When Politics Feels Personal
by Lindsay Shelton
Photo: Liana Pantaleo
One of the most rewarding parts of editing Wellington.Scoop during this year’s local election campaign has been the comments from our readers. I counted more than 300 of them in September alone.
True, I had to reject a few that were slanderous or that hinted at nameless and unspecified misbehaviours. But the hundreds that we published included valuable contributions that broadened the range of information available for Wellington voters to consider.
And there was real interest in our election coverage. At a time when we keep hearing about the declining interest in conventional journalism, the statistics for Wellington.Scoop’s readership have been increasing. We usually attract between 50,000 and 60,000 page views per month. During the eight weeks of the election campaign, monthly page views exceeded 72,000. And we were followed by 21,000 readers, many of them choosing to get involved and to state their opinions.
Readers’ comments have always been a core part of the Wellington.Scoop experience. I know that some online websites have turned off their comments. I don’t agree with such a restriction. There was a period a year or two ago when our comments system failed. During the non-comments period, it felt that we were incomplete.
Some examples from the election campaign:
A reader sent an analysis of rates in Wellington and Porirua over the last six years. The result showed Wellington’s rate increases had been more restrained that Porirua’s. He even provided source documents.
Another reader analysed the website of a company that had provided a report supporting the much-disputed runway extension, and discovered that none of the named staff had the qualifications to write such opinions.
The runway extension was one of the main election issues. Not only because city councillors had voted to give $90million to help build it. But also because during the campaign a new international airline began scheduled flights to the airport, without needing a longer runway. And – the subject of a prolonged and expanding controversy – the council had agreed to pay the airline a ten-year subsidy that could cost the city $8million.
It was not only the subsidy that drew criticism, though “corporate welfare” doesn’t seem to be popular with anyone except the council. It was also the way that the subsidy was approved – by a secret committee administering a “slush fund” whose decisions are not available for public scrutiny. “Commercial sensitivity” is a frequent but unconvincing excuse for such secrecy.
We published both sides – all sides – of the issue, as public suspicion continued to grow and the story kept on expanding.
A Wellington.Scoop reader went to Nick Leggett’s website and found an extraordinary claim from Leggett that he had negotiated the subsidy deal when no one from the Wellington City Council had been available to do the work. Extraordinary because Leggett later became a critic of the subsidy.
Another reader went to the council website defining the rules by which decisions are to be made for the relevant funding. He reported that Singapore Airlines didn’t qualify to be considered.
We invited candidates to write articles about the issues that concerned them. Early in October, Andy Foster contributed a detailed defence of the airline subsidy. But few other mayoral candidates were willing or able to write about election issues. The exceptions were Helene Ritchie and Keith Johnson.
Helene wrote an article demanding the resignation of Justin Lester, over the airline funding issue. It was a demand that the DomPost had twice refused to publish. We had no problem in publishing it, and it became another of our most-read reports.
All the mayoral candidates did however answer our questions on transport, and on general election topics. And they all turned up to Wellington.Scoop’s election forum at PreFab, where the standing-room only crowd probably stretched the legal occupancy rules. The crowd took us by (pleasant) surprise, and was a pointer to how advertising on Scoop brings results. If only more advertisers were willing to join us.
Jo Coughlan, with her professional communications experience, might have been expected to write some articles. But she never did. Instead, she focused her energy on emailing press releases, some of them repeating the message of earlier ones. (The Wellington.Scoop search system lets you assess what she was sending out.) Her husband Conor kept a close watch. When I created a headline that he didn’t like, on one of her press releases, he emailed a demand that it be removed. She (or one of her supporters) also spent a lot of energy on tweeting – though (with fewer than 700 friends on Twitter) her messages, which included video clips of her smiling alongside local people, weren’t being seen by many voters.
Second in the race for press releases was Justin, but he couldn’t keep up with the flow from Jo. And no one else tried.
A highlight of Wellington.Scoop’s election coverage was a series of admirably opinionated articles by Ian Apperley and a contributor who chose to use the name PCGM. All their articles attracted high numbers of readers, and scores of lively comments – agreeing, or disagreeing,
Scoop, as everyone knows, has no resources with which to pay its contributors. So we were grateful for the pro bono enthusiasm with which Ian and PCGM contributed their points of view. We were equally grateful for an article contributed by economist Neil Douglas, who compared the rates increases charged by our local bodies, and the salaries being paid to chief executives, mayors and councillors. It was one of the most-read articles that we published in September. And at last count it had attracted thirty comments.
Several readers suggested topics that Wellington.Scoop’s reporters should follow-up. If only we had even one reporter. As most people are aware, our basic supply of news comes from press releases, channelled to us from our Scoop parent. We publish all of them in full, and all of them are accessible through our great search engine. (As Wellington.Scoop was established more than seven years ago, we have an archive of seven years of Wellington news.)
Press releases provide a uniquely complete resource on what’s been said and done. A relevant example. As public suspicions grew about slush funds and corporate welfare, the DomPost reported in a few sentences that the city council’s chief executive Kevin Lavery was defending what had been done. Was there a press release? Yes there was, though the council had failed to send it to us. As soon as I contacted council communicator Richard Maclean, he emailed me the complete document, which we published in full. Suddenly a substantial amount of new and relevant information was accessible - but only on Wellington.Scoop.
There was also substantial interest in the mayoral candidates’ lengthy responses to questions on transport issues, which we put together in a partnership with the Transporting Wellington blog. At first we published each of the responses separately. But a VUW professor contacted us and asked that they be grouped in one place, so that his students could get quick access. Which we did, pleased to learn that the information was having a wider use.
A late criticism of the campaign was that the policies of three of the most-favoured candidates were too alike. Justin, Nick and Jo all wanted a stronger economy, more roads, a longer runway, and a pest-free city. (Fewer stoats…) Helene, Nicola and Keith earned belated recognition as candidates who were opposing the council’s $90million subsidy for the longer runway.
Nicola was the only candidate whose promises included freezing the rates. This should have been a topic that resonated. But it didn’t attract as much attention as it deserved.
Some of the election promises involved decision-making that was outside the control of the city council. Jo promised to go to Parliament and request money for new roads. She promoted this promise with over-exposed billboards carrying the “four lanes to the planes” slogan. (But such a decision could only be taken by the NZ Transport Agency.) She asked drivers to toot if they supported this. Several of our readers said there’d been silence as motorists drove past her signs.
It’s safe to guess that Wellington.Scoop readers accept that more roads don’t solve traffic problems, they just encourage more congestion.
It’s also obvious that Wellington.Scoop readers are enthusiastic readers of news and opinions about local politics. There are many other potential capital city topics that we could be covering, but our readers make it clear that local politics is the subject that interests them the most.