This is Sarah‘s chapter from Don’t dream it’s over: Reimagining journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, a collaborative title exploring the past, present and future of journalism in NZ, commissioned and compiled by the good people at Freerange Press. Sarah was an editor on the book, which is out this week.
Discussion of what journalism is, and what it could be, is important because the way in which humans are framed by the pen either reinforces or queries the ideas that ultimately shape our lives. Although the media doctor the truth we present – through the editing process or curatorial choices or otherwise – we also play an important role in challenging official discourses, and revealing the realities those discourses often conceal. It’s equally true that individuals, and the societies we comprise, exercise autonomy in choosing what information to accept or reject, but if reliable sources are limited, then our starting point for thought, and the actions it either spurs or inhibits, is effectively compromised.
The industry continues to converge along commercial lines, which has implications not only for the diversity and quality of our news, but for the development and progression of New Zealand culture, our political and economic systems, and society at large. We’ve become accustomed to the notion of, and need for, a healthy fourth estate – a cohort of professional journalists bold, brave or stupid enough to hold the government and other power players to task, while also fielding criticism and critique from the public and their peers. Journalism attempts to guide us as we seek to understand what’s really going on, and to develop our own conclusions. But journalism and its professionalisation are relatively modern phenomena, and the media industry is younger still. In reality, the sector, and the journalistic endeavours it facilitates, is unlikely to ever stop reforming.
“Journalism and its professionalisation are relatively modern phenomena, and the media industry is younger still.”
We stand at a major turning point – or perhaps more accurately, within a storm that hasn’t shown its eye. The way in which truth and fact are conjured is once again evolving, and who and what qualifies as the media is being redefined. Legacy media – the traditional honchos – are far from dead, but social media networks have become profoundly influential in a relatively short space of time. It has been claimed that the rise of networking platforms has simply facilitated a switching out of one set of gatekeepers for another*. Facebook and Twitter et al. – and increasingly messaging apps like WeChat, Telegram, WhatsApp and Line – are the new agenda-setting portals and curators of information, entertainment and ‘the news’. In response, a growing number rely on some sort of digital device to stay connected and to stay informed*. Whether you’re a kid in Dunedin watching music videos or a refugee staying in touch with family via smartphone, being able to tap into the mainframe matters. What’s more, in 2016 Google collected $67 million in advertising revenue in New Zealand, equivalent to a winning 37 per cent of the market; Facebook took second place with $29.5 million, or 16 per cent*. Traditional media – and even established new outlets like BuzzFeed and Mashable – are struggling to compete as commercial operations, particularly as mechanisms for bartering online advertising space and ad blockers become simultaneously more and more intelligent.
New Zealand’s big media outlets aren’t exempt from the pressure this engenders. Redundancies, resignations, mergers and the rest have made the fact they’re struggling to retain audiences and market share – and the authority and credibility they were once more or less regarded as holding – hard to hide. But perhaps the whittling of ascendancy this represents isn’t all bad. Digital tools, online spaces and the new avenues for communication they offer, allow a wider range of views to be presented and potentially heard, strengthening – or diluting, depending on your take – the pool of thought. Social networking and user-generated content platforms have blurred, and in some cases entirely removed, distinctions between consumers and producers of media content. For journalists this is of course a double-edged sword: on the one hand it offers opportunities to more effectively connect with audiences and source some types of information; on the other, new media can be overwhelming and downright time-consuming to manage. And, as video continues to prove king – with the likes of Snapchat, Facebook Live and Periscope making it very easy for laypeople to broadcast – what does that mean for professional story production? How can working journalists stand out?
Along with facilitating the shaping and projection of identity, including through what media content individuals choose to be seen to interact with online, social-media use highlights the ease with which audiences can construct their own truth. They can simply unfollow, turn off notifications or edit you out of the picture. We’re no longer reliant on six o’clock bulletins for the news of the day; with a plethora of choices now available from across the globe, publics can easily pull information from a wide variety of sources at any time and build a story for themselves.
