Tributes To Scoop's Alastair Thompson

Published: Fri 27 Nov 2015 10:23 AM
Today marks Scoop founder and editor Alastair Thompson's last day in charge of the site he has built and nurtured over more than 16 years. As he heads overseas for new challenges, a collection of Scoop staff, supporters, friends and colleagues reflect on his achievements and their shared experiences.

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One of the best
Bill Bennett, journalist
Over the years I’ve hired some great journalists. Al was, and still is, one of the best.
Al came to me looking for work when I was editing the technology pages on The Dominion at the end of the 1980s. At the time he was a near penniless teenager. I had pages to fill and needed an extra pair of hands. A bright young head was helpful too.
Within days he was hunting down story leads. It was clear he was a natural born reporter, so we found him a desk and put him on the payroll. Not long after we had our first big front page tech story, with Al doing a lot of the leg work.
There’s was no stopping him when he gets on the tail of a good story and that’s just how it should be. He was just as bright and as determined when he started his own Scoop operation.
Although I was working in Australia, the news about Scoop starting reached me. I wasn’t surprised to learn Al was in the driving seat. We had previously talked of creating online media, long before that was even remotely practical.
Al built Scoop into an impressive news and information operation. Much of what you see there is a product of the same dogged determination and idealism I saw in the young reporter following story leads. It is a great achievement. Al will be a loss to publishing and a loss to New Zealand.
Thoughts on AThomp
Pattrick Smellie, BusinessDesk
I first met Alastair, not that he would remember it, outside Bats Theatre in probably the late 1980s. He had a very long ponytail and wonky wire-rimmed glasses and he wasn’t who I had expected would be the journalist breaking the Renshaw Edwards story – an early example of Alastair’s willingness to be tenacious in pursuit of a difficult goal.
We met again in the Press Gallery, when he and Jonathan Underhill were terrorising Vernon Small in the NBR office and playing a very early game on the Internet called ‘Kingdom of Krarg’ and which appeared to be an all-consuming activity that I couldn’t get my head around.
Those were still the days of dial-up modems, when just having email was a bit of a novelty.
A bit later, along came Newsroom and a bit after that – the less said the better as to how and why, since the lawyers might still take an interest – along came Scoop.
At first, Al ran Scoop out of a shed behind the house in Karori that Wendy and he eventually bought and made their home. I’ve suggested the shed should have listed heritage status, assuming that the new owners don’t bowl it in the not unlikely belief that it may not be structurally sound.
It was in that era that Alastair undertook one of his more bizarre journalistic assignments, with Scoop being made the media team for the 1999 State of the World Forum in San Francisco, an idea backed by Saatchis chief Kevin Roberts and fronted by various global luminaries, including Mikhail Gorbachev.
Unfortunately, the Scoop team were interested in doing journalism rather than PR for the forum and it all ended in tears when Richard Butler, former UN weapons inspector and winner of the Forum’s highest honour that year, took exception to forthright questioning by Jeremy Rose on Middle East politics. Censorship ensued.
As has often been the case in its 16 years, Scoop was the grit in the oyster. Amazingly, Brian Sweeney from Saatchis in NZ remained one of Alastair’s longest standing allies.
As many of you will know, Alastair isn’t the world’s greatest person at keeping people on-side. We have disagreed many times about how to pursue Scoop’s mission and its commercial potential in tandem.
But that mission is undoubtedly Alastair’s primary legacy. Scoop has become a vast repository of just about anything you care to name that happened in NZ civil society in the last 16 years.
As long as it wasn’t defamatory and wasn’t hate speech, Scoop would publish everything from anyone. At times, that made the site hard to get your arms around and navigate.
But Google loves it – a constantly updating source of rich, new content. As a result, search any NZ topic of public interest, and the likelihood is that half or more of the first page of results will come from Scoop.
That database took a long time to build, but it now represents in my view the core of Scoop’s future potential.
The reality is that Scoop has been a pioneer since the earliest days of the Internet. It hoped at first to survive on online advertising – we all know what happened there. Unless your site is part of a huge buy, it’s very difficult to get on agencies’ schedules and even when you do, the value of online space has plummeted. Advertising can only ever be icing on the cake for Scoop.
In the last year, however, there has been a very interesting development – the establishment of a new “Ethical Paywall” licence fee, charged to professional users of the Scoop website – the law, accounting and PR firms, the govt agencies and Ministers’ offices, the educational institutions and lobbyists who make use of Scoop in their daily business.
