Digital storytelling at Stuff made more engaging with collaboration

By Carol Hirschfeld


Wellington, New Zealand


When I began in journalism as a cadet reporter with New Zealand’s public broadcaster Radio New Zealand 34 years ago, the concept of sharing stories with other media was a complete anathema.

The news landscape in this country, like everywhere in the world, was founded on the principle of exclusivity. A “scoop” was the holy grail of every working journalist. It prompted fierce rivalry and, at times, some amusing behaviour. In the 1990s, for instance, a friend who was a correspondent with the country’s largest television network found a carton of milk planted under the tire of her vehicle one morning. Why? Her counterpart from the rival network would be alerted when she left the motel by an explosive pop — in case she beat him to the interview that would make the difference in the story they were both furiously pursuing.

A collaboration between Stuff and Newshub resulted in multi-faceted coverage by two organisations that could not have reported on the topic in such detail on their own.
A collaboration between Stuff and Newshub resulted in multi-faceted coverage by two organisations that could not have reported on the topic in such detail on their own.

Such rivalries still exist, of course, and probably always will at some level. But the world in which they play out has changed almost beyond recognition. Back then, I wouldn’t, and probably couldn’t, have imagined the role I am in now: heading content partnerships and building bridges between competing media companies would have been nothing short of blasphemy.

But around a decade ago, digital disruption began to bite traditional media in earnest. News organisations, both editorially and commercially, were compelled to rethink the way things were done. It became clear that cooperation — not competition — could be a way forward.

As New Zealand's largest domestic Web site, presents a real opportunity to act as a platform and a publisher. For content partners and collaborators, the advantage we deliver is using our unique scale and digital dominance to get their content in front of a larger audience than they'd otherwise reach. For us, the advantage is an even richer array of diverse content as a one-stop shop for readers.

The Panama Papers precedent

In 2017 the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) won the Pulitzer Prize for The Panama Papers, a year-long collaboration among 370 journalists from across the globe. In pursuing this project, journalists analysed millions of leaked financial records and documents to expose the hidden dealings of many offshore companies and the secretive system of corruption and crime that enables it.

Established in 1997, the ICIJ was founded on the principle of collaboration, with all its major projects now involving journalists from multiple countries: “We want to empower our readers to engage with their local communities about issues of global importance, such as broken systems and abuses of power. And we want to do that by harnessing the enormous strength of our extensive network.”

The ICIJ’s success in using the collective power of diverse news networks has been a welcome triumph for quality journalism at a time when the business of serious reporting seemed under real threat. In New Zealand, Stuff is moving assertively to find new ways to tell important national stories by working with media partners who were once the competition.

This kind of collaboration is what media think tank Nieman Lab has forecast as a defining characteristic of the new age of journalism: “As trust in media is challenged and the economic challenges facing news organizations continue, the newsrooms who produce this journalism and the technology companies who surface and distribute it will come together this year. By joining forces, they’ll be able to better identify and serve the needs of their shared audiences and pool resources where it makes sense.”

Complementary collaboration creates quality content

In May this year, we obtained exclusive access to the Prosperity Index, a major project by the city council in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest urban centre. The report, which wasn’t released to the public until after our stories were published, revealed that while the city’s economy was booming, inequality was growing at a rate of 3.4% annually.

Despite the NZ$100 billion generated each year, there were ever-growing gaps in the city’s ability to look after its own residents. The index tracked and scored communities on a scale of zero-10 based on annual household income, home ownership, rental affordability, and unemployment levels. The results exposed a startling difference between the most affluent suburb, with a rating of 9.8, and the least well off, which rated just 0.7 out of 10.

For Stuff, the index results provided a chance to try a new storytelling approach. To gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving this social inequity, we developed a collaboration with MediaWorks’ Newshub, a competitor with core competencies in television and radio broadcasting that complement Stuff’s strong digital and print portfolio. Editors and reporters from traditionally competing outlets created a combined editorial plan to investigate the five areas in the city that had the lowest deprivation scores.

A Tale of Two Cities - A Stuff/Newshub Investigation showed how access to employment was preventing an even distribution of economic benefits and how the pressure on housing and infrastructure was disproportionately affecting the lower paid. It also raised the question of the central government’s role and responsibility in helping Auckland cope with explosive population growth.

Stuff developed an interactive online feature, which contained embedded video stories produced by Newshub and Stuff’s visual journalists. The video content was repurposed into longer stand-alone television packages that played in Newshub’s primetime evening bulletin. Both organisations published over the same timeframe, and were able to provide comprehensive, multi-faceted coverage on a complex set of issues to a far broader audience then either could have achieved alone.

Newshub reporter Simon Shepherd described the project as labour-intensive but satisfying: “Scoping the whole thing took quite a long time. Stuff’s reporter, Carmen Parahi, and I spent about six weeks meeting to put everything together. The people we featured, and the index’s authors, were really pleased with the outcome, because we were able to spend proper time researching and then telling stories in depth and detail.”

Rethinking content collaborations and partnerships

Over the past few years, Stuff has developed content partnerships with other local media players that extend beyond one-off collaborations, including TVNZ, Radio New Zealand, Māori Television, and All provide video or audio content that can be used to enhance Stuff-produced stories that then offer our audience full, balanced coverage. The partnerships, where appropriate, operate on an advertising-revenue-sharing basis — an arrangement that, so far, works for everyone.

Stuff also recently developed partnerships with the Chinese-New Zealand Web site Skykiwi and the Indian broadcaster Radio Tarana, both of which are opportunities to better serve our diverse communities by sourcing stories and hearing voices often missing from mainstream media.

Radio Tarana is about to take that relationship one step further and Stuff will soon become the broadcaster’s primary Web home. A special section of Tarana content on the Stuff site will effectively become the radio station’s Web site — two very different media outlets working together to reflect the collective needs of their audiences.

Clearly, we have come a very long way in the last couple decades, since the old milk-carton-under-the-tire trick. Here at Stuff we are always looking for new and better ways to connect our communities with what matters to them. Sharing content, and even sharing the scoop, is one of the ways we are achieving this. You might even say that when it comes to media sustainability, collaboration could well be the new black.

About Carol Hirschfeld

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