Down a rabbit hole: Lois Turei challenges traditional thinking in newsrooms

My seven-year-old self encountered two life-changing moments. First, I found out my given name for the first time - the one I was known by was a nickname. The second, a headlong plunge into a lifelong love affair with reading, kickstarted by a dose of Alice in Wonderland during a bout of childhood sickness.

Alice wasn’t one for polite invitations; she seized me by the hand and flung me into a world where reality and fantasy danced a tango. This whimsical journey ignited a passion for reading and the written word. I voraciously devoured everything within reach in our humble home, steering clear of Dad’s beloved cowboy books, the sole literary residents apart from Aunt Daisy and the Edmonds cookbooks, both of which I would become intimately acquainted with.

But Dad had a subscription to the New Zealand Herald. My Dad was a true, blue Tūhoe boy from the sticks - blue-collar worker but a blue political supporter. I never understood his unbridled support for Robert Muldoon. But I digress.

I fancifully imagine it was Alice herself who led me down the rabbit hole that revealed the Herald.

Page 7, with its daily cable page, became my passport to distant lands and exotic tales. Each headline was a postcard from some far-off place, and every article a snippet of a life I dreamt of exploring.

The Herald, with its peculiar ink smell, became my confidante, my secret companion, my steadfast ally until the day I left for boarding school at 13.

The imagination of the wide-eyed 7-year-old couldn’t have conjured the notion that she’d find herself working for that “hallowed newspaper” - my father’s words - almost 50 years later. That would have seemed as absurd as the Hatter’s tea party.

As we commemorate the 160th anniversary of this publication, I find myself reflecting on the New Zealand Herald’s intricate connection to its readership and, in particular, its ties with Māori communities.

Two years ago, I assumed the mantle of Head of Cultural Partnerships, steering a bicultural strategy grounded in Tiriti principles. This entailed infusing a cultural lens into our content and cultivating the talents of young Māori and Pasifika individuals.

The catalyst for this shift was Teuila Fuatai’s impactful column, “Why I found it so hard to write about racism in New Zealand for the Herald”. A first-generation Samoan, Fuatai grappled with the challenges of addressing racism amidst the surging Black Lives Matter movement in Aotearoa.

Her efforts hit immediate roadblocks, with Black Lives Matter Auckland refusing an interview due to their perception of the Herald’s biased coverage. The column triggered a storm of debate, laying bare resentment among Māori and Pasifika communities towards the Herald and a general mistrust among other ethnic communities toward mainstream media.

Our senior editorial leaders confronted the depth of this resentment, grappling with the bitter pill that the Herald was viewed as “an old white man’s mouthpiece for old, white affluent men”.

Immediate counteraction risked being seen as insincere, demanding a more extended, introspective approach to news planning and delivery.

Amid this self-reflection, I redirected the mirror on myself, feeling a profound sense of shame. With four decades in the industry, what meaningful contribution had I made to Māori journalism?

Many Māori journalists succumb to frustration, leaving mainstream media because of a perceived lack of cultural safety.

Years earlier, rather than quitting I had taken a deliberate step back from frontline reporting, eventually specialising in operations, production and editing. It was an easier path, avoiding the juggling act between the newsroom’s demands and the expectations of my people. Years later, I felt that was a cop-out.

The Fuatai debate was a wake-up call that spurred me to bring my wahine Māori perspective to the forefront. NZME was ready to embrace a bicultural strategy, and I was ready for the challenge.

A pivotal initiative has emerged - the Te Rito Journalism Cadetship Programme. Developed to address the under-representation of diverse communities in New Zealand’s newsrooms, it aimed to amplify voices from Māori, Pasifika, ethnic, disabled and LGBTQIA+ communities.

Initially conceived as a modest journalism cadetship programme, NZME joined hands with Whakaata Māori, Discovery-Newshub, and Pacific Media Network. This partnership, funded by the Public Interest Journalism Fund via New Zealand on Air, and spanning digital, print, television, radio, social, and podcast platforms, laid the foundation for the Te Rito programme.

Guided by Māori values of manaakitanga (respect), aroha (compassion), whanaungatanga (kinship and connections), and mana (justice and equity), the inaugural programme kicked off in February 2022, enlisting 24 cadets. Indigenous practices, including karakia-led interviews and acknowledgment of cultural affiliations, played a pivotal role in the selection process.

A rigorous three-month training regimen ensued, followed by work experience placements across 15 newsrooms.

In February this year, 22 cadets graduated, securing industry positions. Within NZME, nine were recruited into various newsroom teams, enriching our live news, business, sport, regional news, radio, and pioneering youth news initiatives.

The second cohort commenced in May, advancing the Te Rito programme with 12 talented and smart cadets. They are about to start on-the-job training in the Te Rito partnership newsrooms, and will graduate next May.

Te Rito’s ethos revolves around tapping into our “superpower” - our lived experiences as indigenous peoples. It’s a point of difference that challenges traditional thinking, empowering diverse voices and reshaping our newsroom dynamics.

This initiative not only supports Māori storytelling through our Māori platform Kāhu and Pasifika storytelling via Talanoa but also underscores NZME’s commitment to diverse storytelling. The recruitment of graduates has been transformative, challenging preconceptions and fostering an inclusive and impactful newsroom.

The infusion of Māori and Pasifika words and greetings into our newsroom reflects heightened cultural awareness. The demand for cultural competency training and basic language sessions has surged, contributing to an overall improvement in cultural awareness. Senior journalists, engaged in the Te Rito programme, have experienced a shift in their perspectives on journalism, recognising the importance of sharing Māori and Pasifika stories.

The Herald carries a weighty legacy of mishandling Māori, Pasifika, and ethnic stories, but our strides toward rectifying this narrative have been through incremental steps. Our progress has been steady but the road ahead is long, and there is much work to be done.

In the words of Alice, “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”. Our newsroom, too, evolves.

Lois Turei is a descendant of Tūhoe, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Whakatōhea and Te Whānau-a-Apanui. She is the Head of Cultural Partnerships and Newsroom Diversity and the Programme Manager of Te Rito Journalism Project.