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Reinventing News As A Public Right - A Public Conversation

Reinventing News As A Public Right - A Public Conversation

Scoop editor Alastair Thompson introduces a Public Conversation on "The State of NZ News Media"

CONTENTS
The State of NZ News Media - Launching A Public Conversation
How Media Holds The Powerful To Account & Why It’s Failing
Delivering The Message - What Happens When The Medium Becomes A Multiplicity
The Social Contract Between The News Media and The Public Is Broken
"But I feel more informed now than at any time in my life?"
So why are the NZ News Media unable to do their job anymore?
Whatever You Do, Don't Talk About The War
The Lesson of Dirty Politics - A Vicious Cycle Of Cost Cutting, Trust Destruction And Revenue Loss
The Role of Freedom in Journalism
So How Might We Save Journalism In New Zealand?
Five Starting Points For A Public Conversation On The Future of News In NZ
Reinvention Of News As A Public Right
A Clue To A Possible Solution
You Are Invited To A Public Conversation


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"There are three estates in Parliament but in the Reporters' Gallery yonder there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech or witty saying, it is a literal fact, very momentous to us in these times." - Edmund Burke in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the British House of Commons

The State of NZ News Media - Launching A Public Conversation

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Once journalism was possibly a noble profession, though that is certainly now, to quote our Prime Minister, a "contestable" notion. It certainly seemed at least a little noble when I joined the ranks of reporters in 1989 . But these days outside of the Fairfax Boardroom there is little argument that things are not at all well in the 4th estate.

Whilst taste testing some of the ideas in this article, a fellow traveller expressed the view that in convening a debate about "news" I was misusing the word. To his mind "news" simply meant "fresh information" therefore including the content that Scoop routinely publishes.

But this is not what I would like us to discuss in the public conversation Scoop is launching today.

Rather in "The State of NZ News Media - Public Conversation", we are seeking to spark a civil society discussion about the provision of journalism in New Zealand of the variety referred to on a framed placard on the desk of L. E. Edwardson, day city editor of the Chicago Herald and Examiner (reported in 1918) which said:

“Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news.”

For me "real news" is revelation of facts which hold the powerful to account or which make them feel uncomfortable. Real Deal news - as it is referred to by one of Scoop's longest serving columnists and supporters Catherine Austin-Fitts - reveals the truth in an effort to preserve and defend the ethical foundations of society.

And it is this variety of news which is at the greatest threat in the current period of internet driven disruption of the "news media".

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“The truth is that, in this House, we are all, in our own way, scared of the Rebekah Brookses of this world. It is almost laughable that we sit here in Parliament, the central institution of our sacred democracy, yet we are scared of the power that Rebekah Brooks wields without a jot of responsibility of accountability. The barons of the media, with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest threats in the modern jungle. They have no predators. They are untouchable. They laugh at the law. They sneer at Parliament. They have the power to hurt us, and they do, with gusto and precision, with joy and criminality. Prime ministers quail before them, and that is how they like it. That indeed has become how they insist upon it, and we are powerless in the face of them. We are afraid. That is the tawdry secret that dare not speak its name.” - An extract from the book "Hack Attack", back bencher Tom Watson speaking in the House of Commons during a debate on the Phone Hacking scandal.

How Media Holds The Powerful To Account & Why It’s Failing

In theory the 4th estate is supposed to provide a check and balance to the immense power of executive government by informing the electorate. Democracy then works when voters hold miscreant politicians and Governments to account at the ballot box.

However voters can only do so if they have a clear idea what is going on.

The mechanism by which the media interacts with both politicians and news consumers is however not altogether simple. Simply revealing the truth is seldom enough.

Author's Note:

For nearly two and half centuries the "news media" and newspapers were synonymous and so when I discuss "news media: in this article for the most part I am referring to newspapers. Even now in the current 21st century digital news environment it is the news websites of newspaper publishers which are at the forefront of playing the check and balance role revealing misdeeds of the powerful.

Since the 1960s Television News has arguably over-taken Newspapers in terms of its day-to-day importance to the "horse race" of politics (by which I mean the obsession with polling and how news "plays", i.e. whether the public care or believe what they are told). However there is a significant difference between TV and newspapers, and for that matter the websites of news organisations. Broadcast TV is inherently shallow. You can only fit 180 words in a minute and there are only 22 minutes in an hour. A news item which is longer than 4 minutes is unusual. For this reason, in the arena of political media combat, TV reports are akin to RPGs, they are devastating at close range but useless if you haven't yet identified and cornered a target.

The first lever news media use to balance the tendency of the powerful to abuse their power arises out of political and business aversion to being involved in "front page scandals". These can easily prove fatal to careers and in some cases business success.

However as the powerful get more powerful (especially trans-national corporations) this sanction is becoming less and less effective. In addition, with experienced and capable reporters, and courageous editors becoming increasingly rare, the real threat posed by the media to evil-doers by "front-page exposure" tends to be hugely overstated.

