Saturday, August 11, 2007

Journalism Matters: Saturday Morning

This weekend I'm attending the Journalism Matters conference in Wellington. The conference brings together journalists, academics, journalism educators and corporate representatives, and was organised by the EPMU to debate the state of New Zealand's news media and what can be done to improve it". Here's a rundown of the first session. As usual, any errors are due to my poor memory and worse handwriting.

Disclosure: I was invited to cover the conference by the EPMU. I have no idea how much, if anything, it cost to attend.

Dr Judy Macgregor (former journalist and academic, now EEO Commissioner) was the first real speaker. She stole a slogan from Amnesty International and argued that journalists needed to Make Some Noise in defence of their profession and its role in the democratic system. She thought that journalism faced challenges from technology, demography, and the market. On the technology front, the internet now means that "every woman and her dog can say whatever they want without fear of repercussion" and had led to the rise of a "me-media", some of which "are not profitable, or even sensible". She saw this as a threat to the quality of published news. At the same time, there was also an ethical challenge from journalists with their own blogs. However, she thought that whatever the technology, the journalist's central skill of filtering and judging information was still needed.

Demographically, everyone talks about "disinterested youth" who don't read newspapers, but she pointed out that there is a mismatch between what a young audience wants and what is actually published. She asked whether an editorial board of young people would really reserve 2 pages of each paper for stock market news, 2 for racing, and publish only 10 letters to the editor (while telling another 50 that their points had been noted). The obvious answer is "no". Obviously, if the media want young people to pay attention, they need to do more to appeal to that audience, by publishing relevant information. She also felt that there was a problem with most journalists (and journalism students) being Pakeha, and that this unrepresentative composition had resulted in Maori news being bad news (in the sense that Maori seem to only be mentioned in the context of crime). The same also seems to be happening to Asian New Zealanders (who have even less journalistic representation than Maori), and Deborah Coddington's "Asian Angst" story got a particular mention here.

On the economic front, globalisation has seen an increase in cross-media ownership, foreign ownership, and homogenisation, but there are still plenty of outlets, and (in New Zealand) a broad diversity of political comment. She asked whether great journalism was compatible with good business in the context of the current media marketplace - and pointed to a study by the Aspen Institute which argued that it was, if it is supported by management. Finally, she capped it off with some sharp and pointy observations on our local political commentators.

This attracted a wide range of questions and comment (I have two pages of notes). The most interesting bits (to me) where her comments on the Audrey Young's blog post on John Key, and on blogs in general. On the former, she thought that journalists should not attack sources, and that such attacks endangered the continuing relationship between journalist and source necessary for newsgathering. Whereas I'd have thought that it was a good way of keeping sources honest (OTOH, Young's personalisation of the issue was a bit misleading; the problem wasn't so much that Key lied to her, but that he had tried to lie to the New Zealand public and expected a journalist to be complicit in this). On blogs in general, MacGregor was highly critical, saying that "much of common blogging isn't terribly thoughtful" and that there was a need for a debate on citizens as journalists before the next election (more on this later).

The other event of the morning was a panel discussion and open forum on "commercial pressures on journalism". This was conducted under Chatham House rules, meaning that while I'm free to use the information received, I can't attribute it. There were some interesting points to come out of this. Firstly, commercial pressures were a worldwide problem, caused by the pressure on media companies (from shareholders, and increasingly the need to make the interest payments on highly leveraged buyouts). This led to pressure to cut costs, and the easiest way of doing this was to use fewer journalists, resulting in poorer news quality. It also led to pressure to outsource functions like subediting, and to shifts to fluffier "lifestyle" content in an effort to increase advertising revenue. Declining revenues as classified advertising shifted to internet sites like TradeMe was likely to increase this pressure; it would also make large advertisers more powerful and give them greater ability to dictate content. against this, it was pointed out that there have always been commercial pressures driven by media companies' need to return a profit (but, I think, not such a threat to their revenue base).

A second theme (which was repeated often during the day) was journalists' wages and conditions. These seem to be poor (more on this later as well), with one journalist commenting that they earned more as a waitress than from their profession. Others noted that there was no shortage of journalists; instead there was a shortage of jobs that paid well enough. As a result, the industry had problems retaining experienced people (many are forced into PR work by financial considerations), and so on one major media website inexperienced journalists were doing everything themselves, with no review and no checks and balances. This was seen as affecting news quality.

Finally, someone asked a question similar to that asked by Keith Ng: are website hit rates influencing story selection? One editor answered "not really", while a major Sunday newspaper admitted being "quite driven by that stuff" and that they closely watch what gets page views on their web-site all week and that this did influence stories. It also emerged that talkback radio closely monitored their topics, and had concluded that while their nighttime crowd are mad, daytime callers are actually fairly sane.

Lunch was fairly boring, and I have to admit to not being very impressed by the Parliamentary caterers. I'd have thought our MPs demanded bette

I'll do the afternoon session later in another post.