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Yes this image is suggesting that Toby Manhire is god
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SocietyDecember 22, 2021

What The Spinoff did in 2021

Yes this image is suggesting that Toby Manhire is god
Yes this image is suggesting that Toby Manhire is god

This year was supposed to be different from the last. The Spinoff staff look back on another unpredictable 12 months.

Illustration and design by Ezra Whittaker and Lauren Maree Stewart.

The year that was – Duncan Greive

“A year like no other” we called it, writing exhausted yet somehow optimistic that the worst was behind us. This was in late 2020 with the vaccine starting to roll out and deep into elimination, when delta was still an Australian pop singer. How naive we were, and probably continue to be. 

A year on and 2021 was a bigger-budget sequel, the plot even more maximalist and improbable, the sense of exhaustion the same but the optimism, while still there, somewhat tempered by the fact I’m writing this from my spare bed/second desk, with lockdown largely gone, but its memory still strong.

What happened to Auckland this year unavoidably happened to The Spinoff too. We spent most of the latter half working from homes, seeing each other’s faces spread out across 30cm x 21cm screens, with the mood easily visualised by the rapidly fading number of people who maintained our dorkish early habit of wearing bad hats to meetings. That we were better prepared than in March of 2020 was some help – our superb news team knew what to do and met the moment with brilliant and clear-eyed live updates and editions of The Bulletin, along with beautifully human reporting from the frontlines in South Auckland. Still, the outbreak roiled the business, and we were very grateful for existing and new members who kept the lights on in that period.

The year had started so well. We founded a content studio, Daylight Creative, which grew to 20 people in the blink of an eye. We launched a smash podcast (with long-time partners at Kiwibank) in When the Facts Change, and podcast network too. All this caused us to take a deep breath and invest into building more infrastructure, with key roles debuting in finance, technology, data, commercial, marketing and strategy. We were bulked up just when the pandemic hit, which made that blow harder in many ways. 

It also was a saving grace. Those new recruits brought energy and vision, fusing happily with the rest of us to work like hell to build a bridge to the other side of lockdown. After initially flailing, like so many of you will have had to too, we figured out a way to get things done in spite of the barriers.

We transitioned to a new editor, the brilliant Madeleine Chapman, who walked in as intern in 2016, and was leading us all five years later. (She would rightly demand that I acknowledge the immense support of her deputies, Alice Neville and Catherine McGregor, so I will.) At the same time we farewelled Toby Manhire, Mad’s predecessor, who worked what I described as “the shift from hell” between 2018 and 2021, and, happily, is now scorching as our editor-at-large.

We also debuted this gorgeous new brand identity, website and app, a project that took two-and-half years to complete and fills me with joy every time I see it. We launched IRL and The Sunday Essay, two funded projects that represent divergent creative editorial peaks of what we aspire to do here. Even through lockdown we continued to put out more of our award-winning podcasts, launching the incomparable Nē?, and video series like First rolled on and grew their audiences, with the teams behind them adapting willingly to these highly unorthodox conditions. 

Our love of collaboration continued unabated, and reached a zenith when our video team at Hex Work Productions threw themselves into work with Daylight to help do Covid-19 and vaccine comms in October, as they were unable to shoot new seasons of Scratched or Bad News. External partnerships were highlighted by Extremely Online, a Hex Work series that led to an extremely vibey partnership with the young phenoms at Shit You Should Care About that runs across our whole organisation now.

There was a lot more besides, so much so that the very act of writing it down has me feeling both more exhausted and oddly optimistic again too. As with last year though, I want to end by pointing to a series of stories, funded by our beloved members, which summed up this very hard year, and hopefully gives a sense of what it is we all went through, together.

The Side Eye’s Two New Zealands: The K Shape

Toby Morris’s ‘Two New Zealands” series highlights how different systems contribute to inequality in Aotearoa. The K Shape took the language of economics and put real people at the centre amid a self-aggrandising national narrative about our “strong economic recovery”.

All the locations of interest on an interactive NZ map

This year we welcomed data visualisation specialist Harkanwal Singh to the team, whose singular ability to understand both people and numbers helped New Zealanders navigate an overwhelming volume of information throughout the delta outbreak. His interactive visualisations showed us daily case numbers, locations of interest, vaccine rates by suburb and region, even travel times to our closest vaccination centre.

‘I’m beginning a journey’: The inside story of Lorde’s surprise mini-album in te reo Māori

When global pop sensation Lorde announced she would be releasing a five-song EP in te reo Māori, covering the release was never going to be straightforward. Leonie Hayden’s world-exclusive feature centred the reo experts who helped bring the songs to life, our history of language loss, as well as the potential of a global platform to inspire interest in Indigenous art forms.

The St James is running out of time

Features editor Chris Schulz has a nose for a great yarn, especially around our cultural icons, both popular and obscure. In this story he and photographer Sonya Nagels were granted behind-the-scenes access, uncovering the crumbling facades and uncertain future of Auckland’s once-beloved St James Theatre. 

Live updates

The beating heart of The Spinoff throughout the pandemic has been our daily live updates, ably captained by Stewart Sowman-Lund. Readers know they’ll get fast, accurate, unsensationalised information, which always sounds like it’s coming from a friend.

The Sunday Essay series 

The Sunday Essay has become a weekly ritual for many of our readers. We pair great writers with great illustrators and let them do what they do best – tell stories that are often moving, often challenging, and let us see the world through their eyes for a while.  

