Helping shape a nation: 80 years of the New Zealand Listener

This year Bauer Media’s New Zealand Listener celebrates its 80th anniversary. StopPress sat down with editor Pamela Stirling to talk about the anniversary issue, reflect on events that have made a stamp on New Zealand society and where to in the future.

Offering a New Zealand perspective on the world, the New Zealand Listener is a staple for those wanting to be in the know.

The weekly current affairs magazine turns 80 this year and for the past 15 years, Pamela Stirling has been at the helm.

As Stirling herself wrote in the 80th-anniversary issue editorial, it was inauspicious start with the first magazine launching on the eve of World War II.

Alongside its regular content, the anniversary issue covers moments of historical importance, locally and globally, over the past 80 years from the Tangiwai disaster to the Vietnam war, to the more bizarre vignettes such as the trademarking of the jandal.

Readers will recognise names and faces from Sir Robert Muldoon to Lydia Ko and see how the Listener has advocated strongly on issues of importance from climate change to key health advances.  

An energising force

For Stirling, her favourite part of putting the 80th-anniversary edition together was the reward of seeing what the Listener has done over the years.

“We’ve been there at all the important touchstones and heritage points in the nation’s history. It’s very special and we’re honoured and privileged to be in that place in New Zealand society.”

The aim of the magazine is to “produce a compelling weekly magazine that’s not afraid to rattle cages,” she explains, but one which is a “positive energising force in New Zealand social, political and intellectual life”.

“We do not do clickbait, we don’t do churnalism, we don’t buy in articles from overseas.”

Making an impact

When asked how the team decided what to cover, Stirling admits there were things left out that she would love to have included such as KiwiSaver and ACC.

“We thought ‘we can do that later’ because we’ll be covering this for the rest of the year…it was so interesting going through the important things, the events that shaped the nation and really had an impact.”

And in this age of celebrity, readers will rarely see a well-known face on its cover unless it’s a famous literary figure like Katherine Mansfield or Eleanor Catton.

“We are really honoured people trust us with their stories,” Stirling says. 

“For us, it’s less about the charisma of the individual and more about the charisma of the cause. That helped shape [the 80th issue]– what were the causes, what were the trends, we deliberately broke it into bite-sized pieces so you can snack on it.”

The last celebratory issue the Listener did was its 70th anniversary with a focus on wit and humour to get around the perception that the magazine and current affairs are a hard read.

For its 65th, the team opened up its photographic archives and put on an exhibition at Auckland Museum.

Stirling says there have been some lovely responses about the 80th-anniversary issue with letters and emails sent in. 

“You never know if you’ve got it right but a great thing about the Listener is that we’ve got high engagement with a really intelligent, witty, entertaining, stimulating readership.”  

And that readership engagement has been since the magazine’s inception, with the anniversary issue showcasing archival letters to the editor from everyday Kiwis alongside names readers would recognise.

Hitting a nerve

Throughout its eight decades, the Listener has broken stories and highlighted causes that have become part of the New Zealand public’s consciousness.

One memorable example for Stirling is the climate change/sustainability issue.

“We raised the alarm early on [in 2004], before Time magazine, we were starting to say, ‘be worried, be really worried about this’ and we took a lot of flak from the climate change denialists.”

Another was euthanasia campaigner Lecretia Seales trusting the Listener to tell her story in January 2015.

“That was one of the things we looked at, like the gay marriage issue or assisted dying, where a magazine like the Listener can help shift perspectives so we see it not as a moral issue but as a human rights issue,” Stirling says.

“What we try to do is start a general conversation and we do it really thoroughly – [Lacretia’s story] was emotional, compelling. It’s a long story for a January issue when readers are probably at the beach, but we do provide the ‘lean back, relax, enjoy this content’ too.”

She says in terms of content, the Listener tries to do the same as The New Yorker.

“We have these pretty in-depth articles and we consciously reward the readers with wit and humour. We had a cartoon competition a while ago to get good cartoonists, we’ve supported their development.

“We’ve got Alex Scott who is a fantastic young female cartoonist, they’re all great – Chris Slane, Steve Bolton, Phil Parker, Anthony Ellison – a whole range of different voices, there’s room for all voices in this magazine, we’re cognizant of having Maori voices in the magazine”.

Digital disruption

Stirling took over as editor in 2004, the year Facebook was invented.

“Facebook is the third largest news consumption platform in New Zealand, and they don’t provide the content, it’s extraordinary,” Stirling muses.

“In a way, it’s helped us because we’ve stood our ground and said we would not give our content away for free, if we don’t value it no one else will. We do of course put it online after the magazine has come off sale, but we protect the print product.”

