The Listener: RIP

April 18, 2008

I’ve written about the decline in standards at The Listener, New Zealand’s only weekly news and current affairs magazine, on other occassions.

I’ve always enjoyed reading The Listener. It was a calm voice of reason in an increasingly nutso world of extreme views. Whenever a topic was handled, it seemed to be treated with a great deal of thought and reasoning and a lot of analysis over commentary pieces.

For those of you who aren’t journalists, let me explain the difference. It’s subtle, so feel free to read it slowly.

Analysis consists of gathering the facts, typically over a long period of time, and sticking strictly to what is proven and what is provable. Good examples of this are the Metro stories on The Unfortunate Experiment and the like. They take the heat out of the story which in turn makes it a much better read.

Comment pieces (and I say this as a former columnist) are written by chimps who are forced to have a view on things they neither know nor care about. It’s the 60 Minutes/20:20 of the print world. Typically it’s all emotion, heat and noise and ultimately empty.

As an aside, I’ve just read my first Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American, which was really very nicely done and astonishing when you realise he’s writing about the lead up to the Viet Nam war in real time.

His description of opinion writers as being hollow is bang on. I’ll add it to this post later when I find it.

The Listener has, I’m afraid, dumped analysis in favour of opinion and the steady decline in standards has just got straight off the cliff edge.

John Drinnan has a nice round up of the issue here in stablemate The NZ Herald:

The Listener has dumped its “Ecologic” columnist as the magazine acts on a complaint by Bryan Leyland – a prominent sceptic of the human impact of global warming.

Global warming activists and left-wing bloggers have leapt on the magazine which has actively covered the debate, suggesting that it is bowing to pressure.

But Listener editor Pamela Stirling is insisting that the two events are unconnected and that she is losing a staffer because of budget cuts.

Russell Brown (presumably one of those “left-wing bloggers” and not coincidentally a columnist at The Listener (but of the good sort, right Russell?) has a fairly alarmed and damning post in his blog, Hard News, but the real meat of it can be found here on Hot Topic.

I had hoped that the arrival of David Fisher as chief news hound and Proper Reporter would help, but I fear David is a single voice fighting the good fight. I wonder how long it will be before Russell packs his bags and flees and whether the best TV reviewer in the land, Diana Wichtel, will stay.

I, however, will not.

An editor’s job is simple: to deliver the best in journalism. That’s it, really. The how of the matter is tricky (subbing, photos, layout, staff levels, remuneration, profit taking, balance) but at the end of the day newspapers and magazines are in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers and you attract eyeballs with a juicy, tasty publication full of whatever it is the eyeballs are after. Mine have better things to do with their time.


That is astounding… I remember one editor and his pet sub in particular who wouldn’t leave copy alone… to the point where the reporters would
sneak back into the database after the sub had been at it and change stuff back.

My favourite booboo was her changing “iwi” (a word she was unfamiliar with) to “kiwi”. No, really. I caught that one before it went into print.

However the sub prevailed on the editor to make some changes so that she could change our copy and we would be none the wiser… He dutifully
introduced a field to the database wherein he and she could discuss the stories without any input from the reporters whatsoever. When I figured
out what was going on I blew my stack in a spectacular fashion (no typewriters were harmed however) and my only regret is that I invoked
Godwin’s Law by saying “At least in Nazi Germany they knew who the villains were!”

But nobody got fired, least of all me.

Surely robust editorial discussions should be encouraged? Why do today’s editors seem determined to winkle out those “prickly bastards” who make
their life difficult? Aren’t they the ones who are out there making their stories prickly as well?