Editorial changes at The Spinoff

The editor of The Spinoff explains why he is no longer editor of The Spinoff, plus talks through other key staff changes. Then indulges himself about what The Spinoff means, and how it was made.

Hello. This is a post announcing that I’m handing over the editor’s job at The Spinoff from today. I want to talk about why that is, how it will go, and who will be taking over; then I want to talk a bit about the company and what we do as I leave this seat.

The Spinoff was never particularly planned – it was an accident that became an experiment that has become something more, though what yet we don’t exactly know. The accident was our founding as a two person TV blog, which was essentially all we were for our first year. The experiment was in seeing if that business model could be built out to cover more than just television, fusing some of my favourite writers with brands who wanted to see more from the online media environment, creating an online magazine for New Zealand.

As for something more? Precisely what that means that remains to be determined. We currently employ 15-20 people, put out a lot of text, a good amount of audio, a bit less video and two custom magazines. This year we’ll launch an audience project and put out two TV shows.

Two TV shows! Honestly. If we didn’t have José Barbosa with his arms around them I’d be terrified. Everything we do seems freighted with excitement and risk; so far most of the risks seem to be paying off. But every time it seems to stretch us thinner. More pointedly, every time we push out into a new area it takes me further away from the critically important and demanding job of editing the site and further into management.

The way popular myth has it this is supposed to be a bad thing, some kind of betrayal of what writing and editing is about. And part of me misses the focus of writing and editing. But the challenges of running a business of two are different from that of running one of six, and different again of running one of 15 or so. For the last year or so a lot of that has fallen on Kerryanne Nelson, our GM and head of commercial. She’s an absolute phenom to watch at work, and has carried more weight than I thought possible this past year or so. But it’s become too big for one person to own, so as of today, I’m moving into a fully managing position and ending my role as editor of The Spinoff. That title will be assumed by my colleague and friend Toby Manhire.

Toby has been with us since our first birthday, and a critical presence throughout. Even before The Spinoff began, his encouragement at the concept stage felt deeply validating – like this might not be the stupidest idea I’d ever had after all. He’s long been one of my favourite writers, but since working alongside him I’ve found out a whole bunch more: he has brilliant news sense, is willing to take on whatever task needs doing and commissions with extraordinary skill. Most importantly and impressively, he works with good humour and takes great care with all our internal editors and writers. Functionally he’s been carrying a lot of the load for a while, and I’m extremely excited to see what he can do with The Spinoff.

His elevation shifts a couple of other key people around here too. Catherine McGregor will move from production editor to deputy editor, another overdue appointment. I’ve worked with Catherine since I freelanced for Metro, and she has always impressed me as the consummate magazine pro: someone who knows exactly what these beasts require, whose judgement is impeccable, and whose word around here is – quite rightly – the whole of the law. And Alex Casey will shift from full-time editing the TV section to more of an oversight role, allowing her to become our first senior writer. Her writing gave us our voice and lift, and she’ll work with writers in and out to elevate what we all do. She’s currently working on a large investigative project, and we see writing features as being the bulk of her work in 2018 – along with continuing to review and power rank whatever she feels like.

This will elevate the inimitable Sam Brooks to TV editor, joining the rest of our matchless team:

  • José Barbosa, staff producer
  • Ashleigh Bogle, account manager
  • Steve Braunias, Books editor
  • Madeleine Chapman, staff writer
  • Simon Day, Partnerships editor
  • Leonie Hayden, Ātea editor
  • Jihee Junn, staff writer
  • Henry Oliver, Music editor
  • Don Rowe, staff writer
  • Rebecca Stevenson, Business editor
  • Scotty Stevenson, Senior sports writer
  • Tina Tiller, designer
  • Alice Webb-Liddall, production intern
  • Emily Writes, Parents editor

I’ll still be nearby, working as managing editor and helping build out new projects (like those two TV shows). But before I go here are a few parting thoughts…

The Spinoff was made by those who discovered it as much as those who work in it

We had no idea what The Spinoff was going to be when we first started. It was about television, which seemed so simple. But through TV you could see the whole country – or you should if it’s done right. It started the germ of us thinking about how you adequately consider and cover a country as diverse as New Zealand. But it was when we opened up into different sections that we really got a lesson in how that might be done.

It’s a lesson which is inherently impossible to ever master, and one you learn by making mistakes as much as by getting it right. We’ve occasionally published things I had cause to regret, mostly because they presumed to speak on behalf of a group perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. Or because they made a point which seemed valid in a small room, but when let out into a much bigger one proved to lack a big point we’d entirely missed. I should add that, because this is publishing, we’ll inevitably fuck up again – just hopefully less often.

Yet we continued to persevere in trying to avoid perpetuating the same assumptions about gender, ethnicity, sexuality, poverty and more which proved so damaging when wheeled out elsewhere.

People seemed to quickly become aware of that, which meant that a number of our most popular pieces simply walked in the door: a brilliantly qualified and talented writer just appeared with a perfect story. This is why I feel so hugely indebted to the broad community of people who’ve written for us for their role in shaping what we are.

