After a career of writing and editing UK, NZ and Australian technology publications veteran NZ technology journalist Bill Bennett is now - like most technology reporters - a freelancer & blogger working in Auckland. In his reflection for this "The State of NZ News Media" public conversation series he provides an overview of the current state of NZ Technology reporting and concludes the current state of technology journalism is serving neither readers nor NZ's $23 billion industry at all well. An earlier version of this s article was originally published in November 2014.
New Zealand Technology journalism: The Twilight Years
By Bill Bennett
New Zealand has a vibrant and flourishing technology sector. Nobody would use those words to describe New Zealand technology journalism.
Like a retirement village there are still pockets of life, but things are winding down.
You can count the number of full-time technology journalists writing for New Zealand audiences on your fingers. Experienced local journalists are as likely to turn up on overseas publications as on local titles.
It means we no longer tell the best stories about local technology companies. We don’t report the ways New Zealanders deal with technology. A lot gets missed.
We’ve stopped telling our stories because no-one wants to pay for that kind of writing.
Specialist tech publishers
Three specialist publishers dominate:
Techday makes the most money. It publishes two monthly print magazines: IT Brief and The Channel. Techday operates as an umbrella website featuring eight virtual publication brands covering subject niches. Three full-time staff journalists are listed on Techday’s web site.
IDG is US-owned and Australian managed. It publishes a print edition of CIO magazine three times a year. If you want a subscription you have to apply to Australia. That speaks volumes. IDG also operates Computerworld, NZ Reseller News and PC World as online only publications.
IDG employs two full time journalists. James Henderson is the editor of both Computerworld NZ and Reseller News while Divina Paredes is CIO editor. Randal Jackson writes stories as the group’s Wellington-based freelance. PC World doesn’t have local editorial staff.
iStart publishes a print and electronic magazine four times a year. The business is based in Auckland with New Zealand and Australian print editions and websites. Auckland-based Clare Coulson is the editor.
Between them the three specialist publishers employ six journalist: fewer than one per masthead. They rarely break hard news stories. News pages are mostly filled with rewritten press releases, overseas wire stories and PR-fed material.
That sounds like criticism. On one level it is, but it also reflects commercial reality. There’s little advertising revenue. What advertisers the publishers can scrape up are looking for a short cut to sales leads, not hard-hitting exposés.
You will find longer features in most titles. Sometimes there’s even analysis although there’s little of the deeper material that characterised the technology press in the past.
Again that’s commercial reality: journalists are under pressure to pump out a lot of content fast. There’s not much time for reflection.
This also explains why the IDG sites are full of overseas filler material. It keeps the pipeline full at no additional cost to the publisher. The stories appear to be picked at random. No thought is given to whether a story serves readers.
Tech news in mainstream media
The same pressure to pump out volume applies to tech journalists working in New Zealand’s mainstream media. Both Stuff and the NZ Herald fill their online pipelines with low-cost, low-value overseas filler material.
In the past the newspapers did great work keeping industry insiders, users and the general public informed about events and trends. Now they publish shorter, less analytical news although there are some notable exceptions, particularly when covering telecommunications.
One reason you don’t see as much local technology news is there are no longer any full-time technology journalists working on mainstream newspapers and magazines.
Chris Keall who at one time edited NZ PC World is the most notable specialist journalist in terms of output. He is NBR technology editor. Keall is also the paper’s head of digital, so his time at the tech coalface is limited. Keall manages to write roughly a story a day and at times gets behind more complex issues.
At the Dominion Post Tom Pullar-Strecker was a technology specialist but now has a general business journalism role. Being based in Wellington he sometimes gets insight into issues such as telecommunications policy. These days he writes roughly one tech story a week.
The NZ Herald gives technology assignments to a number of journalists. The best know is Chris Barton, who writes features and commentary covering technology and telecommunications topics. Barton goes deep, but his work only appears occasionally.
The Herald also runs a weekly blog by tech veteran Juha Saarinen. Saarinen is one of the locally based technology journalists who appears to earn most of his income from working for overseas publishers. Unlike most of us, he has a firmer technology background. He mainly writes for IT News, an Australian online publication.
