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.