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Posts Tagged ‘news’

NZPA no more

datePosted on 22:04, April 6th, 2011 by Lew

Fairfax has killed the New Zealand Press Association, after more than 130 years of service providing straightforward, unsensational, generally independent bread-and-butter journalism to news outlets around the country. I’ve no heart to give a lecture on the importance of the role the agency played or the circumstances of its demise, so just read Karl du Fresne’s excellent backgrounder to this move, written last year. If you want an approximation of my views on the matter, reread some of my recent commentary on the NZ media — particularly the bits where I argue for competition through diversity — and then imagine a future without anyone to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of day-to-day news reporting, as Patrick Gower put it earlier today.

But I want to say a few things about the future. The fact is that something like the NZPA — some primary source for raw news — is needed. Press releases will continue to fulfil the role that they always have, and one immediate consequence of the end of NZPA is that journalists will now have to comprehend, research and rewrite PRs themselves or — depressingly — just publish them more or less verbatim. Either way, that means a decline in news quality and more churnalism.

So the media execs behind this decision who, in Danyl’s perceptive words, “probably don’t realise quite what they’ve destroyed” know this to an extent — they know at least that the stories have to come from somewhere. I assume that they are aiming to leverage the endless horizon of social media, which has the considerable advantage of being free. Twitter, I fear, will be the major replacement for NZPA in the immediate New Zealand context. Journalists already do this to an extent — probably a greater extent than they should. While social media is important, and its role in news production is a live topic worthy of considerable discussion, it’s not any sort of substitute for a rigorous newsmaking system.

For another thing, Fairfax is an Australian company. As well as owning a large chunk of the New Zealand newspaper market (and enthusiastically presenting syndicated Australian content in its titles here), it is almost-half owner of the Australian Associated Press, a newswire service whose core business is rather like that of the NZPA (though AAP has in recent years expanded its role). If the gap in the New Zealand media market is sufficient that remaining independent content-provision agencies — such as Scoop and BusinessDesk — are unable to comprehensively fill it, it seems likely that AAP will do so. Given the pressure already exerted by overseas — and particularly Australian — newsmaking imperatives on our media ecology in New Zealand, I can’t see AAP’s potential involvement as anything but deleterious.

L

Disclosure: I work for Media Monitors, which competes with AAP in the Australian market (though not in the provision of wire content). The views expressed here are very emphatically my own.

Put it out of its misery

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2011 by Lew

After defending New Zealand’s broadcast news media in recent weeks, and bemoaning the lack of funding for public service broadcasting in particular, TVNZ has tonight hit rock-bottom. The so-called national broadcaster has been comprehensively shamed by TV3, and in the battle for news credibility it has capitulated having barely fired a shot.

John Campbell announced the Sendai Earthquake live on Campbell Live, and TV3 interrupted its broadcast of the high-rating Glee with micro-bulletins (leading the ad breaks) not long afterwards, and eventually ditched the show altogether to show live coverage from Japan’s English-language NHK network. TV One, in contrast, let MasterChef play to the end before switching to NHK. The digital-only channel TVNZ7 was also broadcasting coverage from NHK.

Both commercial channels continued to play ads, but other than that, did a pretty good job of balancing raw foreign coverage, context provided by their local presenters, and important updates for New Zealanders (tsunami alert status, etc.). And then, after broadcasting quake coverage for about an hour, One switched back to its regular programming, showing “Pineapple Dance Studios”, a reality TV show about “the larger-than-life exploits” of the dancers at said London studio. TVNZ’s other channel, TV2, was broadcasting American Idol. At some point (I haven’t been watching it) TVNZ 7 switched back to its regular programming: a book show of some sort. TV3, apparently without a second thought, cancelled the rest of its scheduled programming, and continues to carry the NHK feed, interspersed with relevant original content, including reports from New Zealand expats in Japan.

