Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, and enthusiasts of design and storytelling, welcome to another captivating edition of Future Talks by RTF. Today, we have the distinct pleasure of engaging in a conversation with a seasoned journalist, a wordsmith who has not only witnessed the evolution of media but has played an instrumental role in shaping narratives over the past 23 years.
It is with great honor that we introduce our esteemed guest, a journalist par excellence, who has been a steadfast member of the Stuff family for over two decades. With the past decade dedicated to the daily regional masthead, Manawatū Standard, and holding the pivotal role of regional editor since 2018, our guest has been a guiding force in delivering news that resonates with the community.
At the age of 47, our guest brings a wealth of experience and a keen understanding of the pulse of the region, residing in the picturesque provincial town of Feilding, just a stone’s throw away from the vibrant city of Palmerston North. This proximity to both rural tranquility and urban dynamism undoubtedly lends a unique perspective to the stories our guest brings to life.
Not only a dedicated journalist, but our guest has also been honored nationally, receiving accolades such as Newspaper of the Year (Community) in 2013 and Headline of the Year in 2017. These awards stand as a testament to the unwavering commitment and excellence in journalistic endeavors, capturing the essence of community engagement and impactful storytelling.
Beyond the newsroom, our guest is a family person, sharing the joys and challenges of life with a wife and two teenage children. But beyond the ink and paper, there lies a passionate soul with an enduring love for music, movies, and comic-books. The intersections of these diverse interests have provided our guest with a rich tapestry of stories waiting to be unfolded.
As we embark on this conversation today, we not only explore the journalistic journey but also the personal passions that shape the storyteller. Join us in unraveling the narrative threads that connect journalism, community, and the vibrant world of music, movies, and comic-books. It is our privilege to be in the company of a storyteller who has not only reported history but has become an integral part of it. Welcome to “Future Talks” with a true pioneer in the art of bringing design stories alive.
RTF: Hi Matthew, We are glad to have you as a guest on Future Talks by RTF. Thanks for joining us. How have the last 10 years been in an editorial position at Manawatū Standard?
Matthew: Definitely never a dull moment. Change has been constant, and with that has come challenges, opportunities, stresses and excitement.
When I came to the Manawatū newsroom in 2013, I had come from a community newspaper that published weekly, where I led a small team of four. The Standard boasted a team of about 20 reporters, photographers, and a leadership team, and another 7 or 8 people comprising a team of sub-editors and graphic design. The newsroom was huge, it was like walking into an aircraft hanger, and there was considerable responsibility and oversight for the bulk of each day’s newspaper, while filing stories for Stuff was more of a side hustle, but that was largely due to the clunky content management system at the time.
A decade on, the structure of the newsroom and its priorities has changed several times, with an ever-growing emphasis on the website, the immediacy of breaking news, and social media. At the same time the footprint and revenue from print has diminished.
In the past 12 months there has been a refocus on print subscribers and valuing local stories for our local audience. For several years we were encouraged to make every story work for a national online audience, and while a great story will always travel, there has to be someone catering to the regions. We’re part of a community and there’s so many cool stories within, and if we’re not telling them, no-one else is.
We’re now a team of six; myself, three reporters and two photo-journalists, so the focus has been consolidated. We’re gunning for those unique local stories that capture the character of the Manawatū and issues that can resonate wider. I’m back on the tools, reporting as much as I am editing, which is heaps of fun and more personally fulfilling than the management side of the job.
We’re out in the community and that’s been the one constant of the past decade. And that’s becoming a rarer commodity in the industry, where a lot of reporters are finding themselves office-bound.
The two biggest changes for our readers were the shift from an afternoon newspaper to a morning paper in 2015, and moving from broadsheet to compact/tabloid size on weekdays since 2018. The latter has had a big impact on design, with greater use of templates and more uniformity across the layouts of Stuff’s titles. But it also meant the design team became able to produce bespoke front pages for five of our six editions a week, whereas when I first came here, a bespoke front was only ordered once every couple of weeks.
