The decline and fall of local body reporting

From Mediawatch, 9:21 am on 2 December 2018
Hutt City councillor and former Hutt News editor Simon Edwards

Hutt City councillor and former Hutt News editor Simon Edwards Photo: Lee-Anne Edwards

What happens if a local council has a debate on democracy itself and nobody reports it? No, it's not a Philosophy 101 conundrum - it's what happened earlier this year when Hutt City Council reviewed the way councillors and community boards were elected.

With the hollowing out of the country's newsrooms over the last couple of decades it has become increasingly common for local body meetings to be journalist-free zones. And things are only likely to get worse with media companies announcing cut-backs with a grim regularity. 

This week Stuff confirmed that 19 journalist positions in Auckland and Whangārei were being axed in its latest round of cuts. 

The 2001 census reported there were 2277 journalists working in New Zealand but by 2013 that number had dropped to 1527.

As journalist numbers have dwindled the numbers working in communications and advertising have swelled. For every journalist employed in 2001 2.3 people were employed in communication or advertising roles by 2013 there were 12,480 people working in communications and advertising – a ratio of 8.2 for every journalist in the country.

Last year former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer told RNZ’s the Ninth Floor an ill-informed public was leading to a crisis in democracy.

"The nature of our representative democracy has fundamentally changed. And people don't get that, they don't understand the implications of it. There is much less adequate communication between the governors and governed now. Democratic government around the western world is in some sort of crisis because there is a lot of unhappiness. Look at the level of voting in the 2016 municipal elections. Hardly anyone votes."

And Sir Geoffrey was right about a declining number of people choosing to vote. Between 1989 and 2016 turnout in municipal elections dropped from 56 to 46 percent – mirroring a dramatic decline in the amount of media coverage received by local bodies.

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Photo: DIA

In a sign of just how bad things have got a press release put out by the Hutt City Council last August announcing it was reviewing how its councillors and community boards were elected failed to generate a single story.

A couple of copies of Hutt News from 1998

A couple of copies of Hutt News from 1998 Photo: RNZ

The press release was re-published on the Scoop website - but that was it.

Hutt City Council’s manager of strategy and planning Wendy Moore was quoted as saying: “Representation of residents at council is where and how people can have the greatest influence on issues that impact on their lives now and decades into the future. That’s a compelling reason for Lower Hutt people to take an interest in this review.”

In the end just seven residents made a submission.

Coverage of local body politics has declined dramatically over the past 20 years. Mediawatch compared the coverage of Hutt City Council and local issues in the first two weeks of November 1998 and those of 2018.

A rough count revealed that the Dominion, Evening Post and Hutt News combined published 20 local body stories over the two week period in 1998 compared to none during the first two weeks of last month on the Stuff website and the Stuff-owned Hutt News.

Twenty years ago Hutt City’s then mayor John Terris made the front page of the Dominion wearing futuristic mayoral robes, there were in-depth features on changes at the council by long time Evening Post Hutt correspondent Hank Schouten and the Hutt News had comprehensive coverage of Hutt Council, the local DHB and power trust.

It's not just local body reporting that has plummeted. Local sports barely gets a look in now and there’s far fewer community and human interest stories.

It can’t all be put down to the decline of the advertising-funded model of journalism.

The 6 November issue of the Hutt News this year – at 64 pages – was actually fatter than its 1998 counterpart at 56 pages. Ironically two of those extra pages were made up of a double page advertising spread by Hutt Council informing readers of its representation proposal for next year’s elections.

One person for whom none of this comes as a surprise is Simon Edwards – a Hutt City councillor who took over the editorship of the Hutt News in 1989.

Edwards said he hadn't seen a reporter at a full council meeting - let alone a committee meeting or workshop -  for at least six months.

"The Hutt Valley has 140,000 people - it deserves more scrutiny from all sorts of media."

"What's happening now is there might be a press release from one of our communications people at Hutt City Council that alerts the reporter that there might be a story there - or a councillor will put a post on Facebook and that will alert a reporter that 'hey, maybe there's something going on'. It's a pretty sad state of affairs," he said.

Mr Edwards said as a result it tended to be the good news stories that got reported, and there were lots of issues this year that deserved more coverage. The debate around the future of the voting system was one of them.

"This is the way you elect your 12 councillors who are dealing with $100 million of ratepayers' money every year by way of rates and another $50m by fees and charges."

The council recently held a review of its animal by-laws that looked at whether cats should be micro-chipped and how beehives should be regulated.

"Important issues when you've got a neighbour with nine cats or something like that," Mr Edwards said. "You know, things like that really make people angry. There was one submission to that entire process from Forest and Bird. No members of the public - I would say - were aware that it was going on."

Mr Edwards said the campaigning journalism that saw 20,000 Hutt residents take to the streets to save the city's hospital following a concerted campaign by the Hutt News probably wouldn't happen now. 

That lack of scrutiny and coverage extends right around the country.

Matt Lawrey, Nelson City councillor

Matt Lawrey Photo: supplied

Nelson City Councillor Matt Lawrey – another former journalist – was also concerned about the decreasing scrutiny of local body politics by professional journalists.

He said when he started reporting in Nelson 21 years ago council meetings were regularly covered by four journalists - now it's typically just one.

Over the same period, the communications team has grown from one part-timer to five or six full time equivalents.

"Every week we would have a media meeting with the mayor, Philip Woollaston, and he would talk about what council was doing that week and issues that were coming up. Typically there would be three or four of us there and would be tape recorders running and we'd grill him."

Mr Lawrey said having competition for stories between journalists ensures comprehensive coverage.

Nelson Council recently debated the creation of a governance committee to guide the council's communications team's strategy - a move Mr Lawrey opposed.

"Whenever you give politicians the opportunity to influence the messaging they often can't help themselves. They will make that messaging as absolutely positive as they can for the organisation and for themselves. Sometimes that's just human nature."

The debate is yet to be reported in Nelson media.

New Zealand is far from alone when it comes to an atrophying media failing to report local democracy.

In Britain, the BBC has teamed up with more than 50 private sector news organisations to create 150 journalist jobs reporting decisions taken by local authorities and other public bodies.

RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson told Mediawatch he believed the BBC scheme could be adapted to New Zealand.

"There is definitely a hollowing out of news resources happening in the regions and this will have a significant impact on coverage of important local affairs such as councils, health boards and courts. As a news media industry we are concerned about this and are starting to talk together about how we can collectively respond to the challenge.

"We think the BBC initiative could potentially be adapted to work in New Zealand and we will likely develop a plan together in the next few months," Mr Thompson said.