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Some people are born to be in the media industry. Photo/Getty

Confessions of a media junkie

“To ‘True Love’, ‘In Love’, ‘Deprived of Love’, ‘Love Sick’, ‘Smith’ and others who are in love with their teachers – crushes are a part of growing up. DON’T EXPECT THE TEACHERS TO RESPOND.”

The paper is yellowing and the pages falling out of my last tatty copies of Jam – the high-school newspaper I set up nearly… well… oh, alright, four decades ago. It sold briskly, despite an effective paywall of 30c a copy. Our end-of-year party, with cake and herbal tea, was spectacular.

As editor, I had few illusions. I knew it wasn’t the poems, netball coverage, student polls, book reviews or even my interview with Dave McArtney & the Pink Flamingos that moved units. It was the “Dear Agnes” column. A friend, writing anonymously, became a minor school celebrity with brisk advice that usually involved pulling up socks, mainlining school spirit and jumping cheerily into the icy swimming pool of life.

“To ‘Cornered’, ‘Gemini’, ‘Desperate’, ‘Rugby Fan’, ‘Heartbroken’ and ‘Upset Third Former’ – you have lived over a decade without sex. A few more years won’t hurt.”

It was 1981, the year of the Springbok Tour. Jam, I am ashamed to report, loftily excoriated the tour from the sunny cushions of the seventh-form common room, like the war correspondent who reported from “Mahogany Ridge” – a barstool far from the action.

Where are our eyewitness accounts of the protests which roiled New Plymouth? Jam (packed with news) dropped the ball, reader. Fathomlessly, we even failed to interview diehards on either side, although our own families were full of them. I could have interviewed my father, a farmer who was against the tour because it was “bloody stupid” (Dadspeak for racist). Having said that, he bought a colour TV to watch the games in case they (unfortunately) took place.

Then there was the report on the Mt Erebus disaster, which I, being a geek, devoured like an airport thriller. Air New Zealand Flight 901 had crashed in Antarctica two years before, and Justice Mahon’s report called evidence from Air New Zealand executives an “orchestrated litany of lies”.

I devoted three whole hand-cranked-on-a-Gestetner-machine pages of Jam (the pupils’ paper!) to a forensic Erebus explainer. Possibly the only person who read it was the deputy editor of the local paper, who told his daughter – a classmate – that it was “litigious”, a word new to Jam’s editor, who had a less-than-precise grip on defamation law. Fortunately Air NZ executives remained unaware of Jam’s searing indictment and the cake fund remained intact.

Thirty-eight years, a one-year journalism course and three-year graphic design course later, I’m an art director within a “mainstream media” currently experiencing extreme turbulence. Although, as former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has pointed out, social media – the main source of online news – is the real mainstream media now. (In fact, you may well be reading this online, unaware of its original source: North & South magazine.)

My editor, Virginia Larson, has many jobs. One of them is to make sure we are not sued. Every issue of a current affairs magazine contains thousands of facts, and she presides over a system designed to exclude those that are wrong.

If North & South has a personality, it is hers: sunny, unflappable, liberal with a small ‘l’, formidably disciplined. (Formidably disciplined? She wishes! – Ed.) Every day, her inbox and North & South’s flood with pitches, suggestions and comments, from the engaging and thoughtful to the rambling, incoherent and rude. She cannot answer hundreds of emails a day and still edit the magazine, so has to divide her correspondents into those who will and won’t be getting a reply. The decision on which of these voices will get their pulpit, is hers.

Magazine sales are, technically, paywalls. They fund investigations of, for example, government departments not renowned for their transparency. Stories like these take time and money to produce. It’s even tougher for freelance journalists tackling big, difficult stories who are paid per word, not for their time.

Magazine sales also pay for accuracy. To weed out errors, lack of clarity and any “holes” in a story, every column, review and feature in North & South is read five or six times.

The roll-call goes like this: Virginia, me (as I design the story), deputy editor Joanna Wane, the journalist (for a “writer’s read” of the pages designed onto a layout with photos and captions), part-time subeditors Bevan Rapson (on screen) and Mary de Ruyter (on a printed proof), then back past Jo and Virginia for a final check. If the story contains sensitive material, it might be scrutinised by a lawyer.

Every North & South feature tries to break new ground, to tell you something you didn’t already know. Frustratingly, newspapers with daily deadlines can pillage stories that have taken weeks of investigation, robbing us of the sales we need to pay staff, photographers and illustrators. A long feature by senior writer Mike White, for example, raised questions about a well-known police investigation. It took months to build relationships with witnesses, using information acquired over years. Despite an embargo, a subscriber’s copy was delivered to an Auckland newspaper’s offices on Saturday morning – before our Monday publication date. It must have seemed like Christmas to the paper’s editor. Mike’s story and years’ worth of research were given lavish treatment – and scant attribution.