Rob O’Neill is another virtual ex-pat New Zealand journalist. He writes for ZDNet and is listed as part of the ZDNet Australia team. O’Neill writes local and international stories, maybe three local items a week.
Wellington-based Owen Williams has only recently moved to working full-time as a journalist. He is now on the team for The Next Web which is published in the USA.
On a personal note
This round-up wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my work. I’m a freelance journalist. I write a regular technology column for NZ Business magazine — it mainly appears in print. I have also written features in the last year or so for iStart, NBR and for Management magazine, which is now part of NZ Business. I also turn up on TV3 Firstline and the NZ Tech Podcast talking about technology.
My highest profile freelance work would be on the business feature pull-outs that appear in the NZ Herald about ten times a year. Although I get to write about tech from a business point of view, the stories range across most business areas.
There are also overseas jobs. In the last year I have written for ZDNet’s PC Magazine and for Computer Weekly out of the UK. Both publishers commissioned stories that are specifically about New Zealand themes.
Most experienced New Zealand technology writers, myself included, are not writing full-time for New Zealand audiences about local themes. Some are writing for overseas publishers, others split writing duties with other editorial responsibilities.
Those who are writing full time spend their lives in a haze churning out short items dictated largely by the flow of press releases and PR-initiated pitches.
Too often an exclusive is nothing more than first dibs on a press release. You’re not really doing your job when you post 20 smartphone shots of someone’s new data centre or are the first New Zealand site to publish alleged leaked photos of a yet to be launched product.
Getting eyeballs is everything. Local publishers fight with Google over the slim pickings available from online advertisements. They also compete internationally. New Zealanders probably read more overseas written tech news than locally written stories.
I’m not judgemental about the problems they face or the way local publishers tackle the problems , I’m on the receiving end of the same economic forces.
Who pays the piper?
The market doesn’t serve the readers. It doesn’t serve the local tech industry. Leaders of New Zealand tech companies need to be aware of what is going on in their industry, not what someone’s promotional output says. They need intelligence, not propaganda.
The current approach doesn’t serve the public good.
There’s also a problem when a big news story breaks that has technology woven in to its fabric. Remember the fuss in the run up to the 2014 election over stolen emails? Perhaps the planned $1.5 billion reboot of the IRD computer system. How about the business of the Edward Snowden leaks?
In some cases these big stories are dealt with by journalists who don’t have all the expertise or the contacts needed to make sense of what is happening.
That’s a pity. There’s a bigger pity. Hundreds of real, hard news stories, things that the public needs to know about go unreported because they are not part of a public relations campaign. Or worse, public relations managers block the news from getting out.
Let’s put aside the worthy goal of keeping the public informed and get to a different commercial reality. New Zealand’s home grown technology sector doesn’t get the media oxygen it needs to breath.
Because overseas news feeds dominate the agenda in New Zealand, people buying here are more likely to hear about an overseas supplier than a local one. Investors will put their money overseas, skilled workers will look for jobs overseas. This is already causing problems.
The lack of balanced, impartial and thoughtful New Zealand technology journalism creates the impression there’s not much going on here.
Blogs take up some of the slack. So does Mauricio Freitas’ Geekzone website and projects like the New Zealand Tech Podcast. I’m involved in all three. But we need something else. I’ll tell you more about that later.
Technology needs a local voice. It has to be an honest voice. That means turning over rocks some people would prefer stayed untouched.
This is an updated and corrected version of a story which first appeared on my blog: billbennett.co.nz in November 2014.
is a New Zealand technology journalist. He started
in 1980 as a writer on Practical Computing
magazine. He left the UK in 1987 to work in
Wellington on The Dominion as Computer Page
He spent a decade working in Sydney, Australia where he was managing editor of two regional editions of PC Magazine. He also wrote news, features and columns for The Austalian Financial Review and The Sydney Morning Herald. On returning to New Zealand he edited and became associate publisher of New Zealand Reseller News.
Today Bennett works as a freelance journalist. In recent months his work has appeared in The New Zealand Herald and NZ Business. His writing also appears on Scoop.co.nz and Geekzone. Bennett is a regular on The NZ Tech Podcast and on television. He is co-author of the best-selling Usborne Guide to the Microcomputer. Bennett has a degree in Physics from Manchester University in the UK and remains interested in science. He lives in Auckland.
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