A story without end

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This is my 50th issue at the helm of New Zealand Geographic, though familiarity with the job hasn’t made it any easier. The better I understand the forces acting on this place and its people, the more complex and interesting our shared story becomes.

It’s an arcane ecology, with a strange cargo of life and a short but explosive human history.

I’ve been stirred by the analysis of writers and photographers who have forced me to reconsider my assumptions and prejudices on a bimonthly basis. And I’ve come to realise how many of the ideas that we unconsciously adopt—and then fiercely defend—are founded on very contestable facts.

Everything that makes our environment unique became the matching criteria for its failure when circumstances changed. It’s hard to reconcile the myth of that pristine and unusual archipelago—infamously branded 100% Pure—with the tale of the fastest deforestation on Earth, or data that reveals that our rivers are among the most polluted in the world.

In the past few years, we have published stories that confront these flawed notions, and challenge our assumptions about our society, too: Our founding document meant different things to the parties who signed it, and was pre-dated by an earlier declaration that sheds light on those very different intentions.

With every issue I am reminded that this country is not what we think it is, and we are not who we think we are.

In this issue is another reality check: we discovered that one per cent of the adult population are using methamphetamine, a destructive psychoactive drug now more readily available than marijuana. Last issue, we put a cute baby kiwi on the cover, and it sold like hot cakes. This issue, we’ve got a junkie smoking a meth pipe, and the marketing manager’s face fell about a foot. News like this doesn’t sell well. It’s not the reflection we want of ourselves—but it’s the truth nonetheless.

Recently we’ve produced unpopular stories on waste, homelessness, poaching and sea-level rise, because they’re important. They’re forces that are changing the shape of New Zealand and New Zealanders. We have received equal measure of praise and criticism for highlighting these uncomfortable realities, including the complaint that such stories aren’t “recreational reading”—presumably the kind of material that leaves one’s prejudices unruffled.

Observations. Values. Judgements. These are how we form a view of ourselves and our nation, and they shape our responses to challenge and opportunity. This is a publishing ideology set in motion from the first issue in 1989, and three editors have maintained it across 139 issues, which now loom large on an enormous shelf over my desk.

Today, that great archive exists in another realm, too. Six years of effort and the generosity of magazine contributors have resulted in a complete redux of the New Zealand Geographic website, nzgeo.com, which now features every story ever published—more than a quarter-century of insight and endeavour by hundreds of New Zealand’s leading writers and photographers. In addition, the world-leading television production company NHNZ (formerly Natural History New Zealand) has joined the platform, contributing its entire back-catalogue of programming—hundreds of hours of natural history documentaries—for a new streaming television service available at nzgeo.tv. Together, the combined catalogues represent one of the largest and richest bodies of New Zealand content available anywhere.

This new endeavour positions New Zealand Geographic as one of the leading voices in the online conversation, just as it has been part of the discourse in printed media for decades. I hope it will be a place where we can continue to be stirred by new versions of the New Zealand story, what I now realise is a story without end—a bimonthly process of redefining who we are and where we’re from.

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