Raw, direct and considered: editor Frances Morton on how Vice carves its space in New Zealand media

Frances Morton

Walking into the Vice New Zealand office last week, there was a buzz in the air with a team of people painting over numbers and drawings that covered the walls of a phone booth. The booth has become a symbol of the office and would feature at the party it was hosting to celebrate a massive year for the team.

Frances Morton, head of content at Vice New Zealand, suggests that should any numbers be left on the phone booth at the party, the team should call them and hear what they have to say. A bit random some might think, but given Vice’s tradition of telling untold stories, it could serve as research.

Last week, marked the first anniversary since Viceland hit local screens on Sky’s channel 13 and started entertaining New Zealanders with the likes of F*ck That’s Delicious and topical programmes such as Gaycation and Rise.

It was a launch that followed the Vice New Zealand separation from the Australian arm early last year and building of an independent editorial team in New Zealand. Before then, all those in New Zealand and Australia would be served the same content online and all that was produced on New Zealand’s side of the ditch would be sent to Australia for its editors to publish.

There’s now a core team of six in New Zealand, including editorial, social, marketing and sales, who ensure New Zealanders read local stories Vice.com/en_nz, and work with freelance production crews to produce local video content that appears online and often on Viceland.

Though the channel is programmed in the UK, US and Canada, Morton says the local team and is all about the channel having a voice for New Zealanders and has the freedom to put local content in available spaces.

Between programmes, this is shown in the replacement of ads with content featuring a local touch, included the Vice logo being projected onto the Beehive and conversations with New Zealanders on the street in the lead up to the election.

“We really want New Zealand audiences to recognise that this is for them and about them,” says Morton.

It’s also been able to broadcast the videos created for online, including an interview with the then-campaigning Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, and episodes from its Zealandia series that follows compelling characters in an unconventional setting in an attempt to uncover the less mainstream aspects of the New Zealand experience.

More of those episodes are in production thanks to funding from New Zealand On Air. Morton says the funding grant for its projects is a great achievement and is one that recognises Vice’s role as a local broadcaster.

It’s also helping Vice’s mission to have its stories told across multiple platforms, to as wide an audience as possible as the stories it tells are not likely to be those already earning attention in mainstream media.

When asked if there’s something New Zealanders are particularly interested in, Morton can’t single out any shows as the channel is not governed by ratings and does not have publicly available measurement. However, she does say that its range of content has been successful in starting conversations and getting people to feel involved in something.

She gives the example of the phone line, an initiative launched with the channel for fans to leave a message about what they want, or don’t want to see. It’s since been used for a campaign called ‘Things’ that sees items painted white and photographed against a white backdrop, the idea being to spark a conversation. So far among the items, there’s been a picket fence to represent housing, a police hat and a tampon. The latter drew a surprisingly huge response, Morton says, with people calling in to talk about women’s access to sanitary products.

“We had guys call us and say: ‘I’ve never thought about this before but you put it in front of me’. And they’d talk about it being subsidised.”

Uncovering stories

While finding untold stories to tell on Vice.com and Viceland could pose a challenge in itself, earning the trust of those involved to share their stories is another and Vice’s values to tell real stories in an authentic, immersive and empathetic way is helping it to do that.

“What we’re finding is, with certain stories, people are most comfortable telling their stories through us, and that I think is the ultimate compliment, if you can have the trust.”

Morton says she and the team find it incredibly humbling and are proud that people are comfortable opening up to them with stories that are perhaps sensitive or have issues surrounding their treatment by the media in the past.

She also says the team prides itself on being able to drill into the facts and Morton praises Tess McClure for having “the best bullshit radar” she’s ever come across.

One of her investigations saw Vice New Zealand break news earlier this year about a group of self-proclaimed historians who hijacked local media with stories about a pre-Māori European race. The story, claiming the discovery of skulls that pre-date Māori in New Zealand, was picked up by the Northern Advocate and NZ Herald but when McClure investigated it, “the facts” unravelled and the original stories were pulled down.

