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Happy activism: Paperboy editor Jeremy Hansen on making a free magazine an agent for change

Today marks the publication of the third issue of Bauer Media’s new Auckland commuter-focused free magazine, Paperboy. Catherine McGregor sat down with the magazine’s editor Jeremy Hansen to discuss urbanism, optimism and why he’s glad to be a cheerleader for the new Auckland.

JEREMY HANSEN

JEREMY HANSEN

The Spinoff: Free commuter magazines are a completely new model for Bauer, and for New Zealand. How are you finding distribution, the process of actually getting it into people’s hands?

Jeremy Hansen: The interesting thing is creating the habit in people of [taking] a free magazine. There is an element of letterbox distribution to Paperboy, but our main focus is on public transport and publicly accessible distribution. So that also means, for example, getting people who drive to work to think “I’ll go to Britomart and pick one up at the bins there” and letting them know where they can get one in their neighbourhoods.

I think it’ll take a few weeks for that habit to bed in for people, which is why on the cover and a lot of our marketing we say ‘free every Thursday’ to try and hit them with that Thursday morning pick-up idea. Because you know this is a habit that is well entrenched in London, for example – people know which day their favourite free publications are coming out. But we’ve got to develop that.

So you have staff handing them out?

Yeah for the first 12 weeks at select stops we have what we call ambassadors to hand them out, and we’ll extend that if we feel like we need to. If you’re just bowling through Britomart station, the bins may not be super obvious unless you’re looking for them. That’s why we’ve got people in Paperboy t-shirts going “Here’s a new free publication you might like” and getting across the message that it’s not a promotional pamphlet, it’s actually editorial content that you might find valuable.

One of the things I love about the Paperboy concept is that it turns the idea of car-driver privilege on its head – they’re the ones who have to go search it out, whereas public transport users get it personally handed to them.

I love the way it’s flipped that narrative a bit. And also it fits really well with the magazine because we’re built around these four content pillars – food, culture, style and urbanism – and urbanism is about the way Auckland is changing. The big focus is the expansion of the cycle network, the development of well-designed medium density housing, and public transport. As a publication we’ve taken a deliberately progressive stance on all of that. We’re not going to debate the merits of well-designed medium density housing, for example, because we believe it should have happened a long time ago and it should be happening more and faster. We also not going to go back to the drawing board on the expansion of the cycleway – again, more and faster please. So we’re taking a position that we strongly believe in expanding housing options for Aucklanders and in multi-modal transport options, and that’s our starting position. So it’s great that our distribution model kind of reinforces that belief from the start.

It’s interesting how a magazine like Paperboy can not only reflect a city’s changing culture, but encourage it, through things like event listings. Just being exposed to all the exciting things happening in a city can make you feel more positive about living there.

We really hope so, and we’re doing it deliberately. I love seeing that the new cycleway is going to be built from Glen Innes to Tamaki Drive, for example, and as we were developing Paperboy we talked to so many people who are… not uninterested in stuff, but they don’t know where to get the information. And so when we showed pictures in the office of the City Rail Link architectural renderings, so many of the team were saying “Oh this is amazing, Auckland’s such a proper city now, this is going to be great.” Previously their only experience of the CRL was seeing Albert St being dug up and some raging in the media about how much it was going to cost. So to then have visuals of what it was going to be seemed really powerful.

It’s not rocket science – these things are already happening and we’re just bringing the news to people. But it does make people feel better about the city they live in. Paperboy was developed for people who are actually engaged in the life of the city. I feel that Auckland has changed a lot, from being an oversized provincial town to a fully-fledged Pacific metropolis. And people are really enthusiastic about that and we hope we’re tapping into that enthusiasm. That doesn’t mean Paperboy will be a total puff piece for Auckland – because there are enormously difficult issues for the city, such as housing – but we think that the magazine is a vehicle for us to engage people in those discussions. We don’t want to be preachy – we want to be engaging and enjoyable – but we think there’s a whole lot of people in the city who find engagement on these issues interesting.

THE NOVEMBER 17 ISSUE OF PAPERBOY

THE NOVEMBER 17 ISSUE OF PAPERBOY

It sounds like you’re aiming to carve out a niche based on optimism, as opposed to The Spinoff, where we often tend to come at these issues from a position of anger and frustration.

We’re deliberate about that I suppose. We’ll be talking to city experts from other places who are coming here to ask them for their ideas for Auckland as well, just to kind of lift people’s thinking about the possibilities of the city – because we’re really excited about Auckland’s prospects. Now there are a whole lot of people who could have amazing jobs overseas and they make a conscious choice to live here or move back here because they think that Auckland offers a lifestyle and opportunities that equal or surpass those they might have overseas. And we’re going to tap into that kind of thinking as well. We haven’t even talked in the office about cultural cringe because we feel we’re totally over that. It’s not about having a limitation on the possibilities for Auckland but saying there is a whole lot of great stuff here and let’s encourage more of that. Happy activism, or something like that.