The licence is being widely accepted by a range of credible bodies in the public and private sector and in my view represents a major step forward in recognising that copyright can attach to curated content as well as to original content. Other NZ publishers have been slow to realise the significance of this and long may that last, since Scoop could do without the competition in this area it has carved out.
The key to people buying the licence is that the curated content is acknowledged to be professionally useful to them. Scoop has made that breakthrough. I hope pursuit of this new, renewable and sustainable revenue stream will be even more actively pursued once Al has left.
Finally, I want to reflect on the quality of Alastair’s that I think has been simultaneously one of the sustaining forces at Scoop, if at times one of its Achilles heels.
That is Alastair’s unstoppable generosity – for new causes, for new ideas, for people seeking opportunities, for new, collaborative ways of doing things, Alastair has been generous to a fault.
His boundless energy and willingness to be part of any effort to help ensure disparate voices are heard and enabled has, in my view, been Scoop’s greatest contribution. I hope it will continue to perform that role, and to find new ways to thrive in a very volatile landscape for the news industry.
Now it’s time for Alastair to take a break.
I urge him to do so – John Key is delighted to urge his post-Cabinet press conference nemesis to do so too – and to trust that there are people here who both understand his vision and the potential of Scoop, who can take the kaupapa forward now.
And I urge those who are stepping up to the plate now to be bold and confident that there is life for Scoop after Alastair. I’m not sure he quite believes it yet, but I feel sure in a few months’ time, he will. And after 16 years of taking so much on his own shoulders, he will feel an immense sense of relief to see Scoop entering a new chapter of its development as a vital cog in New Zealand’s democratic and social fabric.

2008: RNZ's Kim Hill IVs Alastair Thompson
The naysayers don’t deter him
Alison McCulloch, Scoop Review of Books
Al's enthusiasm and boldness are infectious. Yeah, they get him into trouble sometimes, but that's probably as it should be given he's challenging the established ways of doing things. And thank goodness the naysayers don't deter him. I can't imagine the half of what he's been through setting up Scoop and keeping it going for so many years, but it's become a refuge for those of us who have had our fill of corporate media schlock and clickbait.
I’ve been involved in a few Scoop ‘properties’, writing occasionally for Werewolf, helping run Scoop Review of Books (Al, we really will get to that revamp in 2016!) and helping out during the early stages of setting up the foundation, which Al and Margaret took to the finish line. Quite how he has managed to sustain the Scoop empire and himself in the face of the myriad obstacles that have come at him is a bit of a mystery to me, and he sure deserves a break. Or at least a change – since it's hard to imagine Al taking an actual break. But Al, I hope you — and your whānau — will give it a try. Haere ki wīwī, ki wāwā!
Alastair Thompson – the first and last capitalist socialist?
Peter Kerr, writer and blogger
Is it possible to be a capitalist socialist?
It is a label I've given directly to Alastair over the years – and while not agreeing fully, he also gave a strong hint of agreement. For while there is a (necessary) strong need to make money to support the enterprise that was and still is Scoop, Al has the mindset that we're all equal and that the provision of tools to support equality drives much of his philosophy. In fact, put that way, the term capitalist socialist doesn't appear quite so contradictory after all.
Whatever the tag, in Scoop Alastair leaves a legacy that is an immensely important piece of New Zealand's democratic infrastructure. The heritage he has contributed is an online site where anyone (provided it is not hate speech) can post a point of view that at face value is just as important as anyone else's.
Scoop is a place where the great and good, the minor and obscure can voice opinions – which while they may not be mainstream are a vital piece of a puzzle that makes up a thriving democracy.
Now, Alastair himself may argue that our formal institutions such as government and officials aren't as free and open as he'd like them to be. But (and shudder the thought) consider how much weaker our democratic infrastructure would be without Scoop?
At the same time don't forget that Scoop itself has changed and morphed and adapted during its 16 years of existence. Online media was a baby when Scoop started, having much of the space to itself.
Now that 'traditional' media has bullied its way in, has arguably dumbed down how and what people consider important – (who would've thought that clickbait would form such an important part of media's monetising model!) – Scoop stands for something more important.
Scoop's journey to new funding model has not been without its challenges, but the recognition that corporate clients were prepared to pay for the historic searchability and width and depth of access to New Zealand's online past and present provides a future hope and intent.
Alastair can at least begin his own next journey with the knowledge that his baby has grown and matured and lives to see another day.