Although sales are important (and readership figures are up, thank you!), some stories appear in North & South because they need to be told, not because they will sell magazines. In an eight-page article in 2015 (Long Walk to Justice), Mike White asked if New Zealand’s justice system should establish an independent commission to investigate wrongful convictions. Justice is the theme for many of his stories.

Our July cover story, Three Killings, Two Generations, One Family, No Justice, about a family who lost three members in separate incidents to shooters who were never convicted, took Mike three years to research and write.

“They aren’t cases that captured great public interest or sympathy,” wrote Mike. “They’re stories from the wrong side of the tracks, from suburban side roads and scruffy cul-de-sacs in Manawatū. And this is the story of how, despite police efforts, there has never been any accountability; the story of the family members left behind, let down, and the children growing up without their fathers. It’s a story that opens a window on a world most of us aren’t aware of and have never experienced.”

Donna Chisholm, North & South’s editor-at-large, sits on the other side of my computer. Donna was the first female chief reporter at the Auckland Star. In the 90s, she spent six years on an investigation for the Sunday-Star Times that helped to free David Dougherty from prison for a rape he did not commit and win him compensation.

Every day, I hear this brilliant, tenacious journalist working: interviewing, pounding a keyboard that has long since lost its lettering from the force of her attack. Donna’s phone-grilling of the “great” and the good sometimes gets so tense the rest of us stop to listen. And then it comes – that triumphant smash-down of the receiver – and we collectively exhale.

Most feature-story ideas require days of exchange between editor and writer, and weeks of interviews and writing – and even then, some won’t make it into the magazine, failing the final hurdle of readability, or reliability. Every fact needs to be verifiable. The long list of our awards for journalism is one kind of testament to this quality control. Under Virginia’s editorship, since 2008, North & South has won 84 journalism awards, 11 of them by deputy editor Joanna Wane – a feature-writing and subediting powerhouse at the heart of our magazine’s small team.

Recently I spoke to a Unitec illustration class – 15 talented “Gen Zers” only slightly older than I was when I cranked Jam out of a steampunk Gestetner machine. I asked them where they got their news from. All but two replied, “Social media.” But where did it come from before that? They didn’t know.

“I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know what’s true,” one of them told me.

I thought of a quote from whistleblower Edward Snowden, about his decision to enlist in the US army after 9/11: “Like most young people [at the age of 22], I had solid convictions that I refused to accept weren’t really mine... my mind was a mash-up of the values I was raised with and the ideals I encountered online. It took me until my late 20s to finally understand that so much of what I believed, or of what I thought I believed, was just youthful imprinting.”

I have worked for the media, in various ways, for most of my life. That didn’t stop an acquaintance from telling me her boyfriend is “a media expert”. This I doubt, as his bike is plastered with InfoWars stickers and he thinks the moon landing was a hoax.

“By early 2017... news – the thing that helped people understand their world; that oiled the wheels of society; that kept the powerful honest – news was broken,” writes Rusbridger in the introduction to his book Breaking News. “The problem had many different names and diagnoses. [But] on this most people could agree: we were now up to our necks in a seething, ever churning ocean of information; some of it true, much of it wrong.” Thanks to the internet, he points out, journalists now have huge resources at their fingertips. But they are up against an economic system increasingly unable to support them, and a vast web of lies. Dear Agnes...

Find Jenny Nicholls on Twitter @jmnicholls

Eight great books by journalists

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger at the International Journalism Festival 2014 in Perugia, Italia. Photo/Alessio Jacona [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Breaking News (Canongate, 2018)
By Alan Rusbridger

During 20 years as editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger presided over its rise from “minnow” – the ninth-biggest newspaper in Britain – to whale. When he left in 2015 it was the world’s most read serious English-language news site, narrowly beating the huge New York Times. “Significantly,” he writes, “we had got there while still doing the stuff that journalism was – in our reckoning – supposed to do.” Rusbridger risked jail for scoops such as Edward Snowden’s revelations – as around him, the old media order was collapsing.

The Scene of the Crime (HarperCollins, 2015)
By Steve Braunias 

“The first time I stepped into a courtroom was in Greymouth. I was 23. I had joined the staff of the Greymouth Evening Star, and made court reporter. It was fascinating and baffling and terrifying, and I never really got used to it...” Twelve brilliantly written crime vignettes by a master of atmospheric detail who has won six journalism awards for his work for North & South.

