I’ve been day-dreaming about a book project for a while now (more about this later) and this week I did some preliminary research at the National Library, reading through archives of New Zealand newspapers on microfiche. I started in the late 70’s and scanned through microfiche of the New Zealand Herald, Auckland Star, Evening Post and Dominion, skim reading through into mid 1981. As a consumer of news I found the differences between the papers then and now fascinating – there’s easily a Phd’s worth of analysis to be done here but here are a few random observations:
- Stories back then are a lot shorter than they are now – typically they’re a tenth the word count, with very short sentences written in a much larger font and there were a lot more stories on each page.
- No gory details. Crime stories have few if any descriptions of the crimes; court stories omit most of the evidence.
- As far as I could see there was no political analysis at all, with the exception of the Auckland Star. There were a couple of stories about academics or lawyers commenting on political matters but none of the insight/palace gossip we get from the current gallery.
- Political stories rarely had balance – with the exception of the Auckland Star they were basically press releases for the government of the day. The Star was highly critical of the Muldoon government so they still didn’t have any balance but they did have some measure of accountability.
- Nobody got a byline – stories were attributed to ‘Staff Reporters’, ‘Agrictultural Reporter’ ect.
- In every newspaper I read NZPA ‘wrote’ nearly everything (I suspect most of the stories were networked from other regional papers). They had reporters filing from Hong Kong and Moscow!
- There were far more rural/regional stories than there are in today’s national daily papers which are basically urban in their outlook, (except for murders and massive scandals).
- There were more good news stories, less human interest.
- The huge issues of the day seem amusing in retrospect. In the late 70’s/early 80’s people were wringing their hands, writing thunderous editorials and demanding government action over our ‘wheat dependancy on Australia’. Desperate measures were proposed to end our wheat dependency. I’m pretty sure we now import 90% of our wheat from Aussie and the rest from the US and Canada.
- Extending the five day shopping week was the other divisive issue of the time; the death of New Zealand society was confidently predicted as the most immediate consequence. (One letter to the editor in the Herald protested that in sixty years the author had never needed to buy groceries in the weekend and couldn’t imagine why anyone else would either. Most New Zealanders now do their grocery shopping on Saturday or Sunday morning.)
- British politics is covered in some detail; American politics hardly at all.
And most importantly:
- There were classified ads. Dozens and dozens of pages of them. On Wednesday’s and Saturday’s I’d estimate about 80% of the newspapers consisted of classified ads and it’s no exaggeration to say that the papers basically existed as a medium for the communication of those advertisements.
The conventional wisdom (in the blogosphere at least) is that the media are in trouble because they’ve abandoned their once high standards. A quick trip back into the past shows that the standards of journalism today are so much better than they were a generation ago that there’s really no comparison.
The newspapers were better in some ways but in terms of balance, analysis and commentary they are now light years ahead. They’re partly in trouble because they’re owned by corporations that are managed by incompetant sociopaths but even if that weren’t the case they’d still be dying because they’ve lost their main source of income. Of course I’d heard that the decline of the classifieds were hurting them but its not until you go back and see what a huge deal they were for the papers that you realise what they’ve lost.