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Mediawatch for 6 May 2018

Stalling the rumour mill; Stuff switches size; boosting local journalism for the Southern Lakes; Peter Greste - solidarity and standards.

The country’s biggest paper chain downsized its daily papers this week to freshen them up, cut costs and hopefully halt sliding sales. But apart from the smaller pages - what’s new? And how did readers react?

The backers of a new media venture in Queenstown and Wanaka say the region risks becoming a “digital backwater” and - like other places in the South Island - it's starved of good local journalism. How do they plan to put that right?

Crux.org.nz - the Queenstown homepage of the new non-profit local news website. Crux.org.nz - the Queenstown homepage of the new non-profit local news website. Photo: screenshot
When long-serving TV3 reporter Jeff Hampton left the company in 2016, he told Mediawatch South Island journalism had been a victim of our media companies’ digital transitions.

There were far fewer reporters working in Christchurch at that point than there were five years earlier before the February 2011 earthquake, he said. The ranks of broadcast journalists have thinned out even further since then.

RNZ has just two full-time reporters in the South Island outside Christchurch. In 2016, TVNZ announced plans to cut back to one reporter and one camera operator for all of Otago and Southland. Southern mayors launched a petition that helped force TVNZ to reconsider.

Publisher Stuff has the biggest network of journalists and publications in the South Island, but it has repeatedly warned that can’t be sustained as circulations and revenues fall.

"There are really good stories here, and they should be covered by journalists who live here," said Jeff Hampton two years ago.

Last February, the not-for-profit Southern Community Media Trust was launched in Queenstown to try and achieve that.

Philanthropist Dick Hubbard is a chief trustee and main donor. The trust is also supported by the University of Canterbury's school of journalism which hopes it will help train and develop new journalists.

The SCMT has employed a former RNZ and Otago Daily Times reporter Jessica Maddock in Wanaka. The founding editor is former RNZ reporter in Queenstown Peter Newport, who has worked with BBC News overseas and Channel 9 in Australia overseas - and plenty of other New Zealand media outlets in the past.

On Thursday, the trust unveiled its new online news platform: Crux.org.nz

Crux launched with news sections for community, environment, schools, council and business - all ad-free. It led with a story about the region’s hospitals being ill-equipped for emergencies.

“Queenstown and Wanaka risk becoming a ‘digital backwater’ if action is not taken," Peter Newport said in February when the trust launched its plans.

Yet Queenstown Lakes is riding high on tourism - an industry that attracts media attention. It has wealthy residents and profitable businesses. Is it really at risk of being overlooked by the news media these days?

"It is," insists Peter Newport.

"Queenstown's image is different to the realities. There is money but it doesn't trickle down through the community," he said.

He points to the ski resort town of Aspen in the US where intensive property speculation dented the viability of tourism.

"We have serious problems down here. Most people are working in a minimum-wage economy in tourism. Tourism will struggle if there isn't a community to support it," he said.

Peter Newport has reported on aspects of this in the past for RNZ and more recently in a long written piece for The Spinoff. It's the sort of issue Crux can address at length too.

"You can't say that much in 200, 400 or 600 words," said Peter Newport.

"The meaning behind important stories reported these days is often missing," he said.

He believes the high cost of living in the region has dissuaded media organisations from citing reporters there.

"We've arrived at a community ownership model which means we escape the issues about finding investors, working out the value of the business and deciding how many people get shares," he told Mediawatch.

"How cool is it that businesses can buy space on a local platform and know that the profits are going back into the welfare of that community?" he said.

But does this 'community-backed' project really depend upon the ongoing generosity of former entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Hubbard?

"This is community-funded and the platform (Crux) will initially be part of the trust. After a short time - maybe six months - the platform will move out of the trust and operate on a commercial basis. The trust will provide content, but the platform provides revenue back to the trust to pay for more content," he said.

"The platform ... is encouraged to build an audience and share content with other media because our trust deed says we are to collaborate with other media - not to compete," he said.

"We're seeing the beginning of a New Zealand universe of new media. How exciting would it be to see New Zealand-owned media work in the regions and the metropolitan areas? Newsroom, The Spinoff, the Nelson and Wanaka apps are all part of the solution and I think we will all end up sharing and forming networks," he said.

"We have to work together to find new and relevant media that work well for the people who actually live and work in our communities," he said.

