Thursday, April 14, 2011

Future lies ahead

Last week, we heard that the New Zealand Press Association is closing. One of its joint owners, Fairfax Media, is no longer willing to support it.

I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I've been moaning about the quality of journalism in this country since I got here. (Honestly, it's pathetic.) But now I'm pretty sure it's about to get a whole lot worse.

To explain why, I'm going to have to go into a little context.
  • Fairfax Media is an Australian-owned company that bought into the NZ newspaper business in 2003
  • Fairfax owns the NZPA jointly with its (also Australian) rival APN
  • Fairfax publishes the Dominion Post, Sunday Star Times, and a motley bag of local and suburban newspapers
  • APN publishes the New Zealand Herald plus sundry other titles, and also owns a handful of widely promoted radio stations
  • The NZPA, which has been in business for 130 years, provides news feeds indiscriminately to whoever will pay for them.
The important point to note here is that NZPA is a relic from the days of actual newspapers, whereas its owners are both modern transnational corporations.

But why should that matter? Give me a chance, I'm coming to it...

The reason Fairfax gives for taking its ball home is that it's not happy with the NZPA's output. "Often those stories aren't investigative, they're not stories carved out by the NZPA", says Fairfax's "Group Executive Editor", Paul Thompson.

But isn't that the point of an agency? They're supposed to provide facts, not "stories". Investigating, and writing stories, is the newspaper journalists' job. What an agency provides is the raw materials for this process.

There is, however, no money in facts. Facts aren't protected by copyright; it's impossible to 'own' them (barring a few special cases, such as trade secrets). The only type of information that you can monetise is the type you've made up.

And that's why the most successful media organisations of our time would rather not report news; they prefer "comment", "analysis" and outright fiction. Because we ask to the free market to provide our news, but - now that information is no longer tied to a physical object, or even a persistent medium - we have completely failed to provide any incentives for it.

And that's why Paul Thompson is, quite rationally, doing away with the supply of facts. Oh, I'm sure the decent journalists - of whom there are a few, although criminally overworked - will do their best to be truthful. But fact-checking takes time, which is in ever-shorter supply nowadays; and worse, it often derails the train of your story.

Much easier just to go with what seems likely. Worst case, if anyone calls you on it, it'll just drive more traffic to your website. Win-win.

(Incidentally, I saw this news story on TV3, owned by yet another Australian consortium. Oh well, at least none of them belongs to Rupert Murdoch.)

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