James Frankham

BLAKE Leader 2019

Publisher of New Zealand Geographic, storyteller and champion for the environment.

Determined journalist and environmentalist James Frankham wants to give every New Zealander a life-changing experience of the natural world.

“Experience is the way we build empathy. Every motivation I have for New Zealand Geographic is about sharing an experience and I guess giving some of the tools to think about a place or a location, perhaps understand it, and perhaps empathise with its fate.”

As a journalist, James brought to life important social and geopolitical issues. As publisher of New Zealand Geographic, he is using a variety of platforms to reach growing audiences, with the goal of inspiring empathy for the environment.

New Zealand Geographic has grown significantly since James purchased it in 2011, and now informs an audience of 340,000 in print, 100,000 per month online and 200,000 per week on social channels. In 2019, it was awarded New Zealand Magazine of the Year for the third year running.

James encourages writers, photographers and videographers to take on the most challenging and significant environmental stories of our time.

These stories are broadcast far and wide through print, digital and social channels, sharing a love of the natural environment with millions of New Zealanders. The Ministry of Education funds access to the full New Zealand Geographic archives for every school in the country.

Through an innovative partnership with Blake Trust, WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and Foundation North’s G.I.F.T. (Gulf Innovation Fund Together), James developed the NZVR Project to give New Zealanders a visceral, 360-degree experience of the natural world – from a stingray swarm at the Poor Knights, to a bird’s-eye view of the sulphuric crater lake of Whakaari/White Island, and flocks of screeching seabirds at the Kermadecs.

Because VR is immersive and experiential, it acts on different part of the brain from traditional media.

“How do you effect social change at scale?” James says. “You can’t make somebody believe in something, but people who have a life-changing experience will build empathy and come to care about that as an outcome.”

Being digital, these experiences can be transmitted over the internet and through social networks, using the tools of the modern world to reconnect us with the nature.

“I think as a society we are increasingly interested in the devices in front of us and increasingly divorced from the natural world, and I think that’s sad.

“But, devices are amazing windows in to the world. NZ-VR is really about giving people access to the natural world through their devices. It’s turning a vice in to a benefit, I suppose.”

Those who work alongside James say he brings an authentic desire to improve New Zealand to every project. At a time when the media is facing huge commercial challenge, he runs his media company more like a social enterprise.

Kennedy Warne, founding editor of New Zealand Geographic, says James is clearly inspired by his lifelong association with the ocean.

“If I can be forgiven a couple of nautical metaphors, I would say his steady hand on the tiller and ability to navigate through challenging seas has been essential in keeping the geographic vessel on course and charting new seas.”

James is a board member of the Magazine Publishers’ Association, a trustee for Storytime Foundation, and mentor to a community of freelance creatives. Through the magazine, he has launched the careers of numerous Kiwi photographers and writers as first-time contributors.

This influence in media, conservation and business is at the centre of James’ quiet brand of leadership.

“I don’t think people follow other people, they follow ideas. If anyone has ever followed me, it’s because I have had an idea that’s worth following.”