The second lever which "news media" use to effectively hold the powerful to account is tenacity. A willingness to go the distance, to keep up pursuit of the foul deed or hidden scandal until it is fully uncovered. This is best done in groups, as there is safety in numbers. Pressure of competition drives scoops, and a press pack is much more tenacious than an individual reporter. It is for this reason that the Parliamentary Press Gallery plays such a key role in what remains of NZ's "news media".

As publications close down and reporters are laid off, competition among journalists diminishes and the ability for the news media as a whole to do their job arguably deteriorates at a faster rate. In many ways the news media when functioning effectively are like a network, which Metcalfe's Law teaches us increases its value and efficacy at a square to its size.

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"News is anything anybody wants to suppress; everything else is public relations." – Attributed to Malcolm Muggeridge in 1979, probably wrongly, and to George Orwell in 1999 also probably wrongly [*]

Delivering The Message - What Happens When The Medium Becomes A Multiplicity

Once the media have their story the second part of the mechanism for holding the powerful to account is delivery of the message.

In the past the delivery means was powerful and carried a punch.

The so-called "golden era" of news media in NZ is spoken of often, but not well understood. According to the tales of possibly addled old-timers, during this period the news media had editorial integrity and a clear firewall between owners and editors. It is also suggested that these news organisations were focussed on the news needs of their readers rather than on their advertisers.

But in reality the so-called golden period wasn't at all long, and wasn't nearly as golden as the tales suggest. Histories reveal that publishers of old were inclined to have quite strong political views - usually establishment ones which aligned closely with deep power. And looking back with a 21st Century lens it is embarrassing how hostile the then powerful media were to marginalised groups such as women, Maori, the poor and the labour movement.

Arguably it was only during the period of the so-called advertising "rivers of gold" from the 60s through to the late 80s that the "idea" of editorial independence (if not the reality of it) flourished and along with this the "ideal" of independent journalism caught hold. This "ideal" of objective, investigative, "without fear or favour" journalism is still taught today in our journalism schools written about in our textbooks and paid tribute to in movies like "All the President's Men". It was also during this period that NZ's newspapers began to be aggregated into debt laden media groups (some of which were owned overseas).

It is nevertheless arguable that, during this "golden era" of NZ Media, Governments were held to account in a wider sphere of their operations a great deal more than they are now. Profitable, well staffed newspapers and magazines with massive readerships chose stories of moment – which reflected their stature and sense of self-importance as the conscience of society – to place on their front page. They competed fiercely for circulation - the key to growing their massively profitable "rivers of gold" - by paying talented and resourceful news reporters well and tasking them with finding scoops and reporting in their role as "publications of public record" on a pantheon of niche areas of civil society. Back then there were "round" reporters at multiple publications covering health, education, arts, science, transport as well as a separate pool of general reporters.

In this environment news leads which were complex were pursued, even if it was costly and timely to do so, as there were resources available to do so. This is no longer the case.

[*] Quote Investigator

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"In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism." - Oscar Wilde February 1891 "The Soul of Man under Socialism"

The Social Contract Between The News Media and The Public Is Broken

Back in that “golden era” a kind of social contract was developed which underpinned how news worked to protect democracy.

The news media - as they do now - cast themselves as seekers of the truth, revealers of the hidden, and the institution that was ready and willing to hold the powerful to account. How much this was actually true is "contestable" but it was certainly more true then than it is now.

And in return, the public subscribed to or bought their publications and believed the reporting contained within them.

Then when it came time to vote the public did so on the basis of the information which they had absorbed over the previous 3 years - mostly obtained via the media.

But now that social contract is broken.

While some reporters continue to try to tell the truth, reveal the hidden and hold the powerful to account, it is increasingly hard for them to do so. And it is made a lot harder by being forced to often ride as a posse of one (How many dedicated health reporters are their now in NZ?), whilst opposed by a phalanx of propagandists, and working for news organisations who are financially on the ropes and demanding more and more stories from each reporter every day.

Meanwhile newsmakers and the public increasingly hold the news media in contempt.

Politicians, business leaders, celebrities and sports stars often feel that the media misrepresents them, is lazy, misses the important stories and simply gets things wrong. And with so many news reporters on close to minimum wage with close to minimum experience, they are often right to feel this way.

Simultaneously the public have come to the same conclusion - i.e. that much of the media they are being fed is of little value - whilst discovering a new, lively, entertaining and personally targetted source for their news (fresh information) fix - Facebook, Twitter, talkback radio and each other.

NZ'S TRUSTED PROFESSIONS
1. Firefighters
2. Paramedics
3. Rescue volunteers
4. Nurses
5. Pilots
6. Doctors

40. Financial planners
41. CEOs
42. Call centre staff
43. Journalists
44. Real estate agents
45. Insurance salespeople
46. Car salespeople
47. Sex workers
47. Politicians
49. Door-to-door salespeople
49. Telemarketers

- Reader's Digest Trusted People 2014

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"... there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones." - US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002.

"But I feel more informed now than at any time in my life?"

