A personal essay by veteran journalist Chris Barton on what it’s like to be made redundant by the Herald – and his fears for any kind of intelligent, long-form writing in mainstream media.
When the end came, in December 2012, it was brutal. I was called to a meeting in an editor’s office. It was immediately clear that, to all intents and purposes, I had ceased to exist. The editor began an Orwellian recital from the how-to-make-someone-disappear handbook. The routine required another editor, a long-time colleague, to sit silently beside him, his main purpose seeming to be to avoid eye contact. Tough economic times meant the paper couldn’t “sustain some roles going forward”. They proposed to disestablish my position. “It’s only a proposal at this stage,” insisted the editor. “No decision has been made…It’s got nothing to do,” he said, “with your performance.”
The performance. 15 years with the newspaper. 10 awards – seven for features, one for reporting, two for columns, and the Wolfson Press Fellowship in 2009. My more cynical colleagues always said those things meant nothing. You secretly hoped they did. Turns out they don’t.
I was a feature writer surplus to requirements. Features were dying and feature writers were expected to follow suit. I said nothing, took the letter and walked back to my desk. No sooner had I sat down than Madame Defarge (every office has one) glided into view, demanding the grisly details. I counted to 10 and practised my death stare. A couple of hours later the story of up to eight editorial redundancies at the New Zealand Herald had leaked to National Business Review online, “including some well-known names, one of whom is said to be ‘shaken'”. Not so much shaken as fighting the urge to tell Madame Defarge to fuck off.
In truth, while I was shocked at the means of my very public execution, things had been weird – weirder than normal even for the Herald – for some time. Rumours, as they say on the front page, had been swirling about how many, and who, would be for the chop. As the sole feature writer for Friday’s the Business I knew I was vulnerable. It was a situation of my own doing because working for the Weekend Herald Review pages had become untenable. I had felt someone walking over my grave. Especially after bumping into one of the editors who responded to my cheery hello with a sharp intake of breath as he scuttled back to his office.
Every journalist knows redundancies are a fact of life in the print media industry as both newspapers and magazines struggle to stay viable in the face of declining circulation, the internet that changes everything and management’s headless chookery in the face of it all. Shortly after I first arrived at the Herald in 1997, there was a massive cleanout. Experienced sub-editors and journalists, many of whom had been at the Herald for decades, were led off into small rooms and told in blunt, brutal ways they were goners. There were tears. Many said it was necessary – that the Herald needed to modernise and clean out its dead wood. Mostly I saw good hardworking journalists being treated very harshly for years of loyal service. Now it was my turn.
In my time at the Herald, redundancies became an unstoppable trend. Every few years there would be another bunch gone as the bean counters invented new ways – outsourcing sub-editing in 2007, changing to tabloid format in 2012 – to cut costs. As I write this in early 2016, the Herald has just completed another cleanout – 15 editorial staff, including many highly experienced, long serving journalists and editors surplus to requirements.
Beside the body count, there has also been significant collateral damage to journalism – a slow suffocation that makes it difficult for a certain type of journalism to breathe. I’m not talking about the ever-increasing illiteracy – spelling, grammatical and vocabulary errors and nonsensical sentences that induce tears of unintended mirth and/or make you yell impotently at the paper. Nor am I talking about the very low bar for what passes for news these days. Quite when that began is a moot point, but shortly after the launch of the tabloid Herald on Sunday in 2004, motor accidents, any motor accident, suddenly became front-page news. We were the Car Crash Herald.
For a while the tabloid slide was kind of funny. My colleagues in features would mark off the trends of the day – women in bikinis, sharks and collisions. The perfect paper would have all three. It would be unfair not to credit Shayne Currie as the architect of this tabloidisation of the Herald, completed in 2012 when the daily paper shifted from broadsheet to tabloid format. The only time I ever saw a hint that he didn’t like being characterised as the tabloid king was at a Christmas gathering in the features area of the Herald when everyone was given a secret Santa present. Currie’s gift was a book about sharks. He seemed put out.
At the time Currie’s boss was editor-in-chief Tim Murphy, so he should probably take some credit too. Murphy is now also collateral damage – although editors aren’t generally made redundant. Instead they step down and put out a press release as Murphy did in April 2015.
While it’s easy to tut-tut about this race-to-the-bottom strategy to save newspapers, there is an apparent logic. In the face of declining circulation, to stay relevant newspapers feel the need to appeal to the widest possible audience. Hence populist content – stuff that apparently sells, stuff most people apparently want to read about. Even if the strategy is right, and so far there’s little sign that it is, why does dross rule? Why has journalism become so stupid?
The battering of literacy and the suffocation of actual news is bad enough. But it’s the slow death of long-form journalism – features that take a long time to write and time to read – that I find more concerning.
