NYWM 2011: A conversation about journalism with Christina Ongley and Janette Young, May 2011
On May 30, 2011
Embedded below is footage of my second live Q+A event as Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month 2011: a conversation about journalism with Christina Ongley and Janette Young.
The 80 minute conversation took place on May 20, 2011 before around 20 young writers – mostly high school students – at the Bundaberg East State School library. I’ve included some background information about the event below. Scroll down to watch the conversation via the embedded Vimeo clip, or read the transcript underneath. All photos taken by Paul McMillen. Visit Facebook to see the full set of photos.
From left to right: Janette Young, Christina Ongley, and Andrew McMillen.
Under 25 and interested in a career in journalism? Ahead of National Young Writers’ Month (NYWM) 2011 – which runs from June 1-30 – two of Bundaberg’s most experienced journalists will discuss how they’ve built their lives and careers around writing and publishing words. Given the focus of NYWM, this free 90 minute session will be targeted toward aspiring (and current) writers and journalists under the age of 25.
Christina Ongley is the editor of the Bundaberg NewsMail and the Isis Town and Country. Her career in journalism began in Bundaberg in 1998, when she worked in the NewsMail’s newsroom for four years. During that time, her roles included reporter, feature writer, sub-editor, chief of staff and news editor. For the following six years, Christina lived and worked in the UK for a three-edition daily paper in Essex named The Echo, where she was soon promoted to news editor. Prior to her reappointment at the NewsMail, she was the media and communications executive for Surf Lifesaving Queensland.
Janette Young is an editor and journalist of more than 30 years’ experience, starting in the newsroom of her local newspaper in the UK at the age of 18. At 26, she became the first woman editor in her newspaper group and from there moved on to work on The Times in London and at the Press Association in Fleet Street during the Gulf War. Since moving to Australia in 1991, Janette has worked within News Limited, West Australian Newspapers and APN News & Media. She was Assistant Editor with The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and subsequently with The Sunday Times in Perth, and in 2009 was a finalist in the Queensland Media Awards for Best Business / Property Report. During her career, Janette has been Launch Editor of a number of magazines and newspapers, and has lectured and tutored Bachelor of Communications students in Print Media, Media Law and Ethics and Online Journalism. For more on Janette, visit her website.
Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) – the Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month 2011 – will facilitate the session. A graduate of Bundaberg State High School in 2005, he’s now a Brisbane-based freelance journalist whose work has been published in Rolling Stone, The Weekend Australian, The Courier-Mail, triple j mag, Mess+Noise, TheVine.com.au and IGN Australia. For more on Andrew, visit his website.
Embedded footage below. Please note that the vision does drop out a few times throughout the video due to camera file size restrictions. The audio remains consistent throughout, however.
Q+A transcript as follows. Andrew + audience questions and comments are bolded; Christina and Janette’s comments as labelled.
Andrew: Thank you all for coming. This is the second event I’m running in Queensland for National Young Writer’s Month. I’m the Queensland ambassador for that event. And here we have two women who have spent most of their adult lives in journalism. So I wanted to invite you all to come and talk about that, and what that involves.
I’m a freelance journalist myself, and National Young Writers Month’ is about… the funny thing is that it starts next month. I have to explain to everyone who I meet. So these events are to inspire people to set goals for themselves, register on the website, join the community, start talking about writing, and start meeting those goals during the month of June.
I’ve got some postcards here if you’d like to grab them at the end, which tell you more about it. But today we’re talking about journalism. Most of you in the room are high schoolers, obviously. I wonder if any of you know right now that you want to be a journalist once you graduate?
[no-one raises their hands]
Christina: No work experience candidates?
Andrew: No one? That’s interesting, because I wondered if you two knew that you wanted to be journalists when you were in high school.
Christina: Partly, actually. When I was about seven or eight years old I used to make up my own sort of mock newspapers and show them to my parents and get them to give me marks [for] them. And I was the editor of my school paper as well. But I’ve always had a really strong background in sports, so when I went to uni I actually was going down the human movements and physio sort of path and then it took me about six months to figure out that that wasn’t what I wanted to do after all. So quick smart, went straight back to journalism. So I sort of floated with it for a long time and then decided it was something I wanted to do.
Janette: Well, actually from a very early age I was very determined to become a journalist. I went to a girls’ school and in my day they used to try to push you towards secretarial work. And they set me up for work experience which I cancelled and contacted my local newspaper and at the age of 15, basically started working in newspapers. They used to pay me expenses, which, for me, was huge amounts of money. And I started getting published even when I was 15. I used to work in the local paper on my school holidays, which was great because when I left school I was one of the lucky ones who got taken on direct entry, because I’d already been published and I was obviously passionate about newspapers.
I never particular had a desire to work in radio or TV. It was always about print media, because I love writing. And I qualified at the age of 22, so they put me through university, which was great because I didn’t go broke while I was studying. And I learnt so much on the job. It was so good to have the direct entry because it meant that I could put the theory into practice and it was just wonderful.
Christina: That’s something that was really rare these days now, as well.
Janette: Very rare, and it’s really unfortunate that they don’t do that because my son’s studying journalism and I taught journalism at Edith Cowan University [in Western Australia] for a couple of years in my spare time because I believe that people don’t get taught enough by people who actually know what they’re talking about. And the practical experience of working in newspapers cannot be replaced by any amount of theory. And I’ve seen young people come through who might not necessarily have excelled at school sometimes, but they make fantastic journalists because they’re hungry.
[Audience]: I started journalism at university, but got so disenchanted by the theory that I decided to become a schoolteacher instead.
Christina: I think it’s a real shame the way that journalism degrees are going now. When I studied about 15 years ago, at the time the body of lecturers were people who had really impressive journalism CVs and it wasn’t just about crafting a story. They could tell you about really tough interviews they had to do, or tough situations they had to confront and how they dealt with them. That was really inspiring. Some of these were people who’d been there in the Bjelke-Petersen era and had some really amazing stories to tell. Just as I was leaving, because I’ve still got a couple of good friends who were lecturers back then, there’s been this real shift towards academia in the lecturing body. I think, for me personally, it sort of sucks all the life out of it because you learn, as you say, all the theory. But it’s very hard to get inspired by people who have spent their life in research and not actually at newspapers or at other broadcast media outlets.
[Audience]: One lecturer who my friend and I counted the number of times he would say the word ‘commonsensical’. He said it like 47 times in two hours and then I was like, “Well, maybe this isn’t for me.”
Christina: I guarantee that word would never make it into a newspaper.
Janette: Absolutely not, and never in a headline. Anyway, but it is true and it is a shame. My son, I have had to encourage him to continue to be focused but at the end of the day it is worth it. It is an exciting job and the potential for an individual to make their mark and make a difference in the world is huge. And even now, even though strictly speaking I’m not working in newspapers, I still mentor a lot of young journalists. When I left university for some years after that, I continued to mentor young journalists.
It’s about having a passion. It is a trade if you like, it’s a practical skill. I call myself a wordsmith, and that doesn’t leave you. It’s a great trade to have. I can take you around the world; can take you to all sorts of places that other people can’t get to, and you can meet loads and loads of people that you would never otherwise come across. So if that’s what you like doing, great. If you don’t like talking to people all the time, then don’t do it.
Christina [pictured right]: I think that’s probably one thing that… this is National Young Writers’ Month coming up, and I think it’s great when people have a real passion for writing and I interview a lot of young people for jobs. I’ll say “what is it that you love about journalism, and why do you want to be a journalist?” A lot of them say, “I really love to write”. And that’s really important, because you can’t teach someone to write well. You can sort of hone their skills and get them to a reasonable standard, but if they’re not a born writer, you can’t teach them to be.
But the thing I think that’s almost more important to me is: do they like people? Because everything we do is about people. It’s telling peoples’ stories; it’s telling stories that affect people. Readership and people are generally at the core of what we do. So I’ve interviewed a number of young people for cadetships of various kinds. And I’ve looked at some of their submitted work. They write well, but they’re so timid. And I think, “can they pick up a phone and ask someone a tough question? Can they stand up for themselves sometimes when they get a bit of criticism, as we inevitably do at a newspaper? Do they really enjoy having a rapport with people?”