In 2012 it put up a paywall and according to Stirling this was “not so much putting up a paywall as taking down a time wall”.

“The burning platform is the distribution of magazines, the postal and delivery system, as well as the decline in retail outlets. So, if people want it immediately, well here it is, you can pay for it. I think we were a little bit too early in that model. It lasted till after we came to Bauer, but they decided to hub the magazines.”

So instead what it has done is a model “Murdoch would die for” and that is the user pays for the content.

“We have 30,000 loyal subscribers which is extraordinary that they sign themselves up and stay on average seven years. It means they trust the product and they trust us to deliver what they want.”

The Listener does do branded content, but Stirling points out it is careful and transparent with what it publishes.

“Our readers trust us and if you destroy the trust you have nothing. They are information seekers and want to know about products and solutions. What we always do with our cover stories is that we can’t sell a problem, we can only sell the solution. Advertisers are often part of the solution, so we work with them and help them do branded content and present it well.”

Currently, the Listener has 15,219 followers on Facebook, 1,489 followers on Instagram and16,400 followers on Twitter, with Stirling noting that the team is trying to beef this up.

It also publishes content on Noted.co.nz alongside sister publication North & South and Radio New Zealand.

“We’ve had a 30 percent increase in total yearly page views on Noted,” Stirling says.

“We share content with Stuff, our Facebook reach is increasing, The Listener’s readership has gone up 5.8 percent in the last year [in the Nielsen survey]and our circulation is just absolutely stable whereas most current affair magazines are in double-digit decline and so are TV listing magazines around the world.”

Which direction shall we go?

As New Zealand’s best-selling current affairs magazine, the Listener obviously has its formula mastered, but Stirling admits the team do sit and recalibrate at times.

“We were starting to focus on videos and even podcasts but then you think but there is no revenue, we have to focus on the main game and bring our best to doing [the magazine].

“We’re open to opinions to what direction we should go in…the indicators are flashing red for weekly current affairs magazines around the world, but we’ve managed to find a way through, and not just survive but thrive.”

She credits this to her “amazing, world-class team”. While it has very few full-time journalists now, having both staff and contributors gives you a bigger range of topics you can cover, she says.

This teamwork and hard work paid off as a few weeks after StopPress meets with Stirling, she won Webstar Magazine Media Award’s Supreme NZ Post Editor of Year and was named Best Editor in Current Affairs, Business and Trade.

At the Magazine Publisher Association’s event, the Listener was also named joint winner for Best Magazine in Current Affairs and Business with Diana Wichtel taking home Best Columnist in Consumer Special Interest, Current Affairs and Business.

Stirling says she and the team are thrilled to be part of Bauer.

“We’re so glad we moved to this smart, warm, engaging, innovative magazine environment.  At times working in the modern media is like being in a Potemkin village – the lights are shining in all the windows but there are fewer and fewer people to keep the fires burning.

“In this uncharted territory, we all really do appreciate the genuine friendship and backing – and free photographs – from the other magazines.  And I have to just say that Bauer takes it to a whole other level.  It’s the only place I know where you get a standing ovation for a new haircut.”

Still living dangerously

Looking forward, Stirling hopes to continue the magazine’s success.

“My job as an editor is to empower the team to perform at their very best and make stars out of all of them. We know we’ve got each other’s backs and we trust each other because sometimes it can be really hard, a weekly magazine can be brutal. The rate at which the deadlines come at you blows your hair back.”

For her, the value of journalism is as important as ever.

“I’d say we’ve written 88,000 words on Donald Trump since his election and 54 essays – that’s because it’s really important. There’s the Dante quote ‘The darkest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of great moral crisis’ and we think this is one of those times where it is incumbent on us, even here in New Zealand, to keep watch, because aspects of democracy itself seem to be in peril.

“All we’re trying to do is help people understand and have that ‘a-ha’ moment and connect the dots.”

Regardless of intentions, the news waits for no one, something Stirling and the team know very well.

“Just this morning we planned out the next issue and then the fires in the Amazon happened,” she explains.

We’ve got a story ready to go but we hadn’t planned to use it right this week, but we have to use it now.” (The story ran in the 7 September 2019 issue).

So, after 80 years of keeping New Zealanders informed, Stirling says amongst the deluge and torrent of information that’s freely available on the internet, people want curated content.  

“Readers are looking to the magazine to provide a trusted, entertaining guide to what they need to know…we want to hook you in and grab the reader in a way that’s trustworthy, balanced, verified.

“It has to have a strong narrative thread because the story is the most powerful medium and then it has to be a must-read that compels you right through to the black dot at the end – that’s what we endeavour to do.”

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