TT: All the News?

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and hear a bit about Treecat Wars, my forthcoming novel with David Weber.  Then come and hear about how the earth shook for Alan — and we had no idea what was going on.

JANE: You know, Alan, if I didn’t correspond regularly with you, I’d have had no idea that starting in mid-July your part of New Zealand was absolutely bombarded with earthquakes.

News Selections

News Selections

ALAN: Yes – there was a swarm of small quakes on the 19th. Many of them were too small to be felt, but some of them were quite large and noticeable. It culminated on the 21st with a very shallow earthquake, magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale. Because it was so shallow and so strong, it really shook everything up and it was very, very scary.

Since then there have been more than 2,000 aftershocks and they are still going on. Again, they are mostly low intensity and can’t be felt. But we are told by the experts that there is a 10% chance of another 6.5 or greater quake over the next week. The last time this happened was in the early 1950s and the aftershocks then lasted for a month or so.

JANE: Dear lord!  That’s scary.  Talk about waiting for the earth to drop out from under your feet.  How did the quake of the 21st effect your area?   Was your home hit?

ALAN: After the big one on the 21st, the central city was covered in glass from broken windows and several buildings have suffered damage. The CBD was closed for 24 hours. All train services were cancelled while the tracks were inspected for damage (fortunately there wasn’t any and normal service was resumed the next day). The airport was closed for several hours while the runways were inspected and navigational instruments checked. The runways were fine, but some of the navigational aids had to be run from backup equipment for a time. In retrospect we got off lightly – but there may be more to come…

My house is built on solid rock which absorbs a lot of the energy, so it didn’t suffer any real damage, though a loose knob on the garage door fell off and has now completely disappeared!

My cats slept through it all and didn’t notice a thing. So much for the theory that animals can give you early warnings of these things!

JANE: Perhaps Harpo and Bess were more psychic than even cats are credited with being and they knew your house was safe and there was no reason to worry.

Now, I’ll admit, especially since I let my newspaper subscription lapse for various reasons, I’m not the best informed person. Jim, however, regularly checks the news on-line and listens to news radio. On the day my e-mail from you informed me that the quakes which had started the Friday before were still on-going and had gotten worse, the banner headline was that Princess Kate had gone into labor.

Jim later checked around and found on the “international news” page the New Zealand quakes were mentioned far down the list. However, the birth of said baby –  also an international event – was, once again, banner news. I’m so embarrassed at how our “news” has become both parochial and superficial.

ALAN: Oh you’re not alone in your parochialism. Australia is just the same, if not worse. If your only source of news was the Australian papers, you could easily be forgiven for not knowing that countries other than Australia even existed! New Zealand also has its moments – way back around about 1981, the Israelis bombed an Iraqi nuclear power plant. There much concern at the time that this could lead to all-out war. On that day, the headline on the front page of one of New Zealand’s largest newspapers was: “Young Man Dies From Rugby Injury.”

JANE: Wow…  Of course these were the days when newspapers were both paper and assumed to contain news.  Now this no longer seems to be the case.  This is one reason why I stopped getting a print subscription – this despite the fact that the newspaper I was getting was The Wall Street Journal, a paper with a very good reputation and one that I had been a regular reader of for many decades.

ALAN: Why did you stop your subscription?

JANE: The price for a subscription jumped massively and, despite my being a long-time subscriber, they wouldn’t give me a break.  I let the subscription lapse.  Now, about every four months, I get those bargain offers.  However, I have resisted being seduced.  Not only did I realize that without a newspaper I suddenly I had more time to read fiction and non-fiction both, I found I wasn’t missing much.

ALAN: And I’d agree with you. I’m a bit of a news junky and I need my daily fix. But even in those pre-internet days, I didn’t get much of my news from the papers. I depended far more on radio and TV. The BBC World service was, and continues to be, a superb source of news and later, of course, it migrated from radio to television along with organisations such as CNN and Al Jazeera. And they are all much better at reporting on world affairs than newspapers are. I remember that when Mikhail Gorbachev was briefly under arrest after the communist hardliners mounted what proved to be an abortive coup against him, he commented that he had kept himself informed about what was happening by listening to the BBC World Service news broadcasts. I think that speaks for itself.

JANE: Absolutely.  I agree that for current events some web-based service is the way to go.  That’s why I was appalled that – on the service Jim currently uses – a woman going into labor was considered more important than a series of major earthquakes.  I think that if local newspapers are to survive, they need to become “parochial” – focus on their immediate community and provide thoughtful coverage of the issues.  They can no longer hope to “scoop” a major event.