And if they don’t think they can do that, then I’d much rather have someone who has those personal skills and maybe isn’t such a great writer, as someone who’s a fantastic writer but can’t actually talk to people. That love of people and telling peoples’ stories is just as important, to me, as being able to write well. In this field anyway.
[Audience]: Andrew, perhaps now it might be a great time to introduce our panel?
Andrew: Good idea! Next to me, we have Christina Ongley. Christina Ongley is the editor of the News Mail. And to her right is Janette Young, who has worked throughout journalism and media for over 30 years, I believe.
Janette: Afraid so. [laughs]
Christina: Like it or not.
Andrew: And my name’s Andrew McMillen. I am a freelance journalist based in Brisbane. To go back to that question I was asking these two earlier; I didn’t know I wanted to be a journalist pretty much until I was a journalist. I went to Bundy High, as these four did as well [gestures to audience]. And I knew that I loved reading and writing. I was pretty good at English. I got a few English awards, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a journalist.
I went to UQ in Brisbane and studied Communication, which is about half journalism, half media studies. And that degree wasn’t very enjoyable. It was, as we were discussing earlier, quite dry and quite academic in its approach. So that didn’t inspire me at all, but during that time I moved to Brisbane. The second year I was there, I started writing for street press, which is the local free newspapers that are put out in record stores and music venues across Brisbane. Music was my passion. I wanted to write about music, and writing about music for them meant that I got free tickets to go to shows that I otherwise would have paid for, so it was a nice little money-saver. Money [from writing] at that time was negligible. It wasn’t on my agenda at all. It was just free tickets and definitely a hobby for me, not a career.
I did that for a couple of years, getting paid very little. Then I worked for a web design company which was fun for about a year and then I stopped doing that. I was at a crossroads in my life and I thought, “what do I want to do next?” I’d had a couple of years experience in journalism for those music publications and I knew that I really enjoyed, that so I wanted to see how far I could take that. So in the last two years, I’ve been pushing that music freelance journalism angle, and I’ve been published in Rolling Stone, and triple j mag, and The Weekend Australian and a couple of others.
But since then I’ve realised that music journalism is not what I want to do. I want to do feature-length stories for magazines and newspapers, so that’s where I’m heading now.
Christina: It’s a tough area to break into.
Andrew: It is, but with those couple of years of doing [journalism] – first as a hobby, and then secondly as just trying to find my way in terms of what I wanted to do – I couldn’t make that decision [to pursue featuring writing] without having those experiences beforehand.
Christina: Is anyone planning on studying any sort of communications or media-type degree? [one student puts his hand up] What are you going to be studying?
[Audience]: Film and television at QUT, hopefully.
Christina: What’s your greatest interest? Is it the screenplay-writing angle?
[Audience]: I love all of it. Every aspect of media that I’ve explored so far. I really wanted to head down today because I think journalism is such a big branch of media, radio, and film, and television. It’s pretty imperative to know all about it. That’s where I’m coming from.
Andrew: I should point out that, if you have any questions for any of us at any point, just raise your hand and we’ll get to it. I’ve got stuff prepared, but this is about you. It’s about what you want to get out of it, so if it’s not going where you want it to, just raise your hand and ask a question. The answer was for these two: Janet knew she wanted to be a journalist. Christina was a bit iffy, and I didn’t want to be a journalist.
Christina: And we all ended up in the same place!
Andrew: Were you setting goals in that point in your lives, in your late teens; your early 20s, in terms of where you wanted to be?
Christina: I went to a private girls’ school on the Gold Coast, and I probably can’t say I was a particularly rebellious teenager. I wanted to do well but what I did really rebel against was the intense pressure that was on us at school to decide the rest of our life at the age of about 13 or 14. At the end of year eight, they sat us down and said, “you’ve got to choose these ten subjects for years nine and 10, and then those will pare down to five or six subjects at year 11 and 12, and then those will go onto probably decide what you study at uni, and that’s going to be the rest of your life.” So, figure that out at 13 or 14. I thought, “what?!”
So I studied the subjects that I enjoyed and I wasn’t too fussed… it didn’t bother me that I started a course at uni that I then changed my mind away from and switched courses. I mean, I was setting goals. I guess they just changed along the way and I wasn’t too bothered if they changed. I just thought that [in] my late teens, early 20s, surely there was going to be a little bit of wiggle room in there to maybe not get everything right and make some decisions later on if I needed to.
Janette [pictured left]: I think the reality is that in today’s world it’s accepted that most people will have two or three careers. Just because you happen to start doing something at 20 doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be doing it 40. And I left News Limited after 20 years. I hit the 20 year mark and went, “okay, what do I really want to do now?” Because I could stay there quite happily for the next 20 years after that.
And I had a very successful career and I was not only the first female editor but the youngest editor of my group when I was 26. In the U.K. I worked on the Times in London. I worked on Fleet Street. I worked on Press Association during the Gulf War, which was very exciting. I worked with News Limited over here. I was launch editor of magazines. Great fun.
But sometimes you get to a point where you think, “well, what else can I do?” And the great thing about a journalism degree… I think journalism, law, and engineering are the three degrees that are so practical and so useful in the world, because you can take them anywhere and they’re basically like a tool kit. Journalism teaches you so much, teaches you about people and how to talk to people, how to write, how to manage yourself, how to present; how to do so many things that are important today.
I think that, personally, I was very goal-driven and I still am very goal-driven. Everyone’s different. Everyone has their own path to travel. Although I work in PR work – mostly with not-for-profits, although I work a lot with large corporate as well – I [also] work in behavioural communications. And I love pushing peoples’ buttons and making them behave in a different way. It gives me a real sense of pleasure.
I work up to the highest level and that’s because I used to, as a journalist, talk right up to the prime minister. I’m not scared of anybody, because I know what they do, who they are, how they operate. And so for me, working in the communications world – which is really what I do, though it’s just the corporate and the not-for-profit areas – I find it very comfortable, because I’ve been there as a journalist for so many years. And I know a lot of people. You meet all sorts of people, and people remember you. And you just have the best time, and sometimes the best parties as well, which is great. I was in the budget lockup for three years in a row and that’s a really exciting thing, because you’re there at the cutting edge of what is happening right now.
I think that’s the thrill of being a journalist. You’re actually ahead of the news, and I get a real buzz out of that. I still keep myself pretty involved in what’s happening out there. I like to make a difference. I like to lobby. At the moment I’m lobbying a couple of ministers over getting some funding for Salvation Army because they’ve said ‘no’ and I’ve said, “well, not good enough”.
So you can do that sort of thing. And I think that if you treat journalism as something [where] every day you rock up to work and you give it your best, you’re going to do really well with it. If you’re looking at a soft option, don’t bother, because you won’t last very long.
Christina: It is one of those things where every day is very different. It’s not like you work on a project for a week or two, and carry it over from day to day with you. You might have some stories that might need a few days’ work or some things that require ongoing investigation, but generally every day is a fresh day. Every day is different, which is one of the great things about it, really. If you’ve had a bad day, you can leave it behind and move onto the next one.
One of those things to draw on – that both Janette and Andrew have said – is I think sometimes we forget, too, that journalism can be a really great privilege. We’re allowed into a lot of settings that the general public sometimes isn’t. We’re given access to people and places, whether it’s getting free concert tickets or getting to have a chat with a minister or the prime minister or whatever it is; we do get these privileges as part of our job.
I think because of that, we need to respect the responsibility that we have then to deliver those messages to people and not take advantage of the position that we get given. There’s a lot of criticism, and this is something that probably Janette will be very familiar with.
You’ve got the press gallery, who are the core of people who are in Canberra covering Parliament all the time. They’re the regular parliamentary reporters that each of those larger newspapers send down to Canberra; there’s often a bit of criticism because they’re there all the time, mingling with MPs and press secretaries and the people who make Parliament tick, that there’s a bit too much closeness. Sometimes they will say “is the press corps getting a bit too close to the politicians?”, and these are things that can be easy to forget when you don’t think enough about the privileges you get in this part of the job we have.
