Friday, March 21, 2008

The Fourth Estate? Try the blogosphere


I’ve been reading more of thestandard.org.nzand various other political blogs since I mentioned them in a post a few weeks ago and I have to confess that I’ve become a bit of a fan. On a good day, they’re like a fresh, sophisticated op-ed page, albeit one with a decidedly and avowedly left or right focus and in the case of the standard a solidly one-eyed position on John Key. Why am I allowing myself to be engaged by the didactic and doubtless biased prose issuing forth from the blogosphere? That would be a lot to do with the paucity of any kind of interesting commentary or solid investigation in mainstream media, the impact of capital into editorial decision-making, the lack of meaningful public debate in other online avenues and, basically, the “vibe”, man. The stories told in the mainstream media form a point of navigation. I wouldn’t be without them. I’m just pleased there’s an alternative.

In terms of commentary, the op-ed pages of The Herald are sometimes worth a read but seem hampered by the subbing required to fit guest writers’ unpractised sentence construction to the requirements of the paper. They’re also inconsistent in quality. Regular column writers in most major current affairs publications are tamped down in their styles, often lacking passion and both guest writers and regulars can be anodyne to read. Maybe this is partly a generational issue but it’s just boring, mum.

I used to work loading content to nzherald.co.nz. Our desks were situated in The Herald newsroom thus I was and was privy, each shift, to the construction of the morning paper. I observed that reporters have a sophisticated but instrumental relationship to politics (and news events more generally) which reflects a media focus on locating the next good story – not unlike a room full of rich high-school girls looking for the next juicy scandal. Politically informed discussion, investigation or background on issues are, by newsroom convention, timing and fiscal necessity, truncated. Every effort is made to provide enough facts for readers to interpret a story in context and reporters and subs, even the younger ones, are aware of that context to varying degrees. But, honestly, the resulting news is simplified, dull and, oddly, hard to make sense of compared to the kind of polemical, investigative or even just well-researched piece you often find on the better quality blogs, including the Standard. This reflects the fact that blog writers are discussing things they’re invested in because of their politics – they do good work because they believe in it. Passionate arguments are always a more interesting read and often a more comfortably constructed one. It also reflects the fact that they don’t have to work to hard word limits and are unencumbered by editorialising, a need for the appearance of “objectivity”, or fears about fleeing advertisers as readership drops. After my time in the newsroom I have to say I observed the impact of this fear subtly influencing decisions about news, especially what becomes a front page story, on a daily basis. Capital has a huge impact on what stories get told and what stories get noticed.

Given that I’m left-leaning, I’m fairly comfortable with the inherent bias involved in telling stories the way the Standard and other lefty blogs do (try kiwiblogblog, NewZ Blog, Fighting Talk). Also, it’s openly stated, and I trust things where positionality is clear, even the writing of frothing righties which I might not seek out as actively. This is because I know exactly how to decode it. I’m not so comfortable with the increasingly “yellow” journalism of New Zealand broadsheets or, for example, The Listener’s apparent move away from a previously left editorial stance to capture a broader readership. I’m not always sure where to place what’s being discussed in these publications or what interpretive frame to put on it because it’s not politically consistent – it’s aimed at getting the most readers. As an example - The Herald is widely understood as a right-wing paper, and yet this is not always the case. It runs run op-ed pieces by Robert Fisk and environmentally sympathetic international pieces on global warming alongside things like a story series attacking the Electoral Finance Bill. I like knowing where a publication is coming from politically, rather than what they think the most people will want to read.

I also have to say if our media is supposed to be part of the sphere of public debate, it’s ceding its role to the blogosphere on this one. nzherald.co.nz carries a similar range of content to The Herald but with the addition of life-style blogs and “Your views” pages which I find depressingly devoid of meaningful content and engagement. The Herald moderates comments and calls for opinions on subjects that will generate the most hits. It’s a sea of lowest common denominator. By contrast, the comments sections on political blogs are part of a debate – you can chat with like-minded individuals and get stuck into people you disagree with. Thread-jacking, trolling and abuse can get ugly and frustrating at times, but they’re often hilarious and the sense that there are other people who have similar interests and opinions out there in the world can be a wonderful thing. And both commenters and posters are often better informed than I am, which leads me to want to lift my game and do more reading. I feel smarter every time I read the Standard or many of the left blogs, and, even some of the right ones (although this is usually for slightly different reasons). nzherald.co.nz does, on occasion, make me feel stupider than when I started.

I’m a fan of the Standard above all other blogs right now. They’re fresh, well-informed and very regular writers, passionately pushing a barrow I mostly feel an affinity with. They’re glib, gung-ho, and one-eyed but they definitely give a toss. Their commenters are by turns thick, hilarious, smart and vicious. It’s all very charming. But this is maybe not so different to any of the best of the left. What makes the Standard it for me right now is this: the issues they’re choosing to talk about as we head into the election are well rendered, clearly positioned, interesting and most of all, consistently on point. They attract a fantastic level of debate. And that's what keeps me coming back.

8 comments:

the sprout said...

nice piece lyn

Lyn said...

Thanks, sprout! I know you through your comments on the standard. Cheers for dropping by - I'll pop over to the sprout and the bean for a better look soon.

Steve Pierson said...

Really enjoyable piece, lyn.

I know what you mean about us being one-eyed regarding Key and we have to think about talking less about him (god knows I'm one of the most guilty). But with National so much of a one-man band, the soft ride he had been getting until recently, and being people who geniunely fear what a National government would mean for the country, I guess we find we have to put a lot of focus on breaking up his facade.

Like your tagline, btw, sounds like my kind of party.

Lyn said...

Cheers steve - don't get me wrong, while I usually get pretty sympathetic towards people who are getting the boot repeatedly, for some reason I haven't had that response to the standard's positioning of Key. In fact every time I read the title on "Try the dead rat - it's delicious" I nearly end up laughing out loud. It's such a cute picture - both kids are utterly engaged - something about the juxtaposition of them and the title tickles me every time. But I also know that at least one person I know personally is getting turned off the standard because of the Key stuff. I guess you have to just tell it like you see it - it's impossible to gauge total audience response, but possible middle-ground resistance to perceived Key-bashing might be something to think about?

Next time we're having a party I'll let you know...

Anonymous said...

Hey Lynn

Interesting account of The Herald newsroom, and your blog looks great in general. Keep up the good work!

Cheers
r0b

ruth said...

Well I think pollie blogs cater for the LCD - lowest common denominator.

The Standard has some intelligent commenters though - I'll give you that. NZ politics is of no interest to anyone outside of NZ so I try not to post about it too much...

Lyn said...

R0b - thanks for stopping by. Despite my flippancy about the Herald newsroom I have a lot of respect for the calibre of the people who work there. I imagine that the editors would strongly refute my observation, but the work culture they're part of is mindful of readership, if somewhat regretful that so many people are interested in Britney Spears, and they tailor the front page to getting readers, absolutely.

Ruth - I know what you mean about pollie blogs, but I've had such an illuminating time on my favs recently (and some of R0b's links have been great, actually) that I'm kind of won over. I also appreciate that their readership is necessarily limited, but I like that there's a sphere dedicated to discussion about issues that directly affect me here in New Zealand. I think mainstream media is unable to foster this as much as it could due to small markets, a profit-driven print media which is increasingly having to compete with the net to get advertising dollars and limited and parochially-tagged funding for television production. So I'm just happy someone is doing it....

Real estate lock boxes said...

Lyn, this is a brilliant peice!
I really enjoyed reading it.
Wonderfully put together!

Cheers,
Kalib