The contrast could not be more stark: while both One and TV3 remain general-purpose TV channels with a bolt-on news component, TV3 thinks of itself as and actually behaves like a bona fide news outlet, while for all its big talk TVNZ has revealed itself to be just another vehicle for empty escapism. TV3 demonstrated considerably better newscasting chops than TVNZ during the Canterbury earthquake of 22 February, but the comparison was unfair because TVNZ’s live broadcast infrastructure was more or less destroyed in the earthquake, so they had considerably less capacity to respond, for reasons outside their control. It is true that, given the volume of disaster coverage we have had recently, there is a need for an escapist bolt-hole — not least, for the traumatised survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. But that’s what TV2 and American Idol are for. Make no mistake: given our current disaster awareness, the relatively strong links between New Zealand and Japan — including the presence of Japanese USAR teams still in Christchurch — that country’s broad and deep experience of coping with events such as these, and the fact that the tsunami waves are predicted to submerge entire islands in the Pacific, including, presumably some of our protectorates — this is of legitimate news interest to New Zealanders. It is apparently the largest earthquake recorded in Japan in the past century, and one of the ten largest earthquakes ever recorded. By any meaningful metric it is an important news story worthy of our attention.

At the heart of my defence of public service broadcasting lately has been the argument that public service broadcaster raise the bar of competition, forcing commercial broadcasters to sharpen their game. To quote myself (from a comment on Red Alert the other day):

The British broadcast media are very good indeed, and the main reason for this is the BBC. Yes, the BBC itself makes up a lot of the broadcast media environment there, but more importantly, it forces commercial competitors to compete with something other than lowest-common-denominator mass-market ratings. The same dynamic exists in the two other major media markets with strong and well-provisioned PSBs: Canada and Australia, where the CBC and ABC respectively set an enormously high standard for commercial competitors to meet. This is one of the major roles of public service broadcasting, especially in news: to set a high bar for competition.
If you want to solve the problems within New Zealand’s media environment, if you want to raise the bar: make the commercial media outlets compete with something that hasn’t been gutted and hamstrung. Fund TVNZ and Radio NZ properly, give it freedom to hire and retain the best people, buy the best content, and generally do what it does, and let the others work to match them. Everyone wins.

To give just one tiny example of how this might have worked: TV3 may have reconsidered its decision to air advertisements for fast food and outboard motors between shots of buildings and fleeing vehicles being swept away by ten metre waves, if there had been a viable ad-free newscast in competition with it. To give another: perhaps, if there was some competition prepared to put up the NHK feed overnight for those whose family members and friends are in Japan, TV3 might not have cut to Sports Tonight after Nightline had aired. But there wasn’t any competition. When governments underfund public service broadcasters or hamstring them by imposing the contradictory roles of a public service mandate and the need to return a profit to the consolidated fund, both roles are weakened. We get the worst of both worlds: as taxpayers, we pay public money to fund public service broadcasting, provision of which is undermined by the channel’s need to remain obedient to market imperatives, and in exchange for putting up with ads we end up with a pale imitation of a commercial broadcaster as well. One News — and to an even greater extent TVNZ 7 — supposedly a dedicated ‘factual content’ channel — disgraced themselves and failed New Zealanders tonight. The tagline “New Zealand’s news. Anywhere. Anytime” should perhaps be revised to “Anywhere. Anytime. Except when there’s third-rate reality programming to air instead.”

TVNZ, by waving the white flag tonight, has demonstrated that it’s all but worthless as a public service broadcaster. The market is doing its job for it. If the government isn’t going to fund it well enough to turn it into a proper public service broadcaster, they might as well sell it, if they can find anyone who’ll pay anything for it. If they can’t, perhaps they can just take it out behind the shed and put it out of its misery.

L

Triangulating News Sources.

datePosted on 14:57, March 5th, 2011 by Pablo

One of the simple yet key concepts in intelligence gathering is triangulation: try to receive information from at least three independent sources about a given subject or target in order to avoid selection bias, erroneous reporting, disinformation or content manipulation. It is the mark of the intelligence professional that s/he avoids making value judgements or offering assessments until source triangulation has confirmed the accuracy or veracity of reporting from the field or in intelligence streams provided by informants, contract assets, liaison partners and open sources.

I write this not as a preamble to a discussion about how the NZSIS does not do this as a matter of course. Instead, I mention triangulation because it is a principle that seems to me to be a requirement for news-gathering in the present media context. Let me briefly explain why.