RTF: Magazines Newspapers have a unique relationship with advertisers. How do you maintain editorial independence and integrity at Stuff while working with advertisers and sponsors?
Matthew: In my experience tension over advertiser influence bubbled up more regularly at community newspapers, and more often than not it was raised by advertising staff rather than actual advertisers. They don’t really exist any more, but at the old community newspaper offices there was less separation between “church and state”. There may be a managing editor who had both editorial responsibilities and commercial objectives, or advertising reps working 3-metres away from reporters. They’ll overhear a phone call. “Why are you doing that story? That’s my client – it will cost me a sale” – that sort of thing.
At regional and metro newsrooms, the separation is more apparent and there is a clear hierarchy to ensure any concerns from an advertiser or sponsor go directly to the editor and the reporter writing the story isn’t being hassled.
Ultimately, if the reporter is working on an article, it should have already been decided that it’s of public interest. And if an advertiser is complaining, it’s likely they’ve already been offered the right of reply.
There’s no special treatment for advertisers other than perhaps a conversion of reassurance that the article will be fair and accurate. But that’s the standard we put on all our editorial.
There’s very few times I’ve felt pressured from an advertiser to alter content, and normally if it does come, it’s from someone who has no idea how news or the free press works. So you politely tell them to suck eggs.
Stuff has a very clear editorial charter and code of ethics that align to the convictions most journalists hold dear.
RTF: What would you advise young editors who seek to grow in their roles and keep the static nature of growth at bay in the field of editorship?
Matthew: I guess a lot depends on who they work for, the size of the organisation, and the platform. In a lot of media workplace structures, as you progress, the further away you get from content creation, and the craft, and the admin and people management increases. What is growth to you? What does success look like? If we’re talking about a fledgling website and considerable autonomy, what are you prepared to give up? What’s a non-negotiable? It’s important to keep asking yourself these questions, and surrounding yourself with a team who will challenge you and bring their own ideas is always important.
RTF: What is your process of sorting through pitches and choosing the content to work on? What is your definition of a ‘convincing’ pitch?
Matthew: If I can sense the image or the headline or a possible intro of what the story will look like from the pitch, and know it’s going to pull readers in, then it’s likely to convince me. If it’s coming from a reporter, they should be identifying an angle with confidence they can back it up.
Junior reporters can sometimes be guilty of pitching an idea for a story on the premise that “this is happening”, but don’t actually convey why they want to write about it. Okay, that is happening, but why should readers care? Or they’re afraid of promising too much, so they undersell it. But I reckon better to shoot for the moon, and if it doesn’t get there, we can reassess.
If we’re talking about a press release or a PR person getting in touch, again, I’m thinking what is the photo we could take for this, would the video work, would our readers care, what headline would draw them in?
RTF: What are some challenges that general exchanges and work with artists and designers present?
Matthew: Rarely seeing them face to face definitely has its challenges. When I started out as an editor I was spoiled -I had a gun sub-editor whose layout and photoshop skills exceeded anyone else in the group. She did beautiful front pages and she worked less than 10 metres away from me. It was much easier to communicate an idea verbally, or waving my hands around, or scribbling a pathetic sketch, than it is filling the fields of a graphic request form, which is the way it works now.
There can still be back and forth via Slack or email, but communicating an idea, as well as communicating your eagerness for them to tweak that idea, or disregard it if they have something better, can be quite tricky in words only. And while over time you tend to get a grasp of what each of their preferences and styles are, when you’re making a graphic request, you often don’t know which of the designers will pick it up, so you can’t really account for those preferences or strengths when writing the brief.
I remember once sending a designer an image from the cover of a comic-book, because it captured the layout I was hoping for, and I just couldn’t convey it with words.. And he nailed it.
