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 website. 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 shortcut 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.
Technology journalism 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.
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. In the last year have also written features 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.
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 into 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.
Let’s put aside the worthy goal of keeping the public informed and get to a different commercial reality. New Zealand’s homegrown 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.
Technology needs a local voice. It has to be an honest voice. That means turning over rocks some people would prefer stayed untouched.