On the internet it appears as if everything is at your finger tips. These days much of the source material for the news is now available online from sites like Scoop as well as from myriad public and private sources.

Then there is Google News. Twitter. Facebook. Wikipedia. Wikinews. Indymedia. Instagram. Soundcloud. Snapchat. Dozens of bloggers writing about every niche under the sun. Photographic libraries. Searchable video and audio on demand. With the internet you never need to miss a piece of news.

From a public perspective it appears that we have more free information at our fingertips than we could possibly need. And, as Facebook has discovered, most people are more interested in what their friends and family are doing, saying and talking about rather than whether there is a scandal in public health anyway.

But do we really have access to the news that we - and society - need via these sources?

Social media and "citizen journalism" can provide data points for news - pictures and videos of breaking news events - and social reaction to news events, opinions, rants etc. But it is at its most effective as a "real news" delivery channel - of the kind that holds the powerful to account – when it is delivering news produced in the usual way by professional journalists working in news organisations.

And if nobody has asked the question or written about it, it can't be shared on Facebook.

As Donald Rumsfeld said, what tends to harm society in the end is not the stuff we know, but the "unknown unknowns".

The reality is that unless society has independent inquisitive, socially responsible, and knowledgeable people keeping an eye on the critical functions of the state and of big business then power and greed will corrupt and break the things we hold dear.

The current crisis in confidence among the chattering classes about the state of NZ news media also gives us a pretty clear steer. Some of us are certain that there is a growing lake of unknown unknowns - and more and more of us are saying so publicly.

That this dissatisfaction is increasingly driven by the fact that we as citizens have access to other sources of information, which make it clear that the news media is glossing over or missing important narratives, provides an ironic twist to this debate.

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“If [newspapers] were compelled to disclose their sources, they would soon be bereft of information which they ought to have. Their sources would dry up. Wrongdoing would not be disclosed. Charlatans could not be exposed. Unfairness would go unremedied. Misdeeds in the corridors of power, in companies or in government departments would never be known.” - Lord Denning in a 1981 case British Steel Corporation v Granada Television Ltd

So why are the NZ News Media unable to do their job anymore?

What was disrupted and why has it broken the NZ news media?

The simple answer is that the failure of the news industry comes down to resources. The economics of news mean "news" media businesses have been decimated over the past two decades.

But while the disruption in advertising markets is part of the story about what has changed for news, the forces of change are more diverse than that.

Throughout my career, the "News Media" industry has been in decline. As I arrived at The Dominion in 1989 there was a round of technology driven redundancies. Earlier in the 1980s Radio NZ was broken up and Independent Radio News was launched. Shortly after, TV3 launched and Bill Ralston and Sean Plunket became the new stars of political journalism.

Ever since, there has been a continuous fragmentation of news delivery channels. Changes in printing and print layout technology in the 1990s meant the barriers to entry to magazine publishing collapsed.

And then the kicker came in 1992 with Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the world wide web. It took a decade for the internet to be commonly accessible and talked about, and five years more for online media to start to earn significant advertising revenues - Trademe and Ebay launched in the late 1990s triggering an erosion of the "rivers of gold" revenue streams from classified advertising.

The proliferation of news channels meanwhile has also eroded the value attributed to news creation.

Historically the front page of the newspaper with its "Scoop" headline sold the paper, which in turn brought readers to the advertising inside. And it was the same for TV News Networks who fought to line up their primetime audiences at 6pm. Historically the economic value of the big story was huge.

But on the internet there is no front page. The major publishers have clung to the notion of readers coming in the front door and browsing their publication - but in reality only a fraction of online news consumers do it that way any more. People are far more likely to dip in and out of publications via search, email alerts, links or social media shares.

Now for most newspapers and magazines the focus has changed. While the goal remains retail counter sales - these days for everybody except the 6pm news the target markets for news media are niche. And so we have publication decisions driven by research - the print equivalent of click bait. Which produces, as this analysis of Listener covers by Giovanni Tiso shows, something less than news judgement for news sake.

As a result of this, news is no longer news. Certainly not as we knew it. Whereas previously news was news, and (theoretically at least) was composed of important facts, delivered straight, without emotion and without judgment. These days that would seem boring. Most news is a now a form of infotainment. Competing with pictures of the grandkids for the attention of the reader.

And for some publications - the most extreme example being "fair and balanced" Fox news - the solution to monetising this is a form of propaganda which further compounds the problem. Fast food news. A feed of information which is intended to confirm prejudices, exploit human frailty and manipulate public opinion. Then in the commercial breaks such publications deliver their brain-washed audience into the hands of the vendors of conspicuous consumption. (ref. Clay Johnson's 2012 best-seller The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption.)

