New Zealand technology journalism: the twilight years

New Zealand has a vibrant and flourishing technology sector. Nobody would use those words to describe New Zealand technology journalism.

Like a retirement village there are still pockets of life, but things are winding down.

You can count the number of full-time technology journalists writing for New Zealand audiences on your fingers. Experienced local journalists are as likely to turn up on overseas publications as on local titles.

It means we no longer tell the best stories about local technology companies. We don’t report the ways New Zealanders deal with technology. A lot gets missed.

We’ve stopped telling our stories because no-one wants to pay for that kind of writing.

Specialist tech publishers

Three specialist publishers dominate:

Techday makes the most money. It publishes two monthly print magazines: IT Brief and The Channel. It operates as an umbrella website featuring eight virtual publication brands covering subject niches.

Techday lists three staff journalists are listed on its web site. The last time I asked none of them worked full-time. This may have changed. Update: Techday Publisher Sean Mitchell tells me his journalists are all employed  full-time.

IDG is US-owned and Australian managed. It publishes a print edition of CIO magazine three times a year. If you want a subscription you have to apply to Australia. That speaks volumes. IDG also operates Computerworld, NZ Reseller News and PC World as online only publications.

IDG employs two full-time journalists. James Henderson is the editor of Computerworld NZ while Divina Paredes is CIO editor. Randal Jackson writes stories as the group’s Wellington-based freelance. Reseller News and PC World don’t have local editorial staff. Update: James Henderson is the editor of both Computerworld NZ and Reseller News.

iStart publishes a print and electronic magazine three times a year. The business is Auckland based with New Zealand and Australian print editions and websites. Auckland-based Clare Coulson is the editor.

Part-time technology journalists

Between them the three specialist publishers employ three full-time and four part time journalists. Update: six full-time and one part-time. That’s still fewer than one journalist per masthead. They rarely break hard news stories. News pages are mostly filled with rewritten press releases and PR-fed material.

That sounds like criticism. On one level it is, but it also reflects commercial reality. There’s little advertising revenue. What advertisers the publishers can scrape up are looking for a short cut to sales leads, not hard-hitting exposés.

You will find longer features in most titles. Sometimes there’s even analysis although there’s little of the deeper material that characterised the technology press in the past.

Again that’s commercial reality: journalists are under pressure to pump out a lot of content fast. There’s not much time for reflection.

This also explains why the IDG sites are full of overseas filler material. It keeps the pipeline full at no extra cost to the publisher. The stories seem to be picked at random. No thought is given to whether a story serves readers.

This can get extreme. Last week Ian Apperley noted there wasn’t a single local story among the 100 most recent news items on the Computerworld NZ feed.

Tech news in mainstream media

The same pressure to pump out volume applies to tech journalists working in New Zealand’s mainstream media. Both Stuff and the NZ Herald fill their online pipelines with low-cost, low-value overseas filler material.

In the past the newspapers did great work keeping industry insiders, users and the public informed about events and trends. Now they publish shorter, less analytical news although there are some notable exceptions, particularly when covering telecommunications.

One reason you don’t see as much local technology news is there are no longer any full-time technology journalists working on mainstream newspapers and magazines.

Chris Keall who at one time edited NZ PC World is the most notable specialist journalist in terms of output. He is NBR technology editor. Keall is also the paper’s head of digital, so he spends less time at the tech coal face. Keall manages to write roughly a story a day and at times gets behind more complex issues.

At the Dominion Post Tom Pullar-Strecker was a technology specialist but now has a general business journalism role. Being based in Wellington he sometimes gets insight into issues such as telecommunications policy. These days he writes roughly one tech story a week.

NZ Herald

The NZ Herald gives technology assignments to a number of journalists. The best know is Chris Barton, who writes features and commentary covering technology and telecommunications topics. Barton goes deep, but his work only appears occasionally.

The Herald also runs a weekly blog by tech veteran Juha Saarinen. Saarinen is one of the locally based technology journalists who appears to earn most of his income from working for overseas publishers. Unlike most of us, he has a firmer technology background. He mainly writes for IT News, an Australian online publication.

Rob O’Neill is another virtual ex-pat New Zealand journalist. He writes for ZDNet and is listed as part of the ZDNet Australia team. O’Neill writes local and international stories, maybe two local items a week.

Wellington-based Owen Williams has only recently moved to working full-time as a journalist. He is now on the team for US-based The Next Web.

On a personal note

This round-up wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my work. I’m a freelance journalist. I write a regular technology column for NZ Business magazine — it mainly appears in print. I have also written features in the last year or so for iStart, NBR and for Management magazine, which is now part of NZ Business. I also turn up on TV3 Firstline and the NZ Tech Podcast talking about technology.

My highest profile freelance work would be on the business feature pull-outs that appear in the NZ Herald about ten times a year. Although I get to write about tech from a business point of view, the stories range across most business areas.

There are also overseas jobs. In the last year I have written for ZDNet’s PC Magazine and for Computer Weekly out of the UK. Both publishers commissioned stories that are specifically about New Zealand themes.