Have you had discussions with Susannah Walker [editor of Bauer title Metro] about how you’re going to divide Auckland coverage? I’m imagining rival monarchs splitting up an empire…

No it’s been really easy actually. Susannah and I are good friends and we have a shared team – some of my writers are shared with Metro. And as you know Metro‘s frequency is changing to bi-monthly. So far all those conversations have been really easy. For example, the longest Paperboy feature you’re going to read is going to be around 1200 words, which we feel is enough heft to feel substantial, but Metro is going to be able to run the longer, authoritative piece. And also there’s a lot of synergy there – Metro is the definitive publication, where you want to read their restaurant reviews, for example. Paperboy won’t be running formal reviews because part of our editorial strategy is turning away from that monolithic editorial viewpoint and instead have a whole lot of voices bubbling up so it’s about talking to a whole lot of people about what they’re enjoying. There may be a point where we get to the point where Susannah says “Oh I was going to cover that…” but we haven’t got there yet and we’ll just have to make a judgement call. A lot of people have asked me about the relationship between the two magazines, said “Isn’t it going to be weird?” and it really isn’t, at all.

When you were shoulder-tapped for this, did it take a while to decide? It must be quite a lifestyle change to go from a bi-monthly to a weekly.

A lot of people thought I had it really easy at Home [the architecture magazine where Hansen was editor for 11 years], I know. I was insane in some ways to do this. But it was a kind of evolution – there was never a crunch time where I had to really weigh things up. What happened was a couple of years ago now I was invited to consult on Paperboy editorially. The company had decided to investigate the possibility of a free Auckland weekly and wanted to know what it would look and feel like. So along with a couple of colleagues, I worked on that during my spare time for quite a while. It was a long process and there were approvals we had to get from Australia and our parent company in Germany and actually I thought it was so far outside Bauer’s normal scope of operations that I just treated it as a fun hobby that wouldn’t really get off the ground.

And then suddenly it did, and I thought ‘oh shit’ because I hadn’t thought of leaving Home. I hadn’t applied for another job in 11 years because I was so content there. But as I’d worked in the architecture area I’d become more and more interested in the idea of architecture as a part of city-making, rather than just standalone homes. We’d done a medium density living special in Home and introduced a medium density prize in the Home of the Year awards to push that kind of agenda and I’d become more and more excited by the potential of Auckland.

And I also had some kind of feeling like ‘this is an amazing opportunity, and if I don’t take it I’ll probably regret it’. Plus there was that sense of scale – we’re printing 100,000 copies a week – and I thought if I was going to have an influence on an urbanistic level, on how Auckland develops, then here’s my chance. The other part of it was I’d been a fan of New York magazine since forever and I’d always loved how it was able to combine politics with fashion, and high- and low-brow culture – I love the eclecticism of that. Paperboy will never be New York – we don’t have the resources, we’re in a different city, it’s a different beast – but I had that in mind. I thought it would be so fun to try to create something that had that sort of that kind of wild eclecticism and spoke with the many voices of the city.

That’s what really surprised me about the first issue – I’d been expecting something very commercially driven, with a lot of nice clothes and expensive things to buy, something to flick through while you’re on the train, but that’s not what I got. It was a lot smarter and more thoughtful than that.

And that’s why I couldn’t say no in the end. Because it was just a theoretical proposition when I first started working on it, I was free to say what I thought it should be. My pitch was essentially what we ended up with. There wasn’t a second where the company said “Hang on, we can do this for half the price if we just fill it with lots of PR crap” because my belief has always been, and it’s the belief of the company too, that the reader is not stupid and if you’re going to treat them like idiots then why the hell would they pick up the publication? People think, because of the media narrative they’ve been fed, that the media’s withering on the vine, and that content has been getting stupider and that budget cuts are affecting everyone. But that was never the case with Paperboy.

A SPREAD FROM PAPERBOY'S LAUNCH ISSUE

A SPREAD FROM PAPERBOY’S LAUNCH ISSUE

How did advertisers react to the concept?

Our research team had done this amazing piece of research – it was a report on Auckland’s emotional mindset more than anything else – and that pointed to a desire for the kind of content we’re creating. And of course we had a sales presentation early, and normally the attitude of advertisers is that they’ll just wait and see after they’d had a look at the [finished] thing. But we were getting bookings from our first presentation before this thing even existed.

When you say ‘research on Auckland’s emotional mindset’, what did it tell you exactly? That Aucklanders were hungry for something positive, to feel good about their city?