All of which may go a long way towards explaining why there is a growing crisis of confidence in NZ's news media, as well as news media globally

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"We know that at some time in the future we will be predominantly digital – or digital only – in our metropolitan markets. We can’t say whether it’s three, five, seven or 10 years, but it will happen as media consumption continues to shift and fragment, and advertisers follow. The task for us – and one we are aggressively pursuing – is the restructuring of our business now so when the time comes we are ready. Not to do so risks being caught with unsustainable fixed costs." - Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood - The Journey From Print To Digital - INMA World Congress Speech Notes- 5 May 2013 ( image News Limited)

Whatever You Do, Don't Talk About The War

It is worth noting that what has happened to news media is a vicious cycle. One made worse because the first rule of the news crisis if you are in the news media is don't mention the news crisis.

Maybe this is because the steady and continuous descent into irrelevance has been underway for so long now that for many of those in the belly of the beast it seems entirely normal.

Until fairly recently discussion of the problems the news industry has been facing has tended to take place almost entirely among the participants, in private. Now at least they are out in the open. Already this year Radio New Zealand has broadcast two half hour panels on the subject (Outspoken: Guyon Espiner with Gavin Ellis, Bill Ralston and Tim Watkins & The Weekend - Byting Back: Lynn Freeman with Vaughn Davis and Cate Owen), and op-ed consideration of the challenges faced by media is increasingly common.

But there remains a remarkably strong resistance to acknowledging the true nature of the economic problems faced by media businesses, especially among corporate media senior management. As a result when issues related to news media are debated, those who understand what is really happening on the revenue side keep their mouths shut.

Instead we are treated to editorial staff talking about theoretical solutions to a problem which mathematics shows is unsolvable. While digital advertising revenue streams for NZ publishers are opaque (they don't report them) - the trend lines for online digital advertising are falling not rising.

Paywalls - which were yesterday's likely solution - haven't been introduced possibly because neither of the two major NZ news companies wants to blink first, but in any event the mathematics simply do not stack up in a country as small as NZ where our largest online publishers have a similar scale to the biggest US based blogs, and surveys have found that only a small fraction of their audience cares enough about news to be willing to pay to read the paper online.

And so when the news crisis is discussed in the media, talk continues to be about how companies are working on creating more compelling, converged content streams which someone somewhere thinks will magically become income earning. And at the same time the costs of production continue to be cut.

This response from my editorial colleagues is understandable as it is generally editorial people who are doing the talking, and editorial people tend to think that the solution to all publishing problems is better content - if only the advertising sales people could do their jobs.

However in this case it is a virtual certainty that this is not the solution.

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The Lesson of Dirty Politics

"When the Tribune Company recently got rid of their newspapers, the New York Times ran the story under a headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”

The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.

Meanwhile, back in the treasurer’s office, have a look at this chart. Do you see anything unclear about the trend line?

Contrary to the contrived ignorance of media reporters, the future of the daily newspaper is one of the few certainties in the current landscape: Most of them are going away, in this decade. (If you work at a paper and you don’t know what’s happened to your own circulation or revenue in the last few years, now might be a good time to ask.) We’re late enough in the process that we can even predict the likely circumstance of its demise." - Clay Shirky - Last Call The end of the printed newspaper

A Vicious Cycle Of Cost Cutting, Trust Destruction And Revenue Loss

So for NZ's newspapers - like those everywhere - the economic picture is bleak. Digital revenues cannot make the leap that is needed for them to save the "business of news". For two decades cost cutting has been the only response that works. But cost cutting also costs quality, and as the quality of news product deteriorates so does reader trust and respect. And as reader respect and trust diminishes so does media's influence the ability to hold the powerful to account.

We are left in a place where, as discussions about imposing paywalls grow ever louder, the quality of the product is falling off a cliff, and the audience is increasingly seeing the media as impotent and powerless.

This past year in the heat of the election campaign this became stunningly clear to us all as the Dirty Politics scandal blew the election policy debate completely off the agenda. Even saturation coverage of the worst possible kind - with all media participating - could not budge the public's view.

Instead of addressing the accusations of misconduct by staff in his office Prime Minister John Key chose his own narrative and stuck to it. "All politics is dirty, this story is the result of criminal hacking, and the allegations in the book are a thin amalgam of supposition, half truths and conflations", he told us. And he stuck to this story. And the election result suggests that this the story was accepted by a majority of the public - not the narrative of the media.

Key's tactic of speaking past the media rather than to them is one that is being used increasingly everywhere in the Western world. And it works in part because to a large portion of the public the media are no longer seen as truth tellers or truth seekers, so for many the PM's narrative that journalists are liars rings true.

The media's response to this last year was somewhat anguished. It would be fair to say that a lot of soul searching took place among the media, just as it did among the electorate.

In the wash-up following the election Journalist/Blogger Keith Ng wrote a column which discussed the subject of media impotence on the Public Address blog. His conclusion - the media had failed:

"Journalists haven’t been lazy this election, nor have they been biased. They hit Dirty Politics hard for weeks, and they’re pretty indignant at people heaping scorn on them. I feel for you, guys, but you need to look at this from the outside. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” is supposed to be a description of your job, your role in the democratic process.