ALAN: We actually have community newspapers that do exactly that. They only report on local activities and leave the big picture to the bigger papers. But, as you rightly say, the big papers are becoming largely irrelevant these days.

JANE: Clear as mud…  but our local newspaper can’t seem to figure this out.  We live in a state that relies heavily on art tourism, yet the Art section of the Sunday paper gets thinner and thinner.  Given the number of high profile local authors (some of whom are quite famous), they could do a weekly interview and rarely repeat themselves.  If they added in visual artists, people working in film, and all the rest, they’d have ample.  And that’s just one area…  Ah, well.

ALAN: Earlier on you said that when you stopped reading The Wall Street Journal you found that you weren’t “missing much”. What did you mean by that?

JANE: As soon as I wasn’t reading daily news, I came to see how much that passed for news was really speculation.  When The Wall Street Journal changed hands, many people were disturbed.  I, however, found that undeclared competition with The New York Times meant that there was a lot more coverage of “my” field – various branches of the arts.   However, I soon saw how much of the “this is what will be hot this year” was just guessing.  And I began to wonder how much that was true in areas where I was less aware of the trends.

Do you take a newspaper?

ALAN: I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper – I just used to buy them as and when I felt the urge. These days I seldom read them at all. But in the days when I did read newspapers I read the “serious” papers such as The Times and the Guardian. I was particularly fond of the Guardian because it was (and is) a left wing paper whose editorial style appealed to my socialist tendencies. It was also a lot of fun. Colloquially the paper was known as the “Grauniad” because it was notorious for having spelling mistakes in its articles and the apocryphal story was that it couldn’t even spell its own name. It did once publish a review of the opera “Doris Gudunov”…

JANE: Alas, poor Boris…

You mentioned being a news junkie.  How much news do you want?

ALAN: Personally, I want lots. The more the better, though I suspect that information fatigue might set in after a while. We have too many news sources these days and so we get overloaded. And the paranoid among us might say that makes it too easy for conspiracies to slip by unnoticed.

JANE: I see…  I’ve seen information fatigue in several of my friends.  They always seem anxious, sputtering about some perceived crisis that a month later they don’t seem to care about.  I know this because I’ve asked “so what about such and such that we were talking about a couple weeks ago?” and been given a blank look.  At the best, I’m sure these people are living more informed and sophisticated lives than I am, but often they seem like teenyboppers who, rather than obsessing over the latest trend or hot band, are obsessing over news items.

Would you consider yourself a typical New Zealander?

ALAN: No I think I’m quite untypical. Most people here are interested in local news (generally sport and politics in that order) and there’s a mild interest in what’s happening in our own back yard so news from Australia and the Pacific islands is also well reported. But apart from really important things like wars and catastrophes, I suspect many people don’t pay much attention to the rest of the world.

JANE: Well, as Jim’s experience showed us, you can want to pay attention to the rest of the world, but sometimes that’s not as easy as it should be.

We’ll keep watching the news and hoping that New Zealand is safe from any other earthquakes.  Stay in touch!  If we don’t hear from you, given what we’ve learned about our news coverage, we’re likely to assume the worst.

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3 Responses to “TT: All the News?”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Glad you’re safe, Alan. Following the “if it bleeds, it leads” rule of journalism, I’d kind of assumed that the quake in New Zealand wasn’t horrible, and it’s comforting to know the rule still mostly works (at least for the first world. I still have no clue what’s going on in the Solomon Islands, East Timor, or PNG, and I usually find out about how those conflicts are going when weird new improvised weapons turn up on some hobbyist website or other).

    One thing I’m concerned about is investigative journalism. A news organization needs to be fairly large to afford throwing a journalist at a story that needs months (or years) of unraveling, and that kind of important journalism is in danger of getting lost. I’m thrilled that the news industry is experimenting with co-ops and non-profits to support investigative journalism, but it’s not clear (to me at least) which ideas are doing well and which ones are not.

  2. Paul Says:

    When I was working for a newspaper, I used to think of myself as someone who sat through governmental meetings, trials or whatever and took out the boring parts so readers found what went on, and how it might affect them, without having to tie up a day or so to see for themselves. Sort of like when an author writes dialog and eliminates all the “uh,” “you know” and such. As Heteromeles says, investigative pieces are important, and so is putting a piece of news in context. But, with 24-hour news cycles on umpteen broadcast outlets, there is probably not enough news to fill it all. Thus we get silliness, opinions and repetition.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Having been a child in Washington D.C. during Watergate, investigative journalism made a huge impact on me. In fact, my tentative major when I went to college was journalism. However, one class with an excellent professor who made it clear that journalism was coming to be all about “spin” turned me off so much I switched majors and never regretted the change.

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