Vale, Warwick Roger, Metro’s founding editor.
The founding editor of Metro, Warwick Roger, who died in August, believed journalism was “God’s work”. Nicola Legat, who later edited the magazine herself, remembers Roger’s fearlessness, love of great writing and fascination with his city.
Working for Warwick Roger at Metro gave many of us the jobs of our lives, a lucky break, a career start and the opportunity at what had to be the best journalism gig in town.
Sadly, three of the brightest, shiniest young stars to whom he gave a start are no longer with us: Max Chapple, Andrew Heal and Jan Corbett, in all of whom Warwick saw that thing that he argued talented young journalists have in common with sheep dogs: bright eyes.
Warwick was famous for such aphorisms. What he intended for all the many talented young and not-so-young writers he hired was that they would do what he called “God’s work”.
Metro, of course, did not have a mission statement — Warwick would not have entertained that for a moment — but “doing God’s work” would have been a perfectly appropriate one.
What did it mean? Going right to the back of the cave to check out the bad smell when no one else would. Interviewing giraffes, not giraffe keepers. Never using the expression eartagged, or earmarked: that was for sheep. Writing in a way that was lyrical and affecting. Having a high fact count, always. Never accepting the received wisdom about anything. And if you could also play cricket at the same time, all the better.
Louise Callan, one of Warwick’s early great hires, told me she had ground her teeth on his behalf when the first media reports of his death linked the words “Metro” and “glossy” — “that old belittling description still rearing its lazy head,” she said.
Was glossy so bad? Vanity Fair used to describe itself as “glossy on the outside, gritty on the inside”, and that was what Warwick achieved issue by determined issue.
You couldn’t always see it in those very early issues, but once the magazine hit its stride it was fearless.
How did he achieve that? Well, he seemed fearless himself. Always up for a scrap. Refusing to kowtow to the big end of town, the establishment and to advertisers — and to their credit the first owners of the magazine backed him on that and took some brave decisions.
We as his writers seemed to absorb that fearlessness. That’s why Carroll du Chateau could do all those great crime stories and go to some scary places armed only with a pen and a notebook.
Many of us had no formal journalism training. I was a young freelancer when Warwick published my first story in the second issue. Others of us came straight out of journalism school. Vincent Heeringa had been a secondary school science teacher. Warwick joked that he rescued Jan from a Rotorua chemist shop.
Indeed, if you worked at one of the big papers he’d be unlikely to look at you. He wanted fresh, new, hungry. I don’t believe, though, that he wanted yes men. The stories were too challenging for that. We had to have an inner steel, and he showed us how to build it.
He gave all of us faith in our abilities as writers. He loved great journalism, great writing, so intensely. We would often find photocopies of stories he’d read in international magazines and that he thought we could learn from left on our keyboards.
He practised what he preached. He never lost the love of writing himself. He was a dedicated practitioner, who seemed to do it so effortlessly. It no doubt frustrated him at times that as editor he couldn’t do as much of it as he would have liked.
He was intensely interested in whatever story we were assigned to. When you came back in from an interview, he’d ask: What can you reveal?
And filing that story — always “by dawn” on a given date — felt a little bit like handing in an exam paper. There would be a couple of days of silence and then a sheet of paper covered with questions and written in Warwick’s meticulously tidy handwriting would appear on your desk. Job not yet complete.
He would often sit us down beside him as he did his final edit on our stories and explain why he was doing this or that to our texts. He was polishing it for us until it shone.
By the late 1980s, Metro was a massive magazine. The staples could barely hold it together. He would be doing that sort of detailed work on up to eight feature stories, many of them of 12,000 words or more. I don’t know how he did it. His work ethic was prodigious. And he was efficient — he didn’t often work late and he and Robyn always had time for a good long holiday every year. He just put his shoulder to the wheel and did it.
He and art director William Chen created an incredibly high-functioning machine through which massive magazines ran smoothly. There was never any panic at deadline time: sometimes you wouldn’t even notice we were on deadline. He was an incredible planner — the magazine’s content would have been mapped out months in advance, and the planning for many of the jointly written stories like “Power in Auckland” and the many state-ofthe-nation pieces were scoped with huge precision.
