In hospitals throughout Australia a dedicated troupe of clown doctors dispenses therapeutic comic relief.
In a quiet and unassuming corner of Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, a transformation is taking place. Inside a nondescript room are two women who seek to make people laugh so that they might forget their surroundings, if only for a few moments.
Standing before a mirror in a small room, Jenny Wynter applies eyeliner to complement the bright red circles painted onto her cheeks, before picking up a watermelon-adorned ukulele to tweak its tuning. Louise Brehmer secures a series of rainbow-coloured hair ties into her pigtailed locks, dons a purple bucket hat, and fills the pockets of her white lab coat with an array of props. The final touch? Bright red noses, naturally, for a clown can feel only naked without one.
Affixed to the lockers that occupy the back wall are photographs of six clown doctors, who work in pairs to prowl the bright-green building while spreading mirth. For a few hours at a time, these women dress up to stand out. They seek to become the lowest-status person in every room they enter; they aim for nothing more than to become the butt of their own jokes. When the red noses are on, they’re professional goofs. They act as outrageously as possible to make everyone around them feel better about themselves. “There’s not many jobs where walking down a corridor elicits a smile,” says Brehmer of their eye-catching costumes. “We’re here for the entire hospital, to bring an element of lightness to a serious place.”
Brehmer has been doing this work for 16 years, and considers it a valuable addition to her career as a freelance actor. “I’m still learning,” she says. “Some days, I have no idea what to do in a situation.” Wynter is a comparative newbie: her background is in stand-up comedy, and she has been a qualified clown doctor since June 2016, having completed her “clownternship” after making 50 appearances in the role. “It’s so much about reading the room, and being willing to change at any point,” she says. “You’ve got to show up with an open heart.”
On leaving the change room, they switch from friendly colleagues to partners in comedic crime. In the hallway outside, near an immunisation centre, they embrace and address each other by their stage names for the first time today. “Hello, Wobble!” says Wynter, who is now known as Doctor Angelina Jolly.
As soon as they round the corner, they join the general population of the public hospital’s bustling second floor, and the improvised routine begins in earnest. Within the first five minutes of finding an audience, Doctor Jolly blows bubbles and distributes squares of toilet paper to some bemused boys, Doctor Wobble uses her stethoscope to check the heart rate of a visitor’s stuffed panda, and the pair of them launch into an enthusiastic rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, accompanied by Doctor Jolly’s ukulele. “A lot of the day is just spent cracking each other up,” says Wobble, while they ride an elevator up to the sixth floor.
As Schoolies Week kicks off around the country, emergency specialists are using hard-core methods – graphic dashcam videos, horrific injury images, emergency-room simulations – to deter adolescents from risk-taking behaviour.
It looks like a classroom, but today there’ll be no maths, English or history. It is a Wednesday towards the end of 2016’s final term, and no ordinary school day. Today’s curriculum will be taken largely from life experience, and the lessons will revolve around confronting simulations of what these students’ lives might be like if they don’t think before they act.
This group of about 30 year 10 students from St Peters Lutheran College, in the inner-west Brisbane suburb of Indooroopilly, has travelled across the city to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), at Herston in the inner-north. All aged 15 or thereabouts, the boys wear short-sleeved white shirts with maroon ties, grey shorts and black shoes, while the girls wear long white dresses with vertical maroon stripes. Just like in any average high-school classroom, the front row of seats is empty – other than two teachers overseeing the group – and the back row is mostly occupied by boys, who provide a constant stream of whispered wisecracks to one another.
Today, the hospital is hosting what’s known as the PARTY Program. The acronym stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth. It’s a concept licensed from an initiative that began 30 years ago at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and now operates out of 15 sites across Australia, including every state and territory besides the Northern Territory. PARTY began at the RBWH in 2010, and since then, 51 schools and more than 3000 students have participated in a day-long, intensive itinerary of hands-on activities and talks designed to open these bright young eyes to some of the difficult situations and decisions they’ll be exposed to as they edge from adolescence into young adulthood.
