April 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
As sure as night follows day, one of the things that happens when a natural catastrophe or act of terror or war happens is the scramble in news rooms to find out the nationalities of those killed or injured or who were there when it happened. It’s an automatic response. Journalists in news rooms hundreds and thousands of kilometres away from the epicentre look for the local area person or persons who may have been caught up.
The story priority cascades downwards from was a local area person killed; were they hurt; were they there but uninjured (can they tell us what they saw and did they have a lucky or miraculous escape). Bottom of the list as you drill down is did a local area person have a friend or in-law (a local area person of the said local area) who was directly affected by the tragedy and/or violence. If none of these apply, then the story is simply an international story that fails to make the crossover into national news.
When explained like that, it sounds faintly ridiculous but that’s how it works. It’s also how New Zealand news rooms would have responded to the Boston Marathon bombing this week and, given that the event regularly draws runners from all around the world, there would have been not unreasonable odds on there being at least one New Zealander taking part.
By the end of April 16, three people were dead and more than 100 people had been injured in what the American authorities are treating as a terrorist attack. To the relief of New Zealanders who may have had relatives and friends in Boston at the time, no Kiwis were seriously hurt. But the reaction of those New Zealanders becomes an important strand of the story here.
It was perhaps insensitive of me send a facetious tweet but this rush to action in newsrooms here to locate a New Zealander in the attack is its own way a fairly tasteless ritual. But it becomes more acutely so if the death or injury to a New Zealander is framed in sharp relief against the other casualties, making it seem as if those casualties mattered less.
At least one journalist took offence at my tweet but I think it’s a valid point expressed satirically. Journalists are not callous people unmoved by tragedy but the nature of the business can make them inured to the suffering of others and the old editor’s adage, if it bleeds, it leads, still holds true.
There were, of course, New Zealanders in the marathon and they were able to tell their stories to the New Zealand media as you will have seen here and here. But as any news editor will tell you, if there was no local area angle to dig into, the story would have less of a connection to a local area audience. My big issue with putting a tight focus on our local area is how if the editorial process is handled clumsily it can make our news industry appear more parochial than it usually is.
How else would you explain that images of the All Black captain Richie McCaw are more likely to appear on the front page of the biggest daily newspaper in New Zealand than the prime minister by a ratio of 11 to four? This is one of the observations made in a study called Selling the News by an Auckland graphic designer, James Wendelborn.
James has spent a considerable amount of his time over the past 15 months classifying and displaying New Zealand Herald front pages. He’s illustrated and published the data on a Tumblr. It confirms what you might already suspect.
The infographic at the top of this post is stylised depiction of what a typical Herald front page might look like. Yes, really. And the four ingredients that top the list for space are crime, tragedy, advertising and sport. He observes that the Herald features an expected strong emphasis on New Zealand stories and that crime and tragedy stories occupy a disproportion amount of space to the frequency in which they appear there (and they appear often!).
And here’s what Herald front pages looked like throughout 2012.
James has broken the stories down into three main categories – good news, bad news and neutral. One of his conclusions:
There’s a definite tendency to report ‘bad news’ which historically, readers will tell you they don’t want but editors will tell you that’s what sells.
This is supported by the probability that 43 per cent of the stories were in the bad news category, with good news at 27 per cent and neutral at 30 per cent. But wait, there’s more.
The Herald is much more interested in small, personal stories – the death of a teenager in rural New Zealand is always going to get the lead story over hundreds dying overseas. As they have no doubt discovered, this will be because that’s what sells – there is a well-established mentality of caring more about one local tragedy over many international ones.
James also notes that many important issues rarely get a look in on the front page. For example, environmental stories, and this includes that elephant, climate change, occupied 0.3 per cent of the front page acreage over the 12 month long study.
When climate change is such a major issue, only seven environment stories is kind of irresponsible. Richie McCaw shouldn’t be featured on the country’s front page more times than the Prime Minister. And I’m frankly over the paper’s infatuation with property prices and rugby players, although perhaps the country needs to get over those things first.
Draw your own conclusions. Visit Selling the News and connect to James on his Twitter or send him an email and let him know what you think of his work. He’s made a fascinating contribution to any discussion on what we as New Zealanders might want in our news and what matters to us as a society.
March 27, 2013 § 5 Comments
The presses are to stop rolling for Wellington’s Capital Times and it is a moment for reflection. For as long as I have been a Wellingtonian, the free weekly newspaper has been taking the city’s cultural and social pulse. After 38 years, it more than qualifies as an inner city institution but there’s little room for sentiment in the economics of the digital age.