Algorithms and equality of access aside, I see the current, apparent chaos of the media as in many ways more reflective than traditional models – in the sense that a broader mix of reporting outlets can offer a fuller picture of the world and allow traditionally underrepresented voices to be heard. That said, a loss of control of both the medium and the message is a genuinely frightening prospect in some ways, as it can make it easy for misinformation to spread very quickly and for media platforms, and the hardware that actuates them, to be co-opted by parties with dubious intent, which can have significant impacts offline as well as on. But surely, overall, a multi-faced, non-hierarchical media is more in keeping with that much-repeated mandate of journalism – to speak truth to power – than legacy models, which have tended to reflect and reinforce the inequities that underpin society both in terms of their structure and their messaging. Journalism has long been a battlefield for vested interests, as is any institution that dangles the carrot of influence.
So, in an internet age where legacy media is shrinking, news is truly immediate and we’re learning how to work with open data, is it journalism as fourth estate that’s in crisis, or the industry that’s formed around it?* The media as we’ve most recently known it is breaking; is broken. But industries form and fail, and journalism’s next incarnation doesn’t have to involve an undermining of its importance as a public service. The sector has certainly been disrupted, which is likely to be bad for the business of journalism for a while longer. Commercial pressures have already forced the commercial media to change how it operates. As revenue and budgets continue to shrink, the temptation understandably grows to pull all stops in an attempt to reach the widest audience possible, including through defaulting to populist topics and headlines that generate easy clicks. Yet, paradoxically, such attempts to keep boats afloat tend to further undermine the credibility of the media product at hand. Clickbait and advertorial can be justified as a response necessitated by consumerism, and a public accustomed to its tropes, but presuming that lite media is all people respond to, or desire, is smug and self-defeating. Fortunately, bigger outlets like the New Zealand Herald appear to be hearing and beginning to respond to disgruntlement in this vein from both the public and wider industry, as evidenced by some of their recent investigative reporting projects.
“Is it journalism as fourth estate that’s in crisis, or the industry that’s formed around it?”
Of course, none of this solves the issue of how a journalist in New Zealand gets paid – to produce substantive stories with the freedom to not have to tiptoe around commercial interests (a pressure that might arise if their output is sponsored). It may no longer be possible to secure significant revenue via worn routes, but there are certainly plenty of operators, of all sizes, facing the challenge of finding new means, and doing so in a constantly updating climate. There is unlikely to be one shoe that fits all, but part of the solution may include engaging in direct conversation with publics about what would be lost if ‘serious journalism’ were to vanish altogether, and what would need to happen to re-establish the value of that sort of journalism in Aotearoa.
Cultivating a culture in which people are prepared to pay for media content is tricky for many reasons, including the fact that for a long time its true cost has been unseen – rolled into taxes, or advertising, internships and very long hours. A similar interrogation of value is underway in a number of other industries that have also been disrupted by the internet, apps and a proliferation of other new technologies. Should we pay for music? Photos? Why? Indeed, the very notion of what it means to have a clearcut profession is in flux in many fields, and even whether being professionally or academically qualified matters*. The growing dominance of social media networks and messaging apps as routes via which people get all sorts of information, including news, complicates things further. Why pay to use one source, when really you want to hear from a mix – and you’ve come to rely on friends and others to help you filter the enormous range of information that’s out there?
2016 hasn’t left us wanting for examples of the complexities of a more anarchic fourth estate. In a relatively gentle illustration of this, Facebook recently fielded fire from Republicans and other conservatives in the US, who were adamant that the platform manipulates its ‘trending topics’ app to favour a liberal agenda. Ironically, the network responded by claiming it only brought human editors in to monitor the app when its algorithms were blamed for over-representing the Ice Bucket Challenge over #blacklivesmatter in 2014. Facebook has received much flack for disrupting the media, and undermining serious journalism, but it takes two (or 1.09 billion)* to tango. The company increasingly needs to think and act like a news source because in a short space of time we’ve come to rely on it to be one.
