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”.


Mark Hubbard said...

Congratulations, anyway, Karl. I've been reading you for some good number of those 50 years that I don't care to dwell on, and have always enjoyed having your viewpoint out there to balance the continuing progressivisation and trivialisation of print.

hilary531 said...

Yes, ditto on the congrats. I am a keen seeker-outer of 'opinion' pieces these days, perhaps because I'm retired. You are on the 'favourites' bar along with a catholic mixture of others.I still subscribe to a daily (The Press) but digital Mon-Fri. You provide here a good historical perspective and explain why the pieces I most read in the dailies are by 'older' journos. Thank god for the Listener too! Keep on keeping on...

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you both. Much appreciated.

kim knight said...

Hi Karl, I just wanted to check I had interpreted you correctly - lifestyle-oriented content (food, fashion, health, interior design, personal finances, travel and entertainment) is feminine, and "hard" news (political debate, court coverage, etc) is, by default "masculine"? Why would you say that?

Karl du Fresne said...

I would never suggest that what I call "hard news" is exclusively of interest or importance to blokes. What I would say is that all that other stuff (food, fashion, health, makeup etc) is mostly read by, and intended for, women - and generally younger women, who are not traditionally big newspaper readers.

Hill Cone said...

I enjoy your writing Karl and appreciated this piece and share your sense of grief over the loss of the industry I joined so many years ago. But I am not sure about what you say about the "feminisation" of news content.

Some writing on so-called "female" topics is first rate (The Washington Post's fashion writer Robin Givhan won a Pulitzer) and some is crap.

Ken Sparks said...

There is plenty of good, incisive print journalism available today from the likes of Newsroom, Scoop and the Spinoff. Admittedly you need an internet connection to access it but otherwise (for now) it’s free. The mainstream newspapers have little of interest for me apart from columns by well informed journalists like Rachel Stewart and Rod Oram and I also look forward to Simon Wilson’s contributions to the Herald.

Karl du Fresne said...

I'm very happy for you, Ken.

hilary531 said...

Re. the 'feminisation' a femme I skim the light stuff & drill down into the 'hard' stuff. It's meat on the bones I want & by age 60 I have sorted out who is going to give that too me on the local scene, with nuance, depth & style...if you get humour too it's always a plus. Trucking an ideology is alright too as long as those other elements are there and 'dog-whistle' glibness absent. I can always be persuaded but have zero interest in being bullied, hectored or patronised. That's why I read you, karl.

Ms.Evolving said...

What about the resources diverted away from hard news to a “soft” subject like motoring? Does the sports section regularly comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, or add to the public discourse?

Karl du Fresne said...

Fair point. But I don't agree that the function of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That's a glib and highly politicised interpretation of the media's role which has been energetically promoted by left-leaning academics. The comfortable may well be afflicted and the afflicted comforted as a consequence of what the press does, but that's not its function.

Ms.Evolving said...

Whatever your definition of what hard news does, I argue that resources have been diverted away from hard news to subjects people do/watch for fun (sports, motoring, travel, TV, theatre) long before newspapers took the likes and dislikes of 100% of their audience into account. In this day of click rates, if high numbers men and/or women wished to read hard news over “fun” subjects, the resources would be reallocated.

Karl du Fresne said...

"Click rates". You've just put your finger on a big part of the problem.

Ms.Evolving said...

I’d theorise the issue is that towards the end of last century, Kiwis starting working both longer hours and more productively - and two incomes became necessary to meet the basic necessities of a family (so you have yet more work, housework, when you get home). Thus the average person has far less mental room to spend on demanding news (hard) and prefers undemanding content (entertainment, motoring, sports). But until someone looks at countries’ work-life balance and news reading habits, just a theory!

Robert Boyd-Bell said...

It's a bit lees than 50 years since I first joined the NZBC and followed my uncle Charles Boyd-Bell into the world of journalism. I have never regretted it despite all the changes in ownership and delivery. I don't buy a printed paper today and largely don't watch TVNZ. But I read the ODT every day as well as the New York Times, The Guardian and others - even Karl duFresne despite disagreeing with many of his views. Good piece here for a Wellington Karl.Personally I still love Auckland as the biggest city in NZ and the most diverse population with more languages than any other city in the world. Pity Wellington stole parliament away from us - but the population pressure will win in the end
Robert Boyd-Bell

Jim Kayes said...

Gidday Karl, enjoyed the piece and wanted to say thanks for the advice and guidance you gave this then green reporter a few decades ago at the Evening Post. Like you, journalism has been a wonderful career for me, taking me to many places and allowing me to meet fascinating people and tell their stories. Take care. Jim Kayes

Karl du Fresne said...

Good to hear from you, Robert. Your uncle Charles (or Charlie, as we knew him) was on the subs' desk at the Dominion when I joined it in 1969. I hasten to add that he wasn't the sub who threatened to kick my arse - that was the legendary Black Jack McKinnon.

Karl du Fresne said...

Lovely to hear from you too Jim, though I'm sure you must be confusing me with someone else when you thank me for my advice and guidance. No idea what you're up to now, but I always enjoyed working with you and I wish you well. - Karl

David said...

Nice reflection Karl.

While seeing The Post at the weekend, it occurred to me there really was a golden age of journalism, and that I while I had come into it towards its end, I still had the privilege of being part of it. I wrote this as a result of my own reflections:

As for the feminisation of journalism, I have thoroughly enjoyed that. It has changed much of the face of journalism world-wide, for the better IMO. However, I was hissed when I made a research-based presentation to a Skeptics Society conference, linking the growth of uncritical articles about "alternative medicine," anti-vaccination campaigns and "miracle cures" to the high penetration of young women in journalism -- these were simply subjects of little interest to the grumpy men who dominated newsrooms when I started. Myself, I specialised in articles debunking such nonsense.

Phil O'Brien said...

A terrific piece Karl. My dad would certainly have agreed.

Karl du Fresne said...

Cheers Phil. For the benefit of those who don't know, Phil's father, Brian O'Brien, was a distinguished Wellington sports journalist who started his career on the Evening Post and edited Sports Digest for three decades.

David said...

Jesus wept, Karl, have you checked out the Kiwi Journalists Association FB group? They are shitting all over you there. Even Camp Mother, Diana Clement, is there spewing her hate against white males of the wrong side of her bell curve. She even has a chart to show how useless people like you are!

Talk about a place where viewpoints to the right of the gulag aren't welcome. I only keep following it to remind myself how much many of our colleagues support freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Not.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks for the tip, David, but I don't go near the KJA Facebook page for exactly the reasons you so eloquently set out.

jim irvine said...

Interesting reflections Karl. One small point...W and H was taken over by Tony O'Reillys (Irish based) group which seemed to have more interest in baked beans and roadside hoardings than journalism. The Australian connection was only through his separate APN interest, One of the bean counters who came across the ditch as a hatchet man tried to impress upon W n H execs after takeover that we had to have more focus on what he described as not quite Page 3 girls...but the message was clear. You can see the soft sex sell almost every day.
But feminisation? I would describe it more as a combination of dumbing down and the erosion of the line between opinion and fact.
O'Reilly overstretched himself in classic Brierley fashion, which is ironic given that Michael Horton saw him as the white knight against a Brierley threat. In retrospect Brierleys might have been a more journalistically sympathetic option.
The figures speak for themselves...what was once a top 10 NZ company trading at $10 a share is now at 80c or so . Granny may have morphed into a teenage flake and the country has lost a voice of grandparently authority.

jim irvine said...

An afterthought... we are blessed that there are still a small few old schoolers writing columns in the Herald which aren't driven by agendas or political biases.