Review: Don't Dream It's Over

Joe Nunweek on Freerange Press's roundtable on the future of journalism

Crass, consolidating, and in crisis – who cares about journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand? Freerange Press’s anthology of essays, interviews and case studies makes it clear that those who still do are fighting the good fight.

A couple of illustrative anecdotes, to begin with. The first is about the year I spent working in the content mines after settling in Melbourne from Auckland. I was editing legal newsletters and guidebooks for a flailing legacy product, nestled inside a vast international financial services marketing company. The main source of income in the place, so far as I could tell, was marketing paywalled stock tips to the planet’s angry self-made uncles, upselling them through a series of gauntlets while insistently reminding them that they knew better than to be fleeced by an IRL financial advisor. The business did very, very well.

Somehow, I worked hard enough on the flailing legacy product to be flown to one of the company’s opulent and refurbished European mansions for training and indoctrination. On our final afternoon, the CEO, a mightily tall and tanned but slightly wizened figure who I can only describe as a ripped Mr. Burns, presented a spiel with his right-hand man on the future of media.

Said spiel was that everyone else would collapse by 2020. Time, News Ltd, Fairfax, the New York Times, the Guardian. They would all be gone, and our financial marketing company (again, not a news or journalism agency) would be the last independent media standing. In practice, this entailed a transition from fearless thought leaders to material influencers that had already started. Ripped Mr. Burns lauded one of our Latin American affiliates, who had been the subject of a high-drama electoral law injunction after buying up Google ad space under the incumbent president’s name. Which of these 5 top shares will collapse tomorrow if **** ******* is re-elected? This was, we were told, our future, and that night I spent a small fortune in roaming data looking at job listings to try and opt out of it.

Second anecdote, not me – I have a mate who recently completed their Masters in Journalism. They did some good and rigorous reporterly graft to complete their course requirements on survivors of PTSD, which was nominated for a national award. Since their degree ended, they've been working for a content marketing service, stranger in a strange land, doing what they can to package quasi-advertorial that strapped media companies will clumsily collage into their original output. They were put in a long and illegal internship in which they had to fight to eventually get minimum wage. When they applied for leave for the award ceremony, their bosses originally suggested it could be conditional on their spruiking the content marketers in their acceptance speech if he won. They're casting their CV out far and wide, but freelancing is a serious commitment that doesn’t sit well with a full-time job – they come home knackered, just paying the bills, no space to easily build a resume.

This is a roundabout way to get my biggest grizzle with Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand out of the way. Absent an eviscerating piece by Chris Barton on his final years doing features with the New Zealand Herald, it’s short on voices from the hell realm, journalism’s desolate Upside Down of marketing, advertorial and aggregation. It’s at once extremely representative and not representative at all. Where are the PR flacks? Where are the pundits?

They’re mostly absent, and I give the talented team of editors (Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett) the benefit of the doubt that they were more intent on finding interesting voices than high-profile ones. Though there’s not a lot here on the material circumstances of young journalists, there’s also no Gowers making their case for the horserace, no Bombers lobbing compromised agitprop.

“Reimagining” is one term for the anthology’s six freewheeling but thematically bound essays and conversations, but “reclaiming” could be another. These writers mourn, encourage, fulminate, strategise, improvise, share war stories. Though it’d be an unlikely turn of events, you could pick up Don’t Dream It’s Over as someone with no interest in how your news gets to you and at least feel a frisson of excitement for people who care about what they do.

And those are the moments that sing longest and loudest on the first flick-through. Paula Penfold, posing as an HR consultant in a fancy hotel room to catch a Defence Force con artist for 60 Minutes; the crux of Mihingarangi Forbes’ clear-eyed and white-hot account of a 22-year career in the media, where the lonely and late-night killing of Steven Wallace in Waitara’s main street was stripped of all historic context[1]; Jim Tully’s deeply moving account of the unsung reporters and broadcasters who left ruined homes and went straight back into the hardest working day of their lives on February 22. 2011.

The moment you draw a line between talkback and ‘respectable’ media that’s based on tone and tone alone is a dangerous one, and absolutely an area worth ‘reimagining’.

Though all three accounts are marked by structural and systemic realities that make the work that much harder, they channel what matters with palpable force. Frankly, they also right the cart-x-horse disaster that’s immobilised journalism for the better part of a decade – we’ve seen people ask “what kind of journalism will make money?” and it ends up looking like the landing page of the NZ Herald or Stuff[2]. These pieces remind us that we know exactly the kind of stories we should be telling – the question is how we can keep making them.

From all sorts of quarters, that’s exactly what DDiO aims to do. A lot of the symptoms and causes of poor coverage and penurious journo lives get identified early and often, and some of the writers will be disadvantaged or advantaged by a front-to-back reader – so it is that Russell Brown’s account of a life lived at the event horizon of media conglomeration’s black hole is a compelling early state of play, but Brent Edwards warning that the APN and Fairfax merger is probably not a good idea feels a bit rote, and John Sellwood’s explanation that milennials access Facebook and Twitter for news and not newspapers, a couple of hundred pages later, ends up positively narcoleptic. This is probably an occupational hazard of the multi-author book. In between, though, we get a lot of:

  • Talk about solutions, or at least countervailing trends that point to solutions.

The book’s hardly a balm, but it serves notice that there’s a whole lot happening and more still that’s feasible with political will. The Spinoffis unequivocally the most exciting thing to happen in years and gets its rightful due, well explained as a case study by Naomi Arnold. Scoop, the homely but essential repository of the country’s primary sources so far this century, gets a considered look at its evolving ethical paywall model.