I am about to return permanently to NZ after a 3.5 year sojourn in a small SE Asian state. Although the country I am about to leave is authoritarian and places restrictions on freedoms of speech and association, it has a fairly lively media community that includes cable providers that offer a variety of news channels from around the world. As a result, I have had the luxury of watching news channels from Australia (ABC), Russia (RT), China (CCTV in English), the UK (BBC and Sky), the US (Fox and CNN), the Singapore-based Asia News Channel, and a host on Malaysian and Indonesian outlets (which I do not understand but whose images demonstrate their emphasis). I read the local paper (the Straits Times), which even if a government-supportive outlet has very good coverage of Asian news and offers insight into the mindset of the regime and society. I spend way too much time digesting a variety of on-line news providers, ranging from the NZ Herald, Stuff and Scoop to the NYT, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Buenos Aires Herald, La Prensa, Clarin (Argentina), A Folha do Sao Paulo (Brazil) , El Mercurio and La Segunda (Chile), Gramna (Cuba), The Guardian and Independent (UK), the International Herald Tribune, Economist, Christian Science Monitor and various sports outlets. The range is indicative of who I am and where my interests lie. The only major video outlet I cannot watch is al-Jazeera because it is prohibited in my country of residence over fears that it will incite the minority Malay population. So I link to it on-line via third parties.

The variety in representation of the same events is amazing. I often sit in utter wonder at the different takes RT, CCTV and al-Jazeera have on subjects such as the Middle East uprisings when compared to CNN, the BBC, Sky or the ranting chickenhawks on Faux News. Sometimes it is as if I am moving through parallel universes, and my only lament is that I cannot do a multiple split screen in real time to see all of the alternative takes simultaneously. What is unmentionable on US channels is front and centre for the Russians and al-Jazeera. The CCVT propaganda gets its counter in Channel News Asia. I am overwhelmed by choice when forming opinions about current events.

That brings me to my only concern in returning to NZ: the lack of variety in news provision. Although Stratos is an excellent provider of alternative views, as is Maori TV (I am not sure if Triangle TV is still on air), and there is plenty of the usual US and UK news channels on Sky cable, the hard fact is that in NZ there is a paucity of choice when it comes to news gathering. Although I can still use web surfing to access alternative sources of information, the problem of limited choice in news gathering is acute for those who do not have access to cable TV or computers with internet connections (i.e. the underclass). Couple this with the idiocy and vapid “human interest” stories that occupy a large part of NZ newscasts and you get a situation ripe for content manipulation by corporate broadcasters and government, whose line on a range of issues often dovetail in very neat ways. For example, little mainstream coverage has been devoted to the upcoming Urewera 18 trials (held in front of a judge rather than a jury and held in Auckland rather than closer to the site of the raids or the places where most of the defendants live, nearly 4 years after the raids were carried out), which follow one of the more outrageous abuses of anti-terrorism legislation and police authority in recent years. The story is highly important for anyone interested in civil liberties, due process, judicial independence, Maori sovereignty, social and political activism, and the nature of democracy itself. But it is nearly invisible in the corporate media.

That is why I return to NZ with my one concern: the difficulties in maintaining good triangulation in news gathering. It says a lot about NZ’s media culture that I have more choice here in the authoritarian red dot than I do in Aotearoa. Some might argue that is a function of market size, but the hard fact is that where I currently live has almost exactly the same population numbers as NZ in a much smaller land mass, with similar GDP and education levels, and equal if not more access to news sources even though all cable TV and internet provision is in the hands of two state-controlled monopolies. Hence the answer for the lack of choice in news-gathering in NZ either lies outside the market or rests on a particularly Kiwi media market dynamic that prefers ignorance over choice and spoon-feeding over triangulation. Which is it?

The television will be revolutionised

datePosted on 22:50, February 24th, 2011 by Lew

Tim Watkin has written a great think-piece on Pundit about the “birth of a new news” in New Zealand. He asks a lot of good questions about the imperatives and tensions inherent in this (and I hate the term) new paradigm:

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It’s real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, ‘the curtain is pulled back’. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?
Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.
When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you’re bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.
I’d be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What’s stood out? Are you better served? What’s worked, what hasn’t?

While this sort of coverage has been well entrenched in more mature mass-media markets for some years, it is indeed new to New Zealand. The extent of coverage we saw of the Pike River tragedy (and the valuable scrutiny of government and corporate conduct which that entailed) would probably not have occurred without the spur provided by the September 4 earthquake, which forced our local newsmakers to deploy in ways they’d never deployed before, and to consider how they might respond to a greater event.

