The section and team was heavily trumpeted as a correction to decades of unbalanced reporting. But with restructuring throughout newsrooms, Pou Tiaki is set to become a fraction of its original size.
Three reporters hired by Stuff as part of a high-profile apology to Māori and commitment to do better will soon be out of jobs, The Spinoff understands. The fixed-term roles with the Pou Tiaki team, funded by NZ On Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund, will lapse in 2024 (two in January and one a few months later) and the contracts will not be renewed. It comes amid major restructuring at the media company.
Three years ago, almost to the day, Stuff released Our Truth: Tā Mātou Pono, a comprehensive reckoning and apology for historical wrongs in reporting on Māori and Aotearoa. The content series involved written pieces from across Stuff’s newsrooms, examining the way news reporting had been done at the largest media company in the country for 160-plus years.
Alongside the apology was a commitment to do and be better. A new Stuff charter was released – written in English and te reo Māori – that presented eight pillars, including editorial independence, equity, and “he pou tiaki / guard post”.
“A pou tiaki stands guard and protects an area from any physical and metaphysical harm. It is on display to remind people the area is protected, they need to be aware of their own behaviour and mindful of the environment they’re entering,” read the charter.
Pou Tiaki would become the phrase most remembered from that 2020 apology, as it was also given to perhaps the most tangible and immediate action to come out of the exercise: the Pou Tiaki section, “to showcase te ao Māori”.
Our Truth: Tā Mātou Pono won the 2021 Voyager Media Award for best editorial campaign or project, and lead Carmen Parahi won editorial executive of the year.
In the three years since its launch, Pou Tiaki expanded from being a home for te ao Māori news, to a catch-all for stories about “all communities underserved by Stuff”, and the company received more than $2m in funding through the Public Interest Journalism Fund for “20x community and Pou Tiaki reporting roles”. About 10 writers were hired for the Pou Tiaki team, many of them starting their two-year contracts in January 2022. Later that same year, Parahi wrote that Pou Tiaki’s work continued and was “now one of Stuff’s four core business priorities”. Parahi was made an executive – Pou Tiaki Matua – overseeing the work “to bring te ao Māori and multicultural perspectives to Stuff’s journalism”, while a suite of new leaders across the company was announced earlier this year.
This week, of the five remaining Pou Tiaki reporters (others left for a variety of reasons), three have been told their roles will be ending, and two will return to previous roles after a brief secondment to Pou Tiaki. As well as the Pou Tiaki roles, two other reporters who covered marginalised communities have been told they won’t be staying on after their PIJF contracts end.
Pou Tiaki editor Lisa Nicholson will remain in her role, overseeing two permanent Pou Tiaki journalist positions, which are set to be advertised next week.
Nadia Tolich, managing director of Stuff digital, told The Spinoff that three years on from the Big Apology, “our commitment to Pou Tiaki remains a core strategic priority, with key roles established in editorial including the appointment of a dedicated Pou Tiaki editor, as well as Pou Tiaki representation on the executive team and in our brand connections commercial team.”
One Pou Tiaki reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, was told this week their contract wouldn’t be renewed, and said the news came as a shock, despite the recent restructuring and redundancies at Stuff. “We’d always been given this impression we’d be totally OK,” they said. “All the time we were told they were fully committed to us, that it was one of our pillars. We have these values and Pou Tiaki is one of them, so surely they’d keep the team on.”
The Pou Tiaki team is spread around different newsrooms and, though small, works to tell the stories of a vast range of communities, from Māori to Pacific to Asian to African to young to disabled. The work sits in its own section on the Stuff homepage, encompassing virtually all stories that aren’t exclusively about Pākehā. That placement and the very purpose of Pou Tiaki has at times made the reporter feel “ghettoised”. “If there’s any brown story, it comes to us, and it’s like ‘have you thought about actually doing this yourself?’ Just because you’re involving a brown person doesn’t mean you need us.”
All five PIJF roles coming to an end that The Spinoff is aware of are people of colour writing about underserved communities. The reporter spoken to by The Spinoff shared concerns that such losses would greatly impact the diversity of Stuff’s newsrooms and storytelling, but Tolich said Pou Tiaki is just “one of many actions to help us improve representation, which also includes our company charter, internal training, and increased use of te reo Māori”.
“Everyone at Stuff is expected to use Pou Tiaki in their own mahi, so it’s not just left to those in key strategic roles to uphold what Pou Tiaki stands for. Pou Tiaki is integral to our Stuff identity, values and behaviours, and we will continue this important mahi across the Stuff Group.”
The cuts to the Pou Tiaki team join a growing list of job losses at Stuff this year. Earlier this year, the publisher proposed cutting up 16 jobs in the sub-editing team; the much-lauded National Correspondents team was disbanded (with Katie Kenny, Kirsty Johnston and Dana Johannsen all departing for RNZ); The Post editor Caitlin Cherry left her role within six months after it was proposed that the role be merged with the editor of the Sunday Star Times – Tracy Watkins now edits both; The Whole Truth, Stuff’s award-winning fact-checking series (and PIJF project) has also ended this year; climate change editor Eloise Gibson has moved to RNZ and not been replaced.
In other words, the mood at Stuff is not one of excitement these days.
The Spinoff understands that results from a recent HR survey were released to staff, with job satisfaction sitting at -27%. It’s unsure how satisfaction was graded but the Pou Tiaki reporter told The Spinoff that in 2022, job satisfaction was at +5%, and the decline tracks with their own feelings. “[Last year] was the peak of Pou Tiaki at least. It had its challenges but I felt excited to go to work each day, but it’s fucking bleak these days. I think it’s unanimous across the newsroom that it’s just bleak.”
While redundancies and non-renewals are rife across newsrooms in New Zealand, the cuts to the Pou Tiaki team feel particularly acute after the very public promises to improve diversity and representation in the media. Earlier this year, Stuff organised Te Matarau, a wānanga for leaders across the industry to discuss issues around representation and culture and to make commitments for change industry-wide. Now, that commitment rings hollow to the Pou Tiaki reporters. “The company jumps on that, takes advantage of the public image it gives them, then does nothing to find us further funding,” they said, referring to the two-year PIJF contracts.
The reporter who spoke to The Spinoff has no intention of applying for the two permanent roles. “At the moment I just don’t have the energy to give them any more of myself than I have,” they said. “Honestly, I feel free. I don’t have to wake up every day and make a moral decision of ‘is it worth staying in this toxic environment just to do the work I really want to be doing?’ So I’m glad they’ve taken that choice away from me.
“I’m not as distraught about losing my job as I am about the fall of the vision of Pou Tiaki.”