Hal Crawford has an interesting view about the future of New Zealand media—one of increasing polarisation along the political spectrum. As the headline of his recent article on The Spinoff puts it, “Stuff is gradually moving left while the Herald inches right.” Crawford has an illuminating insider-outsider perspective—he was the Chief News Officer at Mediaworks until returning to his native Australia last year where he now consults and comments on our media and theirs—and he makes a compelling and somewhat alarming case.
He recounts his initial view and surprise, when moving here, that New Zealand media was fundamentally decent. But before we pat ourselves too hard on the back, he goes on to say this:
That “decency”, I realised, was really a kind of political and stylistic centrism emerging from the overall small size of the market, its development in geographical niches, and yes, something to do with the national Kiwi character. I believe the forces that created this centrist media in New Zealand have now mostly disappeared, and increasingly we will see ideologically differentiated editorial offerings. That means more overtly political news reporting and more identity-based coverage of all kinds.
The change isn’t yet fully apparent. In an informal survey, he asked fellow media professionals to say whether they thought a selection of headlines were from Stuff or the Herald and the results were roughly 50:50, indicating no discernible difference. By contrast, “The equivalent test for The Australian and The Guardian Australia (two ideologically opposed Australian outlets) returned 73% correct.”
But he thinks the change is coming nonetheless, thanks to market forces:
If you run a general commercial news operation, your revenue is shrinking, you are incentivised to maximise your audience – hence to go national in scope – and at the same time you want to differentiate from your competitors. This is the same dynamic historically at play within the big Australian city markets. The strategy for smaller players is to target niches and go hard (for example, within financial news). The strategy for the big players is to move ideologically outwards …
None of this is written in the stars, but Crawford makes a strong case that it’s what the future holds. That future will be shaped by “individuals and company cultures”, as he says, as well as differing decisions about business models (paywalls vs. reader donations), engagement with social media, and Government policy like the possible TVNZ-RNZ mashup. But we’re riding the same global trends that have shaped media elsewhere in the way he describes, as he argues in this somewhat depressing conclusion:
I also learned that within that reality, underneath the appearance of decency, was a burning competitiveness. People could be vicious, and were willing to use news media to further their business interests. This happens the world over. What also happens the world over is that publishers are rewarded for dividing and provoking audiences. It’s that dynamic that is now beginning in earnest in New Zealand media.
If he’s right, we can expect more division ahead.