NZ Herald dives into documentary journalism with ‘Under The Bridge’

After launching NZ Herald Focus last year with its short, daily news bulletins, the NZ Herald is now looking at the other end of the audio-visual scale, launching its first ever foray into long-form documentary journalism with Under The Bridge.

The 30-minute documentary follows the lives of three Papakura High year 13 students and their principal throughout the course of a year as they navigate the complexities of attending one of the most disadvantaged schools in New Zealand.

Released through nzherald.co.nz, the project looks at key social issues such as child poverty, housing and education, and was directed and produced by NZ Herald journalists Kirsty Johnston and Mike Scott from the investigations and special projects team.

“I’d been looking for a story that I could follow for a significant amount of time and at first I thought I would follow a family who was suffering from something like homelessness or a tough economic situation,” says Johnston, who came up with the idea for the video.

“Then a friend suggested that I do something in an education setting because my background is in education reporting,” she says. “I’d also just done a story on Papakura High and I knew they were getting a new principal, so I rang him up and he surprisingly said yes to us coming over and pitching the idea to him.”

Although the story was initially set to be just a print article, Johnston says that because of the Herald’s increasing focus on online video content (along with the persuasion of colleague Mike Scott who had recently joined NZME) it facilitated the birth of the company’s most elaborate visual storytelling project to date. 

“Using video was awesome because a lot of what happened was really visual, especially the cultural and sporting events like Kapa Haka and Polyfest,” says Johnston. 

“It was also great because it showed their surroundings in a better way than I feel like I could ever describe in print. You just see it and you get all that contextual information straight away so you’re not having to take up heaps of time explaining what the economic situation there is like.”

“With video, you see little expressions on their faces and you get their humour coming through as well. They make funny jokes which don’t necessarily translate well to print, but I think humour is a big part of who they are, so being able to video it was really good,” she says. 

Created in partnership with Greenstone TV, the production company not only provided logistical support during filming but helped Under the Bridge secure crucial NZ on Air funding. 

“The story we picked for our first go was a challenging story because it didn’t really have a beginning, middle and end. We didn’t really know where it was going so we just had to have that faith and luckily, NZ on Air had that faith in us as well,” says Johnston. 

Greenstone’s Tash Christie was one of the executive producers of the documentary (along with the NZ Herald‘s planning editor Chris Reed) and says Greenstone jumped at the chance to be involved with the project. 

“It’s such an important story with strong, diverse voices and we knew that done the right way, it would resonate with a New Zealand audience,” says Christie.

“As documentary makers in a changing media landscape, expanding into the digital space is both liberating and challenging.”

When asked if the Herald can be expected to make more long-form features alongside its expanding interactive and data journalism departments, Johnston was confident more projects were on the horizon, “particularly if we’re able to continue a relationship with Greenstone TV who really helped guide us,” she says.

“I don’t see any reasons why we wouldn’t keep doing it. It was very resource intensive, but NZ on Air funding definitely helped with that.”

The film is the centrepiece of a week of multimedia content starting today, with the full documentary released at 4pm. 

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