I can’t imagine how disheartening it is to work as a journalist in New Zealand. Almost as disheartening as it is to be a news consumer in New Zealand.
The newspapers are shit. I include Stuff, owned by Fairfax, in this as Stuff has become indistinguishable from the NZ Herald—they race to cover each other’s stories and make sure nobody sees a different set of “news” when they visit the other’s pages. There are two rays of hope, though: Radio New Zealand and NewsHub. I’d never have picked it, but TV3’s NewsHub seems to cover more actual news than newspapers (or, perhaps, features Real News more prominently than Rugby Player In Celebrity Vajazzling Tragedy And What Does It Mean For Your House Prices stories).
What do I look for?
- New Zealand focus, as opposed to printing Australian or UK stories. If I’m a Pom living in NZ, I can skim the Guardian or Daily Mail and choose which Brit stories I want to read, instead of having that selection made for me by the type of person who thinks “Woman’s excruciating pain baffled docs” is a story. Stories about my region are more relevant than stories about other regions.
- Beyond a reprinted press release. A press release tells me what the originator of the press release wants me to think. What context does this sit in—who is behind the press release, is there a real problem, what’s the history behind this solution, what data supports or challenges this, what do neutral experts think? I’d like to become better informed about the issue, not simply the latest step.
- Relevance. To me that means I can take action on it. It might be by voting or by spending or by travelling or contributing.
What I don’t look for:
- Celebrities, who help me not at all.
- House prices, which help me not at all.
- Foreign stories, which help me not at all.
- Scare stories, which help me not at all.
The latter is particularly relevant. The Herald’s top 15 stories feature: cursed, bitter, murder, sexual, excruciating, illness, attack, murder, breast, punched. 15 stories, 10 of which are scare stories or framed as such. The framing with sex and violence is like deep-frying and covering the news in sugar: it makes more people want to consume it, but what they’re consuming harms them. As one researcher wrote, Fear has become a standard feature of news formats steeped in a problem frame oriented to entertainment. Entertainment abhors ambiguity, while truth and effective intervention efforts to improve social life reside in ambiguity. It is this tension between entertaining and familiar news reports, on the one hand, and civic understanding, on the other hand, that remains unresolved.
First-pass breakdown of the NZ Herald coverage follows. I’ve taken the website section by section, and looked at how each story works for me. I should probably have done this in a spreadsheet, rows for stories and columns for what look & don’t look for.
The NZ Herald web site prominently features 15 stories under their logo. Each is shown with headline and thumbnail photo and teaser text. Few qualify as relevant news.
- `Cursed resort’ of Rarotonga: a Bayleys real estate listing, only a few readers can do anything wiht this “news”.
- Bitter feud behind 60 Minutes Arrest: Australian news, no meaningful action a Kiwi reader can take on it.
- Toddler killer walks with empty pram: Australian news, of no value to NZ readers except titillation.
- DJ dropped over sexual allegations: arguable news, definitely salacious, readers can act on this if they’re in Auckland. Perhaps I was shown this message because I am near Auckland, and other readers saw other messages upon which they can act.
- Is Roger Federer really a nice guy? Unactionable celebrity toss.
- Woman’s excruciating pain baffled docs: American story, “the condition is also called mesenteric fibromatosis. About 900 desmoid tumors are diagnosed annually in the United States”, so odds of it being relevant to us is minute — tell the doctors to keep their eyes open for rare conditions, but there’s bugger all that we patients can do with a regular diet of stories about rare conditions other than worry.
- The great octopus escape: NZ story about an octopus escaping from Napier’s National Aquarium. No action a reader can take, other than to make a mental note to visit the attraction that no longer holds Inky the Octopus.
- ‘I was losing all feeling in my body’: NZ consumer affairs story. A change in formula of an “alternative medicine”/heath products was driven by Australian regulatory change, but the known-risky ingredient was left for sale in NZ. MedSafe, the NZ regulator, was unavailable for comment, which is a bit shit.
- Dogs attack pregnant woman in Christchurch: useful knowledge if you’re in Christchurch. Useless to the rest of us. So much for the “shown relevant stories” theory.
- The Bachelor’s most tense moment yet: more celebrity shit. It’s the rare day, it feels, where there’s NOT a story about some aspect of The Bachelor. Fucks given: 0.
- Chaining yourself to tree does work: 52-year old Havelock North woman chains herself to a walnut tree and the council relents on chopping it down. Bigger question, left unanswered, is why a council is chopping down food trees.