Undergunned

Most experienced New Zealand technology writers, myself included, are not writing full-time for New Zealand audiences about local themes. Some are writing for overseas publishers, others split writing duties with other editorial responsibilities.

Those who are writing full-time spend their lives in a haze churning out short items dictated largely by the flow of press releases and PR-initiated pitches.

Too often an exclusive is nothing more than first dibs on a press release. You’re not doing your job when you post 20 smartphone shots of someone’s new data centre or are the first New Zealand site to publish alleged leaked photos of a yet to be launched product.

Getting eyeballs is everything. Local publishers fight with Google over the slim pickings available from online advertisements. They also compete internationally. New Zealanders probably read more overseas written tech news than locally written stories.

I’m not judgemental about the problems they face or the way local publishers tackle the problems , I’m on the receiving end of the same economic forces.

Who pays the piper?

The market doesn’t serve the readers. It doesn’t serve the local tech industry. Leaders of New Zealand tech companies need to be aware of what is going on in their industry, not what someone’s promotional output says. They need intelligence, not propaganda.

The current approach doesn’t serve the public good.

There’s also a problem when a big news story breaks that has technology woven in to its fabric. Remember the fuss in the run up to the 2014 election over stolen emails? Perhaps the planned $1.5 billion reboot of the IRD computer system. How about the business of the Edward Snowden leaks?

In some cases  journalists who don’t have tech expertise or the contacts needed to make sense of what is happening are sent to deal with these stories.

That’s a pity. There’s a bigger pity. Hundreds of real, hard news stories, things that the public needs to know about go unreported because they are not part of a public relations campaign. Or worse, public relations managers block the news from getting out.

Oxygen

Let’s put aside the worthy goal of keeping the public informed and get to a different commercial reality. New Zealand’s home grown technology sector doesn’t get the media oxygen it needs to breath.

Because overseas news feeds dominate the agenda in New Zealand, people buying here are more likely to hear about an overseas supplier than a local one. Investors will put their money overseas, skilled workers will look for jobs overseas. This is already causing problems.

The lack of balanced, impartial and thoughtful New Zealand technology journalism creates the impression there’s not much going on here.

Blogs take up some of the slack. So does Mauricio Freitas’ Geekzone website and projects like the New Zealand Tech Podcast. I’m involved in all three. But we need something else. I’ll tell you more about that later.

Technology needs a local voice. It has to be an honest voice. That means turning over rocks some people would prefer stayed untouched.

10 thoughts on “New Zealand technology journalism: the twilight years

  1. And, truth be told, I reckon the NZ perspective you’ve just described is prescient of what’s happening in Australia. Bespoke comments and story coming straight for PR and content marketing companies are becoming increasingly common and becoming “news”. Staffed positions are dwindling although it’s still possible for a smart freelancer to make a good living here although it does require some flexibility as writers might need to balance their role as objective journalists with the need to write content marketing material as that’s where the real money is.

  2. This is the case everywhere. I heard David Carr of the NY Times say, just a couple of weeks ago, that despite his paper having 800,000 subs, sponsored content was the future. I don’t believe he meant that.

    Regardless, for all journos reading this and agreeing, just hold on for a few more months. My new system is being built. It will have customers at launch. It fixes everything we hate about paying for content.

    The more publishers who use it, the better for the whole market. So if you want to be a launch partner get in touch with me now. If you’re still sceptical, just wait and see what it can do before making any decisions to shut shop or change coverage. We’ll be in beta at the end of the month.

    For those who don’t know, it’s a one-click sign-up, invisible, universal, pay-per-view system that has a one cent transaction fee that lets you charge pennies for content without the expense and annoyance of buying subscribers for a subscription paywall… cos those don’t work.

    I trust people won’t see this as hijacking this brilliant post. It really is a practical way of offering an answer to the questions that are posted.

  3. Why hasn’t Stephen Bell got a mention? He is/was one of the great NZ IT journalists.

  4. As someone who works in the technology industry I completely agree with you Bill. PR releasses posing as editorial content is pretty discouraging reading material. On a related note – surely the Auckland City Council (or what ever they are called these days) $170M IT project would be one of the bigger local stories today? Particularly galling for rate payers facing massive rate increases and weed-overgrown grass verges! I was chatting to a mate who is in the know over the weekend and just shaking my head in wonder at the waste!

  5. Pingback: We need more knowledgeable, reflective tech journalism in New Zealand | Evolving Newsroom

  6. I think part of the problem is that many think of IT as a singular field that one journalist can just grasp and write about it. IT is the broadest field ever. It’s like calling “paper” a field and assuming a jouro could therefore understand everything ever written on it.
    I could write about apps and ideation all day but I wouldn’t go near security.
    Most definitely my diet is international, perhaps we need a local aggregator.
    You are right about PR, I must say though I learned a lot about hacking from reading whale oil.
    Yes, I’m kidding 🙂

  7. Pingback: New Zealand technology journalism: the twilight years | Liquid Newsroom

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