Jim Tucker calls himself an old luddite, but he has harnessed Facebook as a way for NZ journalists to get their voices heard.
It began with my outrage over the summary execution of New Zealand’s sole national news agency last year. When the NZ Press Association closedown was announced in April 2011, I risked wrath of the marital kind during a campervan holiday by starting a Facebook group in protest.
It was called - futilely - "Save NZPA". And although it had no hope of persuading those in charge not to kill off the 135-year-old institution, it proved a cathartic outlet for a lot of journalists whose voices are rarely heard.
What struck me is how fast it caught their attention. Within a few days, more than 300 had joined, sharing their despair and anger.
Two things resulted, one predictable, the other not so. What was predictable was a sneering comment from one of the people responsible for closing NZPA when we next met. But the other, unpredictable, result was much more important. The experience showed how Facebook might be the answer to a perennial difficulty faced by New Zealand’s small and fragmented journalism community – lack of an open forum.
The Kiwi Journalists Association Facebook group was born at the fringes of technology’s reach in a Northland seaside holiday camp called Oakura, a few hours’ drive south from a more famous birthplace, Waitangi.
The process was simple enough. Assuming that numbers impress on Facebook, I went through my existing list of FB friends – most of them media people and former students – and joined up about 200. There was no time to ask; I figured those who took offence could simply unjoin themselves. Few did.
Then I searched Facebook for the names of well-known journalists and asked them to be FB friends, and when they agreed I joined them up as well (also without asking). It was a bit embarrassing at times, wondering how some of the younger people I approached would react to some old male journo trying to "friend" them.
At one stage I made the mistake of trying to share the administrator load by making dozens of people "admin", but that jammed their email inboxes with FB notifications, which drove less technologically savvy members to distraction until I advised them how to turn the notifications function off.
So I had to change tack, instead asking just two other people to share the role – old friend and former newspaper rival Gavin Ellis (ex editor-in-chief of the NZ Herald) and Diana Clement, a freelance business journalist who has for several years run the small and successful “JOURNZ” discussion site.
Both turned out to be good choices: Ellis for his cautious wisdom and Clement for her diligence and experience with online discussion boards.
Early debates churned around what the site should aim to do, was the name appropriate, who should be invited to join, if it was safe to post if what you said pissed off the boss, and whether the FB group should lead to the formation of a more formal association, with democratic and worthy objectives.
Despite a few reservations, the name stuck for technical reasons. It turns out you can’t change a Facebook group name after membership climbs above about 100.
Most resisted the idea of an association being set up, many agreeing with my sentiment that Kiwi journalists are too busy/disorganised/apathetic/whatever to bother with constitutions, election of officers and all the things we readily criticise other organisations for not doing properly.
We decided to keep the membership reasonably open. After all, it was just a Facebook group and the wider the contributions the better. We just check requests by asking applicants to briefly outline their interest in/background in journalism. It seems to work.
Most early debate centred on my plan to set up a confidential advice service, using a broad panel of "seniors" in various media platforms who would respond to cries for help from the less experienced. It would use an email address to which only the three admin people would have access, and requests would be sent out to appropriate panel members to reply directly to the inquirer.
Apart from some grumbles about how the panel should be chosen (I simply invited all the experienced people I knew, about 40 of them), the service ran into trouble straight away with some senior union members, who saw it as duplicating the union's role.
In fact, the first few requests dealt largely with issues (idiot editors, poor news selection choices, the need for on-the-job training) that were not really union-related, but in each case panel members who provided advice also added, without prompting from me, a suggestion to join the union. But the panel service died after a couple of people posted accounts of being disciplined by employers over comments they had made elsewhere on FB. Inquiries simply stopped coming in.
Debate about the panel, as well as the group's rapid growth, caught the attention of Radio NZ's Mediawatch program, which carried an item in May. And membership accelerated.
It stalled just short of 600 after I intervened in a late-night slanging match by a couple of veteran journalists (I was the main target) and summarily booted them off the site.
Rising to their provocation proved unwise, since they raised freedom of expression issues. I restored their comments and invited them to rejoin but they did not return.
As a result of this incident, the panel approved a set of simple guidelines that give the administrators (as a group) the right to expel members who write personal attacks or legally risky comments.
Since then there have been no further problems, and membership growth has been steady, currently hovering around 755 (there are about 3000 working journalists in NZ).
The site has its limitations. A discussion I started about the NZ Law Commission’s recent report suggesting a one-size-fits-all tribunal to handle media regulation led to a boringly long exchange between me and a media law commentator, with few others chiming in. The reason is most journalists and editors probably had no time to read the Commission’s lengthy tome or perhaps felt unqualified to join the post mortem.
Who does post? The most regular contributor is Karen Eastgate Dann, a Melbourne media lecturer who began her journalism career in New Zealand. She leads a cast of dozens who have been in the business for many decades, but which also includes beginners and those still at journalism school.
Diana Clement adds occasional job lists and journalism news digests.
Whether we have found a new voice for New Zealand journalism remains to be seen, but the first murmurings have tended to be thoughtful, interesting, funny and irreverent.
It also shows what can happen when a bunch of old luddites gets hold of something this easy and accessible.
Jim Tucker is head of journalism at Whitireia Media Training Centre, Wellington, New Zealan