At the time of writing, Facebook had just opened its Instant Articles mechanism up to publishers of all sizes – announced with a promotional video featuring editors at big media brands like National Geographic, the Atlantic and BuzzFeed expressing their admiration for the tool. This despite the fact the development is designed to hold users within Facebook, rather than clicking out to sites of origin to read linked-to articles. The content itself looks good, the functionality is less clunky, and publishers can access richer analytics and other benefits. While critics opine this will reinforce Facebook’s monopoly on the attention of its still-growing number of users, the feature seems to be a way of throwing big media a bone, given there is seemingly little they can do about the behemoth’s dominance of content distribution and the capture of revenue. For little media outlets with developer capacity it offers a potential fast-track to greater legitimacy.
But not everything’s happening on Facebook. The increased use of messaging apps not only as routes for communication but as news portals emphasises that, particularly in non-Western markets, there are alternatives to the white and blue. Collaborative citizen journalism, like that conducted by Latin American journalist collective Mídia Ninja is on the rise, providing a counter-narrative to news as reported by the mainstream media. Established media are exploring the potentialities of new tools too; the Guardian’s use of Google Docs to collect suggestions from readers as to how to deal with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (after BP admitted they were flummoxed) saw them gather ideas and advice from professional divers, marine engineers, physicists, biochemists, mechanical engineers, petrochemical and mining workers and more, which they then analysed and reported on.
The Panama Papers were big news in 2016, but it wasn’t the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)’s first scoop. Another of their recent projects was collaborated on over the course of 11 months by more than 50 journalists from 21 countries, representing 20 media outlets from around the world – and investigated the World Bank Group’s role in displacing millions of the world’s poor through its funding of so-called development initiatives that ultimately had adverse effects*. The results of the report were published on a microsite hosted by The Huffington Post, one of the world’s largest media platforms. Collectives like Everyday Middle East have risen out of frustrations with essentialising narratives, to show alternative representations of life in the Middle East and North Africa. The group operates predominantly on Instagram, and is contributed to by photographers from the MENA region (there are now also versions in other territories). The feed has over 135,000 followers, many of whom actively interact with the group’s posts. In New Zealand, citizens banded together to raise enough funds to purchase Awaroa beach in the Abel Tasman so it is publicly owned, an effort supported and driven by media coverage, indicating it is possible to connect and mobilise our own public at scale.
And let’s not forget that a number of social networking services – and the internet itself – grew at least in part out of activist efforts to create alternative, independent spaces for communication and information-sharing. The idea has always been to diffuse hierarchy and give greater agency to a greater number. This is a particularly meaningful aim in contexts where marginalised and vulnerable groups have little or no access to formal routes for social and political involvement. Connection to the World Wide Web – provided of course that connection is achievable in a practical sense – can not only help people to overcome barriers like limited knowledge of official processes, or simply the intimidation of having to meet with someone in a sanctioned role, it can also link them with allies and media beyond their immediate communities, categories and geographical regions. In theory, the scope for confronting and dismantling exclusionary social stratification is a shift that should excite journalists, at least those that consider journalism a service to all publics, not just elite groups and the middle classes.
“The idea has always been to diffuse hierarchy and give greater agency to a greater number.”
But what do New Zealanders want from their media? Information? Analysis? Entertainment? Water-cooler craic? And what does the media think people want and need from it? Increasingly sophisticated data collection capabilities mean that these days there’s no shortage of quantitative information available regarding audience behaviour. This enables a high level of responsiveness on the part of media organisations – including, perhaps, justifying staff cuts – which works if maximising advertising revenue and profit is the driving aim, but doesn’t if objectively informing a given public vis-à-vis the fourth estate is. This tension encourages a querying of the role of journalism today and of the very notion of what constitutes the public good. If it’s still agreed that a key function of journalism is to look out for the interests of the public à la democracy, and that publics that are well-informed are likely to demand and develop better social processes, then the quality of our information – and cultivating a citizenship that engages with it – matters. Whose role is it to protect and promote this function? New Zealand’s current government certainly doesn’t seem too concerned.
