Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Journalism Matters: Sunday

Over the weekend I attended the Journalism Matters conference in Wellington. The conference brought 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 Sunday session.

Disclosure: I was invited to cover the conference by the EPMU.

Sunday opened with a panel and open forum on public broadcasting. Peter Cavanagh (CEO of Radio NZ) began with a robust defence of the role of public broadcasting. Globalisation and changes in media ownership had undermined traditional media values, to the extent that the media no longer served the public good - rather, it was just another business with the primary aim of maximising short-term profit (a telling example of this was the unusual honesty in APN's Australian employment contracts, which stated that "the core business of the company is the soliciting and publishing of advertising"). Against this backdrop, Radio New Zealand is now the only major news organisation in New Zealand where output is not driven by commercial imperatives and with an obligation to serve the public good. Cavanagh saw RNZ's job as "nation building" and returning cultural, rather than financial, dividends. He also expressed some concern about increasing content-sharing among media organisations, which had resulted in shrinking diversity and too much news and information being traced back to too few sources.

TVNZ reporter Sharon Fergusson was next, but she began by saying that TVNZ forbade her from commenting to the media without permission from PR, and therefore her comments were off the record. They might be in the Scoop audio feed, though.

Margie Comrie talked about the unusual treatment of public broadcasting in New Zealand. Elsewhere in the world, public broadcasting is valued, and well funded. In New Zealand, it is not, and has historically been treated as a cash-cow by the government. TVNZ - the only public broadcaster in the western world which is expected to return a dividend - has been boxed into a corner by conflicting demands and looted for "special dividends" whenever the government needs cash. But Radio New Zealand shows that the non-commercial model works well; despite being run on a shoestring, it does serious news, and never resembles TV voyeurism. As a final comment, she noted the absence of New Zealand's newest public broadcaster, Maori TV, which has likewise done wonders on a small budget.

Finally, Nine To Noon host Kathryn Ryan started by admitting to being a heretic - she likes commercial media. But she thought that public sector broadcasting was essential to raise standards and provide the stuff the market wouldn't provide. Without it, and the competition of "real news" it provides, we'd see news values declining as commercial imperatives took over. Like her boss, she was also concerned about the decline in diversity in the face of syndication and sharing, and was also worried about the possible creation of a "digital ghetto" is content was moved online before there was an audience for it. Finally, she pointed out that the absence of commercial pressure at Radio New Zealand meant they were free to report on stories regardless of popularity, and could spend half an hour on an interview with someone if they thought it was important and/or interesting enough. As someone who pulls down content through their website, its a model I quite like.

Discussion focused on how public advocacy could support public broadcasting in New Zealand. Australia has the Friends of the ABC, but we have no equivalent organisation in New Zealand, and this has seen a constant erosion (particularly by National) of TVNZ's mandate. If we want it, we have to speak up for it. There was also an interesting point raised about the size of the NZ media market: some people argued that the media pie in NZ was really too small for public broadcasting, with the result that journalists often bought in to attacks on TVNZ because it was competition for their own livelihood. But Chris Warren turned this around, asking whether with such a small amount of advertising revenue we could really afford 3 fully commercial channels, let alone the 6 expected to happen under digital TV. If the market is that tight, then the case for a non-commercial TVNZ becomes stronger.

Next was a panel on what can be done? Freelancer Kim Griggs opened this by making a strong case for the restoration of journalists' reprographic rights, removed by Parliament in 1994 for no reason other than business asked them (typical New Zealand business move, trying to increase profits not by working harder, but by lobbying Parliament to screw their workers or customers). in Australia, these rights (the equivalent of authors getting 10 cents every time their book is taken out of the library) are worth thousands of dollars a year to journalists and are a valuable source of revenue. In New Zealand, it apparently all goes to NZPA. So, there's a challenge to NZ MPs: to bring a bill to restore those rights (Unfortunately, the VDIG Hansard has disappeared, so I can't look back and read the speeches, but I understand Labour opposed it, and Rick Barker spoke out against it).

Former City Voice editor Jeremy Rose talked about alternative ownership models and whether we can fight the McDonaldsisation of media by putting out quality boutique media. On the former, he argued that it was less a matter of foreign vs local ownership as ownership structures and the need to repay debt; this created pressure to cut costs, which in turn prevented media organisations from investing the time and resources required for serious investigative reporting. He floated some alternatives - a trust model, for example the Scott Trust which "owns" The Guardian for the sole purpose of ensuring that it remains a liberal voice; or the idea of "reader takeovers". The latter is an attractive model, and in NZ we already have some reader-owned media, in the form of Consumer and AA Directions. He also suggested that it might be worth unions and NGOs clubbing together and combining their PR budgets to support an independent newspaper to give them a voice.

Otago Daily Times editor Murray Kirkness gave a very interesting talk on the quirks of the ODT (headline today: ‘Regular bloke’ rewarded for being teetotally honest) and his experience in managing community newspapers for Allied Media (who own the ODT). many of these newspapers are simply not commercial propositions - he described his immense pride at seeing one paper which had never made a profit return a whole $800 to its owners - but were being run for social reasons (and in some cases anticompetitive ones). As editor of one of the few papers in NZ with a stable (rather thank shrinking) circulation (against a shrinking population, no less), he said outright that he wanted to reinvest in his journalists. So, maybe those underpaid APN reporters can go and live in Dunedin - it'll pay more and cost less.

Finally, Alastair Thompson of Scoop gave an excellent presentation on the future. And his prognosis for print journalism was basically "you're all doomed". Every major newspaper in NZ bar the ODT is conglomerate owned. Those conglomerates treat us the provinces (or the provinces of the provinces). They are not interested in resourcing NZ newspapers to do Good Journalism (any more than Fairfax NZ is interested in resourcing the Marlborough Express or APN the Christchurch Star); rather they will treat us as a cash-cow. And in a world where advertising revenue is shifting online, an area newspaper management is neither comfortable with nor competent in, that spells bad news. Newspapers are going to need to transition themselves to the new online world, but if they fail to transform, they are going to fail as companies. That aforementioned debt-burden makes this more likely, and Thompson thought that we may see anti-competitive behaviour, conglomerates buying up papers simply to close them down, as part of their death-spasm during the shakeout. This led to his most memorable line - that

we're dealing with deadly, dangerous and wounded corporations who are avaricious, venal and stupid
However, the net was also an opportunity, at least for some. He pointed out that in some areas, print media was still better than the net for classified advertising (small, geographic areas e.g. a suburb or small town), and that this provided a niche for profitable "micro-newspapers", with copy from Scoop, wire feeds, and a few journalists supported by local ads. It's an interesting vision, and it will be interesting to see whether it comes to pass.