Global news meltdown and Kiwi exceptionalism

I’ve just come in from the New Zealand Writers and Readers’ Festival. I was on a panel this afternoon with Rhonda Sherman of the New Yorker and Pamele Stirling, editor of The Listener. The chair was Nicola Legat and the crowd was great. I reckon about 300 people; which was more than I’d expected. So, if you were there, “thanks for coming”.

And, if you were there and you want to take up my offer for “citizen journalism” training or would like to help kick-off the “Let’s buy the Herald” coffers with a donation, get in touch.

The session was billed as the “publishing revolution”:

Want to know more about how the publishing industry works? Get the inside word on the pitfalls, peaks and politics of journalism and publishing from leaders in their field. The New Yorker’s Rhonda Sherman, New Zealand Listener editor Pamela Stirling, and AUT Associate Professor of Journalism Martin Hirst sift through the silt of the last decade, and look ahead to the impact of the global economic melt-down and digital age on publishing in the next. Chair: Random House Publisher Nicola Legat. [Progamme note]

Really, given there was a panel of four journalists, it was about the future of the news industry, particularly newspapers and magazines, and therefore, also the future of journalism.

Rhonda started us off by suggesting that the news industry is dead and we should bury it and” remarry”. But then she also told us that the New Yorker is actually doing very well, it is well-supported by subscribers and is actually making money.

Pamela told a similar story about The Listener. It continues to be reasonably profitable and to promote good journalism, not “churnalism”.

While the New Yorker is doing OK, Rhonda reckons that the US magazine industry is actually also in decline. In fact, things are so bad in the US that the Senate has launched an inquiry into the future of American newspapers.

“What happens when our watchdog grows mute and can no longer bark, when newspapers slice their staff and slash their news operations?” asked Democratic West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate commerce committee. “What happens is that we all suffer.”

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic party’s 2004 presidential nominee, opened the hearing with a dire recitation of the American news business’s troubles: venerable newspapers shuttered, circulation figures, stock values and earnings decimated. He said that paper and ink have become obsolete as a way to transmit media.

“Today, newspapers look like an endangered species,” Kerry said.

He and others wondered aloud whether “citizen journalists”, bloggers and others would be able to produce high-quality journalism with the ethical values and practices of professional news gatherers. [The Guardian]

The situation in the US is so dire, it seems, that one Democrat has launched a bill to give newspapers a tax exempt status on the grounds of their educational function. The idea, according to Senator Ben Cardin, is to fund the sort of journalism that is vital to democracy.

The CEO of the Dallas Morning Post was effectively calling for a bail-out of the American newspaper industry in his testimony:

Moroney Senate Testimony

Senate Testimony - James Moroney click through to full statement

Well, it looks like a bail-out of sorts. Another newspaper executive also called for a lifting of a ban on cross-media ownership. In other words, that the newspaper and broadcast media industries be allowed to own each other and thus increase the oligopoly control over news media. Not a very enlightening view and one opposed by groups like Free Press which campaign for more media democracy, not less…

The Senate committee held a series of hearings, but we may hear more from them if things don’t improve. Chairman Rockefeller’s statement opening the hearing really sums it up: “The future of journalism is digital”.

However, according to a working journalist who gave evidence, American investigative journalism is dying. David Simon thinks that the internet is a parasite, leeching off journalism in newspapers.

David Simon Testimony

David Simon Testimony

Well, it couldn’t happen here, could it? Who knows, if things get bad enough, maybe. But I can’t see how a National government will want to sink public money into newspapers, as is being suggested in the USA. Pamela Stirling did not think that the situation is as bad in New Zealand and, on the surface, it doesnt look like it is.

Pamela  also talked about a news feature in the May 8th edition, “Riders on the storm” by Ruth Laugesen. Pam’s main argument, which echoed the Laugesen piece, was to make a case for Kiwi exceptionalism.

What she meant by this is that, to some degree, the New Zealand news media, are shielded from the global meltdown that is seeing large city papers in the USA (and other places) either disappearing – what the Americans call “shuttered” and what we might call, less euphemistically “closed down” – or reducing their print footprint to only three or four days a week, or, as in the case of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, going into online-only mode.

I disagree with Pam to some extent. I don’t think New Zealand is exempt and for senior managers in the news industry to say that there is an exception here is, in my view, sticking your head in the sand.
In the two-and-a-half years I’ve been in New Zealand, all major media organisations have cut staff and budgets. There have been redundancies in all areas of journalism and editing. Major functions, such as sub-editing, have been centralised and just last week the Fairfax magazine group announced it was unilaterally cutting freelancer rates by 15 per cent.

It seems to me that the crisis is here and to deny it is to set up for a major shock. Denial also makes it harder to deal with it.
There’s a lot more to say about this, but not tonight.

5 Responses to Global news meltdown and Kiwi exceptionalism

  1. Truth Seeker says:

    The other issue probably not addressed is credibility. I no longer subscribe to The Listener because under Pamela Stirling’s leadership that magazine is now toeing the same right wing toed by the rest of the Fairfax media in New Zealand. Similarly, the NZ Herald’s overt campaining for a National party victory in last year’s elections hugely devalued their product and now I rarely buy it. I suspect this breech of faith in the Bush years has cost many media outlets dearly in the US. Those who cheerlead the Bush error-fest forced many to look to the Internet for an alternative narrative. Others just stopped buying newspapers. Why pay for propaganda? Maybe it isn’t that people won’t buy newspapers they trust. They won’t buy newspapers they don’t trust. From Enron to Iraq to the debt bubble implosion, most of the media “experts” were found not just wanting but negligent and maybe even complicit.

  2. Take heart, as I have and we all need to, from this. The Economist reports on the rebirth of the news business.

  3. Josh says:

    Missed the publishing talk, but what’s this about citizen journalism training – sounds good.

  4. Peter H says:

    Pamela told a similar story about The Listener. It continues to … promote good journalism, not “churnalism”.

    And she said this with a straight face?
    Well she would, wouldn’t she?

  5. nih says:

    When you said “Let’s buy the herald”, you left off “a spelling checker”.

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