And you have failed. It might not be your fault, but nonetheless, you have failed."

Not surprisingly most of the embedded corporate media did not respond - but a lively debate ensued in the comments section which is well worth reading.

Just before Christmas the Inspector General Intelligence and Security (IGIS) Cheryl Gywn's report into Slater's OIA relationship with the SIS and PM's office black-ops chief Jason Ede was released. Contemporaneously the report of Justice Chisholm's inquiry into allegations that Justice Minister Judith Collins had been gunning for the SFO chief Adam Feeley was also released.

Again John Key had his feet held to the fire and again he elected to simply tough out the allegations.

He publicly stated that he and his office had been exonerated by the inquiry in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, and even brazened through an avalanche of acrimony when he was caught lying twice about texting Cameron Slater at the time of the IGIS report's release.

This led to speculation that Cameron Slater has something on the PM which he was using to blackmail him, an allegation which you might ordinarily think would be electoral poison and might lead him to jettison the attack blogger. But as the year ended, it turned out that the only person that John Key apologised to over the course of the year was Cameron Slater.

On the face of it NZ's Prime Minister has determined that his relationship with Cameron Slater's attack blog is more important to his political career than his relationship with the rest of the press gallery and the entire mainstream media.

All of which speaks volumes about the state of NZ news media, and the ability of its elite arm inside the Parliamentary Press Gallery, to hold the Prime Minister to account.

It remains to be seen whether these issues will continue to be an irritant to Key in the coming electoral cycle. But it would seem likely that they will be no more than that.

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"In France, many have declared "Je suis Charlie", identifying themselves with the cartoonists and journalists who were shot in the terrorist attacks, and promising that they did not die in vain. They have vowed to defend freedom of expression in their own country. We should do the same." - Dame Anne Salmond, University of Auckland Professor - "Erosion of democratic rights" 13 Jan 2015

The Role of Freedom in Journalism

So what is there left then of this once powerful institution we call the NZ news media? Does it have any capacity to recover? And do we even care?

Fortunately it is not so long since the time when NZ had a powerful and - at least superficially - independent media that we have not all forgotten what it looked like. And in fact so far as much of the public are concerned - and indeed a sizeable chunk of the news media themselves - this remains the case.

At the same time there is also a growing groundswell of concern and dissatisfaction about a wide range of aspects of NZ's democracy. And the role of a disrupted news media is one of the principal areas of concern in that debate.

This concern indicates that there is at least one thing that we still hold onto, our ideals about what the news media ought to be.

The recent killing of eight journalists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris has brought one of these ideals - freedom of expression and freedom of the press - to the forefront of this debate on media in NZ.

And as Dame Anne Salmond and numerous other writers have pointed out in recent days, freedom of the press and freedom of expression in New Zealand are under active threat, here and now. Dame Anne talks of the high profile attacks on a free press, but the compromises inherent in much of the earlier discussion in this article lie at the heart of the destruction of the ideal of a truly free press.

Central to the ideal of a free press is freedom for individual reporters, photographers documentary makers - people who have chosen to be truth chasers - to practice their calling. Without fear of surveillance. Without fear that their lives and those of their loved ones will be damaged if they choose to challenge power by revealing things which the powerful do not want revealed.

It was this ideal of freedom which attracted me to work in news media as a teenager and it remains the motivation for the staff and contributors at Scoop Independent News to keep exercising our freedom of expression. And it is the wellspring of energy that drives us to now - in the face of very considerable challenges - to try to build a new model for a free media in a digital world that can work in New Zealand.

The capacity of an able free spirit who has been trained and tasked to pursue the truth, and who is backed by a strong editor and publisher to positively influence how society develops is something very special. This is why I became a journalist. And when I am on the trail of some truthiness it still feels like a very good thing.

It is this spirit that brought us Watergate in the days of Nixon and swept the globe in 2013 and 2014 in the form of Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras's epoch changing series on the Edward Snowden NSA leaks. It it is where my journalistic heroes - the likes of David Fisher and Phil Taylor at the Herald, Andrea Vance and Phil Kitchen at Fairfax, and Gordon Campbell and Alison McCulloch at Scoop's sister publication Werewolf - hail from.

But unless a group of NZers choose to act to protect this spirit, encourage it and keep it alive there is a significant risk that the opportunity for the internet - which showed such promise in its early phases - to provide the solution will be lost.

While the internet delivered the coup de grace to the news media, it may yet also deliver its salvation - if we are able to harness its full potential. And I now turn to that possibility.

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Edmund Burke (1729-1797) - An Irish statesman born in Dublin, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, who served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.

"Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite. - (This time the complete quote of ) Edmund Burke as reported by Thomas Carlyle in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons (Source)

So How Might We Save Journalism In New Zealand?

