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DomPost editor says a bunch of interesting stuff

By Steven | December 12, 2007

DomPost editor Tim Pankhurst gave a very interesting keynote address at the Jeanz conference called “The Power of Print”. Here are some highlights:

The relevance of print 

The DomPost’s coverage of Louise Nicholas, Donna Awatere Huata, the Capital and Coast Health issues and the “Terrorism files” shows that print has “undiminished power” – in the sense that these stories wouldn’t have had the same impact if they had been purely from a web-based news source. (The second part of the sentence is unquestionably right, though I’m not sure it proves the first part).

The growing importance of the net

Newspapers are still profitable, but circulation is in decline and “old established methods” or news gathering and presentation are under threat. The challenge will be adapting. The web is starting to pay it’s own way: Fairfax’s digital arm is now contributing 14% to the company’s bottom line, if I understood Tim correctly. Wow.

He also stuck a thumb in the eye of the newspaper-doom merchants. “If any sector of the media should be worried [about convergence], it is television.” Evidence: a clip on Stuff of two DomPost journalists interviewing each other in the newsroom immediately after Graham Henry’s re-appointment. The audience will like the grainy immediacy, Pankhurst says. (Isn’t the new 24-hour news channel something of an answer to this? And won’t the broadcasters be looking to use their websites in similar ways, with more professional production? Still, the point is intriguing, because I suspect that people do turn to the newspapers’ websites for news, rather than the broadcasters’ ones, and that’s certainly an edge they could exploit).

DomPost 1 NZ Herald 0 

Stuff beat the NZ Herald by five minutes with the story on Henry’s reappointment. Suck on that, granny!

The thinking behind the “Terrorism Files” story

Tim Pankhurst was very candid about the DomPost’s decision to run a front-page story about the content of the police affidavit. He wanted to show the public “what all the fuss was about”. He said it wasn’t a difficult call. How could we be in contempt, he wondered, when the situation is so confused? Even the Solicitor-General was saying terrorism laws were a mess. There was widespread criticism of the police actions and the affidavit helped explain to the public why they took the action they did.

The DomPost figured terrorism charges couldn’t be laid; the story was highly unlikely to affect trials on arms charges that were a year out, and judges and juries are robust enough to put aside this sort of publicity. The paper removed the names so that particular defendants wouldn’t be identified.

He said the paper took legal advice, which was encouraging enough for them to go ahead. He summarised the advice as: “it was along the usual lines: there is risk, but on balance, we think you can get away with it, but it will be on your head.” Later, he said that the paper didn’t want to compound this risk by posting the whole affidavit on line. “We were pushing it, as it was, legally.” (This advice may not sound very helpful. But the laws of contempt are vague enough that media lawyers have to say this sort of thing all the time. Of course, I haven’t seen the legal advice. But this summary of it rather downplays the extraordinarily prejudicial effect of the story, even though the defendants weren’t named. I would have expected this to be identified as a high risk story. I would also have expected the advice to explore whether some of the published material was suppressed, and whether the paper would be breaching the Crimes Act, which prohibits the disclosure of material obtained by interception warrant.  (Perhaps it did). I also wonder about the wisdom of discussing that advice, on the record, in front of a roomful of journalists, when the paper is corresponding with the Solicitor-General about a possible contempt prosecution. Also, isn’t this explanation a bit at odds with the paper’s own unequivocal assurance to its readers that the story was lawful?).

An aside

(Still, isn’t it refreshing that an editor is prepared to stump up and justify his publication decisions? Former editor of the Press, Paul Thompson, was also very good at this. This is to be contrasted with the appallingly craven refusal of the editorial team at the NZ Herald to front up and answer questions about their campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill).

Terrorism files II

Tim Pankhurst explained that the DomPost had thought hard about how to “maximise such a story”. Should they put it online? Would that hurt casual sales? No, he decided. If we didn’t put it online, someone else would. In the event there were more than 3,500 extra casual sales, a huge spike in online traffic up to 150,000 hits.  This sort of result, and the burgeoning interest in online reporting generally, means “it is a wonderful time to be in journalism,” he said.

He also noted that Fairfax management stood by the decisions of its editors. He had advised them that the story was coming. They have backed us, he said. (What’s particularly encouraging about this is that it answers concerns about the foreign domination of our media. I’ve heard the same thing about lack of editorial dictation from owners from many different people. I’m inclined to think that the impact of foreign ownership is much more closely related to the owners’ policies on investing money in good journalism – or conversely, screwing money out of the news operation).

Tim Pankhurst on the NZ Herald’s Electoral Finance Bill campaign

He was a bit bemused. “Good on them,” was his attitude. But he thought it would be boring the Herald’s readers to tears.

Populist? You bet

Pankhurst has no time for people who whine about stories on Paris Hilton. “Get real”, he says. Those stories are popular. Readers want them. Being popular is a sign of business success, a necessity, really. Besides, news would be unremittingly dull if it was filled with the critics’ ideas of worthy stories. Should we dump the Beckham coverage too? What you need is a mix. (Sorry, Tim, I’m a grinch. I like to think that worthy stories can be told in an interesting way. And I think that it’s disingenuous for the media to say they are simply feeding the public appetite for fluff, when they’re actually instrumental in creating that appetite. I think there’s a place for interesting-but-not-especially-important stories, but the media are overdoing it, and it’s creating an ever-shrinking hole for public discussion of important issues. Still, I think newspapers (and public radio) are doing the best job of maintaining that discussion. I have a hunch that Tim and I aren’t really so far apart on this issue.)

Those damned blogs

You get the feeling Tim Pankhurst is a bit ambivalent about blogs. “They have little news credibility, but they do use up limited news consumers’ time”, he said. Time that should be spent looking at newspapers, damn it! 

Yet he’s still prepared to host a range of blogs on Stuff’s website. Presumably these have more news credibility. 

[Note: some quotes above are very slightly changed from the original post. I have since watched the video of the speech and corrected some small errors.]

Topics: Contempt of Court, Future of journalism, General, Internet issues, Journalism and criminal law, Media ethics | 20 Comments »

20 Responses to “DomPost editor says a bunch of interesting stuff”

  1. Kiwiblog » Blog Archive » Around the blogs Says:
    December 13th, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    […] Price has an interesting post about Dom Post editor Tim Pankhurst’s address to the journalism conference. I wanted to attend that conference but was too […]

  2. Geoff Lealand Says:
    December 14th, 2007 at 11:29 am

    kia ora: it was an interesting conference, with Enron whistle-blower Bethany MacLean a real highlight. In respect of Tim Pankhurst’s talk, the discussion was cut short (I wanted to ask a couple of rude questions) but I did take the opportunity at the start of my own talk in the afternoon (on digital technology and the future of journalism), to suggest that getting Dom Post rugby commentators first up on their website might be a coup but they effectively said nothing about nothing. First up but just mouth-flapping, essentially!

    There were a couple of snide remarks from other people about the home movie nature of some of the Dom Post video content (Tim’s fishing vid!), but praise from others for the Pankhurst’s support of investigative journalism.

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    […] become, serving an anorexic “news” diet of crime and celebrity. Media law expert Steven Price quoted Pankhurst as telling the recent Massey University journalism educators’ conference (the one Helen Clark […]

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