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Who is the Listener listening to?

Who is the Listener listening to?

By Matthew Littlewood

The traditional print magazine faces obstacles everywhere it turns. In Australia, weekly news and current affairs magazine, The Bulletin has folded. North & South and Metro now share the same chief editor. Even in the United States, the Village Voice has suffered major staff cuts. What about the Listener?

Since Pamela Stirling took over the magazine in 2004, we have seen major shifts in the magazine’s attitude and editorial stance. Several senior contributors have departed, and despite rising “readership,” the actual circulation has continued to decline. Matthew Littlewood peers between the glossy sheets and asks the question—who is the Listener listening to?

A fun game for media junkies is to juxtapose magazine covers across titles that supposedly target different readers. Sometimes it reveals more than either intended. In Next Magazines May 2008 cover features television presenter Mary Lambie, while other articles consist of gardening, food and health tips, along with other practical advice (“Increase your libido!” screams one heading.)

Contrast the breezy Next cover with the Listener’s reader profile, as found on publisher APN’s website. While the Next magazine reader apparently spends most of her time worrying about gardening and home decorating, the Listener reader (male or female) is a “smart, intelligent and sophisticated reader.” “In a time-pressured world,” the blurb continues, “this weekly magazine helps them feel ‘up with the play’…the Listener provides thoughtful analysis and groundbreaking reporting on current affairs and politics but also gives readers first-class coverage of the radio, arts, television and books.” If you are a Listener reader you’re probably feeling very smug right about now, and possibly intelligent and sophisticated.

Never mind the reader profile, here’s the cover. Listener’s May 3-9 top-line points to interviews with British philosopher John Gray and Financial Times foreign reporter Christina Lamb. These sound exactly the sort of people that would interest the magazine’s “smart, sophisticated and intelligent” readership. However, neither gets the main cover feature, which begs the question—what do sophisticated, intelligent and thoughtful readers really want?

Here is your answer. “Sassy at sixty,” the cover headline proclaims, “Writer Janet Street-Porter’s irreverent new guide to health and happiness.” Oh, and for you sophisticated males out there—“the new men: fast, fit & over 50. ”

It has to be one of the stranger disconnects in magazine marketing. Two features that seem to fit in line with their vision for “intelligent” and “sophisticated” readers and two that seem to fit in with…Next magazine. Oddest of all, the latter get more prominence. You would be forgiven for thinking someone accidentally swapped the covers.

There could be many reasons for a magazine to take such a conflicted direction. Many of them will be to do with the demands of circulation. The Listener is the country’s only surviving weekly current affairs and arts magazine, but being owned by a major international media conglomerate can put them in a difficult bind. Just ask Finlay Macdonald, the magazine’s editor from 1999-2004.

“The Listener’s privatisation really hadn’t done the magazine any favours, and there seemed to be a period where it struggled for focus and identity,” he explains. “What I felt was crucial was that it needed to get back to its knitting, and that was to be the only national weekly current affairs magazine in the country. They tried to make it go downmarket or politically neutral, but none of those things worked, so instead of disowning its tradition, we really needed to celebrate it.”

He described his outlook for the magazine as a “patently one for readers of an informed liberalism. It wasn’t necessarily ideologically left by Western standards, although some of its writers definitely championed leftist causes. Ultimately, we wanted it to be a heterodox magazine, and if that meant some writers were partisan, then so be it—New Zealand is a mature enough country to handle that.” Yet any editor who has such an idealised aim for the magazine will always come up against commercial pressures.

“Market research is necessary, and advertisers have a lot of useful tools for that,” he admits. “But really, every time you get feedback from the letter writers, you have a fairly good idea what your readership is. So of course you have to take notice of market forces, but it’s just another factor, you shouldn’t become fanatical about it.” Not that he felt it influenced the way he approached each issue. “We were critical of the National Government under Jenny Shipley, but we didn’t really change our tune when Helen Clark’s Labour Government got in. It was important we did not pander to our political leaders—we were actually part of the whole ‘corn-gate’ saga that caused such a fuss.”

“Corn-gate” refers to an incident dating back to the current Labour Government’s first term. In November 2000 - in the middle of the Royal Commission on genetic engineering - the Government learned that a shipment of GE contaminated sweet corn seeds had been planted in three regions of New Zealand. Prime Minister Helen Clark ordered the crops to destroy the crops. However, she seemed to do a U-turn shortly afterwards, and the contaminated crops were able to spread their pollen and be harvested overseas.

The following year Mark Revington wrote a cover feature for the Listener, called “GE or not to be.” Saying New Zealand’s genetic modification debate was at “the crossroads,” the piece talked to research scientists in favour of Genetic Engineering, as well as examining the burgeoning “anti-GE” movement.