Quite how Scoop evolves without him at the helm is partly in the lap of the gods. Alastair too will be the first to admit that letting go of the creature which has consumed his working life for the best part of two decades will be difficult.
But it is much harder to be hands on when you're out of the country. Freed of the need to handle the day to day running of a business, undoubtedly Alastair's journalistic sensibilities will receive further stimulation.
Undoubtedly too, the platform that Scoop provides for truth in its many guises to be revealed will exploited by Al.
So with good wishes and a tail wind we bid you farewell, confident that we'll no doubt hear from you in the future.
Thank you for Scoop, and the travails you went through in getting it through to where it is now.
Without your inspiration, perspiration and bloody-mindedness we would be talking about Scoop in the past tense.
However, Scoop is still present, spoken of in the now.
Scoop lives.
THE Alastair Thompson
Stephen Olsen, Newsroom
Arriving at a day when one might add to some words of farewell for THE Alastair Thompson as he heads off, bound for other crusading realms, has a weird cachet to it.
Firstly it’s a sign of good journalistic inclusiveness to get to offer some words from outside of Scoop, as some counterpoint to too much triumphalism or spilling of crocodile tears.
Twisting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar just a little bit, there is much to praise about Alastair et al’s good and aspirational deeds at Scoop – as Alastair has acknowledged himself several times throughout a staged farewell this year – and some things to bury and put behind and move on from, with the better remnants for others to inherit and hopefully enhance.
My first memories of ‘Scoop’ actually precede its coming into being at a period in 1997-1998 when working with the Journalists Training Organisation on workshops introducing journalists to something called Computer-Assisted Reporting, and when Alastair was first fully seized with visions of the future of online news. I well remember for instance turning up to a journalism class he spoke to in that time about that topic; then, as now, with a fervent and well-heated evangelism. In the interim years I can also recall helping, very briefly, with some of the daily grind of manual loading of releases to the Scoop platform back in the days of Scoop being run from a shed out the back of his Karori home, and being an occasional contributor in various ways always at a distance.
Moving into more recent times I came to understand that the Cat in ‘Al the Cat’ is very much analogous with the remarkable ‘nine lives’ that Scoop has had.
Along with the small business-side team at 354 Lambton Quay I once briefly assisted, there was always some amusement at Mr T’s ability to be just like a Cat – insofar as it was often difficult to know when he would be in the office or out on some predatory prowl or other.
His major usage of Twitter became a default GPS, and as a dedicated capturer of other people’s tweets I would give ‘live reports’ to other Scoopers in the house about where Mr T – the nickname I preferred – might be and what he might, somewhat elusively, be up to (e.g. Auckland one day, Wellington the next).
My one semi-serious journalistic adventure with Mr T took place in 2012 as part of a well-photographed two-person trip to the West Coast. Not surprisingly it was a rollercoaster experience with some classic little encounters. I especially remember meeting with some local businessmen over a meal. They had been assailed by Mr T for most of the meal with some grand rhetoric or other, until such time as he took a break and I was left alone at the table with them. It was one of those times where passionate Al, rather than ‘shouty Al’, was in full bloom. Almost in unison the businessmen turned to me and asked simultaneously: “Is he always like that?"
Not so long ago I had naively taken a desk at Scoop with the promise that the ways and means for navigating Scoop into a better ’sweet spot’ were on the horizon. I still share a belief that some form of sweet spot still exists, with a whole mid-layer tier of ‘news media’ that that could sustain still beckoning, if sub-scale operations can teach themselves how to collaborate. After 16 years that would be a good legacy to leave behind.

2007: Scoop Images & Audio: Journalism Matters (Day Two)
Farewell to the boss
Lindsay Shelton, Wellington Scoop
During the seven years that I’ve known Alistair, he’s never stopped working. It comes with the territory. Being editor and publisher and manager and trouble-shooter and spokesperson for a 24-hour news site, you never have time for a day off.
Only once that I can recall, he went away for the weekend, and was out of cellphone contact. Mayhem ensued till he got home, when problems that only he could deal with were quickly fixed.
Otherwise he’s been involved with Scoop day and night, every day of the year, the only one of the three founders to have maintained his connection with the website from its birth – ahead of its time – 16 years ago.
He carried the management burden seemingly lightly. When we met, I wanted to start writing about Wellington, and he wanted Scoop to have a Wellington section. Within a few days, he’d created the format, and Wellington.Scoop was born. He made it seem so easy.
