Chapter 2 - Online media in New Zealand

Conclusion

In this chapter we have attempted to provide a snap shot of the spectrum of web-based publishing in New Zealand. This picture is, of necessity, partial and transitory.

In the following chapter we attempt to draw some tentative conclusions about the defining characteristics of news media and what such parameters might imply for the categorisation of the range of web publishers surveyed in this chapter.

Before doing so it may be useful to draw out a number of observations about the new environment in which the media are now operating.

Size still matters

Although the proliferation of publishers has fractured audiences, the reality is that in most western democracies, including New Zealand, the public continues to rely on mainstream media companies as its primary source of news – for the moment at least.

Analysis of online sites visited by New Zealanders in May 2011 by global digital measurement and marketing company comScore, showed that of the potential 2.8 million internet users in this country (aged 15+), 96% had accessed a newspaper website. This was twice the global average reach for news sites.  New Zealanders also spend significantly longer on news websites compared with the global average. APN & Media’s nzherald site and Fairfax Media’s Stuff site lead the news sites by a large margin, both reaching about two-thirds of the potential online audience.50

Similarly, despite the increasing trend towards on-demand and customised media, for a very significant proportion of New Zealanders television and radio continue to play a dominant role in setting the news agenda and focusing public and political attention.

This handful of public and private enterprises continues to channel significant resources into generating news across a broad range of topics judged to be of interest and importance to the public. News is a core component of their businesses and critical to the success of their web presence.

Symbiotic relationships

However, what our analysis also reveals is the increasing interdependence between these traditional news companies and emergent forms of journalism ranging from the so called “citizen journalists” who provide raw material to news sites through to the current affairs bloggers who increasingly help shape the news agenda.

This symbiotic relationship between traditional and new news media is highly significant given the critical role search engines such as Google play in determining what is seen and unseen on the web. For example, a virtually unknown blog site can be lifted from total obscurity to first or second ranking on a Google search page if it is referenced prominently on a mainstream media website.51

Linking is central to the web culture and this characteristic creates a porousness which can see quasi–private publications, such as those which take place on websites and forums, pulled through into mass audience websites with sometimes far-reaching consequences for those individuals involved.

For the moment though, it often requires a mainstream media organisation to focus public attention on the “tweet” or video post or blog entry and to construct the “news narrative” which gives the content added momentum and credibility.

Dis-mediation

To some extent the suggestion that “citizen journalism” is a new phenomenon born of the web is a mistake. Journalists and news organisations have always been dependent on the public for news – in fact journalists were traditionally valued for the breadth and depth of their sources.

What has changed of course is that now the “sources” do not necessarily need the journalists to make public the information they wish to disseminate.

This ability to bypass the gatekeepers came though strongly in our analysis of some of the new news media organisations discussed earlier in this chapter. Within the culture of these new ventures the idea that “raw” or “unedited” content is made available to users is seen as a desirable attribute.

Similarly, within the blogosphere the culture of imbedding links to source content allows users to conduct their own enquiries and move seamlessly from site to site – choosing when and if to return to the original blog post.

At a fundamental level, where once the public were dependent on large media organisations with expensive hardware to provide coverage of live news events such as high profile criminal trials, it is now possible for any individual with smart phone technology to provide instant coverage.

For the moment this possibility remains more of a theoretical threat to mainstream media organisations than a practical reality for the reasons already outlined: although anyone can broadcast, not everyone can marshal a mass audience to view that broadcast.

That said, those with an understanding of how to manipulate search engines to elevate their content can quickly achieve large audiences, particularly when operating in a small market like New Zealand and especially if they are given a hand-up by the mainstream or social media.

Amy Weinberger, above n 21.

For example, in April 2011 it was revealed in Parliament that a senior ACC medical assessor had initiated defamation proceedings against an anonymous ACC claimant for alleged defamatory comments she had made about him on her blog site. Debate then took place within the mainstream media as to the merits of this course of action without at any point repeating the allegedly defamatory comments.

However a simple Google search under the terms “ACC doctor + defamatory comments” produced within 0.22 seconds a menu of ten stories, including some by mainstream media. The top item returned by the search engine was a Google cached (copied) version of the ACC Claimants Support Network - ACC Focus website which included a text version of a story attributed to a major news source and containing a hyperlink taking readers directly to the offending blog and the allegedly defamatory comments about the doctor. 

The blog’s author initially queried how a blog with perhaps no more than 15 followers could possibly have caused $200,000 worth of reputational damage to the doctor. However, within days of this story being carried by the mainstream the alleged defamation had spread like a virus on the web.

In another example politician and prominent media commentator threatened to take legal action over what he claimed to be defamatory material contained in a personal blog written by a woman with whom he had been in a relationship. Mainstream media coverage of the dispute saw the hitherto little known blog post rise in the Google rankings as numerous other commentators and bloggers linked to the blog and its inflammatory contents from their own websites.