In 1787 when Edmund Burke made these remarks and christened the early media by the name The Fourth Estate he was adding the estate of the media - or the reporters in the gallery - to that of the Lords Spiritual (Bishops of the Church), the Lords Temporal (Aristocrats) and the Commons (Business Leaders & Bourgeoisie). It was quite a flattering moment in the history of the news media. And while some assert that he had his tongue in his cheek when he said this, the usual interpretation of these reported remarks is that he believed the power of the printing press to convey information was a game changer for the exercise of power. And history has taught us that he was correct in this assumption. Burke was something of an idealist and he hoped that by enabling voters to be informed the Fourth Estate would supercharge democracy.

In the two centuries since this speech, the British and American media - who both use this term - have been almost entirely corporate, privately owned and driven by the pursuit of profits as much as the pursuit of truth.

In the second article in this series tomorrow one of my colleagues at Scoop will assert that corporate - profit motive driven news media - is and always has been fundamentally flawed. It has never really been free but rather has been a tool of the powerful. Furthermore now that it is in its death throes it is incapable of changing into the kind of media that we as citizens would like our nation to have - and so should it should be allowed to die.

A harsh verdict but one which deserves consideration.

However even if mass-media news publishing as it currently exists does die, it would seem likely that control over the means of public manipulation would quickly move into the hands of other members of the deep state via their ongoing powergrab for control of the Internet. Control over the messages delivered to society is simply too powerful a tool for the power elites to surrender easily. And if the powerful people are the ones who write the next chapter in the history of news media then we can be certain that it will continue to be used to control rather than empower and inform the public as pictured by Burke.

It is certainly clear that empowering real democratic values was what Edmund Burke had in mind when he made his remarks. According to Carlyle, Burke said of those exercising the power to publish, "It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures", so to his mind the Fourth Estate need not be rich and powerful to have influence - which may explain why many of journalism's romantics have embraced this term. Burke even equates writing with democracy, "invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable." Oh that this were so.

Perhaps then in these dark and dangerous times, instead of despairing about the fate of the fourth estate we should take Burke's words as a challenge.

How can we now build a news media which is free of the influence of rank and money which empowers democracy as Burke envisaged?

Certainly the obstacles to the continued existence of freely practiced professional journalism are mounting fast. Not only are the economic barriers considerable - but the rise of the surveillance state will soon make it near on impossible to work safely with confidential sources. So there is urgency to this challenge.

And part one of this challenge is to find a new way to pay for news.

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Five Starting Points For A Public Conversation On The Future of News In NZ

Here are five starting points for our public conversation about The State of NZ News Media ( plus one possible solution).

First. Is it time for us to should abandon the idea that in the long run marketers and advertisers -which historically has paid for the bulk of news production - will be able to continue to do the pay for it in the future - especially in a small market like New Zealand? CLICK TO JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Commentary:
Marketers and advertisers have been the funders of the news industry for over 200 years. But the changes brought about by the internet arguably bring this period to an end.

In my experience advertisers do not really like being associated with news, at least not of the challenging journalistic kind. Most marketers trying to sell something then would much prefer to approach potential customers with an offer for a product when people are in a happy place - reading about a nice holiday, a sports hero or a theory about how to get thinner faster. In the past advertisers were attracted to the real news audiences because they tend to be rich and influential. But now that the internet has given marketers other means and places to reach these audiences more cost effectively - so much so that a commercial relationship with NZ news media is increasingly less important.

Marketers will tell you that contentious political discussions about welfare, investigations into business crime and accounts of the imminent destruction of the economy/environment/our freedoms are not a particularly conducive sales vector for say, home loans or women's fashion. Though they might be ok for Insurance. And in general, marketers are right about this, Bottom line they no longer need news to sell things and they do not believe they have any responsibility to pay for the news media.

Secondly. What role should public broadcasting - and publicly funded news services - play in the future of news service provision? CLICK TO JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Commentary:
In NZ at present Public broadcasting is increasingly picking up the pieces of a broken news puzzle. The importance of Radio New Zealand in particular as a source of professionally produced high quality public interest news has grown significantly over the past six years - a period during which its budget has been frozen and it has had to resort to selling assets like its grand piano to fund important projects.

NZ on Air also funds public news services on Television principally, but recently also broke its self-imposed ban on funding online news content by contributed some money towards Radio New Zealand's TheWireless.co.nz.

While public funding of news services will doubtless be an important part of the solution to the problems faced by the news media. It is not a panacea. In truth public broadcasters are not truly free - they are an arm of Government and are therefore limited in what doors they can open and what sort of stories they can pursue. Also single, large news edifices are not what news needs. Rather it needs competing bold, free and challenging voices. One can easily imagine a situation in which, as the rest of the media becomes increasingly incapacitated, taxpayer funded news services will become increasingly vulnerable to government interference. Already in NZ and Australia the National Party and the Liberal Party have targeted public broadcasters for cost cutting, presumably because of a perception of liberal bias.