If it hadn’t been for all the management pressures, Alistair would have been Scoop’s most formidable investigative journalist. As the countdown to his departure nears its end, he’s been scooping everyone with the release of court documents from the Hager/Rawshark court case, obtained against the wishes of the Crown. He’s also written at length about the crisis in journalism, and about Scoop itself, explaining convincingly why its core policy of publishing press releases from diverse sources – together with a selection of diverse opinions – is filling a vital place in the New Zealand discourse.
Alastair’s departure from Scoop, and his departure from New Zealand with his wife Wendy, coincides with the Thompson family’s generous, indeed extraordinary decision to convert their company into a not for profit trust. He has written movingly about how his father Stephen was the guardian of Scoop for its first nine years, and since then (after his father’s sudden death) his mother Margaret has taken the reins. Without them, he wrote, there would be no Scoop. His father …
… loved that Scoop wasn't afraid to stand up for the little guy, and was able to do so effectively for so many by simply giving them a voice. He loved Scoop because he believed in fairness. Injustice made him angry and he hated bullying of all kinds …I am certain he would be very happy about the plan for "New Scoop" as we are now calling it. He would be pleased that Scoop remains standing as news media everywhere is failing…And he would be pleased that Margaret and Wendy and I are now moving on.
The challenge of keeping Scoop standing will be to find new revenues with which to keep it alive after Alastair’s departure, to enable it to continue to give a voice to so many people who would otherwise not be heard and to publish so many opinions that would otherwise never be read. That would be a pretty good legacy.
Dreaming of bigger and better things
Jeremy Rose, Scoop Review of Books
I’ve been trying to recall when I first met Al: Was it before or after Bob Jones punched him? I remember bumping into a senior Dominion journalist, just after the pugnacious millionaire had added Alastair to the list of journalists he had lashed out at, and asking: What happened? “I don’t know,” he replied, “but he probably deserved it the cheeky little bastard.”
Al can definitely be tenacious. He takes the job of asking questions seriously and doesn’t stop till he’s got the answers he’s looking for… or the proverbial door is slammed in his face.
Al and I became friends 17 years ago when we were flown to San Francisco by Saatchi and Saatchi to webcast, still a novel concept then, a strange event called the State of the World Forum. I remember the date well because I received a phone call telling me of my son Edi’s birth - six weeks early - as Al and I sat in a San Francisco concert hall watching an episode of the BBC's Hard Talk programme being filmed.
At the time I felt particularly strongly about the sanctions being imposed on Iraq and two of the key players in enforcing those sanctions Richard Butler and Scott Ritter were attending the forum and I had the chance to interview them. a href="" target="_blank">The interview with Butler ended with him walking out on me and complaining to the conference organisers about my line of questioning. (He didn’t punch me but I had the feeling he would’ve liked to)
I didn’t have time to write up the interview with the then still hawkish UN Arms inspector Scott Ritter before rushing home to meet Edi for the first time. On his return to Wellington Al asked me if he could publish the Scott Ritter interview on the Newsroom website that he had co-founded and co-edited out of a shed in his back garden. I wasn’t a regular reader of Newsroom at the time but knew it published press releases and some original news stories. I was keen to publish the Ritter interview because it was the first time he had had come out against the sanctions but wasn’t sure anyone would notice if it was published on what I thought of as an obscure website. So I was surprised and delighted by the speed at which the interview was picked up shared by activist groups in the US and Britain.
A year or so after that Al and some of the other founders of Newsroom set up Scoop - which almost from the beginning performed incredibly well in Google search rankings.
Al has a passionate interest in the world in general and in questions of justice and peace in particular. And Iraq and the wars that were to follow became a particular focus of his. At a recent talk about the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism he described this series of articles he wrote on Iraq as one of the things he’s most proud of. I’m hoping we’ll see more of that sort of work now that he’s taking a well deserved break from the day to day running of Scoop.
Under Al’s editorship Scoop has provided a much needed space for journalists to publish material that the mainstream media has shown little interest in.
It was on Scoop that Bev Harris first raised troubling questions about the safety of Black Box electronic voting system in the US. The story was later told in the documentary Hacking Democracy (reviewed here in the New York Times.)
Gordon Campbell has provided some of the most astute political and social commentary to be found in New Zealand on the site.
And the press releases of struggling NGOs receive the same prominence as those of major corporates.
