Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quality Content in New Zealand?

An interesting discussion on Public Address last week led by Russell Brown raised the possibility of a Guardian-style trust fund to support independent New Zealand journalism.

Several people said they'd commit $100 per annum to support such a venture. I would too. With the ongoing hollowing out and dumbing down of the print media here, the weight and quality of New Zealand feature writing is moving from thin to threadbare.

There was some debate about whether this initiative ought to be limited to a trust fund to support the generation of content, or should drive towards a free-standing publication. The latter of course is laden with risk. There was some discussion of online publication and earning revenue through micropayments (here I'd point out my own long-winded meditation on quality content, the internet as a medium and micropayments from a couple of years ago).

Realistically, though, if I'm going to read a weighty piece of investigative journalism, it has to be in print. As much as the internet is great for accessing content and skimming through news and opinion, it's a headache and a backache to focus on something more than 1,000 words on screen. Apart from actual books and readings for university, the only time I find myself concentrating on a longish piece of writing is when we get our monthly copy of The Atlantic (my flatmate Noam has a subscription, although he's constantly grumping about it going downhill and threatening to change to something else.

But as much as The Atlantic is uneven and shares some of the tendencies towards dumbing down and horse-race politics that we despair of here in New Zealand, there are some occasional very good pieces of in-depth research and writing that are best digested reclined on the battered old lounge sofa.

Another point is that New Zealand already has a reasonable stable of online analysts and opinion brokers, and the likes of Gordon Campbell really need to be digested with a cup of coffee and a comfortable chair.

Once we move toward the world of paper and staples, however, an uncomfortable truth needs to be recognised: many of the most venerable 'quality' publications -- from the Financial Times to the New Yorker to even the core Guardian newspaper itself -- make an operating loss.

This could mean that even a successful attempt to fund independent content would still be restricted to peddling that content to the monopolistic mainstream publications, remaining at the whim of editors whose only concern is how much advertising space they can fill.

The conclusion seems clear -- for properly resourced independent journalism in New Zealand, what we really need is a friendly billionaire philanthropist.

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