At 6:01 p.m., on August 1, there were butterflies in my belly.

The embargo had finally come off one of the biggest — and definitely the boldest — projects we’ve tackled at Stuff.

In a 467-word editorial marking the launch of NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni, I:

  • Declared the indigenous people of our country were treated unfairly and unjustly over many decades.
  • Admitted the media’s culpability in a failure to adequately share and explain that difficult history.
  • Used one of our country’s most beloved songs to make a point about race and the collective memory.
Stuff’s NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni campaign is a multi-faceted project intended to provide a comprehensive view of the country’s indigenous population.
Stuff’s NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni campaign is a multi-faceted project intended to provide a comprehensive view of the country’s indigenous population.

Clarifying our uncomfortable history

New Zealand has often been seen abroad as an example of a country that avoided the worst excesses of colonial rule. But there is, in fact, little for us to feel proud about in the way our country was settled. Great swaths of land were confiscated or sold under duress, promises made in our nation-forming treaty document were broken, and serious crimes were committed against innocent people. At one point, the very existence of the indigenous Māori people came into question.

This uncomfortable history — relatively recent by global standards — is the reason for a large and ongoing state-run settlement process. Since the late 1980s, governments here have set about redress with scores of Māori groupings in the form of formal apologies, cash, land, and cultural sites, among other things.

The settlement process has been an enormous issue for New Zealand’s media. Just at a national level, it’s yielded countless news, feature, and opinion pieces about the various and (inevitably) rising costs — complaints about positive discrimination and rancour about how long it’s taking.

But until that Wednesday evening, when the butterflies were circling my stomach, no media organisation had made a concerted attempt at examining and explaining the reason for it all: the uncomfortable truth about how our country was made.

Explaining how our country was made

NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni was anchored in an interactive page. It combined:

  • Animated videos giving a brief and simple introduction to the issues.
  • A looping GIF showing a time-lapse of Māori-owned land rapidly disappearing as the decades passed.
  • An interactive display accounting for the key details of every treaty settlement completed to date — a significant piece of data journalism.
  • Outbound links to a series of news stories, features, analysis, opinion, and video commissioned for the project.

Three members of Stuff’s projects team — data journalist Andy Fyers, interactive designer Suyeon Son, and I — drove the research, design, and development of the project. I recruited a reporting and visuals team from Stuff’s newsrooms across the country to tackle the task of filling out the detail of our database and telling some of the particular stories in detail through the more conventional editorial content.

This was a textbook example of how our small projects team manages our most ambitious projects. Our team includes two developers, two designers, and a data journalist. Sometimes, we support the project work of our colleagues in the various Stuff newsrooms around the country, adding value to their special features, investigations, and series. Other times, we drive the project ourselves, calling on the range of skills and experience from our geographically diverse newsrooms to help execute the vision.

I generally find our journalists are excited to be involved in project work. However, it’s vital those ad hoc teams clearly understand the direction of the project, without stifling the creativity of individual staff. Clear, efficient communication goes a long way.

Engaging our audience with NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni

NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni involved around two dozen editorial staff working over several months. We were determined it would be worth it.

The audience came in large numbers (around 50 times the number of pageviews for an average Stuff story) and stayed for a good time to explore (the typical engagement time was almost six times that of an average Stuff story).

There were some key things we learned about telling stories of history with impact:

  • History has the power to shock or at least surprise. In particular, we received strong feedback about the power of the animated images depicting Māori land ownership vanishing over time. This seemed to be something people felt they knew but had not really appreciated until it was visualised so clearly.
  • Local history, well told, achieves the highest engagement. Within the interactive project were dozens of individual items briefly explaining settlements. Each had particular relevance to different parts of the country. We leveraged technology designed to support native advertising to direct those items to geographically defined audiences. Engagement rates using the geo-targeted method were generally about five times higher than the nationally run campaign.
  • Re-examining history is an opportunity to tip familiar narratives on their head. One of our most-read stories was an analysis showing how the amount spent by governments on treaty settlements was tiny compared to other items of government spending. The prevailing media narrative for years has focused on rising costs. In the context of a project showing clearly the vast scale of Māori loss, this suddenly seemed a somewhat absurd angle.

Engagement did not translate into understanding or agreement for some of our audience. Comments on our stories and in social media reflected the intense frustration some felt about the project. Old arguments about “Māori privilege” and “moving on from the past” made appearances.

Although I am very proud of NZ Made/Nā Niu Tīreni, I did not expect it to be a lightbulb moment for people with hardened views on race. We did, however, strive for a project that was genuinely informative and disruptive of entrenched narratives. This reflects the principles of constructive journalism, as outlined by my colleague Nicola Brennan-Tupara.

Continuing our commitment as a New Zealand company

This month, our commitment to report constructively on issues of race and identity continues as we mark Te Wiki o te Reo Māori — Māori Language Week.

As the largest domestic Web site in New Zealand, we see the strength of this country’s indigenous language as something worth supporting. Last year, we introduced macrons as mandatory on Māori words. This year, we’ll be explaining the modern relevance of the language and critically examining the adequacy of efforts to sustain it.

These efforts are not random, one-off bursts of enthusiasm for a particular subject. They are a reflection of Stuff’s purpose, which is to help New Zealanders connect and thrive in their communities. They are the future of our journalism, where by relentlessly exposing and explaining the truth to our diverse audience, we are empowering people to understand one another. And they are represented by something I wrote in that butterflies-inducing editorial: “Everyone has an opinion on the treaty. But, if we engage with our history honestly, there must be some things we can agree on.”