One of the things I love about Al is his ability to dream of bigger and better things. When he told me about the “ethical paywall” idea I was more than a little sceptical. Why would corporates and government departments pay to access press releases and news articles they’ve been viewing for free for years? Because it’s the right thing to do, he said. Because we need to find new models to fund journalism. I thought he was dreaming but it turns out he was right: Government departments and businesses are signing up. Al may have just come up with part of the solution of how to sustain an independent media company in the 21st Century.
Hi Al, Thought You Might Like This
Lyndon Hood, Scoop News Editor

Click for big version.
Endlessly energetic
Jan Rivers, Public Good
Scoop has a huge gap to fill as Alastair heads overseas. He’s been the co-ordinator and force behind an incredible 16 year marathon of public interest publishing. I met Alastair at a Net Hui conference in Auckland about 5 years ago when Scoop was first setting up the innovative “virtual paywall” and framework that is now allowing it to assert ownership of its news database and a move to a an institutional licencing model.
Al is endlessly energetic in support of Scoop. He’s one of the most incredibly well connected people I have met and is knowledgeable and very astute about political and public life in Wellington and throughout New Zealand. He has welcomed me and many others into the Scoop tent to do what they do best whether that is to develop additional strands of the Scoop platform – Wellington Scoop, Community Scoop, Pacific Scoop and Werewolf or to manage Scoop’s publishing, fundraising and licencing.
Since it became clear that Scoop could no longer flourish through advertising, the decision to move Scoop into a community trust was farsighted and generous. Alastair’s willingness to encourage a national conversation about the difficult circumstances being faced by the whole news media was not welcomed in all quarters. It has been in stark contrast to what is happening in much of the commercial media where experienced journalists are being laid off in numbers even as the sector proclaims strength, launches into new ventures and appears to pretend that the light at the end of the tunnel is anything but an oncoming train.
An Al-shaped hole is no small hole to fill of course. Matching Scoop’s historical strengths with new initiatives is a stretch and there are risks and challenges ahead. When the Guardian’s courageous editor Alan Rusbridger stepped down in May this year he spoke of the Guardian’s readers being the real “carriers of the flame” and he quoted what another editor had said to him. “If you take the day off, the building itself would produce the [news].” I think there are parallels here. The community that Al has gathered around Scoop – donors, members, reader/supporters and Scoop staff – all dedicated to public interest journalism provide the best possible conditions for the continuation of Scoop as a New Zealand-owned, independent news service.
A fucking treasure
Gordon Campbell, journalist
The first serious piece of journalism that Al Thompson ever wrote landed on my desk at the Listener, at a time when I was (briefly) the acting Features Editor. This kid had knocked on the Listener door with a story he‘d written about the lack of noise control measures at Wellington airport, and about the impact those late night/early morning flights were having on residents living near the runway. It was a terrific piece of research journalism: balanced, well written, socially committed … well, you know what I’m saying. It was like young Mozart had walked in with a little something he’d knocked off on the family piano.
This is great, I remember saying. And to cap it off, Al said in reply: “Uh, thanks. I really like doing research.” He did another story for the Listener about gun control and then he was off to the newspapers, to a prize winning stint at NBR and – after many fine adventures – to where he is now. In the late 1990s, Al and a couple of colleagues launched Scoop, and he and his amazing family have fought tooth, nail and claw to keep it alive for the past 16 years. There’s more than one way to tell the story. You could say he’s a born journalist with tons of natural ability, full stop. Yet that aside, and like most other good journalists, he’s also a fiercely self-made creation. By that I mean his foibles got hard-baked into a unique mould, right along with his talents. It’s that kind of profession. Full of lone wolves trying to be social animals.
What no-one would have predicted is that for the past decade, Al has – by necessity – become a manager and a marketer and a fund raiser and a digital media visionary … and not so much anymore, the writer guy who once loved to do research. I’m hoping that when he hits Europe and leaves this management and marketing shit behind – for a while at least – he’ll find the time and the energy to get his writing mojo up and running again. Actually, I hope he can just do whatever he feels like, for a change. Without being weighed down by a ton of Catholic guilt, or by the feeling that he has to be like Atlas and carry Scoop – and the rest of us who have benefitted from knowing him and working with him – on his back, 24/7. We’ll be OK, Scoop and its readers will be OK. And let’s hope that someone in Europe realizes what a fucking treasure has just landed in their midst, and pays him accordingly.
The Scoop Team
Scoop Independent News
Scoop is NZ's largest independent news source; respected widely in media, political, business and academic circles for being the place on the internet for publishing "what was really said", and for the quality of its analysis of issues.

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