The Dim-Post

January 31, 2009

Old News

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 10:36 am

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.


  1. As a historian and former journo, I have also noticed many of these points. The lack of analysis gets more pronounced the further back you go. During the 1930s election campaigns the papers would run political speeches verbatim, which actually provided more balance since people got to read what the candidates had said rather than just someone’s analysis of it. I did my Honours dissertation on this – email me if you want a copy.

    Anyway, I have also thought a book on the dramatic changes in journalism would be interesting. Presumably most of the trends originated overseas, but I went looking for a history of this in other countries a few years ago and couldn’t find one. Definitely a gap which needs to be filled.

    Comment by Helenalex — January 31, 2009 @ 11:18 am

  2. When did the women’s pages disappear? I believe that these were known in the trade – in Australia at least – as the “piffle pages”.
    They were certainly still there in the early 80s. Can’t remember if it was the Herald or the Star that attempted to move beyond the
    recipes ‘n royalty with a series of interviews with the “leaders’ wives”, concluding with Thea Muldoon. All very bland, until poor old
    Thea was hit at the very end with a curly question about Piggy’s supposed philandering. “Oooh, I don’t think so,” she said. “I mean,
    he’s all the wrong shape and everything.”

    Comment by Joe W — January 31, 2009 @ 11:36 am

  3. When did the women’s pages disappear?

    They’re now called “Fashion” or “Health” or “Shopping” or “Relationships” or “Food” or whatever. Better targeted for accompanying advertising, and possibly prompted in part by the startling realisation that many women aren’t interested in many of these things, and many men are. Why cut out 50% of your audience by using a gender-specific title.

    Great post, Danyl.

    Comment by Deborah — January 31, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

  4. I agree with your comments re the loss of revenue, it has been a huge blow for print media. But the creation of the internet and dozens of channels of wonderment on the idiot box has made us come to expect immediacy in news and information delivery. Once a day printed in the middle of last night can not compete with modern communication.

    Comment by barnsleybill — January 31, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  5. If you go back way further some newspapers front pages were just classified ads, public announcements.
    Paid classified ads though were dying before the internet came along. Remember those buy, sell, swap magazines, free advert but the buyer had to buy the paper. A brilliant business model that had newspaper editors sweating until the good old interweb thingy came along and blew that away (though I think I saw one the other day).
    Newspapers have changed with the times, though it surprises me that sentences and stories are longer now. I thought we would be tighter and my personal experience is stories growing ever shorter (though some unnamed people in my office can not stick to 300/500 word limits.
    Technology has changed everything for media, when I started there were no mobile phones, computers or even faxes (I remember the first one coming in and my chief reporter saying he would be damned if he used any of them)and I am not that ancient.
    Thing that bemuses me most is how with all the computers/ typesetting/ mega printing works (though some of the NZ print works should be put in a museum) deadlines keep getting earlier and earlier.
    Change in ownership structures and the drive for profit has proabably been the biggest driver of change in NZ.
    Don’t get me talking about the slow death by strangulation of NZPA (grrhh)
    Over Christmas I read The Flat Earth News, that really depressed me.
    Happy New Year anway Danyl. ( I have been on holiday for ever)

    Comment by ianllewellyn — January 31, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  6. Happy New Year Ian; would you recommend ‘Flat Earth News’?

    Comment by danylmc — February 1, 2009 @ 9:33 am

  7. Newspapers have changed with the times, though it surprises me that sentences and stories are longer now

    Probably helps that typesetting is no longer a manual job.

    Comment by Don — February 1, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  8. That all sounds right to me. The dailies were stultifying because they had no competition from radio or TV, though the Auckland Star was livelier than the rest. In the early 70s I bought every Saturday edition because it always had a full-page feature by Warwick Roger, and later Pat Booth was running his various Mr Asia, Arthur Allan Thomas etc campaigns. But look at how Audrey Young, Phil Kitchin etc now treat politicians – it’s a brave new world, in a good way,

    Comment by Stephen Stratford — February 1, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

  9. Flat Earth News is a great read on the media (especially those who want evidence of its alleged decline). I didn’t agree with all of it, and in some parts I think he gathered evidence to back his already decided conclusion. However (sadly) much of what he describes matches my experience in the job.
    On the length of sentences and stories. I was a bit dubious about this because there has been a general push to much shorter stories mainly because a lack of editorial space.
    I bet if you did a measure on a Monday Herald and Dom, then compared them to the same edition 5, 10 and 20 years ago, the result would be much less space and I assumed shorter stories now.
    Writing in shorter sentences has also been noticeable in recent times especially in NZ.
    I am amazed at the length of some intros overseas and how many ideas and how much detail they try to cram into them.
    Sometimes it works, but you have to be a much better writer than me otherwise it becomes dense and impenetrable to anyone but the writer.
    I am sure critics would say it shows the dumbing down of the NZ media, but it is perfectly possible to write elegantly and with intelligence using short sentences and simple words… It worked for Hemmingway most of the time.
    Stephen you are right about the treatment of politicians. They are now widely viewed as targets. In some ways it is good as there is no false respect. Rob Muldoon would not survive in today’s environment. However it has its down sides. Cullen would tell you that it distracts from the need to focus on policy. Also one very senior journalist once told me that the present Gallery was far more effective in some ways in his hey day, but the downside was that no interesting people with outspoken views could survive in Cabinet

    Comment by ianllewellyn — February 1, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

  10. They’re now called “Fashion” or “Health” or “Shopping” or “Relationships” or “Food” or whatever.

    Was it the Dom that tried having a ‘Woman’ thing among their various suppliments-of-the-day not long ago? I recall it included restaurant reviews as well, which just went to show how hard it is to work out what the brief is for such a thing.

    Comment by lyndon — February 2, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  11. The Evening Post moved the recipes out of the women’s pages in the 1970s and started a ‘man in the kitchen’ type column, which was probably a sign of something.

    Interestingly, the Guardian still has a women’s section. I think they justify it by arguing that it provides space for good articles which would otherwise be spiked because they are of interest primarily to women, but considering the Guardian’s leftier-than-thou credentials it’s a bit odd that they have a little ghetto for those articles rather than just running them in the features section.

    Comment by helenalex — February 2, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  12. Fascinating all right. The late 1970s and early 80s period was a different country in all senses, and a period when Muldoon had political journalists cowering. On balance I agree things have got better. So they should, mind you. With much better production values, colour printing, Google, Wikipedia and other online resources, people should be able to research and write much better informed and researched pieces than the journalists 30 years ago who were equipped with only a phone and Remington. One area where we could do better is reporting of science based stories. In “Bad Science”, Ben Goldacre complains that mainstream media corral science stories into three genres: whacky science, ‘breakthrough’ stories and scare stories. I think he’s got a point and it’s sad to see even supposedly quality publications like The Listener turning out some pretty shoddy stuff.

    Comment by philstewart — February 2, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

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