- Mother’s head dumped in recycling bin: Seattle news. Of absolutely no relevance to pretty much all NZ readers.
- ‘Trump makes me want to move to NZ’: Billy Crystal promotes his upcoming tour.
- ‘Dude, this room is the breast!’: light fixtures project breasts onto the ceiling. A photo and story taken from Buzzfeed, etc.
- Student held down, punched in class: Christchurch student bullied. Relevant to Christchurch readers, and of secondary interest to readers who have kids in school and are worried about bullying.
Then comes the National section:
- Facebook blackmailer jailed: Whangarei news, but again relevant to children (victim was 14 year old girl). Thumbnail photo and text on the home page.
- Brian Rudman: Sugar obesity link plain for all but Govt to see: opinion piece about obesity and regulation. Teased with text and glimpse of a cartoon that runs with the opinion piece.
- David Rutherford: Privacy at risk in child safety push: opinion piece about government depts data-sharing and privacy.
- Te Atatu accused pleads not guilty: apparently a story the Herald has been following for its readers, about a murder in a “quiet suburb”. (I’m very glad they didn’t describe it as “leafy”, which is the preferred adjective for Remuera, Epsom, and any other suburb they want to say is rich but not say is rich)
- Jail for man who fled in stolen car while on drugs: Whangarei local news.
- Amsterdam Schiphol airport evacuated: terrorism-fear related.
- Across the Ditch: 7 things to read now: Australian news teases.
- 8 things you need to know right now: teased as “Your catch-up on stories that have broken overnight and this morning”, the stories are: Republican presidential race, Australian TV news in Lebanon (full story covers this above), Democratic presidential race, IMF warning “severe global damage” about Britain existing the European Union, Brazilian politics, dead reality TV star, Bono speaks out for refugees in Europe, possible Caravaggio found in France. That’s what we need to know right now?
- Hawking’s interstellar mission to find alien life: science, technology, futuristic. No action we can take but at least it’s optimistic.
- Michael Hill confirms primary listing move to ASX: the news is what you might get from a press release. No analysis.
- Income tax in New Zealand lowest in OECD: “Single workers in New Zealand face taxes of 17.6 per cent in 2015, compared with the OECD average of 35.9 per cent.” My first response was to be aghast, as that’s HALF of the OECD average. Anyone who grouses that their kids’ school is underfunded or has a relative die after months on a surgery waiting list should have the dots connected for them. The last line of the story ends is “The report doesn’t take into consideration GST.” That’s only 24% of the government’s revenue. So why even bother with this “news”? The journalist has taken an OECD report and looked for NZ’s position in the graphs and turned numbers into sentences.
… and here my will to live ends. We’re so far below the fold of the web page that these articles can’t get many reads. And if I read much further, I’ll encounter the Entertainment and Lifestyle sections which will end me.
Also at the top of the page is a ticket with few-word teases for two “trending” items, and a list of stories showing “Latest”. I’m back later in the day, and the current Latest listings are:
- Prime Minister John Key visits China as defence force simulates threat in disputed territory: two PMs visit China as their defence forces participate in an exercise that simulates a threat against Malaysia and Singapore from “an unnamed force”. Purely coincidence, nothing to see here. Actual news, but short of analysis: does this jeopardise our relationship with China, or is this political business-as-usual?
- Brian Rudman: Sugar obesity link plain for all but Govt to see: this article was posted hours ago, is not “latest”.
- Paula Bennett to head to New York to sign historic climate agreement: actual news, though short in the analysis area.
- Is Lindsay Lohan engaged? Celebrity gossip.
- Dog app launched to help keep kids safe: “The new app, called A Dog’s Story, aims to engage young children and teach them safe behaviour around dogs. […] it was commissioned by pet food maker Mars Petcare and developed in Auckland by Colenso BBDO, with input from Auckland Council’s animal management team.” Reworded press release, which appeared two days ago on NewsHub.
- Game, Set and Match Podcast Wed Apr 13: Radio Sport press release about a tennis podcast. Because subscribing to podcasts is best done by reading the NZ Herald’s “Latest Listings” every day and looking for a new edition of the podcasts you like.
- College Sport: St Peter’s dominate Maadi Cup: high school rowing news.
- Fine filling for wet-weather sandwich: WeatherWatch weather forecast written as a story.
- Does sex count as exercise?: I can’t even.
- Steve Hansen excited by new All Blacks era: also known as “Steve Hansen puts a happy face on injuries”.