OUT THE BACK OF THE HERALD’S FORMER HQ IN ALBERT ST: PHOTO BY STEVE BRAUNIAS
When I joined the features desk in 2004 after a seven year stint as IT editor, features was already known as The Resort – a termed coined by one of the editors. Various lieutenants seized upon the derogatory sentiment. Chief reporters would come to our part of the building, in those days separate from the newsroom, and sneer about life at The Resort. We were layabouts on easy street. The only real work happened in news. At one level this was good-natured workplace rivalry. Repeated over and over, it was dispiriting. The demeaning of features by the editors was disturbing. It meant features, in comparison to news, were of lesser value – a position that was both proudly anti-intellectual and depressingly lacking in imagination.
The truth was The Resort was a fantastic place to work – collegial, supportive and with some of the best talent in the place. Good people, hardworking, good at their job, many with a devastatingly dark sense of humour. Important stories were done. It was an oasis of sanity. There was laughter in The Resort. Rather than foster what in many ways was the perfect workplace, and a hive of creativity, those at the top seemed offended by its existence and determined to tear it down.
That it was such good place was largely down to features editor John Gardner – ex Guardian, unassuming, old school and with a deadpan, off-colour sense of humour. He also had something very few at the Herald had – an ability to manage people in a way that didn’t rely on the hierarchy of his position. He was also fiercely critical and exacting. He was one of the few editors at the Herald who welcomed robust discussion of an issue. He engendered mutual respect.
For me, from 2004 to 2009 was a golden age. Review had its own section in the Weekend Herald. The section, which carried four or five staff-written features each week, was loosely modelled on British weekend papers that took the view that readers enjoyed a longer read, especially over the weekend.
The reality, however, was that Herald writers, well-schooled in reporting, didn’t have a lot of experience in this kind of writing. There were exceptions – Jan Corbett and Carroll du Chateau, ex-Metro and accomplished feature writers, but also people like Graeme Reid who didn’t come from a journalism background but could write with style.
To show how serious it was about bringing a new style of writing to Granny Herald, the paper ran workshops led by Jack Hart, of the Oregonian fame. The workshops promoted a version of New Journalism style à la Tom Wolfe. Also known as literary or intimate journalism or creative nonfiction, it promoted features in narrative form, with plenty of dialogue, scene setting and slice-of-life details. The idea, as Hart put it, was to compete against all the other narrative out there – television, movies, interactive computer games – and get people to read.
Hart promoted a technique he called “Where’s the camera?”, which recommended that descriptive feature writing should be done as if you were shooting a movie. In other words, that the writer should shift the point of view (move the camera) in a logical, fluent way that produces a succession of mental pictures and allows the reader to follow the story. Compared with the inverted pyramid style, it was much more compelling because it gave the reader a reward – pleasure and knowledge – for making it through a story.
Such writing required multiple drafts and a long to and fro process with a skilled editor. Generally that long process didn’t happen at the Herald so the results of the new narrative journalism, which was also happening in magazine writing, were mixed. Intros sometimes had a level of farcical detail – “uncaring cows”, “lightweight pants” and “a smile as wide as the Mississippi”.
Sometimes it almost worked. Carrol du Chateau, on Donna Awatere Huata appearing in court: ‘They walk out of Courtroom 7 looking like the stars of a B-grade American movie. Donna Awatere Huata wears a brave yellow suit with a skirt that barely reaches her knees, sheer stockings and matching stiletto slingbacks. The trademark sunglasses are gone. Her new, curly, Tina Turner bob is tipped with blond, her face almost unlined for a woman of 54, her figure slim. The overall effect, in this setting: tragic.”
Sometimes it didn’t. “A spark ignites in the thin Maori boy’s eyes, then travels to his mouth, bursting into a full-flame grin,” wrote Tim Watkin.
Herein lies the mystery of great feature writing. Formulas may help in getting on the right path, but ultimately it comes down to a crafting that defies definition.
FAMOUS YELLOW LOADING BAY OUT THE BACK OF THE HERALD’S FORMER HQ IN ALBERT ST: PHOTO BY STEVE BRAUNIAS
For feature writing, space really is the final frontier, the last stand. It’s the oxygen that lets long-form journalism breathe. At the Herald, that oxygen supply was choked dramatically in 2010 when the standalone review section of the Weekend Herald was merged into Section A. Suddenly, instead of five or six Saturday reads, there was essentially just one – a double page spread with a couple of shorter pieces either side. With four dedicated general feature writers joined by two editors who would also be writing features, the maths was wrong. Something was going to give.
Long before the cut in space there was another more fundamental problem – TLDNR, too long did not read. I first heard the acronym at a feature writers meeting years earlier with Tim Murphy. He raised it as something he’d come across – that in these time-poor times, people simply didn’t have enough hours in the day to read long features. In hindsight, I think this was the first indication features at the Herald were doomed.
