Fake news, bad news, old news, Gyles Beckford

Don’t Dream It’s Over:  Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett (eds)
Freerange Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473364946

I’m a dead man working.

My family tells me, my colleagues and competitors tell me, my friends tell me: end of career, old technology dinosaur, attached to printed and spoken words. All past, no future. This collection of essays, interviews, and homilies tells me so often in its more than 350 pages.

No craft – dare I say, profession – seems to take itself so seriously that it analyses itself in such minute detail about its contribution and importance to society as journalism. There are no angst-ridden tomes by accountants and auditors, doctors, civil engineers, or even lawyers, about their future. There exist volumes by futurists, but rarely by someone from inside those professions. But then, probably few believe that the future of liberal democracy is jeopardised by digital disruption to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or by the organisation and ownership of the legal profession.

So it should be no surprise that a collection of current and former journalists, academics, commentators and authors should opine about the past, present and future of journalism. And there’s no shortage of symptoms and diagnoses of the current condition of the industry, even if it’s a little short on the prognosis. The contributors to this book seem to have already given up on the future of long-form print journalism, and seem to hold little hope for the broader print medium.

Those with a notion of a golden age of New Zealand journalism will be disabused of such an idea reading this book. There was no golden age, just some glorious moments, as veteran Jim Tully reminds us, in times of need such as the Christchurch quakes. The chapter by former New Zealand Herald reporter Chris Barton on his gradual demise and departure, the perceptive view of Morgan Godfery about the coverage of parliament and politics, and Mihingarangi Forbes’s critique of the neglect of Māori issues, show that much has been lacking from what might be regarded as mainstream coverage under the old model.

The worry is that traditional news coverage is wilting in the face of the internet, social media and smartphones, and from the changing tastes of an increasingly shallow consumer, short on attention, and even shorter on interest. And, as in most things, the fate of media rests with the commercial return to publishers, not the value of the maintenance of democracy, the plurality of voices, or the reflection and informing of communities. “The big question is how do we make journalism viable and that comes down to money,” states one of the book’s co-editors, Emma Johnson.

The dichotomy between the past and present staff of Fairfax newspapers about the merits of the Fairfax New Zealand-NZME merger spoke volumes about the reality. The old rushed to oppose it on principle, the current seemed dragooned to support it on economics. Such is the pace of change that the book has already been overtaken by events. It was published just before the Sky TV-Vodafone merger was shot down by the Commerce Commission, and long before the competition watchdog made a decision on the Fairfax-NZME proposal.

Does any of this matter to anyone beyond the small educated section of society that cares about notions of speaking truth to power, that believes journalism should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Surely, the digital revolution guarantees any group, any belief or opinion, its own self-sustaining microcosm of content, to underpin its beliefs and excoriate its villains?

It does, but therein, according to several contributors, lies the problem. Because, as the number of “traditional” media outlets diminishes, so does the range of news coverage and analysis. Instead, public indifference, ignorance, and a growing appetite for clickbait content, will lead to a dumbed-down public.

One of the solutions proffered is publicly funded journalism. Investigative writer Nicky Hager and Victoria University media studies lecturer Peter Thompson suggest that we can buy better journalism. Hager suggests pumping more money into public service news outlets, such as Radio New Zealand. Thompson suggests a levy on internet and mobile operators to go into a contestable fund for private media. Brave words for a brave new media world, but how many would trust a state-appointed and -controlled committee to decide on the merits of one article/project over another?

It’s not all bad news.

Radio New Zealand (RNZ, in the age of multi-platform branding) draws widespread support and respect for its news, current affairs and feature programmes, despite the pressure of eight years without a budget increase. The community or small suburban newspaper remains a stalwart of local coverage that matters to communities, as a chapter on Waiheke Island’s Gulf News illustrates. New ventures, such as Fairfax’s video investigations unit, the Spinoff, and Newsroom, offer glimmers of hope that not everything will disappear under a tsunami of clickbait.

What is notably missing from this book is any in-depth discussion about the rise of artificial intelligence in journalism. The Washington Post, bought by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, has been experimenting with AI-journalism for several years, using a “bot” called Heliograf. It connects to a database, perhaps a set of election results or company earnings, and writes simple, routine stories using pre-written templates. Other bots have been developed to create short videos, verify the integrity of tweets, and collect basic news from events. What scope there for fake news and alternative facts?

So, what of the future of journalism? This book doesn’t know, although in places it offers some hints. Every society has had storytellers, even if the means has changed from cave drawings to printing presses, from coffee house scandal sheets to 24 hour news channels, from graffiti to Twitter and Facebook.

The future will be a different country, and they will do things differently there. The challenge for all of us – practitioners, consumers, media owners and policy makers – is to ensure we continue to see the value of what is done, even as we count the cost.

Gyles Beckford is RNZ Business Editor.

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