Ordinary people, extraordinary days

By Ewan McDonald

Choosing the right subject for The Aucklander's first cover was a tough call. We were about to turn the idea of a community publication on its head - to toss those dreary "two minutes' silences" into the garbage and create a part-newspaper, part-magazine that celebrated the region's diversity, successes, past and future, its ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We wanted to be hard-hitting when it was called for, but have a softer side too.

Can't remember when the right answer hit, but it was the perfect solution. Not the view from Mt Eden or the Sky Tower or a pohutukawa blooming at Takapuna or Eastern Beach. La'auli Michael Jones, the West Auckland boy with the All Black heart and the Samoan soul; student, entrepreneur, educator, role model, husband, father. Tackled like a panther, strummed guitar after the game.

"This is just such a special part of the world. It's a unique package," he told Auckland in that first edition, nine years ago this week. "Physically it's unbelievable with beaches, bush and all our volcanic hills. And it's also cosmopolitan and multicultural, with all the richness that brings."

We decided those would be the values behind the publication. Unlike conventional community newspapers, we wouldn't chronicle every jot, tittle and spittle from the local council or the community cop or print photos of all 37 kids who played for the Mt Roskill Midgets soccer team in their unbeaten championship season, each name spelled correctly in the caption.

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We would tell stories through the eyes of local residents affected by the events and issues in their suburbs - and there were plenty of issues in the suburbs across Auckland. We would take their concerns and complaints and dreams and represent them to the decision-makers - particularly important in a metropolis where everyday folk often didn't have a clue who their local councillor or MP was.

And we would have fun. Early in our life, we realised we'd hit the streets on February 14 - so we persuaded a bloke to pop the question to his girlfriend, kneeling in Mission Bay, bouquet in hand, for our Valentine's Day cover. She read the proposal when she picked the paper out of her letterbox - and said "Yes".

When Auckland War Memorial Museum brought dinosaurs to town, we reported the find as fact. Got phone calls about the discovery of prehistoric beasts from newspapers and researchers from Sweden, the US ...

Our journalists and photographers have always believed that you can't present the news unless you've experienced and understand it. When a reporter felt she was missing her grandparents back in Australia, she volunteered to spend time as "surrogate step-granddaughter" to an old woman in her neighbourhood. Our staff decided to test the idea that everyone can become involved in their community by giving up an hour of their out-of-work time a week. When they told the story, charities reported vastly increased inquiries from the public wanting to help out (one had to employ an extra person on the phones).

In 2007 The Aucklander launched a major campaign focusing on neighbourhood liquor stores. We reported how the 1989 Sale of Liquor Act had all but obliterated the community's ability to object to how many liquor licences were granted in their suburbs, or where liquor stores were sited. We reported on the huge increases in the number of liquor licences and the proven links between access to liquor and crime - particularly among young people.

That resulted in 10,000 signed letters to the then-Prime Minister and MPs, from readers, calling for the law to be changed. Helen Clark's Government paved the way for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into liquor legislation; Parliament voted yes to Manurewa MP George Hawkins' bill to restore community rights to object to liquor licence applications.

Last Friday, following the drinking age vote, the Herald's front page reported those items are next on Parliament's agenda.

And if you park in a disabled spot these days, you can be fined four times as much as before another campaign, in 2006. Sorry about that. Oh, no, we're not.

W.T. Stead, fractured genius of English crusading journalism, wrote: "It is in the power of every individual to do that which the community as a whole is powerless to effect."

When the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Auckland's local government tabled its recommendations for reform in 2008, I was perturbed. When the recently anointed Local Government Minister, Rodney Hide, and Prime Minister John Key radically altered the proposals - and specifically denied Aucklanders a vote on the form of their elected and unelected local authorities, disquiet became disgust. Perhaps I was also channelling Stead's view of an editor's role: "What a glorious opportunity of attacking the devil, isn't it?"

For more than a year The Aucklander led opposition to the National-Act interpretation of democracy. We began by urging readers to "bomb Parliament" - email MPs with objections; thousands did. Following editorials, news coverage and readers' letters we became the first newspaper to present a submission "on behalf of its readers" before Parliament's Select Committee. A Cabinet Minister called it "the most articulate and well argued case" against the proposal.

When the Government still denied the public a vote, we organised a regional referendum, using a website and 250,000-plus ballot papers. It resulted in a 96% "NO" vote. The Government signficantly amended its plans, and there are those who say the more powerful model of local boards came out of The Aucklander's suggestion box.

We've always championed Auckland's multicultural communities: in pride of place on our "brag wall" is a certificate from the Human Rights Commission recognising our contribution to diversity in reporting.

Also there are trophies for Best Suburban or Community Newspaper in the 2008 and 2009 Qantas Media Awards. In 2010 we placed second. We were top-three at the 2010 Pacific Area Newspaper Awards for non-daily newspapers. Since 2003 we've won 50-plus journalism and photographic awards at the Community Newspaper Awards; three times Best Newspaper, five times for Community Involvement. We won our first plaque for the Best Front Page in 2004 and continued an eight-year unbroken run this year. We live in the digital world through our Facebook and Twitter profiles, and of course our website, theaucklander.co.nz - also judged the country's best community news site this year.

In that first edition, La'auli Michael Jones said: "You can't get away from it, there has to be that love for your fellow man. If at the end of the day that's not at the heart of our city then we've got a problem."

That's what we stood for at The Aucklander.

As Auckland as ...

a picnic on Cheltenham Beach ... an ice cream at Mission Bay ... the Blues at Eden Park ... shopping in Newmarket ... going up the SkyTower ... cows on Mt Eden ... the Warriors at Ericsson ... latte on Ponsonby Rd ... lifeguards at Piha ... Kingswoods on Lincoln Rd ... a swing in Potters Park ... the ferry to Devonport ... fishing under the Harbour Bridge ... P-classes off Pt Chev ... sheep in Cornwall Park ... vineyards at Henderson ... a swim in Parnell baths ... a concert in the Domain ... Sunday morning, Otara market ... a Remuera tractor ... the Grey Lynn festival ... peak hour at Spaghetti Junction.

- Our promise to readers, September 18, 2003

* APN has announced The Aucklander's final newspaper was the issue of September 6.

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- The Aucklander

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