Following the launch of Stuff Circuit's documentary series The Valley, reporter Paula Penfold and editor and director Toby Longbottom share how they brought to life an investigation about New Zealand's soldiers in Afghanistan.
Two years ago, quality investigative journalism in New Zealand appeared to be in a precarious place. Campbell Live was cut and it was followed by Story and 3D Investigates, all replaced with lighter, more commercially viable programming. Online, it’s a similar picture with the growing dominance of clickbait pieces making long-form reads hard to find.
But this week, a new beacon of light for journalism appeared across TV, the internet and mobile phones as Fairfax, MediaWorks and NZ On Air came together to create The Valley.
It’s a package of journalism including a virtual reality experience, six-part online documentary, prime-time broadcast documentary on TV3, long-form read and interactive website and not even a week in it’s received a huge public response.
It all started three years ago when reporter Paula Penfold, producer Eugene Bingham and editor and director Toby Longbottom did a story for 3D Investigates that looked into the New Zealand Defence Force’s 2012 battle in Baghak – a valley in Afghanistan – that resulted in the deaths of two New Zealand soldiers. It turned into an investigation about footage from some soldiers involved that had been manipulated to remove shouting and signs of chaos on the ground and upon finishing the piece, a source contacted the team to say ‘that could have been a lot better’.
“It's disheartening as a journalist, but he was right to the extent that we had just scratched the surface and a whole lot more information started coming in which is why three years later we’ve been able to put together these documentaries,” explains Penfold.
A multifaceted story
While the initial investigation was carried out through 3D Investigates, the story followed the trio as they joined Fairfax to form the Stuff Circuit video-led investigative journalism team early last year. Their brief from Fairfax was to do experimental storytelling that had multimedia distribution, and with outstanding OIA requests from the NZDF and a continuing supply of information, it was decided the Afghanistan battle would be the perfect story to push those boundaries.
There was so much information that not one medium could encapsulate it all and even now, with the VR, a six-part online documentary, broadcast documentary and long-form read, there’s information and video that didn’t fit so it’s all housed in an interactive website.
One of the most ground-breaking and experimental forms of journalism in this piece is the VR experience. With the investigation set on the other side of the world in Afghanistan’s Shikari Valley, it’s hard to orientate the audience as to exactly what happened.
Bingham, Johnson and Penfold were able to travel there themselves to inform their investigation but getting the New Zealand public to understand the context was going to take a bit of technical wizardry.
Longbottom says VR’s ability to transport someone to a new place through a headset and a smartphone was the solution but explains it did come with a few of its own problems.
When VR users put on a headset, they’re typically in control of where they want to go in the virtual world and can shape the path for themselves, meaning with a narrative to be told, users risk missing crucial details.
“We had to think quite long and hard about how we guide people through the narrative with a piece of technology that typically enables people to go and do what they want,” Longbottom says. “We still wanted them to have the interactivity but we wanted them to have the story as well.”
In order to make sure the VR experience portrayed the battle as accurately as possible, it was planned in a mock-up of the valley using an old sheet with cases underneath it. Sitting on top were toy vehicles and soldiers from the collection of Longbottom’s eight-year-old son. But despite the rudimentary construction, he assures it was backed up by fine detail from the Court of Inquiry and their own investigation.
Having no other locally produced VR journalism experiences to copy, the team knew they were in a position to push the platform to its full potential and do what they thought was best so he explains they were learning on the ground.
“We experimented new versions of the build and saw things that worked and saw things that didn’t and then we thought of ways of improving it and it all,” Longbottom explains.
‘Building’ isn’t a word typically associated with journalism, but for The Valley, evidence of physical labour can be seen in all aspects of the storytelling both on camera and off.
One of those is the models of Baghak, featuring army men and trucks, that can be seen across all pieces of work. Longbottom says it comes from Stuff Circuit’s mission to have a strong visual sense in all the stories and he and cameraman Phil Johnson had used models in a previous story so understood how they could be used to elevate the visual experience.
They were complimented by shots from the edit suite with red string linking details on the team's investigations board.
Also requiring a hands-on approach was the setup for interviews. The shots of interviewees include a semi-circular dolly shot but with no suitable dolly track available in New Zealand, the team had to make their own from electrical pipe.
For $36 they were able to fashion a track from pipe cut with a hacksaw and fastened with string.
The interviews also got the same visual treatment as the rest of the production, with big industrial spaces used to allow for wide shots, close-ups and for normal talking head interview to be elevated into something much more cinematic.
“From my point of view as a visually creative person you always hope you’re going to get the opportunity to do something where you can go out on a limb and be brave and bold in what you’re doing,” Longbottom says.
“We always try with the visuals to match the quality of the journalism and Paula and Eugene set the quality of the journalism so high we had quite the job to match it with our visuals but we try to and hopefully we have.”
