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Insights 13: 17 April 2015

Helping journalism can harm it
Jason Krupp | Research Fellow |
For those of you who don’t have access to the Kiwi Journalists Association’s Facebook page, a heated discussion has flared up after it was revealed Campbell Live may be axed in favour of more entertainment-focused programming.

The discussion centred around whether this is symptomatic of a failed business model, where companies like MediaWorks are seen to prioritise profit over the provision of a good that has positive spill-over benefits to a democratic society.

Heated might not be the best description, since the majority of the association’s members appear to agree on the solution: government needs to subsidise news production. Moral indignation fits better.

Regardless, they may have a point. Journalism has public good aspects to it – the threat that an investigative journalist uncovers a rort or corruption helps to discipline politicians, which provides benefits even to those who do not help to pay for it by watching or reading. Many people might free-ride rather than contribute.

However, there are other factors that need to be considered before we open the public purse to media organisations.

First is whether the potential collapse of one show could be regarded as symptomatic of a media market failure. Yes Campbell Live produces a particular kind of advocacy journalism, but many other channels offer current affairs and news shows as well, not to forget the print, online and radio mediums. And opinions surely vary on the relative merits of the different programmes: one viewer’s public good could be another’s public bad.

Further, that over 70,000 people signed a petition to save the show suggests there is awareness of the value Campbell Live offers. If those viewers who love the show contributed to a crowd-funding campaign, could that not save it?

Lastly, government already subsidises media via NZ on Air, an autonomous Crown entity that funds various television and radio programmes, including Radio New Zealand. The public good of journalism is already being publicly supported.

That the media sector is in a state of decline in New Zealand is unquestionable amid the digital disruption of old business models. But we need to be cautious that the tools we employ to fix the situation do not make it worse. If the problem is too little investigation and analysis in the news, that is what we need more of when defining the problem and possible solutions.

Cross-Party consensus on economic growth
Dr Eric Crampton | Head of Research |
Apart from longer life expectancy, better health, improved education, a cleaner environment, better opportunities for our children and a happier country, what has economic growth ever done for New Zealanders?

Last night, MPs Chris Bishop, Dr David Clark and James Shaw debated the merits of economic growth, and of our recent report on it, at Mac’s Brew Bar in Wellington for an audience of about 150.

I opened by noting that every time a major regulation or spending programme or regulation is passed without a reasonable cost-benefit assessment, we’re effectively saying that economic growth does not really matter that much.

What’s a percentage point of difference? Consider the period since 1970. If real per-capita economic growth rates had been one percentage point higher, we would today have higher per-capita GDP than Australia and have the fourth highest income in the OECD, rather than sitting below the median. Australian economic growth only outpaced New Zealand’s by about a third of a percentage point over the period, but over 45 years, it adds up.

National’s Chris Bishop followed, eloquently reiterating the case for economic growth and dismissing some common critiques of growth. I especially appreciated his points on the recent worldwide diffusion of luxuries like the flush toilet. A friend in Christchurch, of about my age, remembers when his father installed their first flush toilet.

David Clark, for the Labour Party, also praised growth while noting the importance of measures to help workers to retrain where technological shifts proved disruptive. David made a thoughtful case too on the importance of culture in setting the preconditions for growth, emphasising the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage. It has seemed to me that the East Asian miracle of the last half-century points to the wide variety of cultures that can foster economic growth – when the political institutions allow it.

The Greens’ James Shaw argued that while developing countries’ environmental quality is likely to improve as they become richer, there are grave environmental disasters unfolding in many parts of the world that may be irreversible even with growth, like species’ extinction. But he also provided the most techno-optimist take on the world’s future, where economic growth has fully decoupled from carbon emissions and distributed manufacturing through 3-D printing brings us ever-closer to Star Trek replicators.

I really enjoyed the event. All three MPs provided very thoughtful takes on economic growth and the audience provided an excellent set of questions. There seems good consensus on the importance of economic growth, at least in principle. Now back to the harder task of building the evidence-base for policies that will take us there.

The importance of being downloaded
Khyaati Acharya | Research Assistant |
A small think tank though we may be, we are inclined to believe that the research reports we produce are capable of influencing policy change that will help make New Zealand the best little country it can possibly be.

And, like many think tanks and research centres the world over, we understand that ensuring our policy recommendations are consumed by as wide an audience as possible is the best way to promote that change.

Research reports are a fundamental component of think tank work. They are the result of months of sweat, blood and occasionally tears, of rigorous analysis, brain pretzels and laborious edits. These reports play a central role in generating and sharing the very knowledge that is essential for inducing public debate and encouraging better policy.

But, just for a second, consider the sheer number of reports launched every year by every research organisation and released into the mysterious world of infinitude that is the internet.

Now consider how many of these reports are actually looked at.

A Working Paper released by the World Bank late last year explored precisely this.

The Documents & Reports database on the World Bank website houses more than 130,000 publically available World Bank documents. There have been, on average, 322 policy reports released per year over the past five years. Of these, 49 percent have the stated objective of “informing public debate”.

But this is where the analytics get really interesting. Albeit, a little depressing.

While 13 percent of World Bank policy reports are downloaded at least 250 times, over 31 percent of policy reports are never downloaded. Ever.

Essentially, there could be thousands of reports released each year by various organisations, on policy issues big and small, that never see the light of day. Or at least, a desktop monitor.

As Washington Posts’ Christopher Ingraham emphasises, that is thousands of reports that go unnoticed per year, any number of which potentially contain the solution to the world’s most pressing policy problems.

It is like the intellectual equivalent of buried treasure!

On a more optimistic note, while The New Zealand Initiative may produce a (slightly) smaller number of reports, the Issuu online version of The Case for Growth has been downloaded more than a hundred times in the month it has been available, without counting PDF and other versions hosted elsewhere.

We do put a lot of weight on ensuring our reports are as accessible and as digestible as possible. Because being read is the first step to inducing policy change.

And you never know, our recommendations could hold the key to promoting world peace.

Or at any rate, solving New Zealand’s housing crisis.
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