Austerity journalism

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    My initiation into professional writing got off to a rocky start.
    “What’s this shit?”, my former partner (a senior journalist) asked me, screwing an early attempt into a ball and lobbing it into the bin.
    It was a stinging introduction to one of journalism’s inescapable fundamentals. As former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger writes, “boredom is the editorial kiss of death”.
    If journalists are experts at not being boring, the last few years have given them plenty of material. Today they are confronted with a firehose of global and local crises: pandemic, climate change, escalating conflicts, housing, mental health, food prices and poverty – all while grappling with the deepening crisis in their own industry.
    Dr James Hollings, Head of Journalism at Massey University, wrote THE book (A Moral Truth, Massey University Press) on investigative journalism in Aotearoa, revealing the real impact investigative journalism has had on New Zealand, and also its ‘golden eras’ and dry patches. A US scholar is quoted, who wonders if “the supply of investigative journalism seems to depend on there being a demand for it, through the emergence of a social crisis with a consequent hunger for answers.”
    Hollings is not persuaded by this, using the New Zealand Depression of the 1930s as an example. At this critical time there was a drought of investigative pieces holding power to account, even with the new technology – radio.
    Why? The priority of the austerity-loving Depression-era Coalition Government was to balance the budget, and thousands became destitute, with minimal support. How many journalists lost their jobs in the early 1930s? Editors, journalists and their sources must have felt more risk averse than usual – and if boredom is the editorial kiss of death, so is a lack of guts, even if it stems from the desire to feed your children. Hollings credits the bravery of individual newspaper editors for the golden years of New Zealand journalism, people who ran stories against fierce pushback, stories which led to genuine change, stories which forced politicians to act. These included reportage which led to the end of the death penalty, the end of the torture of conscientious objectors by our own military, pioneering environmental journalism, the reporting of dawn raids in Auckland and grotesque abuses of the justice system in the policing and trials of Arthur Allan Thomas, David Dougherty and Teina Pora. The nickname for the reporter who eventually freed David Dougherty from prison – Donna Chisholm – became ‘Dauntless Donna’ after a profile on her ran under this headline.
    In Britain it took a television drama series (Mr Bates vs The Post Office) to ignite public outrage about the British Post Office scandal, in which money had been robbed from sub-postmasters to hide the fact that the Post Office’s Horizon computer system didn’t work. Thousands of people were accused of theft, and some died before their innocence was confirmed. At least four committed suicide. The story would never have come to light without 15 years of ferreting by reporters working for the comparatively tiny Computer Weekly.
    Investigative journalism might be important, but it is time-consuming and expensive, and in New Zealand few freelancers can afford to do it, as news outlets pay by word, not time. No New Zealand freelance journalist without independent means could hope to reveal a scandal like the British Post Office. And yet this work needs to be done.
    Another problem bedeviling media is the disappearance of the specialist journalist: beat reporters with deep knowledge of their topics, like the arts, environment, education, science, labour, local government, courts and health. These writers tend to be more experienced, older and the first to be made redundant.
    In April the guillotine again fell across Aotearoa newsrooms, affecting some 15 percent of journalists, according to The Spinoff.
    The hit to media was followed by a report from the Journalism, Media and Democracy Research Centre (JMAD) at AUT, co-authored by Waiheke Island journalism professor Dr Greg Treadwell. It noted that while interest in news in New Zealand “is high compared to 46 other markets, trust in news continues rapidly to decline, and news avoidance is increasing.” Respondents complained that opinion was swamping reportage in New Zealand media, the report said.
    News journalist and blogger Gordon Campbell had an interesting insight into this.
    People mistrust opinion in the media, he argued, because “for the past 60 years at least, the accepted wisdom in media circles – which dictates so much of the selected content and tone of media discourse – has been consistently wrong. On Rogernomics, asset sales, free trade, health reform, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and (especially) on climate change, the editorial line of the day has consistently lagged behind valid public opinion. Eventually, the editorial line has adjusted, and – at glacial pace – grudgingly embraced the positions it used to despise.”
    I won’t argue with this, or with Treadwell when he says “the country needs to start looking at the media industry crisis as a societal issue, and not just a market problem.” • Jenny Nicholls

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