Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand – an interview with Emma Johnson of Freerange Press

Everyone’s talking about journalism, how it is changing, and where its future lies. We asked Emma Johnson about the upcoming Freerange Press publication Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. This multi-author title includes contributions from Peter Arnett, Brent Edwards, Mihingarangi Forbes, Simon Wilson, Naomi Arnold, Toby Morris, Paula Penfold, Nicky Hager, Morgan Godfery and Beck Eleven. Freerange is crowdfunding to get the book printed, and you can contribute until 2 July. The book will be launched at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival 25 to 28 August.

Don't dream it's over

Emma JohnsonTell me about yourself and your role at Freerange Press.

Freerange Press is a small cooperative, which means that I get to wear many hats, though my main role is that of editor. As I love books, languages, reading and writing, working as the editor is my favourite part of the job. This entails working with people’s words on several levels: the big picture stuff (a cohesive book or well-structured essay that facilitates the reader’s experience) through to the small, finicky details such as apostrophes and the right choice of word. I also project manage the books through to publication, deal with all of the various contributors (from designers through to sponsors), organise events, do media, sales and admin.

CoverWas there a lightbulb moment that led to Don’t dream it’s over?

After the release of our last multi-author book Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, Giovanni Tiso (who is one of the other editors for Don’t Dream It’s Over) attended a conference on journalism and came to us with the idea that a similar approach to Once in a Lifetime – where different voices and perspectives are presented on an important topic in a single book – was needed to look at the challenges and opportunities facing journalism. We all agreed!

What do you see as the core purpose of journalism?

For me, journalism’s core purpose is keeping the public informed – through gathering news, the subsequent analysis of that news and bringing important stories or elements of culture into the public sphere. An informed public is essential to an effective democracy and to the notion of consent being attributed to decisions made by those in government.

You’ve got a stellar lineup of contributors – how do you about getting these people on board and managing such a large bunch of writers?

It was a combination of a public call-out and approaching people we really wanted to have on the book. Sarah Illingworth and Giovanni Tiso both work in journalism circles, so they had some really good ideas regarding potential contributors. Barnaby Bennett and myself also brainstormed. Then we explained the project and approached people – many signed on. I think that the number of them indicates the need to examine journalism and the timely nature of the publication.

Can you give some examples of journalism and news sites that are dealing well with the evolving media landscape – who is swimming, who is sinking?

I think sites like Pantograph Punch, which has great arts and culture content, and The Spinoff have responded to the challenging times and are both producing great writing, including long reads, by fantastic contributors. I think that mainstream media and traditional outlets are struggling and the quality of their journalism overall has slipped for a number of reasons. As revenue is limited, they have let lots of experienced staff go, which has emptied out the profession (and in turn the journalism that the public has access to), so they turn to clickbait and such to garner attention amidst the noise. There is more content, but less diversity (some genres are really struggling).

What IS the future of the media landscape in New Zealand?

This is the question that book seeks to explore – there are many responses and points of view on this. Many of the contributors have strong ideas about where it needs to go and what it needs to do – the difficulties lie more around the ‘how’, or more specifically, how we pay for it. As a society we need to look at what we value in journalism, and seek to address these challenges.

Can you tell us a bit about your Pledgeme campaign – can people still contribute?

As making books in New Zealand is expensive, and as we wish to pay everyone (at least a little) for their work, we are crowdfunding to help get us over the line with our cash flow for printing. Our target is $11,500 (budget breakdown is included on our campaign page). We have lots of great rewards too. You can contribute until 2 July.

What do you think about libraries?

Libraries are extremely important to our communities – they are reservoirs of knowledge, and the keepers of memories and the ways we express ourselves. Most importantly, they are cultural hubs that are available and open to all,  for free.

What are you reading/watching/listening to?

I have been reading the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – such wonderful writing and translations. I have also just finished Silencing Science by Shaun Hendy – one of the great BWB Texts.

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Find out more

Get a taster of the upcoming book Don’t dream it’s over – Read Navigating the waters of Māori broadcasting by Mihingarangi Forbes, published on the Pantograph Punch website.

The power of fiction

The Lubetkin LegacyCan reading fiction make you a better person?

For example, the state of housing in New Zealand is a serious topic that surges and wanes with the seasons but never completely disappears from our radar. Winter always brings about an increase in concern: no one wants to live in a cold, leaky home, and no one can tolerate the idea of homelessness in winter. How can fiction help with this?

This month alone I’ve had books on housing fair jumping off the shelves at me. And it started from the unlikely corner of light fiction, with a novel by Marina Lewycka (she of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian fame.) Her latest novel The Lubetkin Legacy tackles the topic of council housing in England and the modern day sale of previously held council accommodation to the upwardly mobile.

This light-hearted romp introduces us to some thorny housing issues that are apparent worldwide and also raises our awareness of the architect Lubetkin who pioneered the fusion of  social, political and aesthetic factors in the drive for a better world for “ordinary people”.

Style CouncilNext up, the artily compiled Style Council (Inspirational Interiors in Ex-council Homes) fell into my hands. I read this book in a single night. And no, I did not only look at the pictures. It deals with exactly the same problem: the dissolution of council housing in Britain in favour of private ownership. But this time it is from the perspective of the new owners – many of whom have niggly social concerns about what they are doing, but who quite simply cannot afford anything better. The book shows how they transform their new homes, while at the same time, paying respectful homage to the original design philosophies.

Let’s not leave New Zealand out of this. I’ve looked at three books about state housing in New Zealand, here goes:

Only The Houses Remain is a well researched book on an admittedly complex topic, but it is unlikely to attract uninitiated readers like myself. For example, the word “policy” is mentioned fifteen times in the introduction alone – ever the kiss of death for me.

We Call it HomeHomes People Can Afford (How to Improve Housing in New Zealand) is very slightly more upbeat. It consists of a series of essays by different contributors, but despite a more appealing cover, it still fails to pull in all the fence-sitters whose support it will likely need for a new housing policy to get the traction it requires.

We Call it Home – A History of State Housing in New Zealand is an older book (2005) but is the most appealing of the three as it focuses more on families and their relationship with state housing. It has more photographic content and as a result, from it I have garnered a better sense of what state housing means to New Zealanders.

What I love about this particular learning curve, is that my improved awareness of a serious topic, like housing, was kick-started by an entertaining novel, set in England and written by a Ukrainian writer.

Never underestimate the power of fiction!