What The Spinoff is and isn’t

For a variety of reasons, the site has attracted people with a particular worldview. We have been truly privileged to become a home for perspectives that other mainstream (it’s what we are) media’s opinion pages often missed. And we wanted to be different: there is absolutely no point in us simply replicating views, style and tone which is found elsewhere on the same issues. Yet if we play to the choir we’re likely to just recreate the same filter bubbles which have proven so disastrous elsewhere in the world.

Which is why, to some of our audience’s dismay, we regularly publish writing from people with different worldviews to that of what we perceive as the core of our audience. The difference between us and other media outlets, I guess, is in the boundaries of what we consider up for debate.

It’s complicated, like most things, but it comes down to this: we don’t believe anyone’s humanity is contestable. If you want to ascribe a set of assumptions to a basket of people then you’ll likely have to do it somewhere else. We believe in science, and in history. On the latter, for example: if you want to pretend this country wasn’t colonised in a brutal way, and has barely started the process of understanding what that means and attempting to assuage that – well, there are plenty of other places you can spout that opinion.

However, we do think it’s important to note that no party has a mortgage on solutions to what ails the country. That good ideas can come from anywhere, and that an honest and well-moderated debate is essential if we want to continue the journey out of the ooze.

When we publish opinion and commentary from what very broadly might be termed ‘the right’, part of our audience nearly always hates it, and us for putting it on site. This is fine, we have no issue with people denouncing us for it. Just understand that it is not going to stop. Which brings us to the next point.

Our audience feels like they own us – and that’s a good thing

The Spinoff is a bit over three years old and has done what it has independently – we’re not owned by any big media company, we have no venture capital floating us along. We have had a little CNZ money and even less NZ on Air money to this point (though will do soon, to make our show). What we do have is an audience which has paid close attention to us, sharing us and showering us in praise when we do good, hammering us when we don’t.

This is not how it is for other media companies. When I wrote for other publications, often the loudest noise in response to my work was silence. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the big media companies tend to have comments and social media activity thrashing them, all the time. (Which, by the way, is really unfair: while they make mistakes, just as we do, they also employ the vast majority of the country’s best journalists, who do incredibly important work every single day. New Zealand would be utterly screwed without Stuff, NZME, TVNZ, Mediaworks and RNZ).

We exist in between those poles – getting read and remarked upon, but in good faith and often showered in praise. So while sometimes it’s hard to read the critiques of our work and process which arrive hourly, they’ve been so important to evolving our understanding of what the audience wants from us. And they’re balanced by plenty of really incredible comments too.

How things look and feel matters

The Spinoff has, very consciously and from the start, said no to CPM and programmatic advertising. This makes us a very rare bird on the internet, where those two models are by far the most dominant, even amongst subscription sites. Thus we control our environment to a far greater degree than most publishers. Which advertisers come on here, and where they sit.

This means we gain nothing immediate and tangible from having a giant hit of a post surging around the internet. But it also means we lose nothing when we have a couple of weeks where traffic is soft.

Why does this matter? Mainly because it reduces the incentive to chase clicks for their own sake. Of course we want to be read, and long term our prospects are undeniably improved by increased traffic. But we want to grow on our own terms and sustainably. We have no ambition to be the biggest site in the country – just the most consistently fun and fluid and interesting.

The other big advantage this gives us is that we control the aesthetic of our content to a far greater degree. There’s no better example of this than the complete and total absence of interruptive advertising. We have no pre-rolls, no pop-ups, nothing intruding into our text at all. Because that would be a horrible experience for the audience – and what we want most of all is for our work to be read, absorbed and shared.

Because, ultimately, we don’t believe in advertising. Or, more precisely, we hardly ever believe it’s done well online. We make and sell content, for ourselves and others, and try hard to always let you know what it is you’re consuming.

Trust your people

These are lessons we’ve all absorbed – I can say that confidently because they’re discussed all the time. The last is one is my own. I came into business and to publishing in my mid-thirties, which might sound young, but didn’t feel it. Principally because it was something I fell into rather than planned. I have spent the last few years oscillating between feeling like we can do anything and like a fraud on the brink of exposure.

Yet we’ve survived and thrived. This is in large part because of our clients – truly, their faith is mind-blowing – and our audience. But the people I’m most grateful for are our staff. We came together in bits and pieces, some with vast relevant experience and some with none at all. What we were trying to do was partly centuries old, partly brand new. Everyone has approached it with this mint combination of energy, creativity and a willingness to just give stuff a crack.

It has nearly killed us, and nearly killed me, and there have been moments when what has been described ominously to me as ‘the fog’ has descended over our leaky inner city office. And yet we’ve fought through as a unit and built something that I feel like we should all be hella proud of. So as I move from one job to another I want to thank all those who’ve made it mostly thrilling and cool, and have put up with me at my most embarrassingly David Brentish.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to my wife Niki and three cool kids (Jett, Robyn and Vivienne) that I have so neglected these past few years. Please enjoy the new regime. 

Cheers,

Duncan


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