I’ve been deeply immersed in the earthquake coverage since it happened. Probably too deeply, and it is too early for me to address any of Tim’s questions in any depth. I urge you to go and discuss them at Pundit. But Tim’s next paragraph provides the kernel of my tentative answers: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata:

In TVNZ’s control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I’ve learnt in the past year, that’s what producers do. It’s important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you’re judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

It is people. All those snap decisions are the reason it’s crucial that serious news organisations continue to employ the smartest and most dedicated people they can find, because when the chips are really down and there’s nobody to direct traffic, news needs to fall back on the instincts, judgement, professionalism and initiative of newsmakers, from the most junior interns to the best-known household names.

For all the howlers (“live bodies” is one I heard this morning; there are dozens more) the overall response by the New Zealand media has been extremely strong, and in addition to broadcasting the facts and context of this event, has served a greater purpose: to make New Zealand and the world care about Christchurch. That’s support that disasters in countries without a robust media infrastructure don’t normally draw: contrast the response with quakes, floods and so on in Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, China, and elsewhere. Individualised human experience — such as that of Ann Voss, interviewed live on TV3 after nine hours trapped in her office, having already farewelled her children — embedded in broader context become emblematic of the event; they provide distant, detached viewers a handle by which to grasp the enormity of the disaster. That’s valuable; not only for those glued to their screens, but for those whose lives and deaths have been laid rudely bare before the cameras. And how much more so for the uprisings in the Middle East, where wall-to-wall coverage, especially on Al Jazeera, has been instrumental in generating worldwide solidarity and sympathy with those who seek to overthrow their oppressors?

For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay for their stories being told to the world in ways which make the world shed tears for them, get angry on their behalf, and reach into their pockets to help. The news production model is mutual exploitation, after all.

A bigger question is: when will it end? At what point will the newsmaking apparatus have outlasted its usefulness, and be doing better service by covering personality politics, celebrity scandal and sporting achievements? Another question I can’t really answer. But I think we can trust the judgement of those people whose decision it is to make.

L

Cannabis bust news coverage bingo

datePosted on 17:57, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

Here’s a fun game. Watch tonight’s TV news (either channel) and count the following tropes.

Update: I did this — both channels, since they were conveniently on at separate times, and was pleasantly surprised by reasonably sober tone of coverage. Comments in italics.

  • Gratuitous display of cannabis leaf or other marijuana iconography
    Four times on One and thrice on 3. Mostly in the display of the “Switched On Gardener” signage.
  • Gratuitous display of drug porn (huge quantities of plants, or egregiously sticky buds, etc.)
    5 times each. TV3 used this as their studio backdrop, otherwise it was the same stock footage throughout, obviously supplied by the police. A distinct lack of additional file footage and High Times-style images of the sort which are usually stock-in-trade for this sort of coverage.
  • Police casually destroying huge quantities of same
    None! Only some police confiscating computers, other equipment in the TV3 footage.
  • Tenuous linkages of marijuana with other drugs, violence or terrorism
    None! Some passing mentions and image of other drugs, firearms and references to organised crime, but nothing tenuous or unjustified.
  • File footage of a shadowy person smoking a joint — None!
  • If it’s clear despite anonymisation that the person is brown-skinned
    None of these either.
  • Footage of people being arrested or detained
    No images of people being arrested. One shot of an unidentified (white) person walking down the street as the voiceover informed us that those arrested were appearing in court.
  • Footage of supposedly ill-gotten gains: flash cars, etc.
    Twice each, references to property being seized under proceeds of crime legislation. Nothing major.
  • Smug, serious middle-aged white people expressing deep concern.
    The only examples of this in both cases were press conference shots of the senior police officer.
  • Triumphal statements that this has broken the back of the cannabis industry, with no supporting evidence
    Again, just what the police told us. Reporters stuck generally to the facts.
  • Reporter looking smug and saying words to the effect of “we can’t reveal which garden centre at the moment …” with the clear implication that it’ll all become clear pretty soon, and anyone who’s anyone already knows
    Well, although National Radio didn’t report (and the police refused to say on-air) which gardening shop chain it was, it was no secret, so none of this.
  • Breathless revelations that people who aren’t beneficiaries or gang members are involved in cannabis production and consumption
    Mentioned twice on One and once (but more extensively) on 3 — the fact that “managers and directors” of the company were among those arrested. But in general, not a big deal made of this fact.
  • Implication that schoolchildren might have been in danger
    Not mentioned or implied at all.
  • No mention of the fact that alcohol causes orders of magnitude more harm by almost every indicator
    Not mentioned or implied either, but on both channels, the booze story took precedence, occupied considerably more screen time, and was covered in much more depth.

