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.
November 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
The news industry is looking for a life jacket in a storm. No one yet has a complete answer to make journalism float in the digital wave that is wiping out the news media’s traditional business models.
One of the biggest fears for journalism is how to maintain the separation between an editorial process and the money making side of the business. As the old news media models begin to collapse in the digital era, the danger is that the news will become all about clicks on pages because that’s what is most attractive to the advertising side of the business.
If news is determined by what gets the most clicks, the many issues that are serious, complex and unsexy (think climate change, changes to the way schools are funded or new surveillance legislation) would not be able to compete with stories about international rugby players caught in a sleaze.
How then do we as a society mitigate against changing news priorities that are primarily driven by commercial imperatives, made even more acute by an increasing desperation in news media publishing? How can good journalism be profitable when classified advertising in newspapers is drying up and free to air television news faces falling audiences and increasing competition for advertising dollars due to online competition?
The fact is no one yet knows. As American internet commentator, Clay Shirky, puts it, we are in a period of creative destruction and it is still too early to predict the kind of emerging media architecture that we hope will spring Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old business models that have served journalism for so long.
Shirky’s referencing of creative destruction is actually the idea of an Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who described it as an essential part of business cycles. As companies grow and become leaders, they eventually become overtaken by other companies which adapt to the changes in the business environment by being smarter and more innovative.
In the current media environment, the pervasive mood is fear. Many news organisations are more concerned with clinging to their declining audiences than building new ones. It’s a strategy borne out of pessimism. There is a lot of waiting to see what happens next.
That’s why the experiments implemented by Rupert Murdoch’s News International have attracted so much media attention and commentary. The pay wall that ring fences news content on The Times website and Murdoch’s digital subscription newspaper The Daily were designed to stem the free content digital tide but the prognosis is not a hopeful one.
On the other hand, the New York Times appears to be enjoying some success with its pay wall as it records a significant increase in subscribers.
Meanwhile, The Guardian is a newspaper with an entirely different strategy. Editor Alan Rusbridger told Al Jazeera that a decision had been made a few years ago to turn the Manchester newspaper into a digital first organization.
The Guardian is betting that it will become a commercially viable strategy even though the transition to digital is literally costing it millions. Last year, it lost over 40 million pounds and it is even reportedly weighing up opening a lifestyle shop in Covent Garden to create another revenue stream.
But in journalism terms, The Guardian has been buoyed by its part in breaking two remarkable news stories – the Wikileaks documents and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Even so there must be misgivings among its shareholders over how long it can continue to run at a loss while hoping its bet on a digital future for news pays off.
Rusbridger told Al Jazeera that the media companies that will succeed will be open ones. “This is the biggest transformation in the last two to three hundred years and not many media organisations have twigged it yet.”
The key appears to be finding ways of doing things that the competition is not doing. While it may be an expensive strategy, The Guardian is trying to seize a first mover advantage. Recent innovations include opening up its news lists to readers to contribute story ideas and@GuardianTagBot, a “Twitter-based search assistant”. There’s also nOtice, an “open community news platform” which is heralded to be launched soon.
While these experiments may not yet add up to a clear picture of the future of news, they give us glimpses of new directions for journalism and offer further clues of how media organisations need to evolve to survive.
Some might say it is simply a matter of rearranging the deckchairs but The Guardian’s guiding vision is a courageous one. That’s because it is intrinsically optimistic about quality journalism and the internet, despite the prevailing fear and pessimism that now grips the news industry.
April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
You’d think a showdown between India and Pakistan at the Cricket World Cup would be a good scenario for a Twitter war. So I went searching for nationalistic taunting between Twitter users from both countries and surprisingly, found nothing calculated to enrage rival cricket fans. But the searches did throw up one idiosyncratic feature. All the search columns were topped with a promoted tweet for a news organisation called Tantao News.
If you recall, Al Jazeera were probably the first news organisation to use promoted tweets to corner news coverage of the Egyptian chapter of what has come to the called the Arab Spring of discontent and protest. The Wall Street Journal reported the cost of one day of promoting a tweet is something around $US100,000. It isn’t a cheap way to advertise a news product and it helps that Al Jazeera has the deep pockets of the Emir of Qatar to count on.
But who or what are Tantao News (@TantaoNews on Twitter) and its Global News Desk service?
The website tells us that it is an American news organisation, run and administered by CNEWSCO which is a start-up new media company based in Washington DC with operations in Los Angeles and Beijing.
Its operation is focused on “the aggregation, production and distribution of China-themed news and related content”. Tantao, according to the website, is Chinese for discover or to explore.
So far so good, taken at face value, here’s a new US-based news aggregator and producer that specialises in “China themed” news at a time when there is widespread misunderstanding and ignorance of China, particularly in the West. It promises that it is responsible for “our own productions and in selecting the textual news articles and videos that appear on our site from a continuous stream of content available to CNEWSCO from our news partners”.
These news partners are the Xinhua News Agency and the Shanghai Media Group with which Tantao has syndication agreements. Xinhua is the Chinese government’s official news agency and the SMG is owned by the city of Shanghai and is one of China’s largest broadcasters.
The website also says Tantao maintains absolute editorial independence from its content partners, “meaning we make decisions about the information on our site free of any outside influence”.
“With China assuming a larger role in world affairs, access to this news is critical to understanding the dynamics behind China’s policies, decisions, and directions,” the website says.
As well as stories about China’s economy, politics, financial markets and technology, there are also world stories that include the latest news from hotspots like Libya, Syria, Ivory Coast and Afghanistan.
In the China Focus section, there are stories about radioactive iodine detected in some Chinese provinces, new parking restrictions in Beijing and the doubling of solar energy goals, among others.
But I couldn’t find any news about the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ protest movement that has made many China watchers and bloggers nervously waiting for the Chinese government’s response.
Crucially, there is no content about the current crackdown on human rights and social activists. The recent arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the designer of the National Stadium in Beijing (known as the Bird’s Nest) is conspicuous by its absence. Also missing is news of the recent detention of Australian Chinese blogger Yang Hengjun.
As China watcher Charles Custer who founded the China Geeks website described it on Twitter; “Seriously, Yang Hengjun, Ran Yunfei, Teng Biao, Sec Zhang, etc. etc….this is a fucking apocalypse of arrests, why doesn’t anyone care?”
If Tantao News wants to be a credible ‘China themed’ news organisation, maybe it should care.