“Genetic modification was a really interesting issue for us,” says Macdonald. “Unbelievably, we were the first mainstream publication in New Zealand to do an extensive feature on it. It clearly struck a nerve with our readership, too, judging from the amount of correspondence we received. And that’s the thing, you have to keep listening to your readers, because that’s the way you find out about issues before they really come to the fore.”

It explains why Finlay Macdonald chose to undersign his own editorials for the magazine. “My editorials were less thunderous sermons from the pulpit and more correspondences with the reader. Sometimes I would tackle serious issues, but just as often, I would try to be breezy and humorous. If you personalise your editorial, readers really like the humanistic aspect.”

What about issues that hit magazines unexpectedly? Weekly magazines have notoriously long lead times. September 11, 2001 affected everyone who works in the media, but on that morning, the Listener wondered whether it should delay its production for a small feature the following week, or wait until later and cover it in more depth. They chose the latter, and Finlay Macdonald still feels it’s the best decision he made.

When it finally did cover September 11, they brought in luminaries such as Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn to discuss the event, as well as providing eyewitness accounts from Radio New Zealand reporter Rae Lamb. The Listener features writer Gordon Campbell would subsequently deal with the issue in greater detail, and between course of 2001 and 2003, he wrote dozens of articles about the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while in November 2001, the magazine ran an extended feature on the implications for New Zealand’s then-new “anti-terror laws.” “That was a real turning point for my time as editor,” Finlay Macdonald admits.

“We took a gamble and it worked. Once again, people started noticing the magazine…but it was part of a greater vision. I always used to say that the most important aspect of our magazine was that we were the New Zealand Listener. Yes, we live in a globalised economy and the internet broke down borders, but people don’t want automated international news, they want to know about the issues and people that affect them personally on their own backyard.” You can have all these dreams and aspirations for a magazine, but ultimately, there’s always the bottom-line. While its full title might be the New Zealand Listener, it is owned by APN, which in turn is part owned by Irish media magnate Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Media.

APN’s print media division owns the New Zealand Herald, Woman’s Weekly, the Listener and a number of smaller newspapers such as the Northern Advocate. APN also owns one-third of the Radioworks banner, which controls the Classic Hits, Newstalk ZB and Radio Sports franchises. If they ever felt the Listener was not doing the business, then closure would be a very real option.

“Every year or eighteen months, a new CEO would turn up and ask about the magazine’s vision. They would constantly enquire about ways we were going to increase our circulation, but they never really talked about its content, and at the end of each meeting I just felt like telling them to fuck off. If they were so interested in the publication, why didn’t they tell us what they wanted?” It’s clearly a sticking point, and he admits that one of the reasons why he retired as editor was that he was sick of fighting the “mundane battles,” over extra funding for production.

Macdonald described being editor as akin to being hit by a bus every Wednesday, dusting off and then waiting to be hit by the next bus. “You could never really argue your case on moral grounds, or even in terms of what the magazine offers New Zealand. Ultimately, all they’re interested in is the magazine paying decent dividends to their overseas shareholders. Magazines are a commodity, but they’re a strange commodity. They’re not like baked beans, for instance, because the content changes every week.”

Surely, there must have been something that kept him going. Of course there was, he counters. Throughout our conversation, he constantly refers to the good work of contributors hired under his watch, such as Steve Braunias, Olivia Kember, Felicity Monk and Tim Watkin, along with “senior staffers”, such as Gordon Campbell and Diana Wichtel—particularly Campbell’s extended advocacy for detained refugee Ahmed Zaoui. But asked to name two things he’s particularly proud about, and he mentions the beefing up of the arts and books section, and the introduction of the website—although he had hoped to expand it further if APN allowed him the resources.

Since his leaving the Listener editorship, he has taken on a number of roles, from a regular columnist in the Sunday Star-Times to a host of current affairs and arts show Talk Talk. “The only thing better than being the editor of the Listener,” he quips, “is being the former editor of the Listener.”

This brings us to the changeover. When Stirling took the Listener over, its reputation was solid, but its circulation was stagnant. When you are the editor of the Listener, you are always at the right place at the wrong time. Pamela Stirling had been around the Listener quarters, off and on, for nearly twenty years and in the previous year, 2003; she had won the Qantas Media Award for Best Features Writer. So what were her initial thoughts upon becoming editor?

“I think the Listener has always been important as an agenda-setting magazine,” she claims. “But maybe it had lost its way. Near the end of Finlay’s time, some quarters viewed it as the Alliance House Journal. We’ve moved on from the times you could stake out a particular patch, people don’t want the diatribes of the left or the right. New Zealand does not have any room for a Spectator or New Statesman; we’re shooting straight down the middle.”

The trouble with the middle is that no one really knows how to define it. Political campaigns from both sides of the spectrum have floundered on seeking out “the middle”—Don Brash liked to frequently use the term “mainstream New Zealanders” during National’s unsuccessful 2005-election campaign.

