Hard News by Russell Brown


Party on, dudes

Ten years ago today, the first post appeared on this website. It asked "are we on in Iraq or not?" I'm not very good with calendars, but I know this because a certain government minister recently insisted that blogs didn't exist way back then, and I had to look it up when someone asked.

Things seem to happen in November. The sixth anniversary of the launch of Public Address System, initially as a separate community site, snuck by a couple of weeks ago. Until that point, we had a strong reader community, but no commenting facility -- a consequence of my own damnable cowardice, according to any number of angry people on the internet, but actually more to do with budget and wanting to do it properly. In the post announcing PAS, I wrote:

The Public Address Café and Forum: Yes, finally, comments – although yer standard blog comments is precisely what I’m seeking to avoid. You’ll need to register to post, our preference is for people to register and post under real names, and we will be moderating for quality. I’m keen to expand the pool of people engaged in online discussion and I think an atmosphere of respect is vital to that aim. For the time being, only our bloggers will be able to launch new topics, but I’m open to suggestions for those. As we proceed, I’ll make a practice of inviting in people with knowledge and experience relevant to the question under debate. There are several topics running already, so get in there. You’ll note there’s also a “discuss” button at the bottom of this post.

I think it was worth the wait.

It was also around this time of year that Hard News began as a weekly radio rant on 95bFM, after Graeme Humphreys called my bluff when I told he needed some informed comment on his station. That, believe it or not, was in 1991.

The text of Hard News, which I'd previously binned on my way out of the studio, began appearing on the internet in, I think, late 1993.

By 2002, I felt tapped out with the radio format, and I liked the look of this blogging thing. A couple of mates had started up their own web dev company. We'll do you a site for free, they said. And here we are.

Many of the people I call friends now I have met through the forums here -- too many to name, in fact. But I'd like to make special mention of two readers I never met, but greatly wish I had.

One is Dorothy G. Dean of Bluff, a grandmother and self-described "liberal, staunch Labour feminist sceptic atheist," who wrote to me often in the early days of the blog. When I wrote about her after she died in 2004, a group of young gay men were so touched that she'd paid to put her name to a pro-civil unions ad in the newspaper that they chipped in and sent a huge bouquet of flowers to Bluff. It probably helped that I titled the post 'Friends of Dorothy'.

The other is Finn Higgins, who some of you will recall from discussions on Public Address System, where he was a keen-minded, literate, witty and sensitive debater. Fittingly, his last post here was a firm, calm dismissal of a particularly persistent troll.

Finn was a self-diagnosed Asperger human, and a couple of precious emails from him helped me immeasurably in getting through a really difficult time with our younger boy, Leo. Finn was also prone to a major depression that had first occured in his teens, and -- after being badly let down by our mental health services -- he fled his home and took his own life in 2008. I still wish I'd met him. Even more, I wish Leo had met him.

 You can read some more about Finn, and one of his emails, here at Humans.

Did I say trolls? Bless them and bugger them and thank the gods there haven't really been all that many. I've consciously erred on the side of tolerance, especially when it's me getting the distress, and sometimes it's been unpleasant. I've engaged offline to try and bring people around. But I've only rarely had to ban people. (Flouncing out is more common.)

The secret to that? The environment. We've been periodically accused of being a clique, of practising groupthink. Perhaps sometimes there's been some truth in it. But there's far, far more truth in the idea that you're a social, sensitive group of particularly able debaters.

But most of you are not commenting; you're lurking. That's cool. No one makes the commitment of commenting at ever site they read, and many people never do it. It implies a degree of public performance that is quite an odd thing. When I urge people to share their experience here, sometimes I'm expecting them to give up a little privacy. Some people just fret about looking silly. I get that.

But every month, Nielsen splits out a particular metric from its internet panel. One of those metrics is sites by proportion of readers who are "active contributors" to blogs and internet discussion boards. Public Address has topped that table every time it has been generated. Anecdotally, quite a few of you seem to have been arguing the toss online since we were all thrashing about on Usenet.

As I have noted to various audiences, one key to good discussions is having warm bodies present to moderate. Much of the time (although it's been a boon having Emma's wise counsel and mad skillz at hand) that warm body is me, and that can be emotionally exhausting. I don't have a particular moderation system (you'd be amazed how non-systematising I am) and I think demerit points and the like can be worse than useless. Moderation through active participation suits me. I'm fuzzy like that.

In aggregate, you are highly educated, high-earning and highly confident about using the internet -- you appalling shower of middle-class technocrats.

As individuals, you're a bunch of oddballs. Quite a few of you seem to identify as being on the autism spectrum (not me: I'm totes ADD) and I remain very proud of the way that Steven Crawford (where is he these days?) worked so hard to get through his severe dyslexia and become a valued contributor. Crucially, you have brought what you know -- and some of you seem to know a hell of a lot.

Anyway, you're all great and I'd say so to your mothers.