“Some of the things that you see, hear, feel and smell today may give you some feelings you haven’t had before,” says statewide program coordinator Jodie Ross. “It’s quite normal that you might feel a bit off at points. If you feel a bit ill, or feel that you might faint, please let us know, and don’t run away to the toilet. We have had a young boy who fainted in there, and it was really hard to get him out.” At this, she is met with a few chuckles. “Today, we want you to learn from other peoples’ poor choices, because we want to see you come back here as doctors, nurses or allied health people – but definitely not as patients.”‘
Ross has worked here as a nurse since 1996, and still puts in the occasional shift with the trauma team when needed, but coordinating this program at hospitals and schools across Queensland is her full-time job. Laidback in nature, the 41-year-old mother of two marries a warm presence with a wry sense of humour, yet some of what she has seen inside this building across two decades has informed her own parenting. “I have a 13-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, and they already know they’re never allowed to ride a motorbike, or even think about getting on one,” she says with a laugh. “I think I’ve scared them off, which is great.”
The morning’s first guest speaker is Danielle Brown, a paramedic who has been with the Queensland Ambulance Service for more than a decade. She wears dark green cover-alls, pink lipstick and bright red fingernails. “I’m here to tell you about consequences,” she says, as the screen behind her flicks onto an image of a car wrapped around a pole, surrounded by emergency services workers. “If you ever do find yourself in a situation with us, please just know that we’re not here to make things worse for you, or get you in trouble. We’re here to look after you.”
When she asks whether any of the students have visited the emergency department, a few of the boys raise their hands; all sporting injuries, as it turns out. Brown talks about alcohol and drug use, and about assault injuries. “Aggression isn’t cool,” she tells the group before she leaves. “For those guys out there trying to impress girls, can I just tell you – we’re really after the gentlemen, the funny guys. There’s no point in trying to impress someone by being ‘tough’.”
Ross moves onto discussing sexually transmitted infections, and the kids crack up at how she frames the lifelong consequences that can come from a few minutes of fun, such as having to tell every sexual partner from that point on, “I’ve got a bit of herpes – hope you don’t mind!”
Although none of these students have their learners’ licences yet, she dwells on the topic of road safety for some time – which makes sense, since the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads is the program’s primary funding source: in August, it provided an additional $1.54 million to keep the statewide initiative topped up for another three years. During this part of the presentation, the screen shows dashcam footage from cars where teenage drivers were distracted by their phones. These videos are horrifying to watch: the drivers’ eyes remain in their laps, even as the car veers outside the painted lines and towards needless trauma.
To read the full story, visit Good Weekend‘s website, where you can also see a short film by photographer Paul Harris that was recorded on the day we attended the P.A.R.T.Y. program. For more about the program, visit its website.
A feature story for Qweekend magazine, published in the April 9-10 issue. The full story appears below.
School Of Hard Knocks
Sick children need schooling too. At Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School, learning proves positively infectious.
In a light-filled corner room of a high-rise building overlooking inner-city Brisbane, a visiting local artist leads a class of six rowdy students. Aged between five and seven years old, they are tasked with creating artworks that illustrate their lives. A handful of the best drawings from this schoolwide project will be sent to China, where a school has a reciprocal arrangement. But it’s unlikely the Chinese students will be able to relate to the experience of these children – they are enrolled in a school very few families in Queensland choose to attend. This is the state’s only dedicated hospital school.
Sam Cranstoun presents a cheerful front to the kids’ steady stream of questions and comments. The 28-year-old artist asks the four boys and two girls to use crayons to draw what they like to do. Camping, swimming, board games and PlayStation 4 rank highly, before one boy offers another option with a quizzical look. “School?” he asks, unsure of himself. He is testing the waters: is it cool to admit, at age seven, that you like school? “I’m sure your teacher will love hearing that!” says Sam, flashing a smile to the adults across the room. Gemma Rose-Holt, six, draws a swimming pool at the bottom of an enormous piece of paper, then a sun shining high in the sky. In the last couple of years, she has seen her father’s health rapidly decline for reasons she can’t quite fathom.
Sam continues with the exercise by asking them to consider their place in the world. “Is China bigger than Gladstone?” asks one boy. They talk about their families and school. “Do you guys think about home?” asks the artist. “Yes!” they reply as one, before throwing their talents into happy drawings of the back yards and bedrooms they have left behind.