Janette: It is true, actually. One of the things I used to teach was media, law, and ethics. Very interesting; what I used to do was teach the students the law first, and then the ethics, because often what is ethical might not be legal, and what is legal might not be ethical. Just because you’re allowed to do it – coming back to that point – doesn’t mean that you should.
The impact of newspapers and all media on peoples’ lives can be huge. So you have to treat people with integrity. I think if you do that… and as I say, I’ve been in the business for 30-odd years, and I dealt with a lot of very difficult stories and I was a fixture at The Courier-Mail for quite a while there. We were doing some real head-kicking stuff over prostitution and drug use and all that stuff.
If you treat people with integrity and remember to be a bit kind, because not everyone is used to dealing with media, and just remember that what you write or what you put to air or whatever can have a big impact on peoples’ lives, so it’s a big responsibility to be a journalist. You have a back bench behind you. You have people like Christina standing there, basically being a safety net for you. At the end of the day – and this is the great thing about it; you’re out there representing your organisation, but representing your newspaper or TV station. You have to behave with a high level of personal integrity.
There’s a really important message that I like to get out to the general public, that yes, there are some people out there who abuse the system [as journalists]. There are people out there who unfortunately don’t check their facts and who stop asking the questions. I always say to young journos, “you don’t stop asking questions until you get the answer you actually believe”. If you can keep your feet on the ground, and actually get to the heart of whatever the issue is, then you’ve got a great story.
It’s done with integrity and kindness. I’ve done a lot of what we call ‘death knocks’, where you go to someone’s house when someone’s died. It’s a terrible thing to have to do to somebody. But the fact of the matter is that if you do it kindly and if you do it with humanity, they actually… I’ve had people ring me up thanking me for the story that I’ve written about their family member, which is a great feeling because what you’ve done is encapsulated someone’s very valuable life, and paid tribute to them. Because everyone’s valuable to people around them.
If you take that sort of approach rather than a ‘knock ‘em down and take no prisoners’ approach, you can actually do a real community service through your paper. The News Mail does an excellent job in that, in that it tackles things very respectfully and really thinks about the people and community before it charges in and starts publishing things willy-nilly.
Christina: Thank you.
Janette: It’s true. There you go; it’s the only praise you’re going to get. [laughs]
Andrew: How do people react when you tell them you’re a journalist?
Christina: There are a whole range of reactions. Some people say, “that must be really interesting”. Others will tell you that the News Mail spelt their name wrongly 20 years ago, and they’ve never forgiven the paper ever since. Or people say “I better watch what I say”, and I say. “well, if I’m not at work, I’m not at work…”
I think people have varying respect for journalists depending on what their experiences have been with journalism, journalists, or newspapers. We can do a lot of good for community groups and I think you’ll find that most people we work with generally have a really positive outlook about the work that we do and the good that we can do.
But unfortunately the other side of it is that we have to do some hard stories. We have to report on people being in court. We have to report on people when their businesses go bust, and perhaps they haven’t been completely honest with all the people that they owe money to. And these are things that can affect peoples’ reputation, so the work we do isn’t cut -and-dry. And the impact, as Janette said, that we can have on people and in communities such as ours can be vast, that we generally tend to guard what their idea of journalists is, I suppose.
Janette: I agree with you, actually. I think to a large extent the respect that you get treated with is down to you. How you behave as an individual is really important. So when you go out there, say you behave with integrity, you conduct yourself professionally… and this sounds slightly terrible, but you don’t get too involved, because you’re not there to pass judgement. You’re there to actually report.
Reporting changes from era to era. Social issues change constantly. Newspapers are simply a reflection of the society in which we live. If we don’t like what’s in the newspapers, we’re actually complaining about our own society. We don’t write about anything that’s not there. We actually write about what’s there. It’s an interesting thing. I am a big collector of old newspapers, and I’m talking really old; 1800s. My oldest one is 1783 and a copy of the Times. In that paper they talk about slavery, they talk about all sorts of things, but not once do they talk about green issues. Not once do they talk about all the things that really matter to us today.
Christina: Female equality… [laughs]
Janette: Female equality doesn’t even rate a mention. It’s very interesting and all media generally – I can only talk about newspapers because that’s really what I spent most of my life in, although I do work a lot with TV and radio. I go on radio quite a lot now, but to me print media is there, and it’s in law, unfortunately, for us what can be shown on TV – and they can just about get away with it – can’t be put into newspapers, because people keep newspapers, and every newspaper gets read by at least three people.
So you really have to be very responsible in that way but basically, yes, I think that people need to reflect on their own society behaviours before they start criticising newspapers too much, because all we’re doing is reporting what’s going on.
Christina: In fact we had a letter to the editor in today’s paper where this man started his letter not exactly criticising our newspaper but saying, “look at all the rubbish that’s in newspapers these days”. But he ended up by finishing saying, “I guess if they’re writing what people want to read, this is actually what’s going on in the wider world, and what a terrible state we’re in”. I think you’re right, that was really –
Janette: So it was really a ‘I hate the world’ letter. That’s an unfortunate situation for him, but hopefully he’ll get over it. [laughs]
Christina: That’s right, and [hopefully] he keeps on buying the paper. But I guess that’s another thing to think too. We really are chroniclers of history, if you like. When we look back at old papers and think that they’re fascinating, I’m sure those people didn’t think back then that they would be writing something that in a hundred years’ time or whatever we would look back on as a study of society. But of course we do. There’s almost no better reflection of what’s going on in the world at the time, so what we do now, people will be looking at in 10, 20, 30, 50 years’ time and using that to judge what Bundaberg, or what Queensland, Australia was like in that era.
Andrew: Which comes back to the responsibility that you were talking about.
Christina: Absolutely. Down to the slightest thing; if you get a fact wrong then that fact, unless properly corrected, remains wrong for years. As Janette says, when it’s there in black and white print and it’s not something that just flashes up on a screen and goes away and can be forgotten about, it really is very, very final and very long-lasting.
Andrew: I think of journalism as helping people to make sense of the world around them. That’s how I view it; how I define it. I wonder if you have different definitions of what journalists are.
Janette: I think it depends on your audience, actually. I’m a big fan of the Financial Review. I love it because it just tells me what’s going on. It leaves me to make my call. But a lot of newspapers, a lot of people don’t feel comfortable doing that. The Courier Mail’s the perfect [example], every single story they have — don’t get me wrong because I love The Courier. I’ve worked there for years and a lot of friends work there. But every single story they have a comment [next to the story] and I go, “Oh, for goodness sake’s, don’t tell me what to think. That’s okay, that’s me. I know a lot of people do like it.
Christina: I think it’s generally our job too, especially any sort of politically related or anything to do with government or policy can be really dry, and really complicated and you think “people aren’t going to want to read about that, not the way they’re presenting it”. So it’s our job to take those boring or complex issues and try to break them down into something more simple for people.
Janette: You contextualise it, so basically – like the budget. What the News Mail produced was designed to target its own community. “What’s important to us right here, forget everybody else out there, what’s important to our community?” That’s the job of a journalist. You actually dissect the information. There’s reams and reams of it that comes out of the budget and then you say, “this is important to you; this is what you should be aware of. This could actually make a difference to your lifestyle or it could make a difference to your hip pocket,” or whatever. In that way, it does make sense of the world around us. I think it also – if a newspaper gets it right, they put the right stories on the right pages, and that’s why people buy it.
[Audience]: Do you believe it’s possible to be completely objective?
Janette: I do.
Christina: I used to have a lecturer who said, “you don’t always have to be objective, but you do have to be fair”. I think it can be difficult. I do think it’s possible to be but I think it can sometimes be difficult to be. I think probably more so in smaller communities because your access to contacts, or pool to contacts is so much smaller. You’re very aware of the impacts that stories will have on people that you might know very well. It is a lot more challenging, I think, to confront those in smaller communities.
It’s easier in bigger places or with bigger papers to burn a few bridges, because you can build some other ones. You burn bridges here [in Bundaberg], you’ve got to mend them if you want to keep on going. Those things are certainly challenges.