Ten journalists were killed in Afghanistan this week by a bomber posing as one of them. They were the latest victims of rising hostility to the media around the world. Peter Greste - who knows what it's like when colleagues get killed and who was also jailed for his journalism - tells Mediawatch that solidarity and standards now matter more than ever - as well as safety.

Reporters Without Borders said Monday’s bombing in Kabul killed more journalists than any other single attack in Afghanistan since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001. One of the casualties was Shah Marai, photographer for the French news agency AFP.

Andrew Quilty
At the burial of @AFP's Shah Marai this afternoon, his longtime friend and colleague, @AP's @Massoud151, who was lucky to survive the blast that killed his friend, eight other journalists and twenty more, looked to the sky.

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In 2016, he wrote an emotional article on the AFP website about the risks he faced.

"I don’t dare to take my children for a walk. I have five and they spend their time cooped up inside the house. Every morning as I go to the office and every evening when I return home, all I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd," he wrote.

In recent years, the Western media presence in Afghanistan has waned and local reporters have replaced foreign correspondents from major news outfits.

Afghanistan was Greste's first full posting as a BBC correspondent in 1995.

Years later, In 2005, he arrived in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on assignment with BBC producer Kate Peyton. He was close by when she was shot outside their hotel the day they arrived.

She died of her wounds in hospital there. Greste said it was an assassination targeting a journalist.

Last Monday, he said the Kabul attack was a black day for media freedom.

“When the truth is too uncomfortable, they go after the media,” he said on hearing the news.

He and two colleagues discovered this in Egypt, another country Reporters Without Borders identified last week as actively hostile to journalists.

Working for Al Jazeera, Greste was jailed on trumped up terrorism charges for more than 400 days, never knowing when he would be free again. It triggered a remarkable campaign in which rival media outlets banded together to demand their release under the slogan "Journalism is not a crime."

Greste tells that story in his recent book The First Casualty - and he also sets out what it he thinks it signified in the context of post-9/11 journalism.

The title comes from a saying widely attributed to US senator who said 100 years ago: "The first casualty when war comes is truth."

Forty-three years ago another Australian correspondent - Phillip Knightley - wrote a classic reckoning about war reporting with the same title: The First Casualty.

Knightley's book lifted the lid on how the coverage of war had been skewed by propaganda, military authorities and governments since the Crimean War in the mid 1850s.

The book came out as the Vietnam war was grinding to a halt in 1975, but Knightley doggedly added chapters to later editions to cover the Falklands War, the first Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo.

As an octogenarian, he tracked the impact of embedded journalism and the spread of modern communications and 'weaponised' PR in the post-9/11 wars.

Before he died in late 2016, he had made many correspondents and editors reconsider their role as truth-teller or propagandist.

"The age of the war correspondent as hero appears to be over," Knightley concluded in his 2004 edition.

Greste, who describes his The First Casualty as "part memoir, part history", believes journalists themselves are becoming the victims of politics.

"This has nothing to do with us and everything to do with press freedom. It is...about intimidating every journalist working in Egypt," he concluded while in prison in Cairo.

The final chapter of the book is a plea for a commitment to professional standards.

"This isn't just a one-way street. It isn't just governments who have a responsibility here," Greste told Mediawatch.

He said the Egyptian government and Al Jazeera's critics would have been scouring his record while he was behind bars for hints of bias, sympathy for its opponents, or any looseness with the facts.

"If the Egyptians had found anything in our history to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of the public, people might have thought that where there's smoke there may be fire.

"If the confidence in our work had slipped, public support for our cause would have crumbled," said Greste, who's now UNESCO Chair of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland.

"It underlines the desperate, vital need to maintain public support when it comes to arguing for media freedom. Without it I'd still be in prison," he told Mediawatch.

The collision of opinion and reporting that's increasingly common in media today bothers him.

"As an industry we need to take a good look at ourselves," he said.

"We report news, then there's analysis and comment on the news. The freedom to do that absolutely should not be limited. But we need to maintain a clear line between what is news and what is comment," he said.

"There used to be a time when the only time you'd see a front-page comment was after a massive news event which justified front-page editorialising. It's that kind of leakage I'm worried about," he said.

"I understand why news organisations are doing this - because the business models have collapsed in the digital revolution and we're all in a desperate hunt for clicks and eyeballs and attention online," he said.

"But if we don't keep a strong sense of values and maintain that self-discipline, we will lose public support and public trust. In an era of fake news, we could end up in real trouble," he said.

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Year 2018

Reference number A270419

Media type AUDIO

Collection Sound Collection


Series Mediawatch

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