Say hello to two new StopPress staff

StopPress said hello to two new staff in April: feature writer Zahra Shahtahmasebi and editorial director Penny Murray.

With more than 35 years of journalism experience between them, both are looking forward to bringing more original reporting to the site and delving into Aotearoa’s media and comms scene.

But first, the pair – who joined the SCG-owned title within a fortnight of each other and will also work on NZ Marketing – sat down for a chat to discover they both started out in student media, along with a shared love of baked goods and walks in Auckland’s many bush-clad reserves.

Penny Murray: So Zahra, tell me about you.

Zahra Shahtahmasebi: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but my parents rightly said I needed to make sure I have a back-up plan. 

At high school in Christchurch, some year 12s started up a newspaper and I thought, “That’s for me!” So I started writing for The Cabbage Chronicles (the school’s emblem was a cabbage tree). Then I went to Otago to study pre-med and started writing for Critic, the student newspaper.

PM: Oh wow, I started off in student papers too! What made you choose media over medicine?

ZS: Lots of my family work in health, but it wasn’t for me. I switched to a science degree, but really my heart was in journalism: I love to get right into the nitty gritty of a story. 

There were two pivotal moments I remember. One was attending a conference on investigative journalism – I just thought: “Yes!” The other an event where a speaker declared that writers with science training were “as rare as hens’ teeth” and would always be in demand.

PM: They weren’t wrong. 

ZS: No [laughs], after I finished my postgrad in journalism at Canterbury, I got a job straight away at NZ Doctor and stayed there for a bit over three years. Then I was at the Breast Cancer Foundation for a couple of years with a bit of freelancing as well. 

PM: And now you’re in the world of media and comms – is it a big switch?

ZS: The jargon is different, but the thing I enjoy is the same: nothing excites me more than sitting down with people and hearing their stories. 

PM: Yes!

ZS: What’s your favourite thing about journalism?

PM: I love a good story well told – any subject can be interesting if the writing is good. I love it when people get to the end of it and think, “I didn’t know I was interested in this, but I’m fascinated!’”

ZS: You started in student newspapers?

PM: Yes, my first real job was as editor of Craccum magazine – the student paper at Auckland University. (Now I’m at SCG, which prints Craccum!) It was an elected position then, so you had to campaign, which was a bit odd, but I guess it taught me how to assemble a team and talk to lecture theatres full of people. It was a real crash course in news and publishing and a terrific training ground.

The next year I was asked to start up a student paper at Massey University’s Albany campus. Then I did an OE and ended up in Glasgow, Scotland, and stayed for 20 years! I worked at a magazine sold by homeless people called The Big Issue in Scotland, the Sunday Herald newspaper and a custom publishing agency called Connect.

ZS: What brought you back?

PM: We wanted our kids to grow up and have fun outdoors. I love Glasgow, but it’s really cold for a lot of the year and you just can’t get out and enjoy cool bush walks like we have on our doorstep here.

[A long discussion happens here about all the cool new boardwalks and nature tracks around Tāmaki Makaurau.]

ZS: Where were you before StopPress and SCG?

PM: I was all about breaking news and features as a news director with the Stuff Auckland digital newsroom – very fast pace, lots of moving parts to keep track of. It’s set me up well to help the team bring great stories to StopPress readers.

Zahra’s quick questions

  • Apples or oranges?
    Apples – they’re ideal for eating on the go.
  • What was the last thing you cooked?
    Last night my partner and I made a beef steak stir fry – it was delicious. But really I only did the chopping. Does baking count? I made an Easter bunny bundt cake (recipe from Dish magazine; see picture below) for a friend’s birthday last week. A carrot cake with a cream cheese swirl through it. Amazing.
  • Tell me something I might not guess about you.
    I hold a black belt in kung fu and I’m about to open a kung fu school – the first class is tonight!
  • What’s your happy place?
    Long Bay Beach on Auckland’s North Shore – it’s so serene and great for swimming.
  • Do you have a catchphrase?
    Hmm, let me have a think. Actually the thing I probably say most often is: Let’s gooooo!

Penny’s quick questions

  • What is your favourite recipe?
    Friday night is pizza night in our house. I make the bases, and the prep begins the night before when the sourdough starter gets fed. The dough rises all day – time is the magic ingredient.
  • What’s growing in your garden at the moment?
    Kūmara (which I will harvest this weekend), radishes and some blue daisies I grew from cuttings.
  • Last movie you watched at the cinema?
    It’s been years! Pretty sure the film was The Incredibles 2 with my kids.
  • Tea or coffee?
    Both – the daily schedule goes like this: tea, coffee, tea, tea, then coffee mid-afternoon.
  • Where is your happy place?
    I am most at home in a haberdashery or hardware store. Crocket The Ironmonger in Glasgow (now sadly closed) was the absolute best – I bought my favourite hammer there.

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