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Under the Bridge: the story behind the dazzling Herald project a year in the making

This media era is characterised as one of disastrous clickbait and diminishing journalistic standards. But Kirsty Johnston and the Herald’s new project Under the Bridge shows that passionate, paradigm-shifting investigative journalism is alive and well in New Zealand. Duncan Greive spoke to Johnston about creating journalism that matters.

“I’m pretty much your classic young female white journalist,” laughs Kirsty Johnston. “You could put a hashtag on it.” She means that she’s got an arts degree, liberal sensibilities and aspires to have her work mean something as well as just being consumed. She’s self-aware enough to know that puts her in a class with dozens of recent entrants into the profession – a very talented cohort – and is implying that she’s nothing special as a result.

But Kirsty Johnston is special. Over the past few years she’s broken a series of stories in the education and mental health areas which have shown the human face of institutional and political indifference or incompetence. They’ve resulted in government inquiries, school rebuilds and funding model reviews. In so doing she has become, not just your classic young white female journalist, but probably the best reporter of her generation.

Kirsty Johnston

Her work finds the human face at the end of bad policy and practice, most poignantly with her devastating story on the treatment of Ashley Peacock, an autistic man kept locked up for all but 90 minutes a day on the grounds of the former Porirua Lunatic Asylum. Her story on the use of seclusion rooms at Miramar Primary in Wellington prompted such an outcry that within months that the practice in schools was banned.

This persistent ability to break stories of national significance has seen her elevated to the Herald’s Investigations team, alongside Canon-award winning likes of David Fisher, Matt Nippert and Jared Savage. Johnston was notably snubbed by the awards in 2016, a situation which it will be impossible to repeat when the 2017 nominees are announced in April. Despite that, during her banner year, she was distracted by her biggest project yet – one which, while deeply resonant in its own right, has huge significance for both her own organisation and for the the funding and distribution of journalism in this country.

Under the Bridge, which she produced alongside director Mike Scott, is a project epic in scale and sweep, following the lives of a group of Papakura High School students for a whole calendar year – reflecting the kind of restless ambition which has characterised her work to this point. It came out of a desire to create something which captured the interlocking nature of all the different sectors she’d been reporting on over the previous few years.

Under the Bridge star Wendy, centre, and other Papakura High School performers at Polyfest, 18 March 2016. NZ Herald photograph by Michael Craig

“I’d just done this story on Papakura High School, which got this atrocious ERO [Educational Review Office] report, which kind of slammed every aspect of its performance,” she says. “But I knew they were getting a new principal, and I found out who it was. So I rang him and said I wanted to do this story.

“I thought he’d say ‘no way’, or want to put all these caveats on it. Because principals are really protective of their schools. But he just said ‘oh yes Kirsty, that sounds good, come and see me in the new year’.”

Under the Bridge relied on three separate things breaking her way – Principal John Rohs’ welcome was just one. She also needed the Herald to do something they’d never done before: commission a longform piece of video, one which would take a star reporter away from productive work for weeks at a time, with no certainty of outcome. And NZ On Air would need to speed up the process of extricating themselves from the bleak codependent relationship with the TV networks and take a punt on a relative unknown: longform documentary delivered purely via a news site. The project was commissioned and funded under the previous NZ On Air system, before recent reforms aimed at making it more ‘platform agnostic’.

“New Zealand on Air were definitely taking a punt on us. We were like ‘we’ll follow these kids. We have no idea what they’re up to. We have no idea how this story is going to end. But we’re really good at our jobs, so you should just trust us that whatever we produce at the end will be amazing. Because we are the Royal New Zealand Herald’,” laughs Johnston.

A still from Under the Bridge: Jayden Schell is mobbed by students at a performance.

The Herald gave a small team all the time they needed, and co-opted Greenstone to help tag, line-edit and run the production. The results are illuminating and very affecting – a half hour which shows far more about the challenges and triumphs of schooling in New Zealand than Bryan Bruce’s turgid polemic Mind the Gap, which screened last year and cost more than twice as much. Under the Bridge follows three students – Wendy, Jayden and Robert – as they navigate their final year of high school, one which is also the first for incoming principal Rohs. The students are caught on the cusp of adulthood, making no-win choices about whether to play rugby for Counties or keep a job which will help save for a family trip to Tonga, talking candidly about extricating themselves from gangs or coping with bullying.

As Wendy, the documentary’s beating heart, says, “when you tell someone they’re not worth anything, they start to believe it.” But while there’s darkness at the edges – arms offenders squad, dads in jail, you know the headlines – hope and light overwhelms them, as well as fierce resistance to the kids or school being reduced to a collection of social problems.

“Watching the students, they’re all really smart, they’re all really talented. They don’t have much money. But they’d hate to be thought of as a sob story. They really, really hate that. They don’t like being labelled as poor. They would always say to me things like ‘we’re not that poor’.

“Wendy, she’s Tongan, and she’s got family that lives back in the islands. And she says she feels privileged compared to them. So I think that’s what you’ve always got to remember: people, they might be struggling, but they’re not victims of their circumstances. I think that’s a really valuable lesson to learn when you’re reporting on homelessness or whatever – that those people, they have choices and power too,” says Johnston.

“It’s difficult, because it is a largely Māori and Pasifika community. And we were all white, the team making it. So you don’t want to feel like you’re riding in on your big white horse. And so we kept saying to these kids ‘why are you doing it?’. And they would always say ‘we want to show people how awesome our school is, or our community is. We want to have a voice’.”