With the remote workflow we have, it makes it really important to also convey to designers when you love their work, and also when you don’t, so they can better gauge the editors’ preferences. And this is easier said than done because as soon as one paper is in the press, everyone tends to turn their focus to the next day’s agenda.
RTF: What does ‘growth’ mean to you? How would you differentiate between linear and exponential growth when working in the realm of publishing and editing?
Matthew: Growth is readership, it’s audience, and hopefully that carries across to interest from advertisers and subscriptions. But the data our journalists have at our fingertips is for online readership. But there’s no graphs or leaderboards plotting the value of clicks.
I like to keep an eye on how many highly-read stories we’re doing each month and each year, for a newsroom of our size – but I’m always hesitant to put much stock in individual story data. There’s so many factors in play.
We’ve all put our hearts and souls into stories that have fizzled out online, and chalked up stories in 30-minutes that have then gone gangbusters. I think it’s important for reporters to seek satisfaction from knowing they’ve simply written a good story, improved someone’s circumstances, or experienced an enjoyable interview.
Growth also means opportunity. If the commercial side performs, perhaps I can make an argument for a contributor budget, which in turn means I could get more diverse voices into the paper.
RTF: What are the essential components of a media kit according to you?
Matthew: The first is local connection – and that tends to then rule out 90% of press releases that come through. I find there is such an indiscriminate approach to public relations and marketing’s engagement with the media, and a lack of understanding of different publications priorities. Just because it’s possible to email the same release through to 30 newsrooms, doesn’t mean you should.
Target the publication or newsroom that is most relevant to the story pitch, emphasize a connection to its readership, and promote that we’ll be given access to interesting people and their ideas. We want to take our own photos, video, and determine our own story angles.
Access is important. Often media packs are created to be “everything the reporter should need”, and requesting anything further proves to be a hassle. But for news outlets we see a media kit as only the first step. It’s like a shop window, it can help get us through the door – and nobody wants to tell the story from outside.
RTF: What would you suggest the aspiring designers and creatives who wish to get their feature published in the top publications? What are some challenges in doing so?
Matthew: A bit of research on the publications or organisations you’re approaching is important and can probably save you several wasted emails. Let’s say a budding cartoonist wants to get their work published, and sends out examples to a dozen Stuff editors. A decade ago they may impress someone and get a fill-in shot, as each newsroom had their own contributor arrangements. These days, Stuff would have a small stable of cartoonists whose work is syndicated across all of our titles. So that is an obstacle to opportunity. But it also means that there’s just the one editor, who leads opinion, you need to impress. If you’re good enough, I believe there’s still the opportunity.
It’s never a bad idea to contact a local newsroom and figure out the lay of the land, and which editor, nationally, you need to get your work in front of, and who you think the audience for your work is.
RTF: How relevant is the idea of “learning constantly’ in the industry that you are a part of? How have you adapted to the changing landscape and trends with time?
Matthew: It’s essential. If you’re not nimble, you will break – or at least get left behind. My role, my duties, and my job description has changed many times over the past decade, as has the technology.
But however we’re trying to engage with our audience, there’s always that thirst to convey information concisely, to question, to be first, to hold truth to power, to articulate a moment in time, to love storytelling and meeting people. The tools, and the platform change, but the craft is unwavering, and remains the great attraction.
RTF: What are your plans for the future and what are some off-the-table habits that keep you motivated?
Matthew: I don’t get too ahead of myself. My wife is a great planner. I tend to get drawn into the minutia – whether it’s a story, a song or a hobby. In the past five years I’ve had a couple of serious health issues, a heart attack and a brain bleed, which has helped emphasize the importance of work/life balance, living in the moment, and not sweating the small stuff. I think being able to turn off the news and escape into other interests can be the greatest motivation for retaining an enthusiasm for it.
I love film and music, and going to gigs, and I probably get more inspiration from songs and dialogue than I do other people’s journalism. The yin and the yang, I guess.