So, all in all, nothing much to separate the coverage on One and 3 news. Both items were characterised by a heavy (almost total) reliance on official source material and footage — although both did a field cross, TVNZ’s was the usual pointless live cross, while TV3’s reporter didn’t even make the screen, with the field shots showing police hauling stuff out of a building. Both used similar (probably supplied) footage and images as background, and emphasised the length of the investigation, the number of people involved, and the impact the bust would have on the cannabis industry. Neither report was journalist-centric, with both reporters essentially relaying facts with a minimum of editorialisation. Both reports showed a distinct lack of sensationalised narrative, imagery or suggestion, lacking the usual devices employed to propagandise and pad out this sort of topic matter.

So: well done One and 3 News :)

L

Farewell to Vapidness–and hello to insipidness.

datePosted on 17:27, April 9th, 2010 by Pablo

When I was in NZ in February-March, after a year away from the country, I was alarmed by the deterioration of what passed for news in the MSM. This was a continuation of a long-term trend that I have called the “Australianisation” of NZ news coverage, something that Lew and I talked about when we had lunch during my time in Wellington. But the gross decline over the last year was what disturbed me. Whereas the front pages of the major newspapers and lead segments of the major TV and radio news shows used to contain world and national stories of real import, by the time I arrived back in country in early 2010 even those were occupied by celebrity news, scandal and other so-called “human interest” rubbish that catered to the most purient, salacious aspects of public interest. There is war, famine, corruption, epidemics, natural disasters, corporate sleaze, international intrigue and host of other pressing news on any given day, but what is served up in the NZ media is pablum in which wardrobe malfunctions compete with drunken/drugged socialite antics and sex tapes for headlines. I blame Rupert Murdoch for the lot of it, because like PT Barnum and the Roman Emperors, he realised that by catering to the basest of human instincts and desires, media empires can be built. All you have to do is provide a carnival that diverts mass attention from the realities surrounding them, add a few creature conforts via sweepstakes and sponsor tie-ins and prizes, and voila!–you have both bread and cricuses for the masses. Worse yet, this media approach is something that very conveniently dovetails with the interests of political and corporate elites who would prefer to pursue their interests unencumbered by press or public scrutiny.

Which is why I do not lament the demise of the Sunrise program. Not withstanding the fact that all  “Australianised” morning shows are much puffery with little substance, that particular example was strinkingly moronic. Forget the tired use of yet another blond female to handle the  “soft” stories. Forget the organ grinder monkey act that passed for weather reporting. Forget the blokey rugby/cricket dude and or leggy former netballer who read sports. All of that is par for the course and shared by the risible Breakfast show as well.

No, what set Sunrise apart was the sheer rubbish that it passed off as stories, the sheer inanity of the commentary, and, with few exceptions, the sheer ignorance of the presenters of anything other than their own personae. For Pete sake, they even had a dog as a regular on the show, in an apparent effort to a) appeal to animal lovers; or b) appear more friendly/approchable/likeable. Crikey, it was bad.

Mind you, Breakfast is hardly better. But at least it first segment still contains some real news taken from sources other than its own radio affliliate (although in-house reporting has been cut back dramatically while reliance on newsfeeds from the BBC, CBS, ABC has increased, so perhaps the Mediaworks approach will eventually become the standard at TVNZ). But after 7:20 AM or so, save for the top and bottom of the hour news bulletins, the show deteriorates markedly, and after 8AM it might as well be called Sesame Street for adults. What I find particularly offensive with both of the morning shows on TV is that the content gets dumber as the morning progresses, and judging from the adverts, that is because the producers apparently believe that housewives are the main audience after 8AM, and housewives do not think much when watching a television show. Go figure.

