The news that Mana magazine is having an indefinite (and perhaps permanent) breather is neither surprising nor welcome. These aren't healthy times for much of the print world, so we're used to hearing about publications shrinking or folding. But there were signs that Mana wasn't doing too badly since its co-founder Derek Fox leased it out three years ago to Kowhai Media, which is headed by James Frankham, who does a classy job with NZ Geographic.
It's not clear yet whether Mana will rebound. It'll be a pity though if it doesn't. It has set the benchmark for Māori magazines, and deserves to keep doing that. Gary Wilson rode herd on the first 60 issues and here he recounts how he and Derek got the magazine started. He also explains how that partnership ended.
Back in 2003, Derek Fox was reflecting, in the editorial for the February-March issue of Mana, on the magazine’s achievement in making it to its 50th issue. Quite a substantial publication it was, too, with Te Atairangikaahu on the cover and contributions (and compliments) from Moana Jackson, Rangi Walker, Nin Tomas, Hana O’Regan, Rosemary McLeod and Michael King.
Here’s how that editorial started:
Just over 10 years ago, Gary Wilson and I were chewing over whether we ought to concentrate on the radio side of our Mana operation, or branch out with a Māori magazine.
If we’d had any sense, perhaps we would’ve paused long enough to check out the market. Ask people what they’d like to read. See if advertisers were keen to spend their money.
We figured, though, that wasn’t necessary. It stood to reason, or so we thought, that plenty of New Zealanders would enjoy reading well-written stories about what Māori were doing and thinking — especially seeing that the mainstream papers and magazines weren’t doing much of a job of that.
And, if plenty of people were reading the magazine, then advertisers would clamour to be included, wouldn’t they?
We were sort of right. Plenty of people have been enjoying our stories and photographs. More and more as time goes by. Up now from 125,000 readers to 138,000 according to the latest survey by ACNeilsen.
And the advertisers have been interested enough to compel us to keep adding pages so that we’re up to 140 for this issue.
But where we were wrong is that it’s taken so long to get to this point.
Derek went on to outline the contents, which included a big story on the Kīngitanga and on the cover girl for that issue, Te Arikinui. There was also a substantial interview by Carol Archie, who was checking out Helen Clark’s background and grasp of Māori issues. And the Maimai Aroha section had stories on the passing of John Turei and Hirini Melbourne.
Seeing that Derek was listed as the editor, readers would have assumed he was doing the editing. But that wasn’t so.
Derek’s background was in radio and then television news and current affairs — all of it mainstream broadcasting before he and Whai Ngata invented and fronted Te Karere for TVNZ in the 1980s.
He’d also played a strong part in preparing for the legal battle that went all the way to the Privy Council in London, to secure a TV channel for Māori. His allies included Sian Elias, Martin Dawson, Whata Winiata, Graham Latimer and Huirangi Waikerepuru.
As a broadcaster, Derek was pretty much the full package. He had the voice, the looks, the presence, the confidence, the brains, the healthy disrespect for authority and the humour to handle just about any situation.
Print wasn’t his specialty, though. In broadcasting, he found he could wing it at times — but he didn’t warm to the different disciplines of print. That was more my territory and my interest. But we both naturally accepted that he should be the public face of the magazine even if he soon was on the fringes of that project.
The pretence that Derek was the editor wasn’t a problem for either of us. We’d been on a wavelength for years about what we saw as the important Māori issues and about how to tell stories that would catch and hold the attention of a wide range of Māori and non-Māori listeners and readers.
Soon, though, Derek was caught up in a number of other ventures including local government in Wairoa, where he was the mayor for a couple of terms, running for parliament (and losing out narrowly to Parekura Horomia), then helping set up and run the Māori Television Service.
So, to acknowledge that he’d become a kind of absentee landlord for Mana, he was listed as the magazine’s koro-at-large rather than the editor. And I listed me as the kaiwhakahaere.
No problem. That worked. And what also worked especially well was the co-operation between our radio and our magazine operations.
But let’s loop back for a moment to the 1960s, and to St Stephen’s School at Bombay. That’s where Derek and I first met. He was one of the East Coast teenage boys who’d come over from Ruatoria to board at Tipene.
I was an English teacher there. I’d started out as a reporter for the Auckland Star but my dad died suddenly and there I was back on the farm, a few miles from Pukekohe, milking our small herd of 40 cross-bred cows. These were the days when you could still make a go of it on small dairy farms. But then I struck a deal with Joe Lewis, the St Stephen’s headmaster, which had me shooting out to the school after the morning milking and feeding the pigs in time to start teaching in the third period.
Those were good times. It was a school of around 200 boys, mostly Māori but with a sprinkling of Pacific Islanders and a few Pākehā, too. There were several Pākehā on the staff as well, including the headmaster and, at one stage, Merv Wellington, who went on to become the Minister of Education in the Muldoon government.
But there was always an impressive core of Māori teachers. In my five years there, they included Koro Dewes, Scotty McPherson, George Marsden, Mark Metekingi, Rawhiti Ihaka, Awi Riddell and Api Mahuika.