“There’s an amazing view out the window,” says Sam, pointing behind the students. “Do you guys ever look out there?” At this, the six kids scamper to the windows, pressing their faces against the glass and pointing out the landmarks they can see from the eighth floor of the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane, which the Prep to Year 2 pupils are visiting for their art class. They can see Mount Coot-tha, the murky river, the Story Bridge in the distance. “I can see the cat-boat!” announces one boy, spying a blue, white and yellow ferry as it powers against the tide. “I can see bull sharks!” suggests another, prompting a laugh from the teaching staff. Not many schools have a helicopter pad on the roof, nor a giant pink bunny rabbit sculpture standing sentry near the entrance. Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School (LCCHS) has both of these, and when its students are asked to sketch the school, these two features inevitably emerge on the page.
For their final task, Sam turns these young minds toward imagining their future. “What do we want to be?” he asks them, prompting a flurry of ideas. Teacher? Doctor? Journalist? Soldier? McDonald’s worker? Power Ranger? “I don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up,” says Gemma. She draws a nurse standing beside a bed-bound patient wearing a big smile. That’s her father, Damien. He has no hair because the medicine took it away. “The medicine’s yuck, but he has to have it,” she tells Sam. Little Gemma lives with her mother near the RNA Showgrounds, away from her Sunshine Coast home in accommodation subsidised by the Leukaemia Foundation, while Damien receives treatment.
The students who attend this school are bound by a common experience of illness: either their parents’, their siblings’, or their own. They are from Emerald, Cairns, Chinchilla, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay; from every corner of the state. For some of them, it is their first visit to Brisbane, and the circumstances are less than ideal. Entire families are uprooted from their normal lives and relocated to temporary housing reserved for people in crisis. Their parents have got so much on their plates when they come here that sometimes the last thing on their mind is phoning a school, notifying a teacher about what might become an extended absence from their normal classroom. These tasks fade from view when the spectre of death suddenly appears in sharp focus. Into the breach rush 24 hospital school teaching staff, a compassionate, capable bunch of professionals adept at crafting an individualised education that will define these stricken children.
The school’s impact is wide-ranging, and it sees a diverse population. In 2015, Lady Cilento hospital had 3159 registered students, more than two-thirds of whom normally attended state schools. Of that number, the largest cohort of 21 per cent (663 students) presented with medical conditions; 17 per cent (538) were there for oncology; 13 per cent (410) attended the school because a member of their family was ill, and nine per cent (284) were patients with the Child and Youth Mental Health Service – which is also located on level eight at the hospital – while the remainder found their way there for reasons related to the likes of surgery, diabetes, rehabilitation and heart disease.
More often than not, the hospital teachers’ efforts work wonders for the children and their families. During a midweek excursion to the Gallery of Modern Art at nearby South Bank, Mitchell Cawthray, 12, cautiously approaches a teacher watching over the group of about two dozen students as they eat lunch. He wears a black T-shirt that reads “The Force is Strong In This One”, reflecting an indelible truth of this blue-eyed boy’s tough character. His light brown hair is shaved close to his scalp, and when he turns his head, you can see the scar on the back of his neck where the life-threatening medulloblastoma tumour was removed from the top of his spine almost a year ago. “Are you having a good day so far?” asks the teacher cheerfully. “Great day,” Mitchell replies, nodding. He pauses, weighing his words carefully, then looks around to make sure none of his peers overhear his next words. With a shy smile, he says, “I’ve never really said this before, but I think I like school now!”
Most children go through childhood without great complications, and without seeing the insides of healthcare waiting rooms for longer than it takes to receive an immunisation jab, to set an accidental bone fracture in plaster, or to go through the motions of a doctor’s check-up. Mitchell, Gemma and their peers are the unlucky few, and the LCCH treats Queensland’s sickest of the sick. All of the “first-world problems”, as Mitchell’s mum, Janine Cawthray, puts it, fade into irrelevance when your child is diagnosed with brain cancer.
In Mitchell’s case, he and Janine relocated to Brisbane at Easter time last year for his treatment, while his father stayed home in Hervey Bay, managing their small business and caring for Mitchell’s sister as she completed Year 12. “I take my hat off to the teachers,” says Janine. “They not only have to deal with normal academic requirements as per the curriculum; they have to deal with a multitude of personalities – from parents, medical staff – as well as medical requirements and children’s individual needs. They also have to report back to the children’s mainstream school. They’re juggling all of that, and that’s a hard call, but they manage it very, very well.”