The upshot was that there was a new Auckland emerging. It used to be that a lot of people lived here under duress but now there was an emerging positivity about the city, people were really enthusiastic about their lives here, and that there was a gap for a publication that celebrated the city. Not in a crappy PR way, but one that genuinely reflected what they felt their city was. And that was really important in the editorial direction as well. We’re very conscious of not just presenting a vision of the central city, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, but north, south, east and west as well. And that also reflects the diversity of our population and the different ways that people live their lives in the city.

I’ve just returned from some time living in New York and I’m still in two minds about Auckland. Talking to someone as enthusiastic as you helps, but I think I need more encouragement. So give me your elevator pitch – why should I be excited to live in Auckland?

Every city, but Auckland in particular, is a work in progress. And I think that what’s exciting about Auckland at the moment is the work in progress stuff. I don’t want to sound evangelical about it, because we have some really serious problems, around housing in particular, but we’re kind of at a pivotal moment in the city’s history where we as residents and voters can have a huge influence on creating a city that’s a great place to live for a huge range of people. So that’s why I was excited about creating a publication that had a part to play in that. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to be pollyanna-ish about things, we won’t be turning a blind eye to those issues, but we do think the city is headed in a generally positive direction and we would like that to continue.

There’s this really interesting thing happening in cities worldwide where often it only takes one trigger point [to change people’s perceptions]. In Auckland we’ve had a few of them and I think a really good example is the Lightpath cycleway, where it opened and suddenly the photographs of that were shared on media throughout the world seemed to signal, even though it wasn’t entirely true at that point, that Auckland was a city that welcomed cyclists. The power of that image in terms of facilitating the expansion of the rest of the cycle network, and of making people understand what a cycling city could look like, was enormous. And stuff like that is happening all the time in Auckland now: the shared streets programme downtown, there’s some really interesting stuff with housing – in Northcote Point for example – and the City Rail Link is enormous as well. So it’s a transformational period in the city and I think you’d have to be a total curmudgeon not to find that exciting.

Is your distribution locked down, or is there room to expand?

We started ambitiously with 100,000 copies and we’re not going to scale back from that. As far as expansion goes, in the short term it’s quite a dynamic distribution model in that as well as the public transport points, and the cafes we’re in, there’s also letterbox distribution of [currently] around 80,000 and that will evolve as well. For that we use something called the Helix Persona System, which because I’m bad at maths I don’t understand completely, but it’s about targeting people in the age group of 25 to 40 who are actively engaged in the life of the city and who have pretty reasonable household incomes. We’re kind of playing a double game – that part is about delivering the audience that our advertisers need, and then public transport side of things is about making the magazine totally accessible. Also as a distribution model, every Thursday Paperboy heads out across the city through the rail network and along the Northern Busway.

That’s something that occurred to me – Auckland is still a bus city, to a large extent. How do you make sure you reach those bus commuters?

So the Northern Busway was easy because there are stations along the route where we can locate our bins. It’s an ongoing conversation with Auckland Transport because we believe it provides real value to their customers, and they’ve been wonderful to work with in that sense and they can see that. And I should add that the incredible growth in AT users is part of what gave us the confidence to launch Paperboy because if you look at rider numbers on the trains for example they’ve almost been exponential in their growth and will continue to be so for a long time as the network improves. So that was a really pivotal point for us.

PAPERBOY ISSUE 2

PAPERBOY ISSUE 2

OK, enough Paperboy, for now. How did you start your media career?

I did a BA in English and then I came from Dunedin to Auckland to come to AIT as it was then, journalism school, which was a one year diploma. About halfway through that I got a job as an intern/producer on a breakfast show that Lindsay Perigo did on the BBC. Alan Gibbs had bought the rights to broadcast the BBC World Service in New Zealand and every morning Lindsay did a breakfast show on that. So I used to start there at four in the morning and then at eight I’d go to tech for the rest of the day.

It was fascinating because the whole thing blew up while I was there because it got accused of being a libertarian think tank. A British MP came to NZ and listened to it and reported back to the BBC in London that the frequency had been hijacked by libertarians. Lindsay’s show was interesting because it had a strong political point of view, long before that became the norm in talk radio, particularly in the US. I was young and naive and Lindsay would say things like “We’ll knock that university liberalism out of you, Jeremy” but it wasn’t like working for a libertarian equivalent of Fox News, because Lindsay is so intelligent and such an incredible interviewer. It was amazing to sit there each morning and watch an interviewer of his calibre just firing was fantastic.

While I was doing that I was at journalism school. We had to do a profile and because I was young and slightly arrogant I submitted the piece to Warwick Roger at Metro and he wrote back, much to my surprise, and said ‘Yes we’d like to publish it – and could you make it a monthly thing?’ I thought oh my god, because of course I read and revered Metro.

