lived through what I now see as a golden age of New Zealand journalism – an era when newspapers were not only prosperous and well-resourced, but willing to challenge authority, to dig up stories that powerful people would have preferred to remain safely buried, and when necessary to spend lots of money defending their right and duty to do so. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the 1980s and 90s were a high-water mark for gutsy, risk-taking journalism, most of it done by newspapers.

For me, journalism has been a good career. I have met interesting people, been to fascinating places and witnessed events that most people don’t get to see. I have also worked with some unforgettably colourful characters, the like of whom will probably never again be seen in newsrooms, and made lifelong friends.

I didn’t get rich. No one in New Zealand ever became wealthy from journalism, although for some people it served as a springboard into other activities – notably public relations – that enabled them to buy flash cars and big houses in fashionable suburbs.

Would I recommend a career in journalism now? Sadly, no.

Footnote: In a past life I was editor and news editor of The Dominion and assistant editor of The Evening Post. I have worked on daily and Sunday papers in Australia, spent several years as a staff writer at the New Zealand Listener, and still cherish the memory of four happy years as news editor at what was then the Nelson Evening Mail (now simply the Nelson Mail). I have worked as a freelance journalist since 2002 and know how to spell “accommodation”.

No comments: