MediaMay 24, 2024

The media is in crisis… and I just bought a magazine


When the publisher of NZ Lifestyle Block announced it was closing down, its editor had a scary decision to make. Michael Andrew tells what happened next.

At three in the morning a few months ago, I sat at my desk with two windows open on my computer. One was a seek.co.nz listing for a generic communications role, and the other was a news story about how the rising costs of paper and postage was crippling the magazine industry.

Neither window made for inspiring reading, yet they somehow seemed to balance each other out, neutralising the anxiety that had been bubbling in my bowels since my bosses had told me, a few weeks earlier, they were closing their publishing business. The costs were too high, the revenue too low, they said. Their stable of magazines, including the one I edit – New Zealand Lifestyle Block – would cease publication and I would be out of a job that I loved.

Unless I purchased the magazine.

NZ Lifestyle Block has a core focus on keeping animals, growing food and regenerating the land. (Photo: Cassandra Sharp)

I didn’t have long to decide. I spent the following few weeks in a frenzy of research, speaking with as many people I could, trying to determine the wisest course of action.

With a mortgage to pay and a young family to support, there were plenty of financial implications riding on the decision. But it all boiled down to two choices, represented by the windows open on my computer: the first being made redundant and competing with hundreds of journalists for a few prosaic yet stable jobs, and the second becoming a publisher of a beloved little magazine in the middle of a media crisis.

Both courses had their challenges, yet the advice of my friends, family members and mentors was unanimous in its assessment: with these big life decisions, it’s better to follow passion over prudence. A week later, I signed the contract and bought the magazine, continuing the epic journey of discovery that I’d been on for the past two years.

It’s difficult to describe just how much I’ve enjoyed working as editor of NZ Lifestyle Block. When I started in 2022, I didn’t quite know what the magazine’s mission was. My wife and I had just purchased 2.5 acres of bare land in the Waikato, on which we’d hopefully one day build our first home when we’d saved enough money. At the very least, the job would provide me with an abundant stream of knowledge about how to grow food, manage my resources efficiently, and be a responsible custodian of the land.

But with complete autonomy to own the magazine’s direction and ethos, I quickly discovered the unique position I was in to tap into a vibrant realm of untold stories from the remote rural nooks of New Zealand.

Photo: Francine Boer/NZ Lifestyle Block

One of the first things I learned is that “lifestyle block” is a vague and useless term. For many people, it evokes images of a super-sized property with a cookie cutter house, a pool and a huge bare lawn, packaged up in a perfect square on subdivided food-production land at the city fringe.

But I chose to interpret it differently, and cast the net far wider. Suddenly, I stepped into a world full of remarkable land and food-based initiatives and passion projects. Market gardeners, regenerative farmers, environmentalists, kaitiaki, homesteaders, earth builders, engineers, preppers and permaculturists – rural NZ is teeming with extraordinary people quietly accomplishing amazing feats of creativity and gumption in their paddocks, garages and gardens. Their stories became bread and butter for the magazine simply because of the small “lifestyle block” scale on which they operate.

We wrote about a Northland orchard whose mission is to provide easy-growing edible plants so that people can establish their own food systems, and another on a Wellington woman who leases farmland to produce ethically-raised meat to share with her community.

Then there was a feature on a Bay of Plenty iwi who are combining permaculture and traditional growing methods to heal whānau land and grow an abundance of organic food. After the story was published, it found its way to the Country Calendar team who sent a crew out to film an episode.

Ngāpeke Permaculture in the Bay of Plenty is an iwi-led food-growing initiative that featured in NZ Lifestyle Block magazine. (Photo: Naera Ohia)

The more I wrote, the more I learned, and the more I realised that Aotearoa is harbouring what I can only describe as a powerful “back-to-the-land” movement, where people and communities, frustrated by the corporate constraints on land, food and energy, are deciding to take matters into their own hands.

Best of all, I discovered that “lifestyle blocks” – free from the financial and cultural shackles that encumber large commercial farms – are well placed to experiment with the many methods that are helping communities all over the world grow food and manage land more consciously.

Syntropic agroforestry, regenerative grazing, silvopasture, organic gardening and biodynamics – these are some of many concepts that are flourishing on small rural properties throughout Aotearoa. Lifestyle blocks, with their small scale and lack of commercial barriers, are the garages of the agricultural world – the places where ideas can be tinkered with and tested without consequences on yield, margin or profitability.

My little magazine was, and is, perfectly placed to amplify these ideas, and tell the inspirational stories of the people behind them. With New Zealand on the cusp of a food revolution, and so few media outlets dedicated to covering it, purchasing the magazine aligned with a wonderful opportunity to turn it into a kind of journal of record, exploring the seeds of sovereignty and innovation that will one day disseminate into the wider food system.

This “mission”, as I call it, has filled me with a sense of purpose that has largely offset the uncertainty that any magazine publisher will be facing these days. The past two years have seen the cost of paper and postage increase tremendously, eroding already slim margins and pushing many publishers out of the game. It’s notoriously difficult to make much money in a conventional print model, and I’ll have my work cut out for me.

Photo: Brad Hanson/NZ Lifestyle Block

Still, there are so many untapped opportunities that make this venture worthwhile. A few months ago, RNZ’s The Detail explored the idea of a magazine renaissance, where digital fatigue and a growing appreciation of tangible art forms will draw more people back to the medium – much like the renewed interest in vinyl.

It’s not happening in NZ yet, the reporter said. But when I pick up a magazine and flick through its pages, knowing the care, skill and time that went into creating it, the prognosis that its value will increase in the eyes of screen-weary readers seems very plausible.

Since I announced I was taking over as publisher, I’ve received so many kind words of encouragement from people who are enchanted by the idea of an old-fashioned print magazine continuing as a family-owned business in this day and age. I’ve been particularly humbled by the phone calls from subscribers, many of whom live off-grid, don’t use computers and for whom the magazine is their only source of media. It gives them inspiration, they say; a sense of connection and knowledge. I think they all know that a magazine like NZ Lifestyle Block is a rare thing these days, and they’re keen to try to keep it alive.

Knowing that even a few people derive enjoyment and value from my magazine has validated my decision to buy it. There’s plenty of work to do as I seek to not only keep this publication going, but help it grow, thrive and own the space that it’s fortunate to occupy.

That, however, is the long game. For now, I’m simply grateful that I can spend my days doing what I love – talking to people, learning new things, and writing stories.

Michael Andrew is the editor and publisher of NZ Lifestyle Block magazine. Subscribe to NZ Lifestyle Block here.

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