Brian Edwards Media

Missing in Action: The Wisdom of Crowds in New Zealand

Missing in Action: The Wisdom of Crowds in New Zealand

by Alan Wilkinson 

Are New Zealanders well served by our mainstream print media websites?  The two major ones are APN News & Media’s NZ Herald and Fairfax Media’s Stuff.  

As the Internet brings the world to our screens at the click of a mouse, we have access to worldwide news from any international source we choose. So it is inevitable that the role of local media websites is changing from the print versions.  Rather than try to compete with the major international news gatherers or simply relay world news from them, our local media have to add value by selecting items of particular interest and relevance to New Zealand.  A cursory scan of the world news on either the Herald or Stuff websites shows the impact of this localisation and loss of general coverage in favour of human interest trivia with a scattering of regional and NZ interest stories.

At the national and local level, the coverage is much more detailed, competitive and complete.  The Herald website is more directly accessible, while most of Stuff’s coverage is buried deeper in regional or sectional web pages.  Obviously print journalism everywhere is under financial pressure as readers switch to online sources rather than buying paper versions, and as advertisers follow suit.  Furthermore, the Internet provides direct access to the best expertise on specialist subjects. General journalists cannot hope to compete at that level, nor can their newspapers generally afford such expertise.  In consequence, where local news stories require specialist input or insight our media are generally limited to what can be obtained readily and for free. So it is patchy in both coverage and quality. 

These are forces largely beyond our control.  However, there is a very important aspect in which both newspaper websites are falling far short of best practice and therefore failing to serve New Zealanders well.   The essence of the Internet is that it is interactive and allows two-way communication in real time.  Both the Herald and Stuff websites are extremely primitive, even stone-age, in accommodating and exploiting this.

The Herald allows comments on most opinion pieces but almost no news stories.  Stuff allows comments on a limited number of news stories and most opinion pieces.  On both websites all comments are held for moderation, sometimes delayed for hours or even days..  The Herald heavily culls comments, usually cutting them off completely after a short time.  In both papers moderation is extremely inconsistent varying greatly from one area to another and according to the day of the week.

Contrast for example the UK newspaper websites where, despite hate speech, official secrets and defamation legislation  at least as restricting  as in New Zealand, comments are generally published immediately, subject only to automated vetting and a “report complaint” process.  As a result, errors in articles and reports are challenged immediately and views are directly debated bringing out new insights and relevant information.   In the Herald, particularly, the moderation delay results in a whole sequence of comments repeating essentially the same things, often from two different political extremes – tediously uninformative and unproductive.

It is high time these websites sought to exploit the wisdom of crowds rather than hiding behind the legal fig-leaf with which they defend their stone-age moderation systems.  That can only happen when real-time, interactive commentary is enabled instead of being knee-capped.

[Guest posts are welcome on this site, subject to the conditions of publication outlined in]

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  1. How sweetly amusing that an article of this nature comes completely without so much as a single example or link.

  2. Valley girl, do you really need these?

    I’m not sure what the syntax is for posting links in these comments and we can’t edit if I guess wrong so I’m playing safe just with the text.

  3. Considering that many people do not have access to the internet,are not bothered about the limited abilities of the press ,or simply do not have the time. Im unsure about what this will achieve.

  4. Good on you Alan for leading the charge. We don’t often see eye to eye on the finer points however I believe we have some common ground in the big picture. I miss the cut and thrust of the quality of investigative journalism that real people in a real debate provide. However in these times skilled media orchestrator’s such as Brian Edwards are thin on the ground. Very thin.

    The internet is the flavour of the times and we will just have to persevere with its evolution. Which in an uncanny way mirrors current political progression, or regression, as it may be.

  5. For “wisdom of crowds” substitute thestupidity of the herd. The concept may work well when guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar but I am sceptical that such wisdom translates to anything of importance.

    I assume you are referring to the book by James Surowiecki. I can only claim to have read parts of it. The bits I did read did not convince me. Perhaps I should try the rest.

    Unfortunately history shows that the crowds get it spectacularly wrong at times; Nazi Germany, Stalinist Soviet Union as two examples. Every time there is a stock market crash we see the herd mentality at work. I suspect it was the herd mentality, rather than any colective wisdom that earned National close to 50% of the vote t te last election.

    You may respect the wisdom of crowds, Alan, but crowd mentality makes me distinctly nervous.

    Having said all that I am in broad agreement with you regarding the ‘stone age moderation’ of our news websites, but not for the reasons you put forward.

  6. Great that you have raised the issue Alan. First penguin into the water?
    When I dealt with sheep I found that one or two on their own were pretty clued up. But once in a mob they had no real choice but to go with the mob. A sort of Peer Pressure thing I suppose.
    Access to news via the Internet is mighty. By far the easiest in NZ to track around is the Herald. Goodness knows how they can afford to since I ignore ads!
    As for the wisdom of crowds I guess the question of just who sparks the first response is critical. Theatre on fire. Police are coming. Break the shop window. Who will go first? Unions are rubbish. Private enterprise is best. Market forces will bring out the best in us.
    So information is critical and where we get from is also critical in the age of spindoctors and media specialists.
    Have you any answers to the need for credible info Alan?