More heretically, Victoria’s Peter A. Thompson makes the case for how a very marginal levy on commercial media, from SIM cards to Netflix, would bankroll public interest media, while Waikato’s Geoff Lealand suggests that public education in journalism and why it matters could do with reaching beyond would-be journos to foster a greater awareness (and hopefully, healthy skepticism) about the news process. Tax-and-plan concepts for reporting and the public good are not popular at the moment, but I nodded aggressively to both.

Even the big and sometimes sclerotic old players, we’re reminded, are beginning to get it. As Peter Griffin identifies, the Herald has a fledgling data journalism team, while Penfold is set to reap the benefits of Fairfax NZ finally cottoning on to the push for video its Australian counterpart has managed. (Stuff Circuit’s piece on NZ’s racist justice system, published on Sunday, is the best vindication of her hire yet)

  • Hard talk about who gets included when we talk about media, and who doesn’t.

Such is life, DDiO will probably get read first and foremost in a bit of a liberal bubble, so it gets its provocations in early and often. Richard Pamatatau and Sara Vui-Talitu’s piece on where Pacific people are and are not on the airwaves and in the newsroom is pointed and lyrical, not least for the fact that the authors are two of precious few in the book to have considered how their family and community already consume news and media, and what they might want from it, rather than what they must be encouraged to like.

Thomas Owen reports back on the sobering stats on NZ’s useless coverage of global news, and its colonial foundations, where nation-building and news-gathering were explicitly intended to be complementary projects. Michalia Arathimos’s “Ethnicity in the Media”, meanwhile, stops to pose the anthology’s toughest questions about how we portray and not just who we portray. Using her print media research of the contextual descriptions of Aotearoa authors, she highlights a series of overused connections that turn NZ’s multiple migrant networks into essentialising shorthand.

It’s a hard balance to strike, but I was left hungry for more essays in this vein. Owen’s essay made me think of the country’s volunteer-run and essential community radio services for ethnic groups, and how they tenaciously secure their fractions of fractions of the frequency space. Arathimos’s case study shows up the lack of critical case studies elsewhere, a possible missed opportunity to document and analyse moments of the past 15 years where the media has not been its best self.

And I’m not talking about Henry or Hosking or whatever – nominally responsible publications like North & South ran “yellow peril” articles on alleged Asian migrant iniquity as late as 2006, while Campbell Live mounted a campaign to ban legal highs that was geared to force panic-button reaction rather than evidence-based reform. The moment you draw a line between talkback and ‘respectable’ media that’s based on tone and tone alone is a dangerous one, and absolutely an area worth ‘reimagining’.

  • Talk about something new

Particularly in its second half, DDiO stops repeating itself almost entirely and offers up a string of fascinating, critical and educational essays about issues outside journalism’s ‘mainstream’. Ron Hanson’s account of building up White Fungus with his brother Mark is an excellent and motivating account of DIY media (check our 2013 profile of White Fungus here). Hannah Spyksma writes about how NGOs are starting to produce snackable media content of their own – but what could have been a rosy account of doing good instead turns into an unflattering assessment of the effectiveness and appropriateness of the content that rejects easy answers.

Meanwhile, Nicola Gaston’s “Scientific fact: Neither sacred nor free” is rewardingly dense and involved, an unsentimental look at researchers and academics’ fears, drives and motivations that ultimately encourages us to reimagine the role that the media play in science. Though I should note I’m not the sharpest reader (blame the content mines), I felt like these later essays made me work harder, and I was pleased for it.

There are dragons and fearful shoals everywhere where we could be too credulous, too cynical, too much or too little – there are also co-navigators, and a moral compass, and hope.

Some additional stray thoughts that I had as I roared through, then: firstly, that the book is very light on Luddism, and its older writers are the first to admit that there never was a Golden Age of NZ journalism. Forbes, Gaston and Owen all bristle at the lack of historical or global context in media coverage of current events (for example, the 2007 raid on Tūhoe being reported as some sui generis national security drama) but the implicit thread is that it wasn’t the internet that done it – loss of perspective isn’t the fault of a particular medium.

Secondly, that media producers, especially big marquee ones, need to acclimatise to having a ripple effect and not a monopoly on attention. The former is still a hell of an accomplishment – I rarely watched Campbell Live after leaving New Zealand, bar the odd ‘event interview’ I was forwarded, but its war against zero-hour contracts infiltrated social media, other news pages, press releases I was forwarded, everything. The most switched-on writers dealing with the topic in DDiO seem to realise this in terms of how a story might need to be repackaged in multiple forms and environments, but I also think it’s an important metric that publically-funded anything will have to grapple with, rather than going on page impressions or views.

I’m keeping Don’t Dream It’s Over close at hand for the foreseeable future, both as an avid if fearful consumer of the news, a person who’s worked in the worst end of the media, a person who wants to see my friends do well at what they love, an honest-to-god participant in a worthwhile and special project. This site is mentioned a number of times in its pages, and thought of kindly, but our high points and front of competence mask the fact that it’s mostly been unpaid labour, that we have no full-time editorial staff, that we have spent a lot of time keeping our heads above water rather than honing in on vision, and that what we are is haunted by the penumbra of what we could be.

Most useful of all, then, is that Freerange Press’s work here has been to set out a borders of a map we can all use. There are dragons and fearful shoals everywhere where we could be too credulous, too cynical, too much or too little – there are also co-navigators, and a moral compass, and hope. If you’re feeling short on any of those, this is worth your time and money.

[1] Forbes and the editors were kind enough to allow her essay to run on our site earlier this year.

[2] A neg that’s not intended to be dismissive of the very good journalists who work at NZME or Fairfax, all of whom deserve better and more prominent coverage than they’re sometimes given (see Public Address on this at the start of the month).

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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