Patrick Crewdson - student, Auckland

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

The Herald takes a lot of flak in my journalism class at AUT, usually more from the students than from the tutors. Sometimes, it earns the criticism, as with the Chad Eagle story on today's front page or this headline: 'South Africans cheer Mugabe on 10th anniversary of freedom' (link courtesy of Max). Often though, the scorn poured on the Herald is fairly ill-informed. In any case, it's all relative. Before living in Auckland I was in Dunedin and you don't know frustration until you've subscribed to the 2002 Qantas Award-winning (Best Daily Newspaper) Otago Daily Times. So I'm actually quite fond of the Herald. At the very least, I consider it a mark of quality that I can't finish it in the time in takes to eat two slices of toast.

On Monday we had Gavin Ellis, editor of the Herald, in to talk to us. He started with Socrates' allegory of the cave, making the point, I think, that you can't get the Herald delivered to your cave unless you have a proper mailbox. Or maybe he was talking about most people seeing the world reflected in the media, like Socrates' cave-dwellers saw it as shadows on a wall. I forget. More memorably, he went on to talk about laudable ideas like not emphasising ethnicity in a story unless it is strictly relevant and being prepared to back up every assertion or statement in your article with evidence or reasoning (which sounds obvious, but try going through an article sentence by sentence), and then to touch on well-worn but still worthy topics such as the pursuit of objective truth. I don't mean to sound condescending, but it was nice to see that he thought cogently about principles, even if his paper often fails to live up to them.

In sharp contrast to Gavin was our previous guest, Clive Nelson of the Sunday News (who has the amusing traits of being English and named Clive. Y'know: it's like being an Australian called Bruce). He was speaking to us as part of a different class and on a different topic (the effect of layout on shifting units, as opposed to the elements of news reporting), but even so, his strictly pragmatic attitude towards his paper couldn't have been further from Ellis' highfalutin ideals. 93% of Sunday News sales come from casual buyers, Clive said. That makes the paper highly unusual in a marketplace dominated by subscriber-supported publications. What sort of thing appeals to the younger, browner, poorer Sunday News readership? What front page will convince them to make that casual purchase at the Pak'n'Save checkout? Something featuring "local celebrities in the shit", apparently. Or in lieu of that: NZ Idol and rugby league.

Clive was honest and open about the Sunday News, and to the suprise of some in the class, was not in the least bit ashamed of it. Among serious journalism students - some of whom, if they don't go into PR, will end up working at the Sunday News - Clive's paper has a reputation not much better than that of the NZ Truth. His attitude was refreshingly direct. Which isn't to say that Gavin Ellis wasn't direct; as I said, Gavin and Clive were invited to speak on different topics, so it's no surprise that they emphasised completely different parts of the business. If Gavin had been asked to talk about attracting subscribers he may well have taken a much more practical tone, and I suspect the very entertaining Clive may not have fared as well if asked to discuss abstract principles of reportage or the role of the fourth estate in relation to NZ Idol and the Warriors. Even so, it was fascinating how closely the two men mirrored the personalities of their newspapers. Gavin was much more solemn and dignified than Clive, who in turn was much more prepared to acknowledge the grubbier side of the industry.

And on an unrelated note:

Pet hate update: A little while ago I patted myself on the back for not confusing Armageddon with the end of the world in my feature on this year's pulp culture expo. TVNZ, I smugly said, had demonstrated themselves to be not as clever as me. This week I was further dismayed to read Alistair Bone's Listener piece, 'Geek Gods', which concluded with this line about the Salvation Army band:

This very band will play when Armageddon (the real one, with the four guys on horses), arrives like night.
They would be the four horsemen of the Armageddon then, would they? Any relation to War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, the four horsemen of the apocalypse?

Update: This from Max:

Since I'm a philosophy grad who did a dissertation on Sacrates, I feel obliged
to point out that, no matter what the editor of the NZ Herald says, Socrates
didn't come up with the shadows-in-the-cave analogy. It never really impacted
upon the moral and linguistic philosophy he spent his years annoying people
with. It was Plato's deal. Plato who used a character called Socrates to do all
the philosophising in his writings, but Plato nonetheless.
Well if you're sogreats, how come you spell Socrates Sacrates? Sorry, that was lame. I was under the impression that because Socrates didn't leave any writings, we only know his thoughts through the reportage of Plato. Isn't there some confusion about which thoughts are Plato's and which belonged to Socrates but were written down by Plato?

Update update: I am reliably informed that I am wrong on several counts. There is consensus on which thoughts belonged to Plato, and the caves are firmly his. And apparently, we also know about Socrates from Xenophon.