In matters of the life and death of a small, hard scrabble newspaper, nostalgia makes little difference if advertising revenue is tanking and last week, the owners of the Capital Times announced they had decided to call it a day. They could see no glimmer of an upswing for the paper and they are right.
The newspaper’s editor, Niels Reinsborg, says rival community publications owned by APN and Fairfax are slashing advertising rates by up to 50 per cent. While advertising remains steady at the Capital Times, revenue is down and costs are up. The owners think the situation is not sustainable and the prognosis is not healthy. It simply doesn’t make sense to keep going.
Capital Times will be ending publication after three issues. We wanted to say a huge thanks to our readers over the years. You all rock.—
Capital Times (@CapitalTimesNZ) March 22, 2013
The news has sadden many of its contributors and readers. Its long standing film reviewer, Dan Slevin, is disappointed. He thinks there’s a few more years left in newspaper that has carved a niche for itself as a metro giveaway with a heavy focus on the arts and entertainment scene. But even he agrees that the end will have to come – if not sooner than certainly later.
The end of the Capital Times – which has a circulation of 20,000 and a staff of eight – is another signpost on the breakneck road between traditional news business models and the increasingly digital, mobile, touchscreen, app driven world of publishing. Advertising is shifting online or being divided between the old and the new, making for a smaller pie from which all newspapers are trying to take a bigger slice out of. Caught in an advertising war for fewer dollars, the Capital Times was becoming increasingly vulnerable.
Factor in a wider business environment characterised by recession, job insecurity, redundancies, cautious consumer spending and a retail and hospitality sector that is, by and large, also pinching, and it all makes for a confluence of gloom for newspapers.
Advertisers are less reliant on newspaper advertising. They are learning that it is free to use social media and peer to peer sharing through online social networks. All of this makes it extremely difficult to keep a marginal, independent community publication going for longer when doing so would be postponing the inevitable.
While many publishers are attempting to future proof their publications by moving their content to the web, they are still baffled by how to make money from their online publications. Newspaper and magazine publishing is currently trapped in a kind of limbo between hard copy and digital and it is going to take deep pockets to persevere until the online rewards are realised. The business model that works for a 24 page free community paper isn’t the same as for a local community news website that relies on volunteers, subscribers and donors to keep its costs down and augment any advertising it can attract.
By and large, the bells are tolling for the newspaper industry. It has been in a sunset phase for some time now. It joins CD shops, postal deliveries, video game parlours, travel agencies, book and video shops in the endangered category. In the years ahead, we will be mourning the extinction of many animal species as habitat loss and poaching take their toll on the last wild Sumatran tiger or black rhino. To this melancholy list, we are also seeing the end of days for many brick and mortar businesses – to which I add newspapers. And that is cause of reflection.
The last edition of the Capital Times will hit the streets on April 10.
March 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
As news stories go, it wasn’t supposed to be much of a news story. Word on Twitter this week was that a huge pod of dolphins was churning its way around Wellington harbour. The Radio New Zealand news room ignored it because it is radio without pictures and, anyway, dolphins come into the harbour at least once a year on the hunt for schools of fish. I wouldn’t call them a common sight but you could say they are a regular sight.
But in no time at all, the Wellington twitterati was cooing with pleasure as more and more people from vantage points in office blocks overlooking the water witnessed the massive pod of up to 100 bottlenose dolphins turn the inner harbour into a banquet. They laboured their way in front of the skyscrapers that lined Jervois Quay like a peloton in a road cycle race and Twitter was positively radiating delight at the sight.
I could just make out the pod from a window on the third floor of the eastern side of Radio New Zealand House before it ploughed across to the Overseas Terminal and Oriental Bay. There they lingered a while, casting a spell in glorious sunshine in front of hundreds of Wellingtonians on the waterfront. This was happening on a superlative summer afternoon – the latest in an unbroken series of beautiful days in what forecasters are calling the sunniest summer in a lifetime and longer.
Twitter transmitted the excitement to those of us trapped in our workplaces. All the while I was thinking what an endorsement this was for our city, for the cleanliness of the water in the harbour and for their status as a protected species, that this unusually large visitation by one of the most recognisable ambassadors of the wild oceanic world should feel so at ease and at home so close to us.
If you’re wondering where the headline came from, here’s a video of the inspiration – Forever Dolphin Love by New Zealand’s own Connan Mockasin.