When I was a kid, totally blind since birth and before the Internet was a thing, I was fortunate to have three older sighted siblings who would read the newspaper to me. We grew up in Auckland, so The New Zealand Herald has played a big part in my life.
From the moment I purchased my first modem in 1986, I could see that going online had the potential to give me access to a vast array of information. I could tell some horror stories about spending way too much on CompuServe’s Executive News Service, simply because it gave me access to some newspapers electronically for the first time in my life.
Technology has changed everything. It’s now possible for a blind person like me who uses screen reading software on their computer or smartphone to read the world’s newspapers, either by having the material spoken or by reading it with a Braille display. And I’m happy to pay.
Every evening, I open the fully accessible app for The Guardian on my iPhone and catch up with the latest episode in the enthralling Brexit drama. Their premium content is high-quality and fully accessible to me. The equally accessible New York Times catches me up with the unpredictable and unbelievable world of US politics. That’s worth paying for as well.
In an age where anyone can be a publisher and where social media can take us to a dimension of reality-field distortions, I’m pleased to pay up and support well-researched quality journalism.
But there’s one caveat. A newspaper’s website and app need to be designed with some simple guidelines in mind to ensure that they're accessible to screen reader users. These are the equivalent of ramps in cyberspace. Not only is it the ethical thing to do in the same way that thinking about one’s carbon footprint or animal welfare is ethical, it makes business sense. After all, I’m never going to buy a hardcopy newspaper, so an inaccessible website or app for a newspaper is revenue foregone.
While I pay for newspapers half a world away, and do so willingly, I don’t pay for the NZ Herald’s premium content because its site and app contain serious accessibility flaws.
The accessibility problems with the Herald’s site are not new but are worse since their most recent redesign. In the past, I’ve worked around them and prioritised other advocacy issues where there is no such work-around. The work-around involved using the Herald’s RSS feeds. Using RSS and a fully accessible iOS RSS app called Lire, I’ve been able to enjoy access to all the Herald material I want to read without having to hassle them about their awful website and app.
The trouble is, there’s no NZ Herald Premium RSS feed. I’m not clear about why this is. The feed could simply point to the premium article. You’d see the full article if you were logged in, and the short preview if you were not.
Nevertheless, no such feed exists, so if I want to access the Herald's premium content, I need to use the website or app.
The website is fairly well-structured. It makes good use of headings denoting each article. This helps a screen reader user to navigate between articles. However, if I read an article on the website, it’s interrupted by ads. I can be reading a news story, and literally in mid-sentence, the reading will stop and I’ll be told about some beautiful character home in Blockhouse Bay. I’ll restart the reading, only to be interrupted in a few seconds by another ad, usually real estate. I must stress that this doesn't typically happen on most websites. Ad-supported content is common, and I don't find any other site I use regularly interrupts itself like this. There is something odd about the way these ads are appearing that is upsetting screen readers.
My preferred way of engaging with news is via an iOS app. Like many people, I lead a busy life and often catch up with news when I'm on the treadmill or in the back of an Uber. Sadly, the app is not much better and is far from compliant with Apple’s simple-to-follow Accessibility Guidelines. It contains several buttons that are images only, no text labels have been assigned to them. In situations like this, VoiceOver, Apple’s screen reader, tries to tell me what the button does based on the file name of the image. Using this technique, I can tell where the Menu button is at the top of the screen. But VoiceOver is unable to detect the function of several other buttons. All VoiceOver can do in this situation is speak “Button, Button, Button” as I scroll through them. Hardly informative.
I frequently receive “404 not found” messages in the app, and unless I navigate the menu in a precise way, I’m not able to navigate to another section. This is just lazy, inconsiderate coding, and it’s hardly enticing me to part with my money given that it’s so finicky to access.
I’ve reached out on Twitter to the NZ Herald account and to individuals who work there, but no one has followed up with me to get a detailed explanation of what the problems are and how to fix them, despite several promises that that would happen.
Meanwhile, Stuff’s website is considerably more accessible, all the content is available via RSS, they’re running an increasing number of good disability and accessibility-related news stories, and it’s free. RNZ’s website is exemplary when it comes to accessibility. NewsHub and TVNZ are pretty good. NBR Premium is accessible.
I understand that it’s tough for media outlets. I’m ready and willing to support them with my credit card. I hope one day the NZ Herald will permit me to do so by doing the decent thing and making its content accessible to all New Zealanders. If the Guardian can do it, if the New York Times and the Washington Post can do it, if many NZ sites can do it, then it’s time for NZME to do the right thing.
I also believe that being able to access news is a critical component of civic participation. Disabled people are on the periphery of New Zealand society. Excluding us from access to information about what's going on in our own country is hardly going to help us change that. So there is an important moral issue here.
Just as people make conscientious choices to buy free range, ditch plastic and go with fair trade, I hope people will consider withholding NZ Herald Premium subscriptions until this discrimination is remedied. I’m certainly not prepared, in 2019, to go back to the era when I relied on someone sighted to read the Herald to me.
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