Thirdly. Is it realistic to think (as many people do) that the long awaited introduction of paywalls by major news publishers will contribute significantly towards resolving the news crisis? Or should we consider the possibility that while subscription revenue will definitely contribute towards the viability of news businesses, it will almost certainly not be able to fund quality real news reporting to the general public? CLICK TO JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Commentary:
Most people think they already have free access to more information than they could ever possibly need, and they are right. In addition from what I have seen in our news logs, the news that matters most is not the news that is read the most - and therefore the news which the public will be prepared to pay for. Fortunately we have some actual data on this question provided by a study conducted at Victoria University (See www.fundingnews.co.nz/) in March and April last year.

Consumers’ willingness to pay for news increases considerably when journalism from several publishers is packaged together.

• Overall, only 0.5% of consumers said that they would definitely purchase a subscription to a single New Zealand news website.
• For a national package of all news sites, this value is 1.4% (2.8x increase)
• For a global package of all news sites, this value is 6.6% (13x increase)
• For a global news package bundled with music and video, this value is 12.5% (25x increase)

While it is encouraging that there any willingness to pay for news, this survey result is pretty grim. In summary a small number of people are prepared to pay a small amount of money for news. It seems possible that this survey result may have contributed to the decision at Stuff and the NZHerald not to roll-out paywalls in mid 2014.

While bundling services looks like it might work, public expectations about the price points of online content services tend to be based on international comparisons. It is very hard to see how global scale pricing points - which are trending downwards for content - could ever support news content production in a market as small as NZs unless everybody was a subscriber.

This is not to say that news subscription models cannot support quality online real news services in NZ - undoubtedly they can - especially if the bulk of the subscription revenue comes from the professional news users who are the ones who benefit most from its creation (see the fifth point below and note that an institutional subscription model has been fairly successful in NZ for NBR.co.nz.)

Fourthly. Is it time for NZ civil society, the Government and NZ's business community to start considering the counterfactual. What would NZ society look like without a truly free, assertive and inquisitive news media?

Commentary:
We are beginning to see what this looks like now. And it is not a pretty picture. And many of those who have an interest in how society functions are unhappy. We have an Official Information Act which has been undermined by successive governments, a Prime Minister who can pick and choose from the findings of properly appointed inquiries and who is unconcerned about doing so unless it effects the polls, a business community which faces regulatory and public policy failure, but has no effective means of bringing it to the attention of the authorities in a manner which can bring resolution.

And if we extrapolate out the current state of democratic systems degradation, NZ's institutional community (the public service, businesses, the education & the health sector and civil society) would presumably find themselves even more unhappy. Paraphrasing Lord Denning's remarks quoted earlier : without an effective media which is able to uncover the misdeeds of the powerful the rule of law will be weakened, misdeeds by the executive, judiciary and powerful business interests will go unpunished, and everybody will be worse off.

Fifthly. Assuming we agree that NZ society as a whole needs a functioning Fourth Estate, then whose responsibility is it to pay for it? Should we leave it to the market? Or is this an important issue of public policy which is rightly the responsibility of the Government, civil society and the business community to address?

Commentary:
Under close examination the common understanding of the way in which news media hold the powerful to account - via exposure of their misdeeds to the general public - is incomplete. In the vast majority of situations it is not because the public start letter writing or ringing up their politicians that a news article triggers an official response.

Rather the fact that the powerful are held to account in public, in the presence of their peers, in publications which are respected and accessible to the public is enough. The check and balance provided by the Fourth Estate is therefore effective in most cases not because of fear of mass public opprobrium, but because society rightly considers that misdeeds, foolishness and crimes which are publicly exposed should be dealt with by the appropriate authorities. This is why we all pay taxes and have laws.

If this theory of news efficacy is correct then ratings of news are irrelevant. It matters not whether the public are engaged by a news report - but whether the institutions of society are. So while the ultimate beneficiaries of quality news journalism are the general public, the benefits are achieved via the attention of those who operate the fundamental structures in society. And while it is vital that the general public are able to read this material - in reality most pieces of important news have a discrete audience.

Given this it is highly unlikely that the general public will ever be prepared to directly pay for the production of this kind of public interest journalism. I.E. this is not a problem which an invisible hand working in a public news "market" can solve.

*******

"It is part of the business of a newspaper to get news and to print it; it is part of the business of a politician to prevent certain news being printed. For this reason the politician often takes a newspaper into his confidence for the mere purpose of preventing the publication of the news he deems objectionable to his interests." - Alfred C. Harmsworth (aka Lord Northridge) publisher of the “Daily Mail” of London, in the 1903 book “Journalism as a Profession”

Reinvention Of News As A Public Right

Over the past four days Scoop has been running a reader survey which included the question, "do you agree that access to news should be a public right?"

The reason we asked this question is that if access to quality news is considered a right rather than a privilege or a market product which need necessarily be paid for, then at a public policy level it would open the door to some novel solutions to the problem of how to pay for an informed society.

We were delighted to discover that 90% of our respondents "strongly agree" access to news is both "very important" and "should be a public right".

I think that if Edmund Burke were here then he would also be rather pleased with this result.

