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Aotearoa could be losing Mana

Last week it was announced that the production of Mana magazine would be put on hold indefinitely by its owner, Mana Productions, who said at this stage they do not intend to continue publishing it. In 1991 Mana Productions was set up by broadcaster Derek Fox to launch the magazine “in response to a lack of mainstream media commitment and expertise in providing an adequate coverage of Māori activities, interests, education, news and current affairs”.

For the past three years, the magazine’s license has been held by Kōwhai Media - who employed journalist Leonie Hayden as its editor - but this month, the license returned to Mana Productions. This week on The Wire, producer India Essuah spoke with Mana’s former editor Leonie Hayden about the importance of the magazine, Kōwhai’s unsuccessful bid to buy the title and her new project with The Spinoff.

I: What’s your understanding of the reasons Mana Productions have, at this stage, decided to stop publishing the magazine?

L: When Kōwhai Media took over the license to publish Mana we agreed that we’d start negotiations six months before that license ran out to try and purchase the title. That happened six months ago – we made an offer to Mana Productions on behalf of Kōwhai Media based on the small amount of profit that we’d been able to turn over, over that that three years, or two and a half years, plus a little bit more. It was a reasonable offer and it was certainly a lot more than a lot of magazines sell for these days. I myself once worked for a magazine that ended up being sold for $1. We thought we were offering quite a good price, but we had our offer rejected, and that’s their right to reject that offer I guess.

But we were also aware, working in publishing and knowing that environment quite well, that there was no other publishing company in New Zealand that would make a similar offer because a title that niche as well requires certain sensitivities and even if you’re asking Māori organisations, which is now what Mana Productions are now doing, casting the net wider and saying Māori organisations should step up and buy this title. Which is all well and good if all he wants is more money, but at the end of the day you still going to require a publishing company to publish that magazine – not just anyone can do it.

That may sound arrogant, but you need a fire station to put out fires, you need people who know how to do the job to do the job. You can’t just buy a magazine and all of a sudden you know how to publish a magazine. We genuinely thought we were the best people for the job and we made an offer that reflected our respect for the title, as well as what it was actually worth in the current market and it was rejected.

I: I read that Kōwhai’s director said that Mana did perform well, obviously it’s really tough for magazines at the moment, what were its strengths that allowed it to do so well?

L: The person that would have been quoted is the director of Kōwhai Media who is James Frankham and frankly, he was what allowed it to perform so well. Kōwhai Media owns New Zealand Geographic and he bought that magazine after their owners had announced that they would stop publishing it and he’s just a really smart, resourceful, enterprising guy who knows how to turn a magazine into an eco-system if that makes sense, because you can just publish a magazine.

You’ve got the bigger players like Bauer, Fairfax and APN who, in order to stay afloat, have to publish many magazines in order to keep those titles going. But James figured out how to just create lots of really great satellite projects that you can attach to your magazine which also create revenue. That way your magazine can continue to be the jewel in the crown and you can put a lot of work into making it look beautiful and to actually paying writers and photographers enough to produce really great quality content.

I think personally [James Frankham] does that better than anyone in New Zealand, so that’s the expertise he was starting to put into Mana. It took us a long time, it took us a couple of years, to even get its head above water. We didn’t lose any money, but we certainly weren’t making money hand over fist even though we were putting all of our considerable time and resources and expertise into it.

The next step was logically to buy it, but then to also to invest more money in it so that we could build other things, like a digital archive and events which you can stage annually and attract sponsors and you tie those to the magazine and it’s this quite beautiful ecosystem which keeps everything going. It’s also means you can have a small core staff who are paid well for what they do and also enjoy what they do without that job insecurity that a lot of the publishing industry experiences.

I: A magazine’s value isn’t just about the money it’s turning over either – what are some of the most important stories you covered during your time as editor?

L: There was a few, one of the limitations of a magazine is that you can’t send a really great story as widely as you’d like because we actually published a story about Auckland’s housing crisis, reporting on the fact that families were living in cars, months and months before that hit the headlines. That was a story by Aaron Smale and that was a really important story for us and I do wish that had gone further.

We did a story last year on youth suicide about two specific areas: Northland, which is featuring again in the Herald’s really great coverage, and also down in Christchurch where a lot of people were affected after the earthquakes. We’ve done really great investigations into Māori language, the over-incarceration of Māori men – all these big ticket stories that need to be revisited every few years. I think we did quite well by those over the last couple of years.

I: If another magazine or platform was going to step up and fill the gap left by Mana, what kind of values or sensitivities, as you say, would it need to have?

L: I think the most important thing for a Māori platform is to use Māori voices and even within that you’re still looking at a range of perspectives and experiences. We’re at the point where you can no longer have a cishet white male talking about diversity. The communities themselves need to be at the centre of every conversation about those communities.

Māori platforms that are talking about Māori issues need to be by and for Māori. The section that we are hopefully about to launch soon for The Spinoff is going to be run and edited by me and I’ll be carrying over some of my contributors from Mana so that their voices are at the centre of that. I think that’s the most important thing.

I think the other important thing to realise is that there are just millions of stories. It doesn’t always have to be about settlement and child abuse and incarceration – those are really, really, really important issues but the stuff that falls through the cracks and the amazing colourful characters.

There’s this wealth of stories out there in Te Ao Māori just waiting to be talked about and presented, so I’m hoping to keep doing that work because I think it’s really important, rather than just being in the news to do with crime. In our second-to-last issue we did this amazing story on the Māori approach to infertility and some of the natural rongoā Māori practices involved in that, [which are] complementary to IVF.

There is a Māori perspective to everything in our world because we live in this world – there’s so much to tell.


Mana magazine’s archive can be accessed by clicking here.


Photo credit: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas