Going viral — thoughts on reading the news in 2017

The mental image of sunny mornings at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and lingering over the editorial section with toast crusts in one hand already seems quaint and archaic for most New Zealanders. We no longer take the three traditional solid meals of news a day — the breakfast newspaper, the drivetime radio show, the six o’clock bulletin. It is snackable, to quote a certain media executive. A tweet here, a share here, a like there. Scrolling while on the loo, while waiting for a flat white, while stuck on the motorway. We nibble at the edges of stories, licking at the icing without really ever digging in. The cake is there, but we just don’t seem to have the time to eat it.

Across the country, print numbers are falling faster than our homeownership rates. The New Zealand Herald is down to 123,794 copies a day, shedding 10,000 readers in the last year. At the current rate, they won’t last a decade. The Dominion Post and the Press both fell 10 per cent, barely scraping 50,000 daily copies. The weekend papers are the only which seem to be holding steady. We’re not treading carefully on the line between old and new media anymore — we have fallen deeply and irrevocably into the frothy, unregulated mess of the latter.

Are we Stuffed?

It’s a tough market for our undivided attention, and traditional media is seriously struggling. Take our biggest digital news source in New Zealand. Web portal Stuff launched in an Auckland cybercafe in 2000, reporting 120,000 visitors in its first month. 17 years on, the website is a media behemoth that boasts two million unique monthly visitors and is the sixth most popular website in New Zealand.

“Our site will harness the strengths of this medium to provide New Zealanders with more choice and variety in the way they receive and digest information,” said the late Mike Robson at the launch. Stuff grew out of optimism. Editors envisioned a digital utopia, where readers across the country access news stories in an instant, and where expats in London, Toyko, and Berlin could feel a little closer to home.

Initially, the relationship between the website and the print newspapers, namely the Dominion Post and the Press, was fractured and uneasy. The website was forbidden to publish articles before the newspapers, and former staffer Meredith Keys said the print journalists were reluctant to have any contact with the internet. “They wanted more money for their stories to go online,” Keys reminisced in 2010. “The fear was that no one would buy a paper anymore.” It became a pertinent premonition.

In 2017, Stuff functions less as a news outlet and more of a digital social hub. With 10 regional papers and a host of magazines that have migrated online, readers can catch up on political scandals, international warfare, celebrity gossip, choice fishing spots, romantic advice, recipes and designer homewares under one umbrella.

The intrusion of the digital media into our daily lives has changed the way we read, thought, and made decisions. Within the last five years, virtually every western man and woman between the age of 18 and 40 has come to own a device which instantly connects them to a digital world of overconsumption, instant gratification, and an on-call audience.

A 2012 study from the University of Harvard found that the neurological stimulation of posting on social media was akin to eating food, receiving money, and even sex. Posting a status update fires off the same neurons as scoffing a bar of chocolate, and we can do it again and again without worrying about pimples or bad teeth or popping the button on our new jeans.

That burst of self-gratification has become addictive, and we crave that validation from a like or a retweet constantly. It morphs into a habit. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram prey on those moments of boredom to get customers using, on average, 50 minutes a day browsing. And with this constant craving comes a desire for more squeezed into these snatches of free time. For many, it’s just not about reading the news anymore. It’s about sharing and commenting — and getting into bitter fights with complete strangers.

The social media market is bigger than ever. At the top of the heap, the New Zealand Herald boasts 707,000 Facebook likes (compare this to their daily newspaper sales), 1 News 514,500 likes, Stuff 512,000 likes, and Newshub 403,400 likes (twice as many as their average 6pm viewership). It’s safe to say that at this point it is hard to imagine one without the other. Imagine Facebook feed with no news article shared from relatives, no hourly updates on breaking stories, no fights breaking out over a controversial blog post. So much of what we wouldn’t even call news — cute animal videos, viral Facebook posts, tweets and digital take-downs from celebrities — is posted by online news websites, cluttering up newsfeeds as journalists cast a hundred lures in the water hoping for a bite.

It’s somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation. Did we demand shorter news stories more often or did editors tailor their content to fit budget and time constraints? Either way, the relationship between social media and the traditional news outlet has become symbiotic — they influence and are influenced by each other, driving discussion, outrage and most importantly, our attention.

Breaking the bank

More people than ever are reading the news every day, but the problem is that nobody is paying for it. The monetisation — or lack thereof — of online media is a thorn in the side of New Zealand’s newspaper powerhouses as they struggle to cover the shortfall in vanishing ad revenue. With Facebook and Google cannibalising what precious ad revenue is produced, media outlets in New Zealand and overseas are even more desperate to protect their profits. Paywalls work for niche publications like the National Business Review or the Otago Daily Times with a loyal readership base, but the majority of people choose to read Stuff and/or the NZ Herald simply because it’s there and it’s free.

The solution to the problem is one part hard budgeting (cue rounds of layoffs, pay freezes, harsh deadlines and increased workload, all of which obviously compromise the quality of journalism on offer) and one part revenue-gathering. Online advertisement is a numbers game, and the more clicks and page-loads, the more money fills the dusty coffers of Fairfax and NZME.

The aim became to lure as many readers to visit the website as frequently as possible, promising breaking news and constant entertainment to keep bored office workers and stay-at-home parents constantly coming back for more. In its early years, Stuff was updated twice a day; now raw, unproofed stories are posted every minute. Readers demand more content, any content, and the website is all too happy to provide it.