Reporter: A MEMOIR (Penguin Random House, 2018)
By Seymour Hersh 

“Sy” Hersh, at 82, calls himself a survivor from “the golden age of journalism, when daily newspapers were flush with cash”. One of the book’s many glories is a deadpan account of his My Lai scoop. After surreptitiously reading an upside-down charge sheet, Hersh locates Lieutenant William Calley Jr and breaks the story of a massacre by US troops in Vietnam. Packed with wryly told, scandalously newsy yarns.

In Extremis (Random House, 2018)
By Lindsey Hilsum 

What a dame! Even after losing an eye to a Sri Lankan grenade, war correspondent Marie Colvin got 3000 words in on time. Her work was influential, but it made her a target, and in 2012 she was killed when the Syrian government bombed her press camp. This biography by a journo friend inspired the 2018 film A Private War. Sample Colvin quote: “When you’re physically uncovering graves in Kosovo, I don’t think there are two sides to the story. To me there is a right and a wrong, a morality, and if I don’t report that, I don’t see the reason for being there.”

El Narco (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Gangster Warlords (Allen & Unwin, 2016)
Both books by Ioan Grillo

“Drug traffickers and hit-men are tough to interview. Sometimes they can be aggressive. Often they are looking for ways out or repentance. A seasoned killer in Jamaica wanted advice on his creative writing...”

Ioan Grillo is an (amazingly brave) English journalist who has been reporting on the Latin American illegal drug trade for over 18 years. During this time more than a million people across Latin America and the Caribbean have been murdered, many the victims of drug cartels like the Zetas of Mexico.  “Corpses don’t make you physically nauseous. The sickness is deep down, more an emotional repulsion...”

While chasing those at every level of the cartels, he must have come perilously close, at times, to joining the innocents in a “narcofosa” (drug trafficking grave) like the one he saw on a hillside in Mexico. Veteran druglords help him trace the beginnings of a narcotics trade now fuelled by billion dollar profits, and he shows how rivers of drug money are pouring into fragile states like petrol, igniting runaway levels of violence and corruption in every level of government. Grillo’s immense humanity and courage, his unadorned, punchy writing style and his persuasive analysis of the wider picture make these books essential reading.

Farewell Kabul
By Christina Lamb (Harper Collins, 2015)

“‘Have you ever used a pistol?’ yelled Sergeant Major Mick Bolton, amid bursts from a machine gun as we ran across the mud-baked field and dived into a ditch for cover. ‘I’m a journalist – I don’t use weapons,’ I wanted to say...”

English journalist Christina Lamb has reported from two wars in her beloved Afghanistan and is, clearly, lucky to be alive. But although her reportage – like the Taliban ambush she survived – is thrilling and brave, it is her analysis of these lost wars, based on a lifetime of interviews with locals from generals to opium farmers, that makes the book so remarkable.

Her incredulity grows at the conduct of a free-spending US, hoodwinked by its own ally, Pakistan, and she captures the craziness of war with dark humour. “How do you know if they’re good or bad guys?” I ask the US patrol commander. “If they shoot at us, we know they’re bad guys.” Lamb’s connections are impressive: in 1988, she dodged Soviet bombs in Kandahar on a motorbike with friend Hamid Karzai, years before the US made him president of Afghanistan. She was on a bus in Pakistan with the late Benazir Bhutto, who she knew well, when it was attacked by a suicide bomber in 2007, killing 139. “I could not have lived through all this and just walked away.” 

One of Us  (Hachette, 2015)
By Åsne Seierstad

Anders Breivik shot dead 67 teenagers, but was he insane? Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad was commissioned by Newsweek for a piece on “that man” behind the 2011 Utoya Island massacre and Oslo car bombing. After covering the trial, Seierstad felt she had to dig deeper, to find out more – and not only about Breivik.

In this fine work, beautifully translated from Norwegian, his life unfurls alongside those of teen victims Bano Rashid and Simon Saebo, political stars in the making. Some of the most harrowing passages describe incredible police bumbling, as a teenager a minute was gunned down. This is journalism at its finest – both as a sensitive memorial to irreplaceable young lives and a crystalline account of what went so wrong in Norway and why. This year Seierstad was asked to comment on our own mosque shooting horror, amid revelations that the Christchurch shooter admired the Utoya gunman. "Somehow they are very different, but not so different" she said.

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.