A reimagining of what journalism is, and how it should happen, demands a re-visioning of the purpose of journalism – or to more clearly identify its multiple and varied purposes under changed conditions, without losing the possibilities offered by a mixing of forms and disciplines. Actively, responsively engaging with publics to map what comprises a quality media today could go a long way to re-establishing the value of professional journalism. We are starting to see the impact that peer-to-peer and sharing movements, combined with the rise of big and open data, could have. Indeed, cooperatives like The Bristol Cable (UK) and Freerange Press (NZ) are examples of journalists and non-journalists – though the latter may be writers, and expert in their fields – teaming up in response to the implosion of the media industry by taking on the role of collective media ownership and publishing. Rather than defaulting to disciplinary silos, the professional world is starting to dismantle walls not only between academic disciplines, but sectors. There’s a broader ideological, systemic battle underway, as technology upends industries, tiers and linearity across the board. In a world where the rules are constantly changing, and fast, what it means to have a robust, professional fourth estate may be changing altogether. Now that citizens are able to engage more substantively than through occasional letters to editors, perhaps the role that the press originally filled can now be performed by actors other than, and as well as, journalists. If so, what does that mean for journalism, as institution and as career?
To hold our place we need to adapt by, for example, supporting a new generation of practitioners to develop dynamic skills in flexible environments that encourage innovative work of a standard that will keep audiences engaged, informed and coming back. At the moment, how many employers offer that to young journalists? More likely they will be charged with reshuffling syndicated content and digging for clickbait. We need to help fresh entrants to develop the aptitude deemed necessary to do a top job – whether through encouraging specialisation, mentoring, or just paying them enough to cover the cost of living in New Zealand. NZ On Air is pretty good at supporting broadcast media, but where is that for freelance journalists? Certainly not their paycheques. Conversely, many highly qualified media are being edged out of bigger organisations because they’re no longer ‘a fit’, or because they simply can’t afford to work at the barrel-bottom rates peddled to graduates and interns. Unfair, then, to jeer them for ending up in PR. At least PR agencies tend to pay contractors a decent rate, on time.
When considering the changing media landscape – in New Zealand and globally – it’s easy to focus on the ways in which traditional models are breaking. But to do so obscures the potential of the current ‘crisis’ as an opportunity to recalibrate journalism in a way that allows us to both practice and engage with it more effectively than before. The media shouldn’t stagnate or founder – it should adapt with, or lead, changing times. The challenges are daunting, but media in Aotearoa have been handed an infrequent opportunity to collaboratively reimagine journalism so it’s something we can be proud to pursue. That may seem tricky, given we are a small and competitive territory, but our size is also a boon. We’re small enough to test things out (if limited in our ability to scale up) and, as well as having great journalistic talent locally, we have working media around the world collecting experience and expertise. This book represents a tip of the iceberg of who’s out there.
“The media shouldn’t stagnate or founder – it should adapt with, or lead, changing times.”
There’s no reason the future of journalism in New Zealand can’t be far more exciting than its past. The work is reinventing itself, permission granted or no, and to actively participate in its reforming requires accepting that the medium, the message and the audience/s are now thoroughly intertwined. It also requires connecting with and understanding audiences in new and genuine ways – seeking to understand what drives them in a way big media have never done before, because big media have been more accustomed to setting the tone than adapting to it. Things have changed.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.
*E. Bell, “Facebook is Eating the World,” Columbia Journalism Review, March 7, 2016, accessed June 6, 2016; B. Mullin, “It’s Time to Reinvent the Pulitzer Prizes for this Media Age,” Poynter, April 4, 2016, accessed June 6, 2016.
*K. Terry, “The Changing NZ Consumer,” Nielsen, July 29, 2015, accessed June 20, 2016.
*J. Underhill, “Merged Fairfax, NZME Would Have Just 12% of NZ Digital Ad Market Dominated by Google, Facebook,” National Business Review, May 27, 2016, accessed June 20, 2016.
*B. Zelizer, “Terms of Choice: Uncertainty, Journalism, and Crisis,” Journal of Communication, 65 (2015): 888-908.
*M. E. Grabe & J. G. Myrick, “Informed Citizenship in a Media-Centric Way of Life,” Journal of Communication, 66 (2016): 215–235; B Zelizer, “Terms of Choice,” 888–908.
*“Company Info,” Facebook Newsroom, accessed June 20, 2016.
*S. Chavkin et al, “Evicted & Abandoned: How the World Bank Broke its Promise to Protect the Poor,” Huffington Post, April 16, 2015, accessed April 26, 2016.