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The NZ Herald: Demise of a quality publication

OPINION: The Herald has been transformed from a quality newspaper into little better than a trash tabloid.

Sun, 16 Nov 2014

Under the editorship of Shayne Currie the New Zealand Herald has been transformed from a quality newspaper into little better than a trash tabloid.

I need to be a little more precise here. Mr Currie has responsibility primarily for the Monday-to-Friday Herald and it is to those editions that my remarks apply.

The Weekend Herald, which appears on Saturday, is edited by David Hastings (*see correction below.) The Sunday Herald is edited by  Miriyana Alexander whose function appears to be to make even the Monday-to-Friday Herald look good. It is a wretched publication.

Now if Mr Currie or Ms Alexander had the slightest interest in Brian Edwards’ opinion of their papers – which they certainly haven’t – they would reply that their circulation figures and the Qantas and Canon media awards on their office shelves tell a different story. In those terms they are extremely successful publications. And they would be right.

My only comment would be that tabloid trash and high circulation go together in pretty well every Western democracy and that there are so many media awards and so few major newspapers in New Zealand that it is almost impossible not to have accumulated several shelves-full.

Shanye and Miriyana would therefore be entirely within their rights to dismiss me as a journalism snob. But we journalism snobs have hearts and we are entitled to mourn the loss of the quality publication that the Herald once was. We are consoled by the excellent Weekend Herald, but there are signs that the populist wolf is already sniffing at the door there too.

I described the weekday Herald as “little better than a trash tabloid’. It would be fair to start with the things that are better. They include:

  • The work of brilliant cartoonist Rod Emmerson whom, in my Helen Clark days, I quite wrongly accused of catering to his employers’ right-wing prejudices. Emmerson combines insight, satire and extraordinary draughtsmanship to produce a daily cocktail of cartoon delight.
  • The Herald’s team of political columnists,  ably led by the incomparable John Armstrong.
  • Fran O’Sullivan
  • Brian Rudman
  • Some contributed columns
  • Sarah Stuart’s 10 Questions
  • Sideswipe with Ana Samways (despite its sometimes saccharine content)
  • Letters to the editor page
  • The cryptic crossword.

You can add to the list. I have blindspots of course, including sport in which my interest does not extend beyond netball, tennis and Lydia Ko.

But these “better” points are massively outnumbered by the ever-increasing examples of the “tabloidization” of the weekday Herald’s content which was anticipated  by the change of format a couple of years ago but began long before that. Have a look at almost any Monday- to-Friday edition today and these are some of the things you’ll discover:

  • The front page coverage rarely relates to the major news event of the previous 24 hours. It normally features items that are either sentimental (sad/happy/quaint), sensational (traffic accidents/sex/crime /general mayhem) or celebrity driven. House prices are now part of the front-page staple diet, as they are inside the paper. There is a heavy reliance on photographs to fill the front-page.
  • The focus on celebrities and celebrity gossip, once the preserve of celebrity publications and “women’s magazines” has hugely increased under the guiding hand of gossip columnist Rachel Glucina. Ms Glucina’s level of contribution to the paper has recently increased exponentially to the point where her revelations about the rich, famous, would-be-famous and previously unheard-of can merit a double-page spread in the middle of the paper. And this is not the end of it. It was with horror that I opened a recent Weekend Herald to discover that the Glucina infection had spread there too.
  • When Ms Glucina is not writing about celebrities in the weekday Herald they are writing about themselves. Mark Sainsbury, Mike Hosking and Lucy Lawless are just three in a longish list of “TV stars” who share their opinions on pretty well everything with the humble reader.
  • Sentiment, sensation, celebrity (and house prices) also drive the weekday Herald’s news pages.
  • A recent addition to the paper is a segment called “Rants and Raves”. The title could scarcely be more explicit in its intention. Readers are encouraged to “rant” or “rave” about something on their minds. Their rants and raves must be bite-sized and not require too much thought on their or the reader’s part, thoughtful expression being reserved for the editorial and correspondence columns. There’s an interesting comparison here with the bite-sized reports that now characterise television news and current affairs reporting.
  • Bob Jones.

An aside: Mr Hosking gets a double bite of the opinion cherry with his appearances on Seven Sharp. In both media he recently expressed his firm view that there was absolutely no justification for workers to be allowed tea-breaks. I can tell you from 47 years first-hand experience that no one consumes more tea or coffee on the job than the average radio or TV broadcaster.

There are lots more examples and I could go on, but I’m probably boring you already. The bottom line is that a once quality publication, the New Zealand Herald, from Monday to Friday now offers its readers a formula that increasingly looks like a combination of the Women’s WeeklyDaily Mail, the National Inquirer and Hello magazine. The physical transformation from broadsheet to tabloid is now clearly reflected in the paper’s content. I suspect it will not be long before the excellent Weekend Herald follows a similar downward trajectory.

(Since publishing this post I’ve been advised that David Hastings no longer edits the Weekend Herald. Mr Currie now includes that position among his responsibilities. This may explain the arrival of Ms Glucina. I fear my suspicion of other unwelcome changes to the Weekend Herald may not be without foundation. I nonetheless apologise for my mistake. Damn you Wikipedia!)

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

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The NZ Herald: Demise of a quality publication