Marketers of any magazine have to find their audience, and the mainstream audience is at once the most desirable and the most elusive. Here is Stirling’s attempt to define the middle. “What they want is an agenda-setting magazine that raises the tough issues. We don’t want to be a magazine that stands on the sidelines and shouts.” She feels they continue the crusading zeal of old and throughout our interview, terms such as “insightful,” “informative,” “agenda-setting,” and “inquisitive” become repeated like mantras. Accordingly, she mentions certain issues that back up her credo: David Fisher’s work on the squalid conditions of a Mangere housing block, Sarah Barnett’s piece on food miles and Rebecca Macfie’s article about a decades-long behaviour study done by Otago University.

“These were all stories that had legs; some of them were picked up by international publications, too. In terms of setting the agenda, I think we’re doing a great job.” So if she still sees it as a magazine with a staunch identity that keeps ahead of trends, why does she no longer undersign the editorial?

“We looked at other magazines around the world, such as the Economist, New Scientist and New Statesman, and found that none of them had undersigned editorials…So we thought we would pool our resources. There are other issues involved—this new approach allows editorials to be a bit bolder, so writers don’t have to suffer personal attacks.” Stirling says she still vets every editorial at the weekly meeting, and it’s possible that they may return to undersigned editorials in the future.

In its place has been an influx of new columnists. Along with stalwarts such as political columnist Jane Clifton, television and arts writer Diana Wichtel and economist Brian Easton, Stirling’s tenure has seen the hiring of Bill Ralston, Hamish Keith and Joanne Black. “We’re determined to look after our readers, so that’s why we’ve got all this substance from the columnists; readers need to trust that they’re getting insight every week.”

Substance does not always equate to sales. Stirling admits that during the 2005 election, their eight “political covers” bombed. Yet there are perennial features that seem bigger-sellers than others, and one of the Listener’s eternal stalwarts is house prices. Finlay Macdonald confesses: “I was talking to a friend the other night about the ultimate Listener cover. We decided it would be ‘Do House Prices Make You Look Fat?’ We would have to put something about NCEA in the by-line too—just to be safe.” He bursts into a fit of laughter at the mere thought.

Stirling puts a different slant on it. “You could call features on house prices and nutrition ‘lifestyle pieces,’ but they’re pretty core issues, too. These are topics that hit people where they live, and they’re constantly covered by the newspapers and other publications, too.” The ‘Power List,’ where the Listener ranks the 50 ‘most powerful’ people in New Zealand was another of Stirling’s initiatives. “It always gets people talking, and you might have noticed that Helen Clark has topped the power-list since 2004, so nobody can accuse us of any bias. And people on the list have actually got in touch with one another as a result.”

In a media environment as small as New Zealand, the Listener could begin to cannibalise itself. While Finlay Macdonald wasn’t prepared to comment on the magazine’s current state, he remarked, “I’m concerned that the magazine could end up chasing a magic bullet—whether it’s shifting it further towards one end of the political spectrum, or making it more about lifestyle…these things have been tried in the past, and they always fail, as it’s not part of the Listener’s DNA.” But if a magazine doesn’t change with the times, it also risks foundering near the bottom of the circulation pile.

Stirling remarks: “We’re aware that magazine readership skews female these days. So that’s why we’ve introduced new health and nutrition columnists. Our columnist Jennifer Bowden has recently graduated with a Masters Degree [in the subject]—this is proper, peer-reviewed science we’re covering, not just guff from the food corporations.” She also claims the magazine’s new arts and books editor, Guy Somerset, has broadened the range of international contributors in the section—recent issues have seen arts features from academics as far flung as London or the United States.

Yet it is hard to ignore the large turnover in staff over the last four years. Some have left to concentrate on other projects, such as long-time contributor Denis Welch, who wanted to write his biography on Helen Clark, but several did not leave on their own volition. Former deputy editor Steve Braunias departed in very acrimonious circumstances, while award winning features writer Gordon Campbell, was made redundant in the next year.

She sacked sports columnist Joseph Romanos, saying, according to Romanos that “not many people were reading him anymore.” Romanos continues to write as a sports journalist for several publications across New Zealand, including the Dominion Post, Southland Times and Otago Daily Times. Others such as Olivia Kember, Felicity Monk, Tim Watkin and Philip Matthews, moved onto other publications, while Jane Ussher, their longest-serving portrait photographer, recently announced her retirement.

However it was the recent departure of environmental correspondent David Hansford that caused ripples in the NZ media community. According to the New Zealand Herald’s John Drinnan, Stirling asked Hansford to change the tone of his column, following a scathing letter from the Climate-sceptic Heartland institute. This was followed by a rather extraordinary move, where, on in the April 17-23 issue of the Listener, leader of the Climate Sceptics Coalition Brian Leyland was allowed a full-page rebuttal in the guise of a “forum” piece to Hansford’s remarks. Hansford departed shortly afterwards, though Stirling has claimed that this was due to budgeting cuts, as that Hansford was only a temporary employee.