Basically, unless we sort of set out to have a bit of fun with a story, or to say, “we’re going to definitely present a certain kind of angle because we want to campaign on this” or point out that we view an issue a very particular way, our job really when it comes down to it is not to comment, or what they call ‘editorialise’. It’s to say, “let’s take an issue. A few people are going to look at it a few different ways. Let’s report credible spokespeople, not just Joe Blow off the street, and let’s report what they say”. It’s our job to report what other people say on these issues or how they analyse them.
[Audience]: I feel that objectivity can be lost not only in how you structure your article, but where it’s placed. Value judgments on what is on the front [page].
[Audience]: Is it something that’s thought about?
Christina: Probably not in the objectivity sense, but essentially, if you look at the front page of a newspaper, it’s supposed to be your greatest advertisement for your product, which is your newspaper. You want it to sell. You want to put the story on the front that you think will appeal to the widest and greatest audience. That doesn’t necessarily come down to the way it’s reported, but the story itself, and if you think it will be appealing to your readership. Lots of things decide or come into play when you’re deciding where to put things on pages.
Normally, we say in journalism, generally people will put more of their attention into what’s on the right-hand page. They’re natural readership patterns, or reading patterns. We’ll put our best photos usually on the right-hand pages. Probably put our strongest stories, or what we consider to be stronger stories on our right-hand pages; which is not to say that the left-hand pages aren’t as important, but research over time has shown those are generally the way people read.
There are those kinds of decisions going on. At the News Mail, one of the things that I’ve always felt to be quite important, because people have often complained there’s always so much bad news on the front page — and that’s because good news doesn’t sell. We know that. [laughs] We get the figures and we see what sells. But it’s important to me to have page three — that’s generally the first thing that people see when they open the cover paper. For me, I want that story to be bright, and upbeat, or quirky, or entertaining. That’s what page three is to a newspaper, to me.
Janette: What they call ‘water cooler stories’; stories that people are going to talk about the next day. Every paper, when you draw up a broadsheet page – broadsheets are the big papers, tabloids are the small papers – it’s when you draw up a broadsheet page that you basically have a heavy story across the top, heavy duty, because you’ve got about eighty centimetres of copy there. Then you’ve got your mains, which is going to be something probably social. Then you’ve got a quirky one there and the something that’s probably community on the bottom. That’s pretty much the formula for putting together page three in the major papers.
That doesn’t change. That doesn’t change from the U.K. to Australia. It’s just the way people like it. People feel comfortable. People like to be entertained. They like the important or what we consider the big news on the front, and often, unfortunately, it is bad. Not always, but often. But inside once you hit page three people like that mix. It keeps them entertained, keeps them happy, which is great.
Christina: From an outsider’s point of view it may not seem we put that much thought into where we put them, but there’s a lot of different things going on when we place our photos and stories on pages. A lot of it, too, comes down to context. If we’re reporting an ongoing story, and we might report it three or four days in a row. [We’ll say] “we put it on page three yesterday. We don’t really want to do that again. Let’s give it a different position in the paper because it’s probably not perhaps as important as it was yesterday but we still want to make sure we give it a really visible read.” Lots of different competing interests, I guess, in putting pages together.
Janette: Journalists do get questioned quite hard when they’re putting their story together. When you put a story together, you have to be balanced by law. That’s how it works. You have all the right of reply, and all those sort of things that you’d know about. All the right of reply and that sort of thing is very important, but it’s also very important in terms of the whole balance. You’re not allowed to just go out there — unless you stick ‘comment’ on it, in which case you carry the can for that comment. It’s actually saying ‘this is my view, I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me’. Andrew Bolt’s made a career out of that. That’s the way it is.
But, the time you stick ‘comment’ on it and also when you talk about objective… once someone’s worked for a political party, if they work for a mainstream major newspaper again, they’ve got to have at the end of every piece they write the fact that ‘this person worked for a political party’. You’ve got to tell people what you’ve done. That’s why journalists think very long and hard before going to work for a political party.
Christina: I guess in Australia too, where Janette started her career in the U.K., and there’s a much greater breadth of newspapers in the U.K. There are well-known papers that take certain political leanings. They can afford to because there’s a big enough readership, a big enough variety of newspapers. If people know they’re sort of a bit left wing they’ll buy the Guardian.
Janette: People also buy on that basis. They buy the paper that suits their political view.
Christina: They’re catering to their own audience. We can’t really afford to do that. Certainly not as regional papers because we’ve only got one readership and if we alienate half those people, then we’re in trouble. But even for our larger newspapers here, most of our capital cities still have monopoly newspapers. There’s really not a lot of competition, which, although it means they’ve to a point got some guaranteed readership, it does mean that they can’t afford to alienate their readers by taking certain political leanings in their reporting. Even though over years, especially probably in the Murdoch press [News Ltd] there’s been criticism.
Andrew: As an editor, Christina, what do you like to see from your writers; your journalists?
Christina: Initiative, first and foremost. At regional papers we have a lot of young staff, a lot of people who might be fresh out of uni and so there’s a lot of development that you have to do with them to get them to the stage where you could leave them to their own devices. But generally, I like to see people who show a bit of initiative, not just in the way they write but in the way that they deal with people.
If they’re trying to get a comment on a particular story and they hit a brick wall, try and find a way around it. Not to give up, and also to see different angles in stories. You might find there are events we report on every year and we could report the story the same way each year. Or court stories, you’ll find we get people appearing for drunk driving and wilful damage and whatever in court, every single day, but it’s about finding a different way to tell the story.
I like people to be passionate about what they do. Not to see the job as a nine-to-five because it’s not. We try and do the best thing by our reporters that we can, but news doesn’t run on a nine-to-five schedule, or on a Monday to Friday schedule. So it has to be about give-and-take. So I guess we need people to be flexible, and to understand that.
But I guess also I like people to, as we were saying before, realise the privileges they have. If we get a reporter come to us who’s not from Bundaberg, there’s no better job in the entire community to have to get to know your way around town, to get to know the people who drive the place than to be a journalist, because your very job depends on you getting out and about, meeting new people all the time; tackling the issues of the day. That really is, as I said, quite a position of privilege and a great adventure. Every day generally is a lot of fun.
I think flexibility and a willingness to try new things [is what I like to see], because Scott [Thompson] is someone who just started at the Isis Town and Country, which is our Childers paper. Scott does quite a bit of work for us in Bundaberg as well, but every single day we’ve pretty well thrown him into a different situation. He’s show a willingness to tackle it and that’s something that to me, as an editor, is really important. What’s been your most interesting job so far, do you reckon?
Scott: I don’t know. Childers is a place in that, it’s a small town, so you know everyone and you don’t get overwhelmed by it, but there’s always things. It’s very tourism-based so just going out and meeting people and hearing some of their stories have been interesting. You get to do things that you might not do in regular jobs. I’ve been out and I’ve seen scrub pythons eat like seven guinea pigs in a row and I’ve got to pat baby macaws and things like that. Every day’s something different, and you never get sick of your job. That’s a really good thing.
Christina: The other good thing too – the sort of paper that Scott’s working at because Childers is a bit smaller, sometimes people take a little while to get used to newcomers and it’s sometimes hard to crack into that because people think, “this is our local paper, and he’s from Bundy, but that’s Bundy and we’re Childers!”. People can get quite parochial. It takes that sort of persistence as well to say, “I’m not a local boy, but I’m getting to know people”.
We were at an event together a couple of weeks ago, at the reopening of the Apple Tree Creek memorial rotunda, and in the space of about five minutes I must have seen Scott say ‘hi’ to about 20 people who just working past. “Hi Scott,”; “Hi, how you going Dorothy?” People he’d got to know, just in the six weeks that you’ve been with us. It’s a great job in that respect, but if you get knocked back you’ve got to keep trying, that’s for sure.
Andrew: I do want to draw a bit more on Scott, and the path that he’s on now. Could you tell everyone a bit about how you came to work for the Isis Town and Country, Scott?