The Herald wasn’t alone in going into a blind panic and adopting a year zero policy to deal with declining circulation and, more significantly, the decimation of classified advertising revenue. Other newspapers in New Zealand seem to have adopted the same strategy. The Herald’s grand plan was the one newsroom. As an architectural solution – editorial staff now crammed into a single area with desks arranged in rows – it looked akin to a call centre. Others described it as a language school, a battery chook barn, sow crates in a piggery and a Dickensian sweatshop. Somehow, by putting everyone together in the same space, all the Herald problems would be solved. The final solution is now in full swing. In September 2015 NZME announced plans for its “print, digital and radio news teams to come together in one integrated, multi-platform, 24/7 operation” co-located “into one world-class, Auckland newsroom”. Since then two significant media merger announcements – of Fairfax and NZME and Vodafone and Sky – indicate there’s more consolidation and, inevitably, redundancies to come.
The 2015 NZME announcement was made alongside more bodies being culled. What wasn’t mentioned was the collateral damage to long-form journalism. When I moved to features in 2004, there were around eight dedicated feature writers – four or five in features and about four in the investigative unit. Eventually those two groups merged and within a few years of a sinking lid policy their number was reduced to four. By 2012 dedicated feature writers for the Weekend Herald numbered just two. In 2015 there was just one.
An article I wrote in 2008 on suicide, of about the same length, involved sitting through a drawn-out coroner’s inquest, plus weeks of research and interviews. When I wrote about the appalling institutional care of a young man with autism, his story was told in just 2500 words. But writing the piece – gaining the trust of the family involved, visiting the place of care and talking to various parties – was incredibly time consuming. It’s this sort of writing that’s all but disappeared – albeit with some exceptions such as Steve Braunias’s masterful contributions and, recently, Kirsty Johnston’s searing exposé on the use of seclusion in autism care.
CORRIDOR OF THE HERALD’S FORMER HQ IN ALBERT STREET (AND LIKE THE PREVIOUS PICTURES A NOT VERY SUBTLE METAPHOR FOR ABSENCE): PHOTO BY STEVE BRAUNIAS
With the closure of the separate review section of the Weekend Herald in 2010 there was also a new edict. With less space to fill, features in Section A would consist of shorter pieces with much more emphasis on design – big pictures and graphics to help the reader through the grey print.
In 2011, The Resort was finally dismantled to make way for the new single newsroom. To mark the occasion we hung umbrellas and banners − ‘The Last Resort’ − over our old work pods and partied in Hawaiian shirts to remember the good times. That was the day the feature as I knew it died at the Herald.
It was around then that I scarpered to Business. By the end of the year I’d been made redundant. What rankled was that redundancy is a process designed to silence. I suddenly became invisible, to be avoided like someone with a contagious disease, treated as though I committed some crime. Sent to Coventry by the editors while others averted their eyes. Dead man walking. There would of course be no official farewell. How could there be? In these situations, to keep some dignity intact, the best tactic is to quietly slip away into the night.
Washed-up feature writers aren’t exactly in hot demand. Fortunately, when I finished my time at Cambridge, I was given some incredibly useful advice. Professor John Naughton, the polymath who heads the press fellowship programme at Wolfson College, often talked about the disintegrating state of journalism and the disruption of online. Too many print journalists were too passive in the face of the oncoming wave. “As a result they cast themselves in the role of victims. Whereas they ought to be taking charge of their fates.”
That was in 2010. Naughton suggested two lines of attack. Firstly, I should start thinking of myself as an author, not just a journo. Secondly, I should maybe think of adding some teaching. “As an academic I know that heads of departments are sometimes desperate to find ways of incorporating external perspectives into their programmes.” So, with some trepidation, I approached the Auckland School of Architecture. To my considerable surprise they were incredibly welcoming, initially asking me to do some guest lectures and then run some writing workshops.
At the end of 2012, with Naughton’s words again ringing in my ears, I was determined not to become a victim. I loved the architecture teaching work. I was also very fortunate to be immediately offered freelance writing – by Simon Wilson at Metro and Virginia Larson at North & South. To both I am eternally grateful. It’s thanks to them that I continue in journalism, albeit hanging on by my fingernails.
In August 2015, my monthly online technology column, the last vestige of journalistic reach that I enjoyed through the Herald’s monopoly on the Auckland market, was severed. Like the redundancy, the process was cowardly and brutal. A long-time colleague at the Herald not connected with my column was given the task of phoning me the news. The reason: budget. My column was one of many to be cut – Dita De Boni, James Griffin, Peter Calder and Paul Casserly were among other columnists canned.
There was no thanks for the decade or more of comment and opinion on issues related to technology. Just: “Sorry I’m the one that has to do this.”
Nearly a year after it was canned, my column won Best Opinion Writer – Business at the 2016 Canon Media Awards. Imagine my surprise to see my face in an ad on the cover of the business section alongside other Herald winners with the caption, The Best Business You’ll Read Today. Did they forget they’d fired me?
This is an edited version of Chris Barton’s essay taken from Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand (Freerange Press, $40), edited by Barnaby Bennett, Sarah Illingworth, Emma Johnson and Giovanni Tiso. Prominent journalists, academics and commentators share their views and experiences of modern journalism and that in one of the year’s most thoughtful books.