Hansford’s is now written by staffer Sarah Barnett, but what’s most striking is the Listener’s apparent need to use legal tactics to quell any suggestions—founded or otherwise—that the Climate Sceptics Coalition strong-armed the magazine into such a position. Gareth Renowden’s popular “Hot Topic” blog, which deals with issues surrounding climate change, was forced to print a retraction, while another blog, Poneke, underwent some careful rewording of its initial claims.

Media lawyer Steve Price questioned the magazine’s tactics. “It’s used a tenuous legal claim to bully a blogger into retracting some moderate and reasonable criticisms,” he said in an article on his website. “I don’t like it when anyone does this, but it’s particularly ugly when the heavies are acting for the media.” Price felt Renowden’s offending post set out the background facts, raised questions rather than making allegations, and even allowed that the Listener’s editor may have made the change for other reasons: “Readers can judge for themselves what to think. Bloody hell: how many blog posts merit that accolade?”

Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell launched a stinging attack on Pamela Stirling’s claims that the Listener was less “balanced” under Finlay Macdonald’s tenure. “The reality is that the Listener was never the sort of doctrinaire publication that the “Alliance house journal” jibe would suggest. Its spirit was liberal, compassionate and contrarian. It was that contrarian spirit that saw the Listener endorse MMP, and run fair and balanced profiles of Roger Kerr, Lindsay Perigo, Winston Peters and other polarising figures in its pages.” he said in a recent Scoop column.

“During the years 1999 – 2004 inclusive – which presumably spans at least part of the alleged Alliance house journal phase - the Listener defended Army chief Maurice Dodson, slammed the Clark government over its half baked TVNZ social charter proposals, profiled the US conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama and championed the free speech rights of the Holocaust denier David Irving. If anyone can find a hard left ideological continuity in those positions – or during the 20 years prior to the advent of Stirling as editor - I’d like to see the evidence.”

Rather than shooting “straight down the middle,” Campbell argues that the Listener’s scope has become increasingly narrow. “The current Listener seems anything but diverse. It exhibits instead an increasingly narrow fixation on the lifestyle choices and social anxieties of the baby boomer elite…Some weeks, it looks, dare one say it, like the house journal of the National Party.”

Whether you agree with that last comment could depend one’s feelings about the fact its current features editor Joannene Black has written at least two fawning articles on John Key (“Key player,” “Mr Aspiration”). Or the recent cover (April 5-11, 2008) with the headline: “the Psychology of Leadership—the surprising insights that could help John Key win the election.” Stirling personally denies any suggestion that the magazine has taken a pro-National stance and says, “of course we will fully tackle John Key as the election campaign heats up and address their policies head on.”

What is undeniable is that the circulation has decreased over the last few years, and currently averages around 66,000 a week—down from even Finlay Macdonald’s time, when the circulation was supposedly in “free-fall,” in Stirling’s words.

What could save the Listener is its loyal subscriber base, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of its circulation. “We’re determined to look after our loyal readership and not burn them off,” declares Stirling. “It’s just wonderful how people embrace the magazine. There is this whole community of brilliant people who all read it and often communicate through talking about the magazine…it’s why we will always have a reporter based in the South Island.”

At the 2008 Qantas Media Awards, the Listener won best newsstand magazine, while Rebecca Macfie and Bill Ralston were finalists in the features category. Dave Hansford, whose departure caused so much of a fuss, won best columnist in the “social issues” category. The next few issues will also see the return of former Listener editor Paul Little in the guise of a features writer.

As New Zealand’s only weekly current affairs and arts magazine, The Listener’s position is at once precarious and privileged. With this burden comes enormous responsibility, but also the struggle to maintain your own identity: even Stirling nostalgically accepts that there was “something special” about their old Wellington office.

“When you witness the decline of magazines such as the Bulletin, it’s always a sad day for journalism, but the Listener is holding its own, so good on New Zealand,” says Stirling. “We’re entering a really exciting phase; even just sitting down for our planning meeting brings up so many really interesting stories and ideas. I’m proud to be associated with a magazine with such a strong reputation, built by the famous writers and editors before me and no doubt continued by the people we have onboard now.”

These days, the Listener is based in Auckland, vying for the same slice of competition as most of the other major publications. Whether they go for the difficult-to-define but demographically irresistible “middle New Zealand,” or decide to mark out their own particular niche that carters to a more specific group, one thing’s for certain—not only does the Listener have to keep listening, but it has to keep talking, too.


Matthew Littlewood is a postgraduate journalism student at the University of Canterbury.

© Scoop Media

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