The proof that vapidity has seeped deeply into the public consciousness is provided by the response to the announcement that Sunrise was cancelled. With very few exceptions, be it on talkback radio, newspaper reader comments, blogs or Facebook, most of the reaction pro and con is about the talking heads/presenters and their perceived “chemistry” or lack thereof when compared with the buffoon/giggles act playing over at the competitor during the same time slot.  Barely a word is mentioned about the lack of real substance in the show, or of the sheer idiocy that it passed off as news on a daily basis. Heck, if they needed that brick in human guise known as Rick Giles to increase their ratings, then it is clear that the writing was on the wall.

I fail to understand why a news content-driven morning TV show cannot succeed in NZ. There are successful news radio shows at that time of day, and while the presenter(s) is/are often a  media personality as well, their status is made by their being able to discuss news and current events in something approaching a rational and informed manner (I exclude Michael Laws and Leighton Smith from this category, although neither of them can touch John Banks when it comes to on-air hubris combined with ignorance). So why cannot that happen on TV? Could it be that the TV-watching public are, uh, less intellectually endowed than the radio-listening public? Cannot one be both?

At first it seemed like TV3 might decide to get serious and provide a real alternative to the morning carnival side show at TVNZ. But noooooooo. Sunrise is to be replaced with reruns of Magnum PI, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond and Campbell Live (which has gone from hard-hitting to ethically questionable rabble rousing and scandal mongering).  @#$% Me!

The goods news is that, having departed the Land of the Vacuous and Insipid Morning Shows, I do not have to watch this fare. The bad news is that in my current location there is more real news to choose from on radio and TV, but beyond that the situation is not much better. Heck, if you think “American Idol” is bad, then take a look at “Asian Idol” (or any number of other reality show rip-offs).

Best then, that I read a book or a “real” newspaper while having my morning tea.

Death is not the end

datePosted on 16:54, November 25th, 2009 by Lew

A curious post from Marty G at The Standard, who asks: “as newspapers die?” This is part of a wider debate about the future of the media, which I’d like to expand beyond just newspapers. As a caution to those who would conflate ‘newspapers are dying’ with ‘the media is dying’, I would suggest that the demise of the mainstream media is, in words incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Fundamentally this comes down to the following:

1. If people care about it, it can likely be profitably monetised.
2. If it can be profitably monetised, big business will eventually come to dominate it.
3. The existing newsgathering infrastructure, brand authority, networks, subscriber bases and institutional expertise are still held almost exclusively by big business.

Big business may not be good at innovating, but it is very good indeed at buying innovation and covering the last mile. That’s what it’ll do, and in some cases, what it’s doing already.

There will be changes — in terms of how content is created and distributed, to the revenue model and in particular to the specific media consumed — but fundamentally the mainstream news media will continue to do what they do, which is tell people what they need to know.

The media do not predominantly provide consumers with a good — news or information or something to wrap fish and chips in or something to watch while eating dinner) — rather, they provide a service — a filtering system which sieves out and highlights the things which people need to know to function in their social and professional and ideological worlds. There’s already more news and information out there than anyone can possible pay attention to. We all have our preferred filtering systems — The Standard and Kiwipolitico are two; who you choose to follow on Twitter is another; whether you wake up to Morning Report as I do or Marcus Lush or The Rock or Southern Star, you’re relying on those sources to give you the information you need to function competently in your world that day, and in the days to come. This is the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery principle: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it”. At present, mainstream media filtering models are more advanced than they’ve ever been — but extremely crude by comparison to the sorts of models employed in new media.

Adopting the filtration models which are being developed in new media will require media companies to adopt some of those media forms, and abandoning the old forms. To take one thing (there are plenty of others) which newspapers, radio and television don’t really do at all: interactivity. So we’re going to see things become more interactive, and that interactivity become part of the filtration system. This is how Google’s advertising functions: your usage choices are a source of data about you, and that data is a pretty good predictor of what you’ll click next. That’s good for advertisers, because it offers them a chance to sell you stuff you might want, and it’s good for you, because of all the zillions of pieces of media out there in the world, it allows a media provider to better determine which are more likely of interest to you.

We’ll also see much more device integration, and in particular the development of e-reader hardware which acts and behaves like paper, and the development of news products which use that hardware to mimic newspapers in function — providing the visual grammar of headlines, columns and images on a broadsheet or tabloid page, a form which is very highly developed and so well-understood as to barely be considered a semantic form any more (like continuity editing, or 4/4 time) — but which is almost entirely absent from existing internet news media. I understand that Apple Computer has on order a couple of million high-resolution low-power 10-inch touchscreen LCDs to make a next-generation reader device for market in the next 12 months or so.