Derek wasn’t in any of the classes I taught, or in the rugby teams I coached. But he was, as some of you will be unsurprised to learn, an enthusiastic assistant when I was organising school dances and arranging for girls from Pukekohe High School or Queen Vic to attend those occasions.
We didn’t link up again for more than 20 years. That was in 1989 when he and Piripi Whaanga and I set up a company called Mana Māori Media. Piripi had a background in editing Tū Tangata for the Department of Māori Affairs as well as some radio experience, including Checkpoint for RNZ. And I’d been back to newspaper reporting, freelancing and running journalism training courses.
By then, all three of us had lost patience with the mainstream media and its shamefully poor coverage of Māori issues. So we were keen to build an organisation where Māori stories and Māori perspectives were the top priority.
Ruth Harley at NZ On Air gave our plans a good hearing and, with her help, our company won a contract with Radio New Zealand and began broadcasting on National Radio in 1990. We also started feeding hourly news bulletins — in Māori and English — to the growing network of iwi stations.
We had three offices — in Wellington, Rotorua and Papatoetoe. And, once we got the magazine going in 1993, we had a total staff of more than 20.
That meant, for the first time ever, New Zealand had a critical mass of professional journalists working to a Māori kaupapa. Not just Māori journos though. There were Pākehā and Pacific Island broadcasters and writers playing critical roles as well.
Through the years, our radio and magazine teams included Wena Harawira, Rereata Makiha, Wassie Shortland, Numia Ponika-Rangi, Anahera Vercoe, Lynette Amoroa, Jason Ake, Fiona Apanui, Tiana Tofilau, Caleb Maitai, Mel Robinson, Andrew Robb, Ted Sheehan, Wena Tait, Ana Tapiata, Paul Bensemann, Sue Wilkie, Paul Diamond, Fenton Rigby, Siobhan Wilson, Erana Aldworth, Tapu Misa, Nevak Ilolahia, Isabell Speck, Lito Vilisoni, Sue Sarich, Len Hetet, Richard Davy, Warren Pohatu, Warwick Petersen, Chris Wikaira, Anna Dudding, Lloyd Ashton and Dale Husband.
One big bonus from the focus of our radio team on Māori issues was that, when we launched Mana, the magazine team could draw on the work and contacts of our broadcasters. So there was a wealth of story ideas at our disposal all the way through to 2004 when Derek and I had our falling out.
After that it got harder for the succession of Mana editors — John Woods (briefly), Katherine Findlay (for a long stretch), Aaron Smale and Leonie Hayden (for these last three years). Their difficulty was that the radio team shrank and then disappeared as Derek lost the radio contracts to supply programmes to RNZ and the network of iwi stations. So the magazine no longer came out of a newsroom chocker with story ideas.
There could be some finger pointing at both Derek and me for deciding to go our separate ways. But I was tired of Derek not being around when we needed a hand from him. And he may have been brooding over my shortcomings, particularly in not being Māori.
Anyway, there was a showdown in our Papatoetoe office in 2004 while I was working on Mana No 60. And, when I accused him, with some indelicate phrasing, of being lazy and self-centred, he shaped up to take a swing at me. Which I took as a sign of his disapproval.
Another reason for his disapproval, it became clear, was my failure to make a commercial success of our radio and print ventures. We were getting by financially, but only just. We weren’t profitable enough to deliver the substantial incomes that Derek and the rest of us would have preferred. That wasn’t an option in our line of work.
So we glared and snarled and parted. That left Derek with two companies: Mana Māori Media and its radio contracts, and Mana Productions, which was responsible for the magazine. I was left with some dollars from selling my shares to Derek — and a sadness at the turn of events which, or so it seemed, would soon lead to the crumbling of what we’d taken 15 years to build.
A week or so ago, there was the announcement that the magazine was having a breather and was on “an indefinite hold”. That may mean it’s now dog tucker, unless Derek finds new allies and revs it up all over again.
Either way, I feel neutral. My sadness goes back more than a dozen years to us not being able to find a formula to build on the organisation that had reached new heights in Māori news and current affairs. It had also been a nursery for journalists wanting to help tell Māori stories. And, with its powerful and appealing Māori voice, it had enough of a following to go much further in pushing for a fair go for Māori.
There’s no point in lamenting that lost opportunity and that lost momentum. There are things to do, especially with much of the Māori media being fragmented and low-powered. So a bunch of us from the old Mana team have been carrying on the original kaupapa, this time on e-Tangata. And not just the kaupapa of strengthening the Māori voice, but trying to do the same with Pasifika.
Our website operates under the umbrella of an independent charitable trust that Derek and I set up some time before our split: that’s the Mana Trust. So the Mana legacy and kaupapa live on.
If Derek can get Mana magazine going again, that’s well and good. Meanwhile, we’ll see what e-Tangata can manage. There’s room and a need for both of us — and for others joining the struggle too.
Gary Wilson is the co-editor of e-Tangata and a trustee of the Mana Trust, which runs e-Tangata.