Let’s find the sources of Small Democracy

Government assistance and the call for social platforms to pay their way have highlighted the role of the news media in Big Democracy – holding power to account and ensuring an informed electorate – but what about Small Democracy?

Small Democracy exists in  the finer ends of the community. It is the stuff that enables us to live and work in an equitable and informed way at a local level. 

It cascades from region to city to district to suburb. It targets all the community and it targets sections of the community. 

At each layer, there is a need for robust information.

And, if there is a democratic deficit at national level through weakened media, the need is even greater at lower levels.

The NZ on Air-funded Local Democracy Reporting programme is some recognition of the need for more journalism at these levels. It will fund 14 reporters in local newsrooms this year. 

I reviewed the programme last year for NZ on Air. Most of the work of its then eight reporters lay in covering local authorities that could no longer be adequately handled by existing newsroom staff. It will come as no surprise that I found there was good reason to expand the scope of reporting and I cited the Canadian version  of the programme as a model to work toward. That scheme promotes “original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities”. It identifies civic journalism as covering “the activities of the country’s civic institutions (for example, courthouses, city halls, band councils, school boards, federal Parliament or provincial legislatures) or subjects of public importance to society”. It’s the final phrase that gives the Canadian initiative its real scope but, with the benefit of further reflection, I don’t believe that targeting civic institutions is the complete answer. I will come back to that shortly.

As a country, we need to be careful that we do not put too much of the focus for assistance on the major players and their most prominent platforms. The danger in allowing Facebook and Google to negotiate terms with media companies (as Communications Minister Kris Faafoi encouraged last week after talks with the social media platforms) is that the ‘small fry’ will lose out. They could also draw the short straw in the government’s three-year public interest journalism funding package currently in gestation.

When he was a toddler, my grandson Jack had a favourite saying when he was enjoying things: “More, more”. Media organisations have a similar outlook when the going gets tough. They see the solution in someone else’s money. And there is some justification in that outlook, but it is not the entire solution. There must be systemic change.

And, just like Big Democracy journalism, Small Democracy reporting should not be solely dependent on additional funding to get things done. It should also involve a careful analysis of how well existing resources are being used and how well various communities are being served.

It’s time for some serious introspection. 

A couple of decades ago I asked Jeremy Rees, then a senior member of the New Zealand Herald’s editorial staff and now an executive editor at RNZ, to travel to the United States to examine how media reflected diversity in California, one of the most diverse regions of the nation. He returned with a truckload of useful ideas including, for example, the use of diversity-based contact lists called a Rainbow Rolodex.

Now California has produced another toolkit that New Zealand media can employ to audit how well they are undertaking local reporting that meets the Small Democracy needs of their audiences.

KQED is a public service broadcaster serving San Francisco and a large section of the state from Sacramento in the north to Monterey in  the south. It recently asked itself how well it served the people within its nine separate regions.

Three senior staff have written a paper on the project for the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. They set out the steps KQED followed in a retrospective content analysis they termed a ‘source audit’ that was designed to measure the diversity of its coverage and not simply the gender, race, and age of its staff or audience.

I believe such a source audit would provide New Zealand media with an excellent baseline on how well they are meeting local needs (and it’s not a bad yardstick at national level, too).

Examining sources within stories is an excellent means of gauging whether reportage is representative of the community it seeks to inform. While the KQED audit focused on the vital issue of diversity, source audits can also measure other parameters such as geographic location and official/community affiliation. 

Such audits can be as large or small as an organisation can manage. They can be contracted out or done by staff (an hour a day should be manageable).

The KQED audit was an expensive consultancy exercise that they probably will not be able to repeat in the near future. Instead, they have introduced a National Public Radio ‘source questionnaire’ that reporters append to their interviews. It asks for gender identification, age, ethnicity, geographic location and a bonus question: Are you aware of any organisations that could help us connect with diverse sources? The information provided is being collated for future analysis.

It requires a certain discipline – and tact – to ask source questions at the end of every interview (and in some cases it may be ill-advised). However, the very act of asking makes reporters more aware of the need for their reporting to be representative.

Content analysis is a phrase that has many journalists wailing and heading for the hills. It should not, however, be seen as solely the province of pointy-headed academics. It may be time-consuming but it can yield valuable information. And one person can collate large amounts of data. In the review of the Local Democracy Reporting programme, for example, I analysed 193 stories (a month of output) across 12 subject headings to determine the range of topics the local democracy reporters had covered. An analysis of a further 48 stories assessed such things as news value, democratic impact, community engagement, and a number of journalistic attributes.

The KQED audit produced some expected results – a need for more Hispanic and Asian voices, for example – but it also revealed some surprising data. The ethnic mix varies significantly across the nine regions it covers and the audit showed where sources were most and least reflective of the local community. 

With a little thought, New Zealand media organisations could use this sort of intersecting data to build an accurate picture of how well democracy is being served at a local level.

An audit is just the beginning. Then our media need to figure out what low-cost (or no cost) measures can be employed to overcome some of the deficiencies…before they go cap-in-hand for a handout.


To all the media organisations that played important roles in the unfolding and frightening events of last Friday as a succession of offshore earthquakes triggered tsunami warnings across much of the North Island. The flow of clear information, interspersed with panic-averting words of comfort, was as impressive as it was vital.


I’ll admit to the Grumpy Old Man label, but I get intensely annoyed when the New Zealand Herald omits the dateline from its front page. There is no consistency to it: Some days it is there, others not. Perhaps it’s a forerunner to also dropping the masthead so the increasingly regular front-page advertisements can be truly full page.

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