While such a framing may seem a first glance a little lacking in realism, it would seem to be on all fours with the ideals that we hold for the role of news media in society. After all everybody benefits from living in an informed and just society. And that is in many ways the definition of a public good. Moreover a very large portion of scholars and students of the school of life - among them two of the leading lights of constitutional jurisprudence, Lord Denning and Edmund Burke - have written long and often about the importance of the now threatened role that media plays as a check and balance on power.

*******


Queen Anne of Great Britain (1665–1714) by Michael Dahl c. 1705.

A Clue To A Possible Solution

Finally to conclude this opening reflection on the state of New Zealand news media I would like to offer a possible legal and policy solution to the problem of how to finance quality news media absent of radical legislation or a sea-change in public policy.

If we look back 305 years ago, to a period when the printing press was disrupting the markets in information in a similar manner to how the Internet is now we can find a legal precedent for solving a problem which is similar to the one we we now face. How to secure the availability of the affordable provision of important news for the benefit of society?

The Statute of Anne of 1710 is the origin of New Zealand, English and American copyright law.

It was enacted in part to protect the interests of the very first reporters (authors of non-fiction books and manuscripts) during a period when the English Parliament was getting rather fed up with the Publishers of the time, the Stationers Guild.

The Statute of Anne did this by creating property rights and enforceable legal remedies for authors - i.e. creators of content.

At the time of the Statute of Anne, reporters were involved in reporting on the cases in the courts of London and the proceedings of the Houses of Lords and Commons. The courts needed to deliver consistent justice and the views of the higher courts needed to be relayed to defence counsel to ensure that the rules of precedent in law were followed. And members of the English Parliament wanted people to know what was going on and not be censored by the Stationers Guild who held a monopoly over publishing, granted to them in order to protect the crown from criticism.

These early law and parliamentary reports were - for obvious reasons very useful and valuable documents for the lawyers who purchased them - and making them more broadly available was in the interests of justice .

The Stationers Guild - who had been granted a license to act as agents of the King as censors also enjoyed perpetual monopolistic powers over the publishing of works that they owned. And by the end of the 17th Century during a period when there was a flourishing in literature in philosophy and science they were becoming very unpopular to a wide range of groups. John Locke strongly argued at the time that the Stationers were impeding progress and innovation, and therefore injuring the public good through their practices.

When the Licensing Act of 1662 lapsed near the end of the 17th Century, the House of Commons refused to re-enact it. After a period of argy-bargy The Statue of Anne was enacted ensured that reporters as authors were adequately paid to write their reports in order to encourage authorship. And in this way it served a public good, by ensuring through market means that the justice system had access to the news that it needed to function.

Jumping forward three centuries the past two decades of disruption in the news industry have effectively destroyed the livelihoods of the authors of news content, i.e. the trained and skilled reporters, whose skill has for decades helped protect democracy and society from the misdeeds of the powerful.

This article has discussed the effect of this disruption in some depth. The damage has become more obvious in recent years. More and more news reporter colleagues - among them some of the best reporters in NZ - have been made redundant or are struggling to earn a living as freelancers. Many more of NZ's best reporters have left the profession, often reluctantly, because they cannot make an adequate living as a journalist any longer.

Which begs the question : What copyright policy, enforcement or law changes could be adopted to ensure that the creators and authors of the most useful and most important pieces of news content are paid for their work? CLICK TO JOIN THE DISCUSSION

And this is the opening question which Scoop's readers are invited to to address in our "The State of of the NZ News Media - Public Conversation".

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An Invitation To A Public Conversation

Dear Reader,

If you have read this far then congratulations. You are clearly very interested in the state of NZ news media as are we here at Scoop.

This is just the first of a series of articles in this "State of NZ News Media - Public Conversation" hosted by Scoop.co.nz.

Next up we have a contribution from Werewolf writer Alison McCulloch and following that we will be hearing from Bill Bennett (of BillBennett.co.nz), economist Bill Rosenberg, journalist and documentary maker John Pilger and Scoop's White House Correspondent Connie Lawn.

And we will be soliciting more contributions as the series progresses.

You can subscribe to receive the contributions as they are published by signing up to the "Operation Chrysalis" mailing list on the Operation Chrysalis homepage HERE.

Each article has a conversation thread attached to it on a public Loomio group which is part of Scoop's new online Loomio community.

I look forward to engaging with you in this public conversation of the coming two months.

Reinventing Scoop Together - Introducing Operation Chrysalis

Scoop is seeking to reinvent itself in collaboration with our readers into a sustainable community focussed news platform to enable New Zealanders to build sustainable democratic news services fit for the 21st century. Our decision to do this is our response to the issues raised in this article. The process of change to achieve this which will take place in 2015 has been called 'Operation Chrysalis'.

To kick this off we are seeking to connect more with you, our readers. If you are someone who reads Scoop regularly or who submits press releases or content to Scoop for publication we would like to hear from you. Scoop is also putting together a Scoop Support Crew which you are invited to join.

Thankyou.

Alastair Thompson , Scoop.co.nz Editor and publisher

ENDS

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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