Scott [pictured right]: I studied a Bachelor of Journalism at UQ, and my biggest regret is I didn’t start writing or looking for stories in my first year. You should always be looking for stories, even if they’re just writing on a blog or something, or looking for small places that are easy to get into. You should always be looking for stories.
I got to my fourth year and I had nothing to show for myself. I’m thinking, “I’m supposed to be getting a job by the end of the year,” so I went out and started writing for, like Andrew, the street press. I did an internship at Time Off, which is one of the free street press magazines, in Brisbane. I blogged for U.K. magazine Rock Sound for Soundwave Festival . They picked one person out of all Australia, and I basically built up a bit of a portfolio and then I approached Christina, because my parents still lived here and they told me that there was this job going in Bundaberg.
I got knocked back for the cadetship because I’d already graduated, but I got the job at Isis Town and Country, so I’ve been here for five or six weeks. It’s been really eye-opening in that it’s a lot more full-on that just doing the street press, but you’re not thrown in the deep end. Christina’s given me a lot of help and I’m quite thankful for that.
I’ve probably learnt more from actually doing my job than learning about it at university. Like other people have found out, it’s very dry and academic based. I think with QUT they do [a] more practical approach [to the journalism degree], and that’s much more important, but I’ve learnt more from actually going out and doing the work, than learning about it.
Christina: And that’s not to say if any of you are thinking about studying any sort of media or communications, that’s not to say that it’s not a valuable exercise [to study at university]. There are a lot of things that it’s really handy you know before you come to a job, like a bit about ground legal knowledge like what’s defamatory, what might be contemptuous. Those kinds of things are really valuable for you to know.
But I’m sure a lot of people – and I know I could say the same thing as Scott – that I felt I learnt so much more in my first few weeks of my job than I probably did altogether at uni. But he’s right; the thing that got him his job was me looking at his published work. To me, that showed someone who got off their rear end and done some stuff of their own accord, who wrote well. I could actually see how he wrote and that gave me a glimpse. Looking at his university record wouldn’t have really done anything. Just because you get a high GPA doesn’t really reflect an awful lot. That was far more important to me.
Even if you guys aren’t interested in journalism necessarily, whatever sort of path you are interested in, do try and get work experience, because one of the reporters that I have at the moment, she very directly got a job because she did work experience with us six months ago. Ever since then we were trying to find an opening for her. If you can take the initiative and in your school holidays, or even through your school-provided work experience programs, definitely take advantage of it, because if you get yourself noticed and they get to know your face, your name, and what you’re capable of, then you’ll definitely find it smooths the path for you later on.
Andrew: Who knows what a freelance journalist is?
Audience: I think I do. I don’t want to embarrass myself…. You write your own stories and sell them to magazines, so you’re not actually employed by anyone? You write the stories and then you sell them to the magazine or papers who want them?
Andrew: Yeah, that’s basically it. I’ve been a freelance journalist for about two years now, and it means that at any one point I can think of a story idea and have 12 or 15 different publications that I could potentially sell that idea to. I don’t actually write them first, though, because I might not know if I’m going to get paid at the end, and I don’t necessarily want to waste my time.
[Audience]: So you just think up the idea and sell that idea to a paper, and tell them that you’ll write about that idea if they pay it?
Andrew: Yeah, it’s about marketing yourself. I’ve got a few good clips under my belt for Rolling Stone, The Weekend Australian. I always mention those first if I’m introducing myself to an editor. [That way] they know ‘this is not just some guy off the street. He’s actually got some credibility’. Maybe. [So it’s about] the intro, and then the [story] idea and how you’re going to approach it, who are you going to talk to, how long you think it’s going to run to, and then you pass it on to the editor. It’s for them to decide whether they go ahead with it.
Christina: Freelancing is notoriously difficult in Australia, to make a career out of it. And to get paid well. But what you’ll find, and what Andrew may have already found this, is that even as a freelancer once you’ve built up a relationship with a certain publication, they might then commission you to do some stories as well. It can actually go both ways. It’ll usually start off with you pitching an idea to them, and then once they’ve looked at your stuff and say, “we can rely on this guy; he writes well, he hits the nail on the head. Next time we need something done and maybe we can’t get it done by our own staff we’ll give Andrew a call and see if he can do something for us as well, because we’re happy to pay for it.”
Andrew: I did an event in Brisbane on Tuesday evening about freelance journalism with John Birmingham and Benjamin Law; two guys who are pretty well-known freelance journalists based in Brisbane. They were talking about how most magazines these days… if you think of any magazine, basically, they only have skeleton staffs. Once upon a time, they would have had dozens of people working on Rolling Stone with staff writers, these days there’s only an editor-in-chief, an editor, an art editor, and the rest are just freelancers or they don’t actually work in the office; they just are around Australia, and can be called on anytime.
Christina: Those people buddy up to local newspapers, because they read stories that you’ve actually done the hard work on and then say, “hey, can you give me a phone number for that person; we’d love to do a story for New Idea”. I say, “no, do your own hard work!” [laughs]
Andrew: Christina referred to it being difficult. It definitely is, because on a daily basis you’re marketing yourself, trying to get paid. You don’t know where your next pay check’s coming from. Some weeks I’ve had nothing. I’ve been pitching stories all week, and nothing’s come back. Next week I get commissioned stories that are worth thousands of dollars. It’s very up and down, and very stressful at times.
Christina: You’ve got to be organised too. If you just work for a newspaper or any organisation, you get your weekly or fortnightly or monthly pay check and that’s fine. You don’t have to do anything. If you’re a freelancer, you’ve got to keep track of your jobs. You’ve got to keep track of, “have they paid me?” Some pay on time and some don’t. You really have to be very organised, to firstly get the work and then make a buck out of it. It’s not the easiest way to do it.
Andrew: I did want to point it out because we’ve been talking about careers, but there are alternatives to that kind of method [of getting a job at a single publication].
Christina: Which is great if you want the freedom to work on your own stuff, or you might actually have another full-time job. Perhaps writing on the side is a passion of yours and that’s something you can still continue to do. I guess that’s a really good thing as well, that journalism is a lot of things. It’s not just working at a local paper and reporting on news stories. There’s science writing and finance writing. You might find a lot of people who have different life experience or different kinds of educational qualifications, but still write well can make really good science writers or health writers or medical writers, or whatever. There are a lot of different paths you can take, I suppose, to get to that place.
Janette: You would often commission a person who’s an expert in their area to write an article for you. They have to have a fairly strong track record to do that. As an ex-features editor, you’re very careful about using people who call themselves freelance journalists but actually haven’t gotten any qualifications to do that. They can be quite dangerous because journalism is full of legal potholes. When you send your journalists out there, the one thing you need to have in them is complete confidence because what they bring back, you’ve got to trust that implicitly.
Christina: You make your decisions based on that.
Janette: You do, absolutely. If people go out there and bring back information that hasn’t been checked out thoroughly, or is incomplete, or even worse… I used to get a lot of contact from people who do some course and think they were freelance journalists and I’d have to break the happy news to them that actually, they weren’t. You can do freelancing if you are an expert in your field. That’s a different set of criteria all together and when you’re writing opinion pages they’re the people you do tend to tap into.
Really to be a freelancer, to be a successful freelancer – and credit to you for working in that area – you actually have to be better than the people they have on staff, because unless I’m really strapped and have no one else to do it, I’m thinking, “who can I get to write this story that must be written?” If I know you’re actually going to go do a better job of it because you’ve got good contacts, got good writing style and I like everything you do – but it’s not a style that I want all the time, or a subject I want all the time – then I’ll go and ask you, because at the end of the day people like quality journalism.
It’s great when people rip out a story or article and keep it. If you’ve got a freelance journalist – and there are some around, some excellent ones around who you know will deliver something that’s out of the ordinary – then yes, you’re going to pay them.