Morton says a measure of great journalism is when there’s an effect from your reporting and in that instance, there was an investigation opened by the Minister of Culture and Heritage.

It’s that sort of work that’s keeping the practice of fourth estate journalism alive as the temptation of clickbait grows. Morton says she understands the appeal of clicks as a path to revenue but she does not see it working as a long-term solution.

“Our philosophy is that in the long run, it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work because our audience is predominantly younger people and I think younger people, in particular, are very aware of what they are consuming.”

She says they are smart, informed, analytical and want to be a part of the conversation anything that cuts corners will be transparent to them.

“I’m not saying that everything has to be really earnest either. We think the most interesting things are the ones you end up talking about with your mates and they are often really good stories or the things people care about and move them. They can be funny, or weird or sexy or outrageous, and still get a big audience without being throwaway.”

The Vice voice

In the same way, Morton believes the audiences can see straight through clickbait, she sees disingenuous commercial relationships in the same light.

“We don’t want to be hoodwinking or cheating our way into the eyes of our viewers with stuff that doesn’t matter to them just for the dollar.”

But there is a way to satisfy both the needs of Vice New Zealand’s audience and the client, and a testament to this is the fact that some of Morton’s favourite content from this past year has been created in a partnership with clients. She gives the example of a series of videos it created with the Electoral Commission that profiled six young New Zealanders who represented the people who in previous years had not cast a vote on election day. It worked for the Electoral Commission in that it targeted its audience while also remaining true to Vice’s voice that speaks predominantly to younger people.

It’s also an example of Vice New Zealand’s agility when it comes to creating solutions for clients. While Morton acknowledges it’s a small team compared to its bigger competitors such as Fairfax and NZME, she sees its size as a strength in that it can be flexible in what it offers.

“We can be so agile and we don’t have prescribed narratives of ways to do things,” she says.

“We are able to get in there with clients, work out what they are trying to achieve.”

And her willingness to partner with clients extends to partnering with other media, again as a way to ensure stories get the greatest reach possible. It’s already partnered with bFM to coordinate with its newsroom as a way of getting current affairs on air every day and sees opportunities to work with other media companies.

“We are not into isolation and we don’t want to cut ourselves off,” Morton says.

“We see ourselves as part of the whole media environment. Obviously, it’s a competitive world, we all have our different strengths and our own audiences.”

Looking into the future

While having a TV channel added to the distribution mix and growing since its separation from the Australian arm of Vice would be enough to keep the local team busy, having the election added another event to think about.

Vice New Zealand covered it in a number of ways, in both its own editorial way, in content partnerships with the Electoral Commission including the videos with local youth, and an online game called ‘Battle to the Beehive’.

Morton calls the election a bit of good fortune in a way as it helped Vice mark its spot in New Zealand but points out that every year there will be something major to cover.

“Who knows what’s going to happen next year. Maybe North Korea will launch, maybe there’ll be an epidemic and New Zealand will be a safe haven. Who knows?”

But no matter what happens, Morton says it will be growing next year with more staff to put more energy into its video production while maintaining the written content at Vice New Zealand’s foundation.

Included in that growth is its contributor pool, which is a positive sign that people are keen to tell the stories that matter to Vice New Zealand and its readers. However, Morton says it’s important that those who do understand the Vice voice.

“People think that because it’s so direct and raw that it’s not considered, but it is,” she says.

“It’s very carefully and thoroughly thought out, both the video and writing.

“I encourage people who have strong stories to tell and who are keen to give it a go, to get in touch. But at the same time, it’s quite a rigorous process.”

While the Vice office is based in Auckland, the contributor pool helps it to cover stories from around the country and Morton says moving into the future it hopes to continue, and do even more, reporting from outside of Auckland.

She also hopes to continue to deliver more stories from Te Ao Māori after seeing the result of its Waitangi Week, a focus week it has on the site to mark Waitangi Day, and aspires to one day reach further into the Pacific, as she recognises that Pacific stories are underrepresented and often go overlooked.

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