  7. @Kat, thanks and reciprocated. I’m sure we would have entertaining discussions in person.

    @Ben, yes and no. Sites such as iPredict extract the wisdom from the dross via a monetary filter. Ordering blog comments by “likes” does generally bring the wisdom to the surface either directly, or by attracting the most pertinent criticism to the “herd” mentality.

    Especially when it is a topic I know little about I find it invaluable to read the comments on an article to see where it may have weaknesses or biases and often find links to alternative points of view or counter evidence.

  8. “Especially when it is a topic I know little about…”

    You astound me. You mean there are gaps in your knowledge:)

  9. @Ben, thanks! Of course I take that as the compliment you intended. I do try to inform myself before I open my mouth – or hit the keyboard.

  10. Couldn’t agree more. Take Bernard Hickeys piece in the HoS about the wealth captured by the over 55s which Hickey went apoplectic over when the comments showed straightaway that Hickeys maths and hence his whole article was nonsense ( increase in over 55s matched perfectly the increase in wealth held bY them).
    Compare with Stuff with no comments allowed on smoking costing the health budget 7billion a year or half the health budget, rubbish, nonsense. One had to go to offsetting behavior blog and then to stascheck blog for the real numbers.
    The comments section can be hugely insightful with expert comments, but it does tend to make the paper look a. It stupid.

  11. About the selective moderation at work, I suspect the usual suspects don’t want to bite the advertising hand that feeds. Case in point? The investigative journalism probing Bridgecorp, Hanover and Lombard didn’t happen until after they came unstuck and their investors got shafted.

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    @Ianmac, sorry, just saw your question now. I think the only real answer is the one Feynman gave: “Science is the system of not trusting experts”. The only way to assure credibility is to test it as severely as you can reasonably conceive. Obviously experience helps to develop a good b.s. detector but you have to keep using it. Your own assumptions are your worst enemy.

    The folly of crowds happens when b.s. detectors are suspended and action preempts challenge and debate. The internet equivalent is when a forum self-selects a point of view that alienates and eventually removes all those likely to question it. I avoid those and look for ones where there is vigorous debate.

    The Herald is already near that state of paralysis with polemical columns like McCarten’s, Hickey’s and Morgan’s having their loyal tribe of followers and nobody else bothering to read them or comment.

  13. I only check our juvenile mainstream media for hints on what to follow up elsewhere, for the REAL skinny.

  14. Interesting piece Alan.

    In a bit of a rush so apologies for possible lack of coherence.

    I don’t generally like the idea of allowing people to comment on every article. Reading some of the comments in the Herald is enough to put any person off the idea. I also think that adding the ability to comment on news may not result in the intelligent and informative discussion one would hope for but rather an out pouring of: “that is so sad ”, “RIP Whitney I miss you already”.

    That said, I find that I can learn an awful lot from the comments on the Guardian, the Independent and the New York Times. I don’t read an awful lot else so I can’t comment on them. I would suggest two additional things:

    -The Guardians open journalism initiative would be a good guide to content. The use of social media to gauge reaction and issues of import is a valuable tool. As I understand it, the more thorough integration of social media will be treated the same as any other source, rather then allowing the paper to become a soapbox for populist ideas.

    -The website Reddit uses an upvote, downvote system. Although this sort of system can fall prey to the marginalisation of minority ideas that does not seem to happen on Reddit. As a rule of thumb, comments that contribute to the argument, link to sources or are particularly funny get upvoted, comments that are racist, bigoted, not backed up or superfluous disappear. Users tend not to vote with their personal views in mind, but rather looking at the quality of the comment. (The subreddits r/science, r/askreddit and r/politics are pretty good examples).

    I agree completely that the comment moderation is stone age and should be updated to allow immediate posting.

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    sam, I don’t think a “thumbs down” option is a good idea as it will be used by political opponents to cancel out each other’s most pointed critiques which should rather be highlighted so the reader can focus on them. (Unless the thumbs up and down are tallied separately.)

    The reason I think all news items should be commented is that so often here I see complete nonsense being imported from overseas sources and allowed to mislead readers unchallenged. I usually sort comments by “best rating” or “popular now” and that gets rid of the “Herald dross” comments pretty efficiently.

  16. Brian, your comments about interactivity with Stuff (my experience) is spot on. I meant lack of interactivity, of course. A recent example was in the aftermath of the so-called weather bomb when I sent in a photo showing where a big tree had missed killing a camper in a tent by centimetres. Not only did they not run the pic, they never acknowledged my sending it. That suggests understaffing (how else to describe such careless treatment of citizen journalism). So far as commenting is concerned, the only time anyone seems on the ball is when you comment on a blog or in the sports section.

    BE: Thanks Jim, but this was actually a guest post from Alan Wilkinson. He deserves the credit. Good to hear from you. How about sending a guest post yourself. After all, you do know a bit about the media. Cheers.