How we tell stories

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One thing about having a 33-year online archive of every New Zealand Geographic magazine—from issue 001 in January 1989 to this one, issue 177 in September 2022—is that it’s possible to see all the ways the magazine has evolved.

If you haven’t yet explored the archive, it’s an interesting, occasionally infuriating place. There are original stories by Michael King and Keri Hulme; there are articles that would be better suited to an encyclopaedia than a magazine; there’s some excellent photojournalism, especially of the way we live; there wasn’t always the diversity of voices and viewpoints we strive for today.

Some of these changes are simply because you, the reader, have needed different things from us over time. Now that you carry an information portal around in your pocket, our features are less completist: more like stories, less like Wikipedia pages. We face issues today that we didn’t think about much in 1989 (“Who does outer space belong to?” “How do we rehabilitate our rivers?”) but we’re also looking at the same things all over again from a new vantage point (“How do we protect the vulnerable?” “How do we honour the Treaty?”)

Some of these changes are because journalism has evolved, and our ideas about how to tell stories responsibly have developed. These days, we want you to know a little bit more about the people who are writing and photographing the stories in the magazine. We want to acknowledge the perspectives they hold. That’s why there are now credit lines in stories describing our contributors a little more, and that’s why we’ve started listing the iwi of any Māori contributors or sources—so that others can pinpoint them in the web of networks and relationships that is te ao Māori.

The unchanging part of the magazine—our magnetic north—is that we’re committed to learning. We don’t consider anything to be finished. Like the scientists we write about, we keep open minds, sift new evidence, listen to those who have a long history and connection with the whenua.

And we start stories in the same way, a candle in a dark room, reaching towards something we feel is there. Most of the stories in this issue began as musings—a sixth-sense notion that there may be something worth bringing into the light, worth sharing with others. “I see a lot of rosellas these days,” I said to Auckland journalist Ellen Rykers. “Are they bad?” Our oceans journalist Kate Evans heard talk about an terrible seaweed on Great Barrier Island. “Is this even a story?” she wondered, and went there to find out.  I asked Tulia Thompson to attend a siren battle and tell us what it was like and Kerry Sunderland suggested travelling up the remote Baton Valley to find out what life there is like. We start, always, in ignorance, and then we learn.

After five years and one pandemic editing New Zealand Geographic—a job that is a bit like being an air traffic controller, where journalism and photography are the planes—I’m taking a sabbatical to learn more about journalism in the United States, with some help from Columbia University and Fulbright New Zealand. I’m planning to listen, to reconsider, and to return not with more certainty but more curiosity.

The magazine’s next editor, Catherine Woulfe, is sitting right next to me as I type, and I’m excited to see what the magazine—this country, our lives—look like from her vantage point. You’re in good hands.

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