Then a staff writer job came up at Metro. I got the job and Warwick said “Here’s a story about a controversial development at Long Bay, go and report on it. I want your copy in three weeks; 4000 words.” And then he just left me to it. So I floundered around Long Bay and spoke to far too many people for a few weeks. The piece was edited quite heavily, he told why he’d made his changes, and I just kept going and learned that way. And there was a great support team of other writers there at that time – Jan Corbett and Nicola Legatt and my great friend Andrew Heal, Vincent Heeringa, Tom Hyde – and I could run ideas past them. It was this incredible luxury that doesn’t really exist these days where you’ve got that amount of time on a full time – [albeit] very low – salary. We all got completely neurotic about every sentence we wrote, of course.

But with Warwick it was that great thing of teaching by letting people make their own mistakes. He was quite an enigmatic guy in a lot of ways – he’s quite introverted and wasn’t hugely voluble in his dealings with us – but there was always a sense of kindness and I think he took great pride in finding young writers and helping them develop.

In a way that’s not unrelated to what I’m doing now, there was a very conscious effort to be a voice of the city, which was kind of revolutionary for its time. And also Warwick was so unafraid of tackling important stuff. He wasn’t interested in PR at all. He was tough and idiosyncratic, and the magazine reflected that. I think it was so compelling because you got the sense of a really strong character at the helm.

THE 2016 'SMALL HOMES' ISSUE OF HOME NZ

THE 2016 ‘SMALL HOMES’ ISSUE OF HOME NZ

When you became an editor yourself, did you take lessons from your time working under Warwick?

I’ve never really thought about it but I guess I did. I’ve always thought that people do the best work when they’re not highly directed and controlled, but you trust and presume that they’ll do well and allow them the space in which they can create the best approach to a particular topic, rather than being super prescriptive. I just realised that I respond best in that environment because with trust comes a huge desire to prove that you’re worthy of that trust. I guess I can’t really overstate how important Warwick and then Paul [Little, former Metro editor] were in my kind of formative state. I think it’s some kind of muscle memory – when you become an editor you try to emulate the positive experiences you’ve had as a writer.

Being the editor of Home for 11 years I found myself learning more every year about how to do things well. I felt really grateful to be able to specialise in one topic after being a feature writer where you’re roving across so many subject areas. It was great to be able to learn about architecture in that time. Home just turned 80 and if you look at the magazine’s earliest issues, it was almost evangelical about architecture and design being available to as many people as possible and being potentially transformative to people’s lives. Of course anyone who’s building a house has a bit of money, so we weren’t fulfilling that on a social level, but I just hope we were able to spark a bit of thinking about the value of good architecture.

How possible was it for Home to engage with the Auckland housing crisis?

The area we thought we could make a difference was in promoting small houses and sensible resource use, to make people realise they didn’t need to build big dumb mansions. You can drive through parts of Auckland and New Zealand and think that we made no inroads on that battle, but I like to think that we some sort of effect on the way that people thought about that. We thought there was this toxic culture of people building for resale value rather than themselves. If you’re a couple with no children you don’t need to build a four bedroom home, and you need to believe there will be future potential house buyers like you.

Additionally, we had an opportunity in the past few years to push well-designed density because one of the major issues with the opposition to the Unitary Plan process was that there very few examples of really well-designed density for people to point to. We wanted to do that, to show that it wasn’t going to be a badly designed Hobson St tower block that was going to emerge in St Heliers; you could have a group of beautiful town houses or terrace houses that would actually be superior to what was there before. The Spinoff is doing a great job of this as well, in your War for Auckland, going around and photographing great examples of apartments.

When you run a magazine you know you have an inbuilt audience and to some extent it’s a case of giving them what they want. But you also want to credit them with the desire not just to be placed in a warm bath, but to be introduced to ideas that they may be vaguely uncomfortable with or haven’t through. And hopefully some Aucklanders will have read our content, or the Spinoff’s, and thought “Oh actually that’s a little less terrifying than I thought.”

So Paperboy is really a logical next step in a lot of ways.

Yeah a lot of that thinking has come through to this new job. That was one of the big reasons for taking it on – I didn’t feel I had to shut this stuff I’d started at Home down, but carry on and hopefully reach a larger audience. I’m sounding a bit evangelical again but there is a sense of purpose with Paperboy. I guess our definition of success is that we have a publication that doesn’t just do well financially – although of course that is the goal, or otherwise we won’t have jobs – but to have a point of view and to push in areas we believe in, and to introduce readers to ideas we think they’d be interested in, because I’ve always enjoyed publications that have treated me as someone who’s capable of taking on different ideas. Because if you’re not being introduced to new ideas through media then you could ask, what is its purpose?

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