And on the subject of power, let me note that these were the sorts of topics that Warwick loved. What made Auckland tick? Really tick. Not the ticking the PR people wanted you to believe.
And what made Auckland function? He commissioned his fair share of stories about roads and sewerage. I remember Deborah Hill Cone snorting somewhere that the magazine had become like a cross between the New Statesman and a drainage engineer’s newsletter. Quite funny really. But to Warwick these things mattered. He wanted to know how things worked, what people did.
And so we would be sent out for another 24 hours with a midwife, a youth-aid officer, an ambulance driver.
I think his love for and fascination with Auckland came from being born right in the heart of it, in Greenlane, going to its old schools, working for one of its venerable papers. The old city was deep in his bones. In many ways it was a dirty old town, with a lot in common with any other port city on the edge of the Pacific, a provincial place. How Auckland was reshaping itself through the 1980s and 1990s, in particular the growing Maori and Pasifika population and what that might mean, intrigued him.
By the 1990s, Metro was writing about poverty and the pernicious link with ill health, educational underachievement and alienation. “An Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s” is often namechecked as the high-water mark of its investigative powers but so, too, were Lesley Max’s unflinching stories on the killing of little Delcelia Witika, which forced the nation to confront the brutal truth of child abuse. And Bruce Jesson’s work on the struggles of the working poor figured here, too.
Alongside that was brilliant coverage of the arts, sport, incredibly in-depth profiles, the groundbreaking restaurant reviews, and huge support for New Zealand novelists: a short story each issue and the summer six pack of short fiction.
There was great design and photography, helmed by William and his team. There was immense fun. Getting together to work on “20 Questions” each issue was a highlight of every month.
Warwick wasn’t scared of putting a different view in front of his readers. He didn’t want cosy. He hired Syd Jackson, Ranginui Walker and Bruce Jesson as columnists.
The columnists might have been mostly men but the feature writers in many issues were mostly women; and the opinion writers were more diverse than we see anywhere today. It was the broadest of churches and that’s why it worked.
It wasn’t always easy working for Warwick. He could be thin-skinned. He felt the growing competition and the fracturing of the media scene keenly, and in the later years of his editorship the dip of the weekly sales figures could put him into a funk. But he didn’t often talk to us about any dark nights of the soul and it was not until I later became editor myself that I could see the stress that he lived under and the essential loneliness of the job.
His fights weren’t always our fights. And of course picking fights came with consequences. The Toni McRae defamation trial brought some who had been bruised in combat eager to the witness stand. That was tough to see.
It was also tough to see how, after the trial, he lost heart and felt he had to step down. But by moving across to North & South, he at last did have time to be a writer first and foremost.
Warwick’s words, his maxims, often come to me. I remember him describing his drive home to Titirangi. As he turned the corner into Williamson Ave from Ponsonby Rd, the road would stretch ahead, towards the Waitakere Ranges and the setting sun. Of Williamson Ave he said: “There’s a lot of Auckland in that one road.” I drive down it most weeks, and there still is. I wonder how many people notice it as Warwick did.
You couldn’t start a magazine like Metro these days, for so many reasons. But was it in fact even easy back then, in those dog days under Muldoon? It took a huge leap of faith for Metro’s owners to hire this young man who turned out to have the trick of blending the great journalism of the American magazines like Esquire and New York with the nose-thumbing attitude of the British periodicals like Private Eye. It was the recipe for the era. Readers flocked to it. Their timing was perfect.
And he followed that recipe, 12 issues a year for 13 years, never short of fresh ideas. He helped loosen the print media up; his rising tide lifted all boats. He was ballsy. He enacted HL Mencken’s imprecation: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What we all learned from him has remained in us all.
I think his love for and fascination with Auckland came from being born right in the heart of it, in Greenlane, going to its old schools, working for one of its venerable papers. The old city was deep in his bones.
THIS IS AN ABRIDGED VERSION OF THE EULOGY NICOLA LEGAT GAVE AT WARWICK ROGER’S FUNERAL.
LEFT— Warwick Roger, photographed by Toaki Okano for the 25th anniversary issue of Metro, May 2006.