Upon hearing this, Penfold was quick to add it goes the other way too because when there’s such a beautiful job done creatively, the journalistic game needs to be lifted.
Former defence minister Wayne Mapp.
Having started her career at Radio New Zealand, Penfold could never have foreseen she would be producing journalism that’s told through a VR experience but now she’s so excited by the prospect of being able to deliver it to people in ways they want to consume it.
She describes seeing the investigation brought to life in that way was a really fulfilling and satisfying moment after hundreds of hours of work and stress, but more important to her are the feelings of those to whom the story matters. She explains she’s in journalism to ask the questions that need to be asked and to receive feedback that they’ve achieved just that is really rewarding.
“When you get that feedback from soldiers who were there on the ground on the day thanking us for doing this work and asking those questions, it’s a very validating thing to achieve.”
A new form of journalism
But it’s not only validating to the Stuff Circuit team, as it’s a positive result for the practice of journalism as a whole. With the mediascape undergoing seismic shifts, serious investigative journalism has come under threat as media companies are forced into the downward spiral for clicks. However, when pieces like The Valley and the Black Hands podcast are released, it proves there are still who people want to engage with serious long-form journalism.
The Black Hands podcast, also by Stuff, is a 10-part series about the Bain family murders narrated by Martin van Beynen. He’s been following the case for years and after publishing a number of columns expressing his belief that David Bain is guilty and does not deserve compensation, he decided to write a book.
However, when the publisher dropped the book deal, the idea to turn the 100,000 written words into a podcast was sparked. 10 scripts were written for each episode and the efforts of van Beynen and the team is paying off, as the podcast reached 1.1 million downloads in nine days following its July release. It also made number one in New Zealand and Australia and number two in the UK. It’s now reached 2.4 million episode downloads worldwide.
Significant numbers like that are evidence of Penfold’s belief that there’s a growing awareness among the public that they have to consume journalism or they will lose it.
“There was a serious risk of that only 18 months-two years ago when programmes were being axed all over the place and I think it was a bit of an awakening,” she says.
It’s a risk Penfold, Bingham and Longbottom have experienced firsthand as MediaWorks’ axed 3D Investigates in 2015. At the time, its head of news Mark Jennings said: “Long-form current affairs is challenging to make commercially viable all over the world. Given the way media consumption habits are changing, unfortunately continuing 3D may not be possible.”
But Penfold doesn’t quite see it that way as she thinks people who want a functioning democracy want some serious challenging journalism and “as a part of that so they are lapping it up” and she’s really encouraged to see that.
However, that’s not to say journalists don’t have a role to play in ensuring their practice remains alive—they too have a responsibility to respond to changing times to otherwise it will stagnate. Both Penfold and Longbottom have recognised that and credit Farifax for enabling them to move it forward.
A clear example of this in The Valley—aside from the VR and interactive website—is the fact all six online episodes were released in one lot. It’s a reflection of how people now expect to consume content in one chunk rather than being drip-fed and already the team’s had feedback from people who sat down to watch one and found themselves watching it all.
“So we have to respond to that as journalists or else we would die,” Longbottom says.
One of the factors Penfold and Longbottom credit to The Valley’s significance is the partnership between Fairfax and MediaWorks. As far as they’re aware, there’s never been a partnership between two local major media companies to push out journalism and because of it, The Valley’s audience has reached more people than it could have with only one company behind it.
Not only did it meet the brief from Fairfax to distribute journalism in a variety of ways, it helped to maximise the funding available from NZ On Air.
At the time, if an online documentary had a broadcast partner it would enable it to access an additional funding pool and in total it received $324,082 from NZ On Air, which was supplemented by Fairfax.
Since that funding was granted at the end of last year, NZ On Air has replaced the funding model that had individual funds for radio, web and television with one holistic fund. And from that fund comes four streams for factual, scripted, music and closed-stream platforms.
When NZ On Air announced the change of strategy last year, chief executive Jane Wrightson said NZ On Air would remain a passionate advocate for local stories and songs in an environment where it’s footing it with the world’s best.
“These changes will encourage new ideas and new opportunities,” she said.
“With intense competition for audiences from international media, it is more important than ever that NZ On Air is able to maintain a space for local content. It’s vital to our cultural identity.”
Also encouraging new ideas is Sinead Boucher who was this week announced as the new chief executive of Fairfax Media’s New Zealand business. Longbottom credits her for encouraging Stuff Circuit to go out on a limb and he says he’s never had a boss that thinks like she does.
“She is a brave lady and we’re lucky to have her,” he says.
Speaking about the wider Fairfax editorial management, Penfold is just as complimentary and is happy to have received positive feedback from them about the work as a sign of what’s to come in the future.
“We’re already getting messages from editorial management that they’re really happy with how it’s gone and we would hope that would mean we can do more of this work in the future.”
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