Christina: The other long-held debating point as well – and this goes back to people who have expert areas, but write as well, is reviews. Whether it’s restaurant or food reviews or reviews of theatre, that kind of thing; when I was growing up there was always this argument of, “do you want someone who’s a great journalist and like film and TV, or do you want someone who’s gone and studied film and TV at uni and really understands a lot more of the nuances in it, but also happens to write well?” Perhaps they’ll make a much better critic. Same for restaurant reviews. You don’t want to send someone along who’s like… I like to eat out, but that doesn’t make me an expert. [laughs]
Janette: From an editor’s perspective as well, there’s people who are experts in their field, whether it’s film and TV, they have their own reputation to consider. They are very careful about what they say and don’t say. That gives you confidence as well because you’re actually putting this person out there — if they write something that really isn’t up to scratch, then their reputation in that field can be damaged, so they don’t do it. I’ve found them very reliable, actually. The worst thing is to send in someone, as you said, to do a review of something and they really don’t know their subject. It’s very embarrassing.
Christina: Reviews can get you into trouble. There are actually some really well-known examples of some quite outlandishly critical restaurant reviews which ended up getting the newspapers into legal trouble and costing them quite a lot in fines. Sometimes these things aren’t really judged to be fair comments. Then you end up paying for it.
Andrew: I want to point out that, at no point during the couple of years I’ve been doing [freelance journalism], have any of many editors I’ve been involved with asked “do you have a degree in journalism?” or, “have you studied?” It’s far more important to have the clips, the bylines, that you’ve had published, than a piece of paper saying you studied for three or four years, doing a degree.
Christina: In fact, when Janette first started out explaining how she got into journalism, she said she went in as a direct entry reporter. We have, just probably three weeks ago, taken on a first-year cadet, which… the way the pay structure works in journalism is when you come out of doing a degree in journalism or communications you come out as a third-year cadet and spend a year doing your cadetship, and then you become a graded journalist.
We really wanted to take on a young person who hopefully was local so they’d grown up in the area, who we could really develop at the newspaper, give them on-the-job experience, because we felt we could give them just as good development of their skills and qualifications at the newspaper as they could at university.
I actually approached one of my company bosses saying, “can we still get first-year cadets?” He said, “you can, but geez, we haven’t done that in a long time”. That was really important to us. She grew up in Childers. She moved to Bundaberg a couple of years ago. She doesn’t have a degree. In fact she’d been doing a little bit of work in our advertising department and I said, “you’re going to have to take a bit of a pay cut”. She said, “that’s okay, because I know that’s what I want to do”.
To me, that was far more important, that she was someone who has a lot of ties to the area, so she’s not just going to leave after she’s done a year and got her experience and move onto a bigger paper. She’s at least going to be someone who will stay with us for a while. She knows people and really enjoys what she does. It doesn’t matter to me that she doesn’t have any university experience, because we’ll give her the benefit of our training, of company training that APN as a company puts on.
I already saw the way she wrote and her turn of phrase and thought, “she can do it”. That’s rare. You don’t often get those opportunities, but it’s something I’d like to see happen more often because I think sometimes we underestimate young people and what they’re capable of. I guess the other side of that, there are some people who really want the university experience, not necessarily for the educational qualification but they want the experience of that mishmash of people at university, meeting people from all different walks of life and I guess the coming of age and social experiences that uni can offer. I never discourage it. But it’s not necessary, if you don’t think that uni’s for you.
Andrew: I highly recommend studying at university, and staying on campus at college. I look at my degree; that was neither here nor there, but staying at campus and making all the friends who I’ve maintained for years, and the social events surrounding [college] – that was awesome.
Christina: Yeah, they’re formative years.
Audience: I went to Women’s College, and when you move from Bundaberg you have nobody, and then you go to college and instead of living in a house and knowing nobody, then you meet all these people, it was great.
Andrew: Scott can probably concur, as well. He went to St. Leo’s [College].
Christina: Great. I lived off-campus actually because I was very determined not to be one of those pampered residential kids. I was quite self-righteous about that.
Scott: [College] is kind of bad thing because it breeds laziness. You get everything done for you, get your meals cooked for you, get your rooms cleaned…
[Audience]: But if you’re a scared 17 year-old…
Scott: That’s true.
Christina: Going back to this cadetship job; maybe that’s a risk sometimes, that a lot of 17 year olds are scared. A few of the people we spoke to, a couple of whom are members of the writers’ group actually, really good kids, but just weren’t ready to be journalists. We had this girl come in who’s just a couple of years older and it made all the difference in the way she carried herself.
Andrew [pictured left]: Janette made a reference earlier to how, when she was editor, she would commission experts in certain areas to write opinion pieces or write features on those topics. It doesn’t have to be that way. To give an example, I now do some video game journalism for a website called IGN. The way I got into that was because late last year… to give you a bit of background info, Australia’s video game development industry is about 700 people-strong. That’s 700 people who are involved in making video games you play on PlayStation or Xbox or Nintendo.
The news leaked out [late last year] that the biggest video game developer in Australia had shut its doors and fired all the staff. They were based in Brisbane. The news lingered for a couple of weeks, and no one was really reporting on it, or confirming or denying that it actually happened. There was nothing coming out from the actual company. I wanted to know if it was true, because it interested me – firstly, that the biggest company could shut down and no one really knew the reason, and how it couldn’t be confirmed for so long.
I started investigating myself by contacting some people who used to work for the studio and got a picture of what it was like to work there. With that information I put a request through to the CEO of the company – which was still going, but no one knew it at the time. He was happy to talk to me because I’d done my background research and I hadn’t just called up to say, “is it true that you guys are closed?”
When it first happened he had some calls from journalists who were like “So you’re closed, hey? What happened?” He felt he was being antagonised by them, rather than [feeling] a compassionate approach. With that background information that I’d found myself, he opened up and told me why their business model wasn’t working, and what happened to the company, and what’s next for them – which wasn’t that they’re shutting their doors. They were just downsizing a hell of a lot. That story [‘Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart’] was an international exclusive, because no one else was covering it and no one seemed to care, so I got in there and got the story.
Janette: That’s your news sense coming out, and that’s journalism. With regard to using experts, what I’m trying to say is if I want a piece written about a specific topic or area, that’s when you call in your experts. You’re talking big names here.
If I want a piece of journalism about a business or company or organisation that’s shutting down, that’s news sense. Regardless of whether your credentials have checked or not, that’s where your journalism degree comes into play. All the things you were saying, and what editors want to hear; “I did my background, I did this, I did that”. Regardless of whether you say “it didn’t matter to me”, actually it has made you the person that you are. I hate to say this, but you are a product of your university degree. And you are a product of the system. And that’s not a bad thing, because that’s what underpins, when we come back down to the reliability of information you read in the media, and as an editor, that’s what you’re looking for. That’s what you need.
For instance, everything that you’ve said to me… if you’d rung me up, even without me asking you “are you qualified?”, because you don’t need to. You can tell the ones who aren’t qualified. It’s just so clear. They don’t use the language that we use in journalism and all those things, you tick all those boxes, and then you’ve got a story. Unless you tick all those boxes, you haven’t got your balance. You haven’t got your background. You haven’t got everything that you need to actually make a rounded story.
So yes absolutely, I think that a lot of journalists… and in fact we should talk about initiative as well, there are stories all around us all the time. It’s a question of recognising them. That’s another skill that you gain through training and experience.
Christina: And just living a little as well.
Janette: Absolutely, just being aware and contextualising it and reading other newspapers and actually understanding the importance of what that meant. You said — what were you telling me just then? Seven hundred game companies, so this one closing down wasn’t like a corner store. Actually a corner store is a big thing nowadays. It isn’t like something insignificant happening in a vast industry. It’s like a graphics company closing down. How many graphics companies are there? Most of them are sole traders and dinkering along. One of those goes, but you put it in context immediately. You said “this is a small industry, this is a major player”. It’s gone.
There’s also the “what happens now?” There’s also, “why did it happen?” And so you go and do your background checks. Actually, I have to say you’re a bit following the creed of journalism and if you’d rung me up with that story I’d have listened to you and I probably wouldn’t have said to you “do you have a degree?” I know you’ve got one because the way you talk; you wouldn’t talk that way unless you had one.
