12 Sep 2020

Resurrecting North & South magazine: Rachel Morris

From Saturday Morning, 5:09 pm on 12 September 2020

Iconic New Zealand monthly current affairs magazine North & South is rising from the ashes, and at the helm will be new editor Rachel Morris.

German journalists Konstantin Richter and Verena Friederike Hasel bought the title from Bauer Media who closed it down during April's Level 4 lockdown.

Morris has been working as executive editor for the Huffington Post's award winning longform digital magazine, Highline. She is returning to New Zealand to revive the magazine, and talked to Saturday Morning about the future of long-form feature writing.

Rachel Morris

Rachel Morris Photo: supplied / Tony Nyberg

Morris will be part of the "brain-gain" of successful New Zealanders returning from around the world as a result of the global pandemic.

She will step into a role at the helm of efforts to resurrect current affairs magazine North & South. The magazine was  bought by German journalists Konstantin Richter and Verena Friederike Hasel, after Bauer Media closed it down during April's level 4 lockdown.

In between packing up her home in Washington DC, she talked to RNZ's Kim Hill about the push and pull to adapt to the new digital mediascape and taking a leap of faith for a top shelf market she believes there is a need for.

Before co-founding Highline for HuffPost, Morris worked for prestigious high brow magazine The New Republic, which was founded in 1914 and has published a long line-up of heavyweight writers such as George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Stiglitz and Zadie Smith. But with new ownership a change in direction signalled from above demanded "snackable" content", and Morris said she (and most of the rest of the magazine's editorial staff) quit. She began looking for a more meaningful direction.

"My thinking was if something like that could happen to a magazine that was 100 years old, and had layers upon layers of tradition and incredible archives, then what was needed was to bring those standards of writing into online places, so that if you were to lose a publication like The New Republic there would be other places where that kind of writing could be done.

"Also having worked at a number of smaller magazines in the States the economics of them are really brutal, and it's harder and harder to keep going for a lot of print publications, with a few big exceptions. So figuring out how to make that kind of work viable seemed - even if it didn't work - like something that was worth trying."

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Photo: 123rf

And it became clear that there was a readership online for solid long-form work.

"There was always this sort of assumption that only a very small group of people want to read what you might call 'ruminative content'... so there was this almost self-limiting attitude towards what kinds of stories were commissioned or who magazines like that think they're reaching or talking to," Morrs said.

"I felt like - maybe this is a Kiwi thing - it just seemed to me not true that you have to have a masters degree, or a fancy job to be interested in a really well-told story and wanting to understand how the world around you actually works.

"So HuffPost was a moment where that theory was actually going to get tested, I was quite nervous about it. There are a lot of things that HuffPost produces that are really quick to produce, written in a few hours about something like the Kardashians or something like that, and I was quite terrified at the beginning that we would spend six months on a piece and it would be number 20 on the most-read pieces for the day, and something that took 15 minutes would be number one.

"And actually... the Highline pieces every year would be the pieces consistently at the top for the HuffPost, because they kept getting readers after the day they were published, and people would rediscover them. They would pass them around in a way that doesn't happen with the more 'snackable' kinds of pieces."

So where does North & South and the New Zealand market sit right now; can a magazine fostering long-form journalism stay afloat?

"I guess I feel journalism here at this point is also a leap of faith. Unless you're working at say The New York Times and maybe one or two other places that are financially stable - I think the issues, the precariousness that media institutions have in New Zealand are the same as other places," Morris said.

"To me, there's a greater chance of success with having independent publishers who are invested in both the magazine, the writers, the legacy and deeply interested in New Zealand as a country. With Bauer it obviously had greater reach and resources, but putting out quality long-form journalism about really complex subjects of interest to New Zealanders was not high on its corporate priorities list.

"So that really affects what a magazine can do if its owners are not supportive or don't see the potential of what is there. The previous North & South team really worked miracles under really tough conditions, because there were just so many cutbacks and... the sand vanishing under your feet. It's really hard to put out a magazine in those circumstances, so having owners that are smaller, independent but much more committed to the publication to me seems like a big advantage."  

Non-daily print media are not considered an essential service, effectively shutting down magazines like The Listener and North & South and community papers across the country.

Non-daily print media were not considered an essential service in level 4 lockdown, effectively shutting down magazines like The Listener, North & South and community papers across the country. Photo: RNZ / Bridget Tunnicliffe

The advertising landscape the magazine will be competing in is tough terrain right now, with the Covid pandemic carving away even more of the already scarce potential revenue.

"I just really think that a publication like North & South is important for New Zealand to have... you really lose something if you can't cover big important issues at some length and complexity, rather than the sort of day-to-day blow-by-blow versions of it. So it's definitely going to be a challenge, reader support is going to be really, really important. I think of it as a bit of a collective undertaking," Morris said.