How a new news was born of tragedy

Until mother nature threw her fury at New Zealand three times in six months, wall-to-wall news was something for other countries. TV networks however are creating a new media world live on your screen, right now

My mother got an email last night from an old school friend reassuring Mum that she was safe, adding in lament, "our lovely city has gone forever". It seems we have lost what the New York Times has been calling "a graceful 19th-century city". And at the same time we have lost a very 20th century way of covering news in this country.

Like so many old buildings in Christchurch, the old reporting methods have disappeared almost before our eyes – both in the two Canterbury earthquakes and the Pike River mine disaster.

For more than 24 hours now, our two main local channels have abandoned all other programming to offer continuous news coverage of this fatal disaster, something that had never been tried before the first earthquake.

Oh sure, special news broadcasts would break into advertised programmes, but they would go away again soon after; major broadcasters wouldn't try to turn themselves into local CNNs or Al Jazeeras. Yet TVNZ and TV3 have both been offering rolling coverage of the Christchurch earthquake, the damage, the rescue missions, the official updates and more since 5.30am today, having only briefly broken off overnight.

This is news on a massive scale for what are lean operations with no experience in this form of reportage. The technical, logistical, and mental challenges are immense; the journalistic adventure being embarked on is game-changing. Maybe it's been inevitable since CNN broadcast that green tracer fire from the first gulf war, but this has been a landmark few months for New Zealand television.

Think back to the 1968 Wahine disaster when, as NZonScreen recalls:

Coverage was only seen by South Islanders after a cameraman rushed up to Kaikoura and filmed a TV set that could receive a signal from Wellington - then returned to Christchurch so the footage could be broadcast.

When David Gray started shooting in Aramoana in 1990, TV presenters got to the hillside overlooking the settlement, but returned to normal programmes after the bulletin. And so on, and so on. Until now, when the news simply consumes everything else and doesn't stop.

I've been privileged to have been in the control room at TVNZ at some time during the near-continuous coverage of the two earthquakes and the mine explosion. It's staggering to be part of the legs paddling madly below the water while the presenter and reporter swans float – mostly – unruffled on the surface.

The logistics of moving people around the country; the technical challenges of recording footage and feeding it back to the Auckland newsroom, cutting it (or running raw on occasion) and sending it through the computer system to your screens; of setting up satellite and sound links, all the while trying to gather information and speak sensitively with people in the midst of their grief; the tenacity and persuasive skills needed to find folk to speak with, getting them to a 'live point' where they can be interviewed... all without a break... Well, it's never been tried until these few most recent tragedies, but now I don't imagine public expectations will ever allow us to go back.

To cut away from earthquake coverage for The Simpsons or Ellen – the norm just months ago – now seems gauche in the extreme.

Journalists, of course, love the big story, however draining and whatever tight-wire they're asked to walk. For a generation of hacks used to shrinking budgets, empty desks and little time to think, this is a rare win in a MasterChef world.

But it's also break down old barriers and methods. The news crashes on through 6pm, Close Up doesn't wait for 7pm for a Mike Hosking interview, Breakfast starts at 5.30am and runs until noon; even Coronation St is sacrificed.

What does it all mean? It's one of the rare times when television can again be the home of shared experiences. When there were just one or two channels and just about everybody watched A Dog's Show or Miss Universe, we all shared the same cultural space. The narrowcast, pay TV world has obliterated that, except in these exceptional events. We come together again.

We know and see so much more. It's not as much more as the hours given over to the story suggest – there's only so much that can be gathered, so a lot is repeated, time is filled with padding or, counter-intuitively, interviews are cut short because of the rush to get the next person and the next person to air.

But more voices are heard, there seems to be more opportunity for empathy and those making decisions know they are being weighed and washed in the disinfectant of 24/7 coverage.

And suddenly, amidst it all, you get the most gripping stories. Could anyone watching TV3's footage of Christie Clements on the roof of the Pyne Gould building turn away for even a moment? Or not have their heart in their mouths?

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It's real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, 'the curtain is pulled back'. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?

Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.

When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you're bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.

I'd be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What's stood out? Are you better served? What's worked, what hasn't?

But let me finish with this: In TVNZ's control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I've learnt in the past year, that's what producers do. It's important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you're judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

This is the media world now, born out of a freak run of tragedy. It's brand new news. But it's ours and it's here to stay. The challenge for us all is how we choose to raise this child as it grows.