Christina: You’ll probably find in situations like that as well, the fact that you didn’t have a big newspaper backing you might actually have helped you out. Because as soon as you say, “hi, I’m Andrew McMillen from The Courier-Mail”, people will freeze up sometimes. But you get the opportunity to actually explain who you are and that you’ve done a bit of looking into it. It’s a different path in sometimes. It’s the same for us. “Hi, I’m [whoever] from the News Mail,” and some people go, “Ohhiiiii, how are you?” That’s a path to success. Other people don’t like the News Mail so much. It’s an instant turnoff. As I said, everyone judges based on what experience they’ve had with the name [of the publication].
Janette: It’s not always the fault of the current editor, either.
Christina: No, but that’s all right. The other thing I was going to point out, you mentioned some of the different work you’ve done. Sometimes I think people can really pigeonhole what freelance work is or what journalism is. There’s a lot of copywriting you can do. When I was living in the U.K. for a number of years, I worked at a particular paper. I used to write the odd travel article that I’d freelance through a bigger national paper. I used to go out with a guy who was a graphic designer, so sometimes I’d get some copywriting through websites he’d work on. Sometimes that might be as boring as explaining high-definition television, or some gaming stuff. These were things I didn’t know anything about, so you have to do your own research, and make sure what you can write for people will be believable and in laymen terms enough so that it’s understandable to someone who were just like you before they picked up that article, or looked at that website and didn’t know what they were talking about.
Janette: It’s interesting. You have a trivia night with journalists and they have the most eclectic amount of information you’d ever believe because we all… when you work in a newsroom or work in a features department you have to be able to research really quickly and get to groups with ideas really quickly. As a business writer, I can get across company core values, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, where they fit really quickly. They go “Wow!” I say, “I’ve been doing it for a few years; you get good at this stuff”. But most people don’t have those skills, and again, it’s an interesting thing. You are basically a jack-of-all-trades in terms of information. You kind of become instant experts in things. That’s what we need to be because, if you work for a major daily newspaper, you come out of conference and you say to a journo “I want a thousand words on this subject”.
They may know nothing about it but they just go “okay”, hit their contacts book, hit the rounds. Learn about it, find people who know a lot about it, and talk to them really fast, and that’s the difference. The difference between a piece of journalism about a subject and a piece written by an expert in that subject; talk about objectivity… I don’t expect the expert to be objective. They have a very strong view but we stick their name on it and they have to stand by their opinion.
But when a journalist writes a piece it has to be very balanced. When you look at feature articles, I look very hard at the intro but then again a lot of the time the decision on what a story’s about has been made at the back bench level. We’ve told them what the story is and that’s based not on our own personal view. It’s because, like [how] Christina’s here today; anyone who works at senior levels in the media is out there talking to people all the time, and important people, and people who are ordinary, and people who are just connected.
You find out an awful lot of information so you’re not making an impromptu decision. You’re making a reasoned judgment. You’re saying this is what people are saying out there. I used to run what they used to call the Monitor section, the big opinion section in The Courier-Mail. That was my baby. I used to have a range of people in my contacts that I would ring up on a Thursday afternoon and say, “these are the stories I’m working on. What’s important to you? You tell me what’s important to you.” Some of them were housewives, some were business people, all sorts of things. I respected all of their opinions.
Christina: I think that’s a common misconception. I think people think that I’m an editor and I get the opportunity to hob-knob with a lot of well-known or perceived as important people in town, that the opinion of our newspaper is driven by that. It’s not. If we want to address good discussion and debate type stories, we want to appeal to what everyday people are talking about… Janette referred to it before as a ‘water cooler story’. That comes from the idea that in the old days, people used to talk around the water pump in the village, or when they’re at work and go to the water cooler. It’s those discussion topics that, when people are passing each other in the street or in the workplace, what are those basic things that affect them that they talk about?
Whether it’s for instance, one of the big topical things to come out of the budget in the past couple of weeks was teenage mums and when they should go back to work after having had children. That’s something that affects a lot of people. It’s about addressing those kinds of issues that we think the everyday person is talking about, not what the mayor’s talking about or the big businessmen in town. That’s not what drives us as a community paper because they’re a very small part of our readership, in reality.
Janette: We have to talk to them because they’re the decision makers, the influencers, the ones who actually make the call at the end of the day. We need to know what their thoughts are. That’s when newspapers really come into their own in the community, [when] they can put out there what decision makers are thinking about and actually ask the question; “is this right; is this wrong?” I think that’s a very important role to play.
[Audience]: There seems to be a pattern that I know from my experience; it wasn’t just that studying journalism in university is very dry. It wasn’t just that. I was better at that and I knew that journalism was dry, and I could tell like Scott said; you have to put yourself out there and have to have the passion. You have to get up and go find the story. I didn’t really want to do that, and that seems to be a pattern. You don’t just need people skills and writing, you also have to have the real drive.
Janette: The hunger for stories.
Christina: Yeah, look; it depends on what sort of journalism you’re interested in. If you’re into feature writing or music writing, you still have to have the hunger but you don’t necessarily have to have the need to be confrontational. You find a lot of hard news journalists who — one of my friends, we went to uni together, [we were] like peas in a pod. But we knew instantly when we started working for different papers as soon as we graduated, and he was the guy who loved being out staking out peoples’ houses and really loved hitting people up, and had enormous guts. I remember thinking, “oh geez, that’s not me at all”. I loved sitting down and talking to people and getting a great story out of someone, that you know they would tell you something they wouldn’t tell another journalist because you took the time to understand them better, relate to them a little better. That was the kind of journalist that I was as a young person.
I think you can still be passionate and hungry without necessarily being hard-nosed. But at the same time, those kinds of journalists are very sought-after. There’s probably a bit of extra prestige, rightly or wrongly connected with it in some ways, and [it’s] quite hard to break into. You have to really work at it to get into it.
Janette: I think [you need to be] inquisitive as well, in the same way you were talking about that story just now. It’s that interest in the world around you. I find… I have Austar, because I love watching all the overseas news. I watch all the overseas news channels. I love to know what’s going on out there because I don’t get enough of that through my own media here in Australia. I probably will never get enough of it. I watch the [Federal] budget from start to finish. I watch the election from start to finish. It comes on; I’m sitting there glued to the chair. I’m reading; I’m making my own decisions so when they come on later and start interpreting, I’m like “whatever. I saw the speech, don’t worry about it. I know what’s going on.”
That’s me, and I like to be informed. I think that if you like to be informed and you are inquisitive and you see the story and, “go hang on; that’s important because….” and that’s important because it’s what puts it into the newspaper, and it can be important because of its importance to the community for whatever reason. It’s important because it’s got implications for peoples’ lifestyle or budgets. There’s all sorts of “it’s important because”.
I used to work on the back bench to various newspapers as chief sub, which is like the conduit for all the copy that comes through. I used to have a ‘WC’; I used to go through stories because they come in, loads and loads of stories. It was, ‘who cares?’ You put ‘WC’ by it, it was like it was dead, gone. No one cares. That’s my judgment, but someone has to make the call at some point. You’re making that judgment based on experience and based on your knowledge of your readership. At the end of the day your readership is who you’re talking to. ‘Who cares?’ is actually a really important benchmark to have in newspapers. People ring up and say, “I’d like to put something in the paper”. You go, “that’s actually not of very much interest to a lot of people”.
Christina: Or it might affect you.
Janette: You personally, but it’s not that interesting, the ‘who cares?’ And other people you’re talking to them, they go “blah, blah, blah…” and you go, “that’s really important and we should do a story on that”.
Christina: If it’s affecting you, it’s probably affecting thousands of other people in town as well.
Janette: That’s right. And they say, “oh, is that a story?” And you go, “yep, absolutely.”
Andrew: [to audience member who has been asking most of the questions] What are you doing now, if I may ask?
[Audience]: I’m doing my graduate diploma in teaching, and then I’m going to do my Masters.
[Audience]: [to Andrew] You said before about some of the contacts that you made. You said that you got a hold of a few past employees about the video game company. How do you get the numbers of these people if you’ve never met them before? You don’t know anything about them.
