Hello Mainstream!?

Talk Wellington’s mission was to get the “mainstream” public conversation – that shapes our towns and cities – featuring more good thinking, from more voices, and fuelling better action. Two-and-a-bit years later, your convenor Isabella Cawthorn asks: has anything changed?


Hello Readers! It’s me, Isabella.

You may’ve noticed our April 2019 update: Talk Wellington is changing.
So it’s high time to look around, and ask: what have we achieved?

It’s been a hell of a ride, that’s for sure.

Talk Wellington’s proof-of-concept phase – the last two years – have involved (as of writing) 239 pieces of content, mostly made-from-scratch, thousands of social media posts, hundreds of thousands of exchanges and discussions online and real-life. A tenfold increase in readership, a loyal base of personal donors. An ultimately unsuccessful tilt at sustainable funding. Career boosts for several talented people. Comments like, “I had no idea about that til I read that Talk Wellington piece, it was really helpful – and I even made a submission!”

This is pretty impressive for a very small team, and pure for-the-love-of-it volunteer energy from Te Upoko o te Ika (and beyond!)

Homai te pakipaki!

Did we really expect to go mainstream?

When we began we knew very well that today’s media landscape is a harsh environment if you aspire to be part of the everyday, regular person’s information diet.

It’s a worldwide phenomenon that societies and the journalism community alike are struggling with. Domestically, Fairfax and NZME do their best, within the constraints of how they’re made. The likes of Newsroom and The Spinoff also do their best.

But if your subject-matter is what shapes towns and cities, the media landscape is an especially difficult habitat to grow and thrive in. Your content is often the stuff that doesn’t get covered by Normal Media, because it’s annoyingly complicated (and tends to be pretty boring): the ins and outs of local government, of complex central government bureaucracies’ funding and rules, of infrastructure, of the complicated and often mixed-up ecosystems of actors that produce our housing, shops, pipes, bridges, bus stops.

Not exactly your go-viral, headline-grabbing material.

One of the hottest sections (predicting traffic volumes) in the incredibly important, and incredibly dull and confusing, Economic Evaluation Manual used by NZTA.
Glamour shot of the Land Transport Act section that induced recent Wellington angst (see Parking: costs)

That’s why – with one Aotearoa exception – dedicated public-good information on this stuff tends to be well under the mainstream radar.

So with all these things pitched against success, we knew hard yakka wouldn’t be enough; Talk Wellington would also need a lot of luck to make go mainstream. (And that’s quite apart from the separate challenge of getting sustainably funded to do so).

But we figured (TBH “we” here is mostly me as convenor) that if someone energetic with privilege and networks couldn’t have a crack at it, who could?

Yeah!

We are (in) mainstream media!

So fast forward almost three years of plugging away trying to prove that our concept was viable, we’ve just hit a peak! In April we had a three-part series in the Dominion Post and online at Stuff.co.nz, presenting a better vision for transport and making some clear calls to action for Let’s Get Wellington Moving.

Our series’ production was a long and intensive team effort from dozens of public-spirited thinkers, writers and visuals folk. It ran over three Saturdays, each instalment comprising two complementary pieces, smushed together for the space of the “paper paper” (usually with pictures trimmed out), published in their full visual glory online at Stuff, and of course here.

Look what’s at the top of the Editor’s Picks on Stuff.co.nz!

For your handy future reference:

The first Saturday on Stuff (parts 1 & 2)

The second Saturday on Stuff

The third and final Saturday on Stuff

TV3 (Newshub) picked this up on the third Saturday’s 6pm news, running full-screen versions of our gorgeous visualisations and interviewing Justin Lester at home to get his responses.

One of our visualisations, full screen on the actual 6 o’clock TV news.
See (amateurish) video with stifled squeaks of excitement in the background

Monday, Newstalk ZB ran a 5-minute live interview (“30k inner city?! Controversial!”).

Talk Wellington’s vision was News!

In the Stuff comments, the usual suspects did their thing, but amongst those who’d clearly not even read the pieces (nor, some, even looked properly at the pictures) were plenty of people whose minds were feeling opened to the possibilities and promise of doing Wellington transport better.