The Spinoff in your ears – Jane Yee

The Spinoff Podcast Network added five new titles in 2021, including our first te ao Māori podcast, Nē?, and Bernard Hickey’s When the Facts Change, which was named in Apple Podcasts NZ’s top 10 new podcasts of 2021. Duncan Greive’s New Zealand media podcast The Fold went weekly and produced our most-listened-to episode of the year with an explosive interview with former National press secretary Janet Wilson. Politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime hit the top of the Apple Podcasts NZ charts in November, while two of The Spinoff’s OG podcasts, Business is Boring and The Real Pod, were recognised at the inaugural New Zealand Podcast Awards 🏆 

Hex Work Productions – Amber Easby

Season two of the award-winning video series Scratched: Aotearoa’s Lost Sporting Legends picked up where season one left off, with two episodes – on Tuariki Delamere and his revolutionary somersault long jump technique, and the mythical skateboarder Lee Ralph – each cracking a million views on Facebook and YouTube respectively. The Single Object, produced in partnership with Objectspace, offered a surprising glimpse into Aotearoa’s history through the stories behind five everyday items. And we were informed and entertained by the new weekly series Extremely Online (an Instagram-focused collaboration with Shit You Should Care About) and FIRST

The birth of Daylight Creative – Lee Lowndes

In January 2021 we launched Daylight Creative, The Spinoff’s sister creative studio. What started as a handful of people tucked around a table in a lofty space we affectionately call “the heavens” is now our team of 20 full-timers working on projects for organisations here in Aotearoa and around the world. We also had the pleasure of welcoming the inimitable Charlie Godinet as creative director to the team, who works alongside Toby Morris to lead our creative squad, which has produced an amazing amount of work that seems to defy the fact that almost half of it was made via Zoom.

We made global health and social equity content for the World Health Organization that was picked up by the UN and used at their annual summit. We helped launch an award-winning podcast for Kiwibank, illustrated and animated about 100 pieces of content, unpacked climate change for some of the leading scientists in the world, and are in the throes of working with an iwi-led initiative that aims to make a major impact on how travellers respect our environment around the motu. 

Colour by numbers

Hellos and goodbyes

The silverware

Voyager Media Awards:

Junior feature writer of the year – Michael Andrew 

Opinion writer of the year – Leonie Hayden 

Best artist graphic design – Toby Morris 

Cartoonist of the year – Toby Morris

Runner-up for best innovation in digital storytelling – 100 Year Forecast

NZ Web Awards: 

Best Director (NZ Factual) – Alexander Gandar for 100 Year Forecast

Alum award for “ongoing excellence in online content creation” – The Spinoff 

NZ Podcast Awards: 

Business is Boring – Gold, Best Business Podcast

The Real Pod – Silver, Best Entertainment/Comedy Podcast 

Brewers Guild Awards:

Beer Media Award – Alice Neville

Thoughts and feelings

Like last year, we asked our lovely members a few questions about their year. 

What emoji best sums up your year?

“Woozy face” overtook “grimace” for the top spot this year but only just. “Cool guy” remains in third place. 

How optimistic are you for 2022?

Well over half of participants are again “slightly optimistic” for the coming year but nearly 30% are “not very optimistic”, up by 13% from last year. 

Did you accomplish all of your 2021 goals?

44% of members responded with “What goals?” while 21% achieved them all and are very proud. 

Has Covid-19 affected how you feel about your work/career? 

While most members are happy in their job/career, nearly 20% have been influenced by Covid-19 to change course.

The mood for 2022 – Madeleine Chapman

Like many people, this year was supposed to be my year of rest and relaxation. I had planned to cut down my work hours, enjoy life as a contractor, learn to cook, and sleep a lot. Instead, Duncan offered me the role of editor, a job that promises the opposite even at the calmest of times. When we went into level four lockdown three weeks before the handover date, I thought it was funny. When lockdown was extended a week out from the handover date and we asked Toby to please stay on for just a little longer until we were in level two, I thought it would at least make for a good story one day. On November 1 the handover happened, seven weeks after originally planned, and there was no lockdown end in sight. I lay on the floor of my cave-like bedroom after that first day, took 12 very deep breaths and thought “it’ll get calmer”. 

I’m not sure if my somewhat desperate manifesting that evening came true – what with omicron paying us a visit and some real vibes-based Covid policies – but we have certainly tried to bring a sense of calm to the website as we see out this chaotic year. We bring you the news that matters, now more attractively than ever with the new live updates format, as well as The Bulletin in your inbox each weekday morning. But what has become clear in recent months is how much we are all capable of slowing down. I planned to have a year of rest and relaxation and failed miserably, but through working for 15 weeks in lockdown, I learned how to rest and relax, and I think many others did too. 

And that’s what I want The Spinoff to offer you as readers. A place to learn, to be informed, to be outraged at injustice, yes. But also a place to rest and relax, whether it’s reading a beautiful profile of someone new, watching a short, heartwarming documentary, or listening to friends talk shit on a podcast. When the world is chaos and every week, month, year is more daunting than the last, it is futile to plan for peace. Perhaps the best we can do is try to weave the slow, joyful moments into the cross-stitch of frantic uncertainty, and see what picture emerges.

That’s what we’ll be working on at The Spinoff in 2022. See you there. 

Keep going!