Andrew: It’s a good question. The way I did it… I’m not saying this is the only way, but there’s a website called LinkedIn which a lot of people use for their professional histories. You can search by ‘past employer’. I searched for anyone whose past employer was ‘Krome Studios’, which is the name of the company involved, and that uncovered dozens of people. I just hit every single one of them via email. Actually, those that had websites or personal blogs; I hit them and said “I want to look into this. Can you tell me anything, or do you know anyone who was working there recently?” Not everyone replied, and some people even told me to “bugger off, just leave it alone”, but a few did [reply positively].
Christina: Persistence comes in.
Andrew: Yeah. A few people did open up and gave me contacts who had just been laid off by the company. I had a range of people who’d been there from five years ago, up until the week it closed.
Christina: And take this however you will, because I’m sure a lot of you use social networking sites a lot, but they’ve opened up a lot of research tools to newspapers. If we’ve had some crime stories — to give you an example; there was a pretty awful stories probably two or three months back. I’m not sure if any of you might have been familiar with it but a twenty-four year old woman who was seven months pregnant when she was killed, she was found dead in a house. It looked as though she might have been stabbed. There was a bit of mystery around it.
We basically were able to come up with a name because the police wouldn’t release it to us straightaway. We were able to come up with a name through looking at Facebook connections between people. Then, thankfully because we’ve got quite a number of employees at the News Mail, when we threw that name around the building one of the advertising staff said, “my mum knows that girl’s grandmother”. Through speaking to her grandmother we were able to speak to her dad and do this really quite heart-wrenching story about this dad’s pain for his daughter who had a drug problem and got caught up in the wrong crowd. And no one was ever able to crack that story because they didn’t have the same contacts, just through the community that we had. That story is still ongoing, but Facebook particularly has opened up a lot of research paths for us in that way.
[Audience]: Do you find there’s a lot of controversy around reporting peoples’ names in the paper? If you have a court case and it’s particularly horrific, like a lot of controversy surrounding that?
Christina: Actually there is law in place that dictates what you can and can’t report. Sometimes we do make a judgment call. Sometimes we can report someone’s name and we decide maybe it’s better not to, but generally — to give you an example; you’re not allowed to use the names of child victims of any sort. You’re not allowed to use the name of someone who’s been accused of any sort of sex offence until it’s been established that there’s enough evidence for it to go to trial because that recognises the fact that perhaps someone might have maliciously made an accusation against them and you’ll ruin their reputation if you report their name until that later trial time.
There are very specific measures that are put in place legally to govern what you can and can’t report. We just find that the best way to deal with that is to treat everyone the same. You follow the law to the letter because once you start making exceptions, then it’s very difficult for you to justify or explain why you treated this defendant one way and that defendant another. You really need – with court [reporting] especially – you need to be able to treat everyone fairly.
When I talk about using judgment, to give you an example; I had a court case about twelve months ago where there was a couple of young guys who plead guilty and were convicted of stealing from a guy and assaulting him. They said, in their defence, that this man they’d beaten up and stolen from had actually offered to sell his wife for sex to them. The reporter had originally included that man’s name and his wife’s. I thought, “just in case the guys made that story up, for the sake of that woman, I’m going to take that out because people don’t need to see that”. It’s not important; it doesn’t add anything to the story. It didn’t really change anything about it except for the fact that someone’s dignity was protected.
Sometimes it is a bit of a minefield and a lot of people will call us threatening legal action because we’ve used their name in the paper, but generally it’s just because they don’t understand how court works and what we are and aren’t allowed to do. We always take the time to explain it to them. Some are accepting, and others not so much. [laughs]
Janette: It has been accepted in the legal community that, for instance, drink driving. The News Mail carries the names of people who’ve been convicted of drunk driving that week. Where I did my cadetship there was a lot of shoplifting; very poor people who would go shoplifting. So used to get these very upset women saying, “please don’t put my name in the paper,” and I’d go, “[it’s] not my call”.
As you say; level playing field. It is regarded by the police certainly – and by the legal system generally – that part of the repercussions of drinking and driving is to be publicly humiliated. That’s really a sad fact of life, but it is a deterrent for people. They might not be deterred by a large fine, but they would certainly be deterred by people knowing about it in their own community. It’s not something people generally are very proud of.
[Audience]: You were saying before you’re using Facebook. Are you finding some sort of online media and basically everything online is becoming a big part of the industry?
Christina: Absolutely. It’s something that’s a really difficult thing for newspapers to navigate at the moment because we tend to find that we have quite specific audiences, different audience, those who read the paper and those who read us online. Just by people who leave comments on your stories, you get to know the different clients of readers you have. Websites are definitely becoming the way of the future. The difficulty a lot of newspapers are facing at the moment is that they’re not as commercially viable yet as paid advertising is in newspapers. That’s how we survive. Obviously we make money out of the cover price of newspaper, but that’s a small percentage compared to the revenue that comes in through advertising and advertising allows us to exist as a company.
We’re sort of in this state of flux at the moment. We’re doing a lot of work on our websites and making sure that we stay relevant to younger people especially because I don’t know about you guys; would most of you look at websites rather than pick up a newspaper? Would that be fair to say? [most of the audience raises their hands] Yeah. It’s really important for us to maintain that, while not losing our newspaper audience at the same time. At the moment we’re in this awkward middle ground of maintaining the two.
Janette: The other aspect of social media and the internet generally is the unreliability of information that’s contained on it. It’s a real minefield, especially for journalists. It’s a valuable resource, no question about it. I don’t know how we managed without Google, quite frankly. I can’t remember how we managed without Google. It is very important to check the reliability of the information and that comes right down to published papers and that sort of thing. People have access to a means of communication that really has and still has no legislation that is workable around it. It’s very interesting. Newspaper sites, funnily enough are one of the most reliable forms of information gathering.
Christina: And publicly trusted.
Janette: Exactly right, but also all the Facebook sites and that sort of thing; be very careful about what you put on your Facebook site because it is out there in the world and it can come back and bite you. It does put a window into your own personal world, and I know we all warn children and young people nowadays, but do take it very seriously. It’s very important but also, from a journalist’s perspective, if there’s information that’s on the internet in whatever form, we tend to actually require them to follow it up with other means of inquiry. We don’t trust internet information generally unless it comes from a very, very reputable site. Then we tend to identify that source as well. If it’s wrong, we blame them.
Christina: That’s an interesting thing to bring up. When you’re researching for assignments… there’s always this age-old argument that we’re giving our kids as good an education now as we were twenty years ago, and everyone just copies and pastes everything from the internet. There are actually some really good theories around at the moment that says because there is so much information on the internet, actually you are getting really good skills of analysis because you have to weed out the good from the bad and decide what is relevant, and what is trustworthy, and what isn’t. There is quite a lot of skill of analysis that involves using websites these days. I wouldn’t discount it out of hand.
I tell you what; sometimes, if we’re trying to crack some stories or we’ve got a spare 20 minutes here or there, it’s terribly fun if you know a few underworld criminal names in Bundaberg, and figuring out who knows each other and, “oh, I hadn’t expected that name to crop up”. [laughs] It’s actually quite an adventure, but as Janette says, your Facebook profiles are your reputation, and it’s something that when we’re researching stories we get a pretty good idea of who people are based on what sorts of photos, what sorts of comments they put up on their social networking sites.
Andrew: So tell us more about this underground criminal network in Bundaberg…?
Christina: Going back to this story about this seven-month pregnant woman who was killed; because of some names that we were familiar with that were in the mix, we have a court reporter who goes to court every day. You get to know who the usual suspects are, I suppose. I probably wouldn’t want to mention too many names, but [laughs] but once you’re familiar you realise, there really is a network. [A teacher indicates that most of the students have to leave to catch buses.]
Andrew: Guys, thank you so much for coming. This is part of National Young Writers’ Month. There are postcards up here if you want to grab one, for more information about the website. Join the community, start setting some goals about writing if you’re so inclined, and talking about writing.
Please thank my guests, Janette and Christina.
For more on National Young Writers’ Month 2011, visit the website. For more on Andrew’s involvement as Queensland ambassador, click here. For the full set of photos taken by Paul McMillen during the session, click here.