Wendy Savieti at Polyfest, 18 March 2016. NZ Herald photograph by Michael Craig

Johnston got her start in journalism through Fairfax’s internship programme – the same way a clutch of great reporters got their start, including Naomi Arnold, Charles Anderson and Michael Fox. Her first job was in Taranaki, recruited by Jonathan Mackenzie, where a lurid murder fell into her lap within days of arriving, and she reported on anything that came across the desk.

The same approach was true for her next job, at Stuff – though this time the stories were often national in scale. During this time she was the site’s only dedicated reporter, meaning parachuting into any breaking story, and staying with it as long as interest remained.

“That was Stuff’s heyday,” says Johnston, recalling her time with real fondness. “It was still small. We just had our own little corner of the Dominion Post floor. It was Sinead [Boucher, current Fairfax Executive Editor]. A couple of web editors. A social person. And me. That was it!”

The scene is such a contrast to the industrial scale content mine which Stuff presents as from the outside. Yet Johnston says external perception doesn’t match reality (“A factory? No. It’s not at all.”), and points out that Stuff is simply “a collection of regional newsrooms”. Regardless, while sections of the public might have a negative view of the way it operates, it was the making of Johnston.

“What we were really looking for was someone who had all the grit and determination that a young journalist needs,” says Boucher, “but was interested in telling stories in new ways. That didn’t see print as the be all and end all.”

Working at Stuff meant that Johnston was reporting in something like real time – then a relatively rare phenomenon – on events, often tragic, which demanded energy and sensitivity.

“The first Christchurch earthquake,” she recalls. “The next Christchurch earthquake. Pike River. The Rugby World Cup. The Rena. The election. My last week there was the Carterton balloon disaster.” There was a lot of news in that era, and she got into the teeth of all those complex, often tragic stories.

A still from Under The Bridge: Papakura High School students at The Rising Foundation camp.
New Zealand Herald photograph by Michael Craig

She developed a reputation and distinctive style, before disappearing overseas for a year in 2014. When he heard she was soon to return, the Herald’s brilliant investigative business reporter Matt Nippert suggested to Herald editor Shayne Currie that he recruit her away from Fairfax. They’ve done pretty well out of the pickup.

“It only took her a couple of months doing the education round to have moles within the Ministry spilling all sorts of secrets,” says Nippert. “I’d hate to compete with her on any story.”

Over the last few years, first on education, she built as strong a portfolio as anyone in the business, yet rather than stay within the confines of the investigative unit – one she acknowledges is a rare and privileged one to begin with – she wanted to stretch herself on something which might tie together the strands of the different themes dominating her work at the Herald, and the news cycle itself.

“I wanted to do a bigger project. I really wanted to follow something for a year,” she says, keyed up and half nervous, half excited, less than a week out from its launch. “I wanted it to be about child poverty and homelessness, because I felt like those were issues that – although they were getting lots of coverage, just nothing was really happening.

“I toyed with the idea of doing a single family, but there were problems with the idea, and I realised that the way in was education. Because all of those things – child poverty, homelessness, transience – really show up in the education sphere.”

The story debuts today, an 8000 word feature, half hour documentary and gallery of imagery and extra footage, all housed in its own custom-built landing page. It’s hard to imagine that $70,000 will have bought NZ on Air more.

For both that organisation and the Herald this is a big moment. NZ on Air have been slowly creeping into digital, and this will be watched closely to see whether, as a package, it can match the kind of audience and bang-per-buck which its television productions have. The Herald, meanwhile, will want this to be proof that they can engage their enormous audience across longer form video, and thus plausibly demand larger chunks of funding on a consistent basis.

Robert Downes and an unknown player take an ice bath after the National Schools Rugby League tournament. 31 August 2017. NZ Herald photograph by Michael Craig

Projects like Under the Bridge and the work of Stuff Circuit (which received over $300,000 to make The Battle which will also be broadcast, ironically, on their former employers at TV3) help show that the disdain which some people feel toward our online media is narrow-minded – it’s hard to imagine such a labour-intensive and long-gestating project being resourced in television, despite the vastly greater public funding it receives. It speaks to the number of different and difficult things the big news sites are trying to do simultaneously.

“The Herald does want to do that right: we want to be everything. We want to be fastest at the one end, and have the best local coverage. The best rounds coverage. And the best investigative coverage,” says Johnston. “It’s a lot!”

It is indeed. And a heavy weight for her (and director Mike Scott) to bear – a smash hit will make the case for more funding irrefutable, a failure will make it much harder to argue for more funding. But if anyone was built for such a challenge, it’s Johnston. Her work burns with conviction, with what her former editor Boucher characterises as a “ferociousness” about the subjects she chooses and the way she approaches them. Under the Bridge came from watching the housing crisis unfold and wanting to humanise a story which often presented as simply percentages and price tags.

Filming the final scene for Under the Bridge, 5 December 2016. NZ Herald photograph by Michael Craig

“People don’t realise, with the housing crisis, the flow on effects it has. So you have transience – kids jumping schools. That’s not good. At Papakura the influx during the year is so high. That’s not good. The kids are sick – they all have those crazy respiratory things and skin conditions. Then their little siblings get sick. But their parents have to go to work, so they have to stay at home and look after them.

“All of that stuff – if you come from a privileged background you think ‘it’s just housing. They’re living in a shitty house’,” she says urgently. “But it’s so much more than that.”

Journalism that matters: Kirsty Johnson’s greatest hits so far

Autistic man locked in isolation for five years: ‘He’s had everything stripped from him’ (Ashley Peacock)

The only brown kid in the room (NCEA)

School punishment: 11-year-old locked in ‘dark cell’ 13 times in 9 days (seclusion rooms)

Opotiki College underage teen sex case: ‘I feel like we are being used’

Kids stuck in mouldy classrooms

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.