Hits on our site and sign-ups to our newsletter promptly went up tenfold. We received a swag of personal emails from people saying how much they appreciated reading the series, and endorsing our hope that decision-makers were listening too. People in the trade call this “cut-through”: when your messages break through the heaving morass of issues trying to get mainstream eyes and ears on them.

Nothing can really express how we felt better than a GIF:

(Now before we go on, let it be said: the Dominion Post didn’t have to run our material. They could’ve easily taken it, put their own spin on it, and run it as theirs. Instead they gave us tens of thousands of dollars worth of space in the desirable front section of the Saturday paper, running our content more or less verbatim. (And we weren’t always easy: our labelled montages of streetscapes are a layout person’s nightmare, yet they published it all.) So props to Eric Janssen and the Dominion Post crew.)

Sponsorship: the hardest fruit to get

And just like that, Talk Wellington became more mainstream than ever before, but the existential crisis of funding hadn’t gone away.

In the time we were picking up hundreds, possibly thousands more readers (if you count both new signups to our newsletter plus new site hits), we got one additional personal donor. Ultimately, the failure of my 2018 corporate sponsorship fundraising has doomed our ambitions to become a regular part of Wellington’s mainstream information diet.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise, given the odds: in this day and age, it’s very hard to get good, truly independent journalism properly funded, even for Really Newsy News topics. (Just look at Presspatron to see the great journalism living on the smell of an oily rag.) And it’s really hard, in a small country and smaller region, to find organisations comfortable enough with being associated with criticism of potential clients, even when they (and also the clients!) wholeheartedly agree with the need for better public discourse on city-shaping topics.

Our Dominion Post series, therefore, would be the swansong for Talk Wellington as a mainstream-aspiring publication. We have been running largely off my savings account and social capital, and it’s simply not possible to sustain the output at the scale required to become a regular part of Wellington people’s information diet.

So has the last two years made any difference?

Even from the little we know – website stats, signups to the newsletter, personal comments – there’s a hungry audience for information on what shapes our places. It’s on the strength of this, that while Talk Wellington are being forced to wind back, we’re not winding up!

It feels like these ideas are more mainstream. As observed in our “what happens now” post, Wellington’s zeitgeist has palpably shifted in the last year. Te Upoko o te Ika’s ecosystem of progressive urban thinking, talking, organising and doing has had a real growth spurt – and that’s just the bits we’re aware of.

So what’s to do now?

Stay connected! Talk Wellington isn’t going anywhere. Our newsletter will give you a roundup of the new content each week, for your convenience.

Share our stuff and connect us with new eyes and ears. We can’t do any more of our awesome outreach into community Facebook and Neighbourly, so getting the ideas to where people are is up to you!

Get involved with this burgeoning city-shaping ecosystem, and spread it into your ‘hood. Especially if you live outside Wellington City, there are loads of opportunities to get together with like-minded others and make our towns better for all. For starters, check out our Future page!

Please help us find our new groove. I’ll be running a few experiments, finding a sustainable equilibrium and which kinds of content to prioritise to help you have most city-shaping impact. I’ve never done (any) of this before so I’ll need ideas and helping hands with this transition. If you’ve got a good idea, or even just some content, and can help (or wholly) deliver it, get in touch!


A huge, all-encompassing thankyou, from the bottom of my heart, to those who’ve put their shoulders to the Talk Wellington wagon over the last three years. The Talk Wellington crew over the years, the DomPost series team, my patient family and partner, our generous donors, inspirational fellow bloggers, people who share our posts, readers who talk and act about what you read – everyone who’s helped us get good info created and get it into the hearts and minds of our fellow denizens of Te Upoko o te Ika.

Our “wagon” is becoming lighter, with a smaller “engine”, but it’s not going away and it’s part of a movement!

Looking forward to more good kōrero and good action, with you, shaping our place.

Image credits:
Banner – Roibul / Dreamstime
Green city – NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities

4 comments on “Hello Mainstream!?”

  • Russell Tregonning says:

    Congratulations Isabella. Your commitment to our wonderful city shines through. Your three-part series in the Dompost was inspiring.Keep up the superb communication.

  • Tim Jones says:

    It has been and is a pleasure and a privilege to learn from you and from Talk Wellington, and work alongside you on some of these issues, Isabella – Kia kaha!

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