NZPA closure will hurt science coverage

It had become apparent to journalists some time ago that things were starting to look shaky for the country’s news wire service NZPA, with its major backer Fairfax itching to go it alone, generate its own content and save some money in the process.

But last night’s news that Fairfax’s move to pull the plug on its funding of  NZPA will likely see the agency wound down this year with the loss of up to 40 jobs has nevertheless rattled journalists who saw it as a sure and steady influence in an age of eroding media values.

The death of NZPA is really the end of an era in New Zealand journalism. NZPA for over one hundred years has been the agency of record for breaking news stories. Newspapers might write more fulsome and colourful accounts than NZPA produces, but the agency can be counted on for serving up short, concise, timely and generally accurate news alerts on a wide range of subjects – from general news and politics, to business sport and science.

A few weeks back I sat in NZPA editor Kevin Norquay’s office to talk about that last topic – science. NZPA is a bastion of decent coverage of science-related issues in New Zealand and that is largely down to one individual – NZPA veteran reporter Kent Atkinson. Part of the reason for my visit was to thank NZPA for its commitment to covering science issues and giving Kent the leeway to pursue a round he loves.

While having to shuffle several rounds at NZPA, Kent’s interest in science and his commitment to covering the round thoroughly has meant decent coverage of issues as diverse as stem cell research and ocean acidification has been supplied to New Zealand newspapers and websites. This sort of coverage otherwise would not exist as mainstream media organisations, with a few exceptions, simply don’t have the resources, the individuals or the inclination to cover science in this way.

The great thing about NZPA is its reach. A decent science story, or any story for that matter, can run in numerous daily metropolitan and regional newspapers. While Stuff and the Herald Online will pile in to cover the populist stories – Darren Hughes’ night time exploits, the plastic waka etc , often with rolling coverage during the day, NZPA can be relied on to fill in the blind spots, with dispassionate reports. That safety net of coverage will soon be gone for our major mainstream news organisations.

Do they care?

The question now is whether they will up their game to fill in the gaps left with NZPA’s departure or simply abandon the ethos of providing comprehensive, accurate coverage that was embodied in NZPA.

NZPA’s closure will be bad for coverage of science-related issues, just when – in the wake of Ken “Moon Man” Ring’s earthquake predictions, the Christchurch earthquake, the nuclear situation in Japan, we need decent coverage of science-related issues more than ever. I fear Kent Atkinson, with his extensive knowledge and experience in the science beat, will be lost to journalism as well as other seasoned reporters in the NZPA newsroom, such as my old colleague from the Business Herald, Pam Graham, who now serves as NZPA’s finance editor.

I must admit, as I chatted with Kevin Norquay looking out at the bunker-like NZPA newsroom a few weeks back, I had a bad feeling. There were barely any journalists in the newsroom, and when I enquired as to whether they were all out in the field, Kevin replied that the staff in the newsroom constituted the daytime shift for the agency. NZPA had the air of an organisation clinging to values, a structure and business model that were dying.

Bureau model shows promise

It would be nice to think that Fairfax and APN will use the millions of dollars they save in fees paid to NZPA to hire some of those made redundant to bolster their own coverage, particularly in specialist areas that NZPA excelled in. But I’m more inclined to think that NZPA’s backers will instead make the savings and carry on business as usual.

There is some hope I think in the bureau model Fairfax is employing, such as the business reporting hub that was recently set up in Auckland under the leadership of another former Herald colleague Tim Hunter.

A team of maybe one or two reporters within Fairfax, based in a city but nationally focused and tasked with covering the science beat properly could transform coverage of science across the largest print media group in the country, adding to the excellent work done by the handful of Fairfax reporters who cover science and environment issues. It would be even more effective in the APN camp.

Fairfax and APN are also able to give a story the sort of treatment NZPA was never able, due to the limitations of its structure. For instance, a Stuff reporter/videographer recently attended a press conference we at the Science Media Centre organised in conjunction with Professor Sir Peter Gluckman.

Less than an hour after the press conference, the reporter had a story filed to Stuff, accompanied by a nicely edited interview with Sir Peter complete with voice over. The ability of the major news portals to quickly turn around packages of multimedia content has put them in the box seat for covering breaking news stories. Where they still fall down however, is in the breadth of coverage they can offer – and that’s where NZPA was the ever present backstop.

But I doubt science coverage will get any more of a look-in than it does now with the support of NZPA. Which is why it is a sad day for science journalism and a sad day for journalism in general in New Zealand.

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