When a journalist has to produce three stories of at least 500 words a day on their own, there’s no time for investigation or for thorough research. Articles are sourced from press releases with no emendations (I have honestly seen press releases lifted word for word in its entirety and repackaged as a news article in the past), from social media comments, or bought from overseas news agencies. The drive for more content to appeal to a broad audience, and to keep them constantly refreshing, has dominated the online media ethos.

In reality, the proliferation of the cheap and flashy ‘junk stories’ in the news is just a natural extent of capitalism. Everything has the potential to be monetised, and our attention has become a particularly valuable commodity. Producers and editors considered the investment and incoming attention in the shape of shares, likes, comments and retweets. They put stock in what was cheap and brought in precious human capital. Shocking court cases, celebrity gossip, car crashes and controversial editorials have always been media bread-and-butter, and in-depth, investigative pieces were a nice-to-have, if the budget allowed it. Somewhere along the line, the page-clicks weren’t worth the investment anymore.

To say the internet is killing journalism is grossly misleading. A more accurate statement would be that current mainstream outlets are failing to fully utilise the opportunities available to them through digital distribution. If Stuff and The New Zealand Herald believe that paywalls will jeopardise their readership, it suggests they place no monetary value in their own product. By chasing advertising revenue through cheap journalism and seeking to have as broad a customer base as possible, they have essentially devalued their own publication to the point that if people would rather go without than have to pay for it.

Shouting over the crowd

Social media has, in some ways, democratised our news outlets. We have a closer relationship than ever before with journalists, editors, and producers and can give our opinion with the click of a button. By engaging with media, we signal to the powers that be the kind of news that we want to read. We can email or retweet writers in an instant and let them know exactly what we think about a certain story. With digital accessibility in New Zealand greater than ever before, either with home computers or public services like a library, virtually anyone in the country is able to get in touch via email and social media.

Conventional media powerhouses don’t have the stranglehold on our attention that they used to. Traditionally, it took considerable investment and skill to produce media content for a wide audience. News branded ‘alternative’ has always existed in the form of local radio broadcasting, private magazines and small-run newspapers, but it was limited to the cities, to university groups and tight-knit interest groups and unions. Now that anyone can run a blog, a forum, a website, the internet is saturated with content dedicated to every imaginable political and philosophical niche. The global diversity of media is expanding, and the ability to both generate and consume news is enjoying an unprecedented renaissance.

What we see now is a changing of the guard, the old stalwarts of the industry bemoaning the glory days of typesetters hunched over copy, of teams of local reporters crammed into press galleries, and the young guns living and breathing the world of journalism through technology, excited to explore and redefine what media means in a digital world bursting with new ideas, experiences, and voices which until now have been silent.

Independent media in New Zealand is fighting back, and there’s a growing number of websites that fall outside the duopoly of Fairfax and NZME. Radio NZ continues to provide excellent publically-funded journalism, and the youth-slanted website The Wireless regularly produces long features investigating social issues. For media insiders, NZ Newswire produces news reports and multimedia services. Press hub Scoop contains press releases from businesses and government agencies, across New Zealand political reports and various thoughtful columns. StopPress reports on New Zealand media at large with interesting insights in both start-up companies and traditional juggernauts. Newsroom, the brainchild of media veterans Mark Jennings and Tim Murphy, promises to be “New Zealand’s new home of quality journalism” when it fully launches next week.

As well as ‘hard’ news websites, current affairs is quite at home in New Zealand. Noted.co.nz is the collective efforts of The Listener, Metro, North & South, Radio NZ and Paperboy, which curates their best reads on current affairs and culture. Website The Spinoff occasionally makes the leap to investigative journalism and provides a diverse range of voices on pop culture. Blog sites like pundit.co.nz and publicaddress.net are homes for various editorial opinions. Current affairs TV programmes, like Te Kaea and Sunday, utilise social media to generate online discussion on their stories throughout the week.

It would be convenient to put the onus on the media itself. But the prevalence of content which has become smaller, and therefore, easier to digest, is a reaction to the increasingly fast-paced nature of our society. If we want to reverse this trend, the most important thing we can do as readers is give good journalism the respect, time and money that it deserves. If you have the money, contribute directly by purchasing good print newspapers and magazines and donating to certain media projects. Some independent outlets, like Scoop and the Spinoff, run crowdfunding campaigns to ensure coverage of certain events. The People’s Commission on Public Broadcasting and Media is taking submissions until the end of the month and running workshops in May, and is seeking funding from the public.

Indirectly, readers fill the coffers by engaging. Investigative journalism can be found in the most click-baity of organisations — even BuzzFeed has broken stories of international importance. Write to the editor commending special features and investigations. Utilise the connectivity of social media to share and retweet the quality content. Follow high-profile journalists known for asking the hard questions and boost their online presence. Subscribe to online newsletters to boost readership numbers, and, in turn, ad revenue. The MSN homepage and Stuff both distribute digital content produced by Radio NZ and portions a share of ad revenue to the public broadcaster — by engaging with these stories, we indirectly secure more funding.

This is a basic tenet of capitalism — create market demand and someone, whether it’s a refreshed team from the New Zealand Herald or the new group at Newsroom, will strive to meet it. It is our civic duty to protect journalistic integrity by contributing what we can to the services we have, by engaging with those who produce it and by encouraging more. We simply cannot afford to be complacent any longer.