Big thanks also to everyone on the masthead: Damian Christie (the only OG apart from me), Keith Ng, Jolisa Gracewood, Graeme Edgeler, Emma Hart, David Haywood, Hadyn Green, Craig Ranapia -- and all the people who used to be there: David Slack, Graham Reid, Fiona Rae, Che Tibby, Chad Taylor, Debra Daley, Rob O'Neill and the amazing Tze Ming Mok. To everyone who's ever given me a guest post for publication -- there are too many of you to look up, but thanks.

There's another anniversary this week too: it's a year since Jackson Perry, Jon and Sophie Ganley and Robyn Gallagher launched our photoblog, Capture. Capture has been a revelation; not only for the pictures in the posts, but for the coversations in pictures that flow from them. The latter was something of an accident -- we happened to have some legacy funtionality that just needed a brush-up -- but I have honestly never seen its like anywhere else.

 There are important people outside the tent too. Deborah Pead saw the value in what I was doing long before most of her peers did, and she and others at Pead PR are basically responsible for the fact that we've been able to run the Great Blend events over the years. Those events have not only been enormously satisfying to curate, they played a significant part in me having a job in television.

My dear friend Alastair Thompson, the publisher of Scoop, has been a friend of Hard News since long before there were blogs. Along with Rob Cawte, Mark Proffitt and 95bFM, he republished the text of my Friday rants right up until this site launched. More recently, Scoop has run our ad sales network -- and taken the brunt of the punishing trends in internet advertising. I'm happy to say that recent developments at Scoop bode well for its future, after a very tough couple of years.

And then there is CactusLab. I always thought Matt Buchanan and Karl von Randow were the smartest guys in the room, and it's been a real privilege to have the 'Lab design and develop our site. They're amazing. And very patient about money.

But no one deserves more credit than Fiona, for (mostly) calmly putting up with my distraction, obsession and irrational exuberance all these years. Love you, babe.

In terms of personal highlights here, I can't even list them all -- but how about that Keith Ng? His #wtfmsd story recently attracted the biggest daily audience in the site's history: 36,000 people came to visit that Monday. But Keith's reality-based groove started long before that day. I'm still immensely proud of the way he and Tze Ming debunked North & South's infamous 'Asian Angst' story. That mattered.

I'm also proud of the role we were able to play in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes. It's hard not to feel distant and useless when your friends face that kind of challenge, but we offered a place to share and talk and I think that helped. The fact that some of the most valued members of our reader community came to us in that context and then stuck around is hugely gratifying.

Then there's Great New Zealand Argument. That transcript and recording of David Lange's Oxford Union speech? They're in the public domain only because we fought to put them there. (I'd also like to thank the kind soul who ignored his bosses and gave me the recording to work with in the first place. And I promise I'll put the fully-corrected transcript up there one day.)  Bill Pearson's Fretful Sleepers was decades out of print until the lovely Donald Stenhouse ignored the counsel of his friends and let me post it. It was a great joy to be able to later write Donald two cheques off the sales of the Great New Zealand Argument book.

Oh yes, books. Public Address Books. What a marvel David Haywood is. And, on the evidence of The New Zealand Reserve Bank Annual 2010, what a sick man. (You'll note that Public Address Books is functionally offline at the moment. Perhaps we should do a Christmas thing.)

In terms of the things I've written here, from that multitude of words, this little thing about my grandfather still makes me cry when I read it.

But I think my favourite thing we've ever published here is David Herkt's A Very Simple Stroke, a sensitive, crafted, brutally honest account of his severe and disabling stroke and the recovery that followed. In some small part that's because it was published in the same week that Lance Wiggs wrote a blog post ticking me off because posts here were longer than blog posts are supposed to be (350 words or something, I forget). Publishing a brilliant post of 6000 words was a lovely way to say Do.Not.Care.

And I don't. Really. In some ways, publishing on a bespoke platform has made things more difficult, but it lifts us out of the constraints of "proper" blogging. I've been a little disillusioned with political blogging in the last couple of years, because it seems so circular -- and sometimes because I just feel exhausted. I've been doing this for 21 years and I do find my historic productivity a little daunting sometimes.

I've basically given up any idea of making proper money out of this, but it would be nice if there was a bit more income. I don't think advertising's going to do it -- it's not irrelevant, but the growth in internet advertising is going to Facebook and Google, not little indies like us. When I saw Keith recently and asked him what he needed, he said a good micropayments system would be nice, and I'll work on that for next year. As things stand, your responses to to my occasional appeals for donations have been tremendous. Have I ever told you that you're good-looking, smart and generous?

But even though the energy comes and goes, and it's been a wearying year, I can't see that we'll be going anywhere soon. My sense is that, as has generally been the case, any additions to the masthead will come from the reader community, but I'm aware that with the best of intentions, it's hard for anyone to sustain a blog over time.

Most of what I've done as creative work in the past couple of decades has  been tied up with the idea of drawing a crowd. The only thing I've ever been really good at organising is a party. Similarly, running a discussion is, I think, analogous to being a DJ -- it's a matter of trying to make other people's music flow, and knowing a tune when you hear it.

Well, we're still open late. Keep dancing -- and party on, dudes.

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