But these things are largely cosmetic. Overall, the fundamental nature of the media market will not change. Some of the big companies might die or fall apart, but they’ll be replaced. It won’t be independents and startups for ever, and there will never be a persistent community-of-knowledge citizen-journalists-ruling-the-roost utopia such as many in the blogosphere so desperately wish for (because it would allow them to quit their jobs and get paid for doing this full-time). The main reason for this is that news costs money, whereas opinion (i.e, 90% or more of bloggery) is mostly free but is reliant on news. The money for the news machine comes from the interesting fact that, in the commercial media industry, the ‘product’ and ‘consumer’ are the reverse of what most people think they are. The ‘product’ is not programmes or articles or news (that’s a service); and the ‘consumer’ is not the person reading, watching or listening. That person — you, and me, and everyone else who consumers the media — is the product, and the consumer of commercial media services is the advertiser whose products you also consume. The media, by functioning as an effective filtering system, serves you up content you want and serves up your eyeballs, earholes, networks and ultimately your wallets to advertisers who pay the media handsomely for doing so. Everyone wins — or at least, everyone goes away thinking they’ve gotten a good deal. This model, at a fundamental level, is not under threat, because there is no other ready means of monetising news. That’s not to say it will always be so. It’s possible that a media business model will emerge which doesn’t rely on advertising, but one way or the other, someone is paying, and if it’s not the advertisers paying for you, then in all likelihood it will be you paying for yourself. How much would you pay? Would that be enough? These are real questions, because talk might be cheap, but news ain’t.

L

No longer a good, not yet a service

datePosted on 17:07, August 13th, 2009 by Lew

“Getting what you deserve” by Nick Smith in today’s Independent (which isn’t, it’s Fairfax-owned) is a good read about the future of the media. In beautiful irony, it doesn’t seem to be online, so I’ll excerpt it here:

“Journalists deserve low pay” Robert Picard, media economics professor at Jonkoping University, Sweden, opined provocatively. “Wages are compensation for value creation and journalists simply aren’t creating much value these days.”

The alarming disappearance of papers and journalists (27,000 have lost their jobs in the US alone in the last 18 months) is, Picard argues, a result of loss of control of content.

Picard believes skilled journalists are not like skilled plumbers. Their skill is the distribution of other peoples’ knowledge. Now, that knowledge is distributed online at little cost, and control of the saleable commodity has disappeared. “The primary value created today comes from the basic underlying value of the labour of journalists. Unfortunately that value is now near zero.”

Rupert Murdoch, so often cast as the scourge of journalism, is shaping up as a white knight. His News Corp is to start charging for website content. … His determination to wrest control of content and ensure payment is significant. The Financial Times followed last week with its own iTunes-inspired business model Fairfax Media, Australia-based publisher of The Independent, is also said to be considering joining the pay-per-read campaign. If both follow through, every daily Australian newspaper, save the West Australian, will charge for at least some online reading. Fairfax chief executive Brian McCarthy’s comments that digital delivery must be monetised will cheer Barry Colman, publisher of the National Business Review, the only New Zealand website to charge a fee. Colman says a pay-per-view model is the only way to stop further newspaper losses and the erosion of quality.

[Edit: It’s online now. Thanks I/S.]

The problem with Murdoch, Colman and indeed the good professor whose quote leads the piece, is that they see news as a good; a thing which people should pay for. But really, it’s not a good – it’s a service.

Or more precisely, news text and information is a good, but it can’t readily be monetised – what can, and must, be monetised is the service of distributing and providing access to that good, and most critically, the service of filtering out all the stuff which is irrelevant. This is the service journalists provide – their real value isn’t, as Picard says, generating content in the paragraph factory, it’s in their role as decision-makers defining what is news and what isn’t, what people need to know about and what they don’t.

Murdoch and his cohort see the internet, which robs their ‘good’ of value, as a problem to be solved or circumvented. But the internet is the only thing which will allow for the establishment of a genuine service which will enable media companies to provide tailored, targeted content to individual readers.

Content can be free – but as the volume of content grows, the value of relevance increases. That’s where the money is.

L