In the middle of the building, on level eight, is a place where a familiar timetable reigns between the hours of 9am and 3pm each weekday. It is a place of whiteboards and colouring-in; of assigned readings and class discussions. It is a place of boring adult words such as literacy, numeracy, curriculum, assessment and “personal learning plans”. For some families, the hospital school quickly becomes the only constant in a life now marked by endless blood tests, chemotherapy and invasive surgery, and – sometimes – dramatically shortened horizons.
None of these horrible things happen on level eight, however, where the LCCHS middle and senior classrooms serve an ever-changing cohort of students from Years 5 to 12. Nor do horrible things happen on the ground-floor junior school next door, on Stanley Street inside the old Mater Hospital building, where Prep to Year 4 students are taught. In young lives that have suddenly been dropped into seas of anxiety, pain and uncertainty, these two campuses emerge as towering islands of normality.
There are no school bells here. No uniform, and no rules, per se, only three expectations: be safe, be respectful, and be responsible. Teachers are not known by stuffy honorifics; the students are on a first-name basis with their educators and support staff from the first day. Though visits to these islands of normality are usually short-term matters, these two school campuses can easily act as a home base for months on end, depending on circumstances.
This unique style of teaching has its roots in doctor-soldiers and military nurses returning from World War I in 1918 and concerning themselves with the rehabilitation, retraining and education of limbless soldiers. From that point, it took only a short leap of logic to twig that children ensconced in hospitals required special schooling, too. The Sick Children’s Provisional School opened at the Hospital for Sick Children in the bayside suburb of Shorncliffe on August 11, 1919; it was the nation’s first such educational institution. Since then, it has been relocated several times. A purpose-built school at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Herston opened in 1978; in 2009, it celebrated 90 years of service to more than 60,000 pupils.
Vicki Sykes was the longest-serving principal of Mater Hospital Special School in South Brisbane, which opened in 1983. Appointed in 1986, she served 23 years before retiring in 2009; today, the junior school playground is dedicated in her name with a handsome plaque. In 1986, Sykes described her workplace. “Students come to school from the wards in pyjamas and wheelchairs,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir. “Some are on crutches or have their arms or legs bandaged. During the day some students may need to go off for operations or medical treatment. Teachers don’t know from day to day how many students will be coming to school.”
In that sense, little has changed since the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital School opened on December 1, 2014. Its purpose is defined by Professor John Pearn in his 2009 history of Queensland’s hospital schools, To Teach The Sick. “Unrealised long-term educational potential has, in the past, been an under-acknowledged legacy of childhood illness,” wrote Pearn in the book’s introduction. “In the context of life’s fulfilment, such may be more serious than any medical after-effects.”
The school’s average weekly enrolment is about 150 students, and the student-to-teacher ratio is about seven-to-one. About half of the students are too ill to make it to either of the two campuses at Lady Cilento, so the teachers come to them, providing bedside tuition. They set daily assignments, and return regularly to check their progress. Depending on scheduling, these ward visits might only last 15 minutes if a teacher has a long list of inpatient appointments. But for the bed-bound students, they might also be the only minutes in a day where they are given a task and purpose that’s divorced from their unfortunate medical reality.
When visiting a couple of beautiful sisters from Springfield Lakes who have been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a palpable sense of cabin fever permeates their immediate environment. Their world has shrunken to a cruel size. Little girls aged six and eight don’t belong in a small room separated by white curtains, behind a door that must remain closed at all times, and where visitors must wear gloves and gowns before entering to minimise the risk of transmitting infections.
“Homework” is an imperfect word to describe the learning tasks set by these teachers, since the sisters’ entire lives are confined to this room. The hospital, for now, is both their home and classroom. Mid-lesson, a nurse enters to prick their fingers for a blood test. As the precious red liquid is squeezed from a tiny finger, the blonde girl calmly continues reading along to a picture book named Mr Gumpy’s Motor Car with her impromptu teacher, who leaves several worksheets for her to complete. She has long since been conditioned to something that would prompt tears from most other six year-olds.
For these teachers, visiting inpatients on the wards requires a sense of persistence, positivity and optimism. Every day, these teachers see amazing and terrible things, such as degenerative neurological conditions that strip language and meaning from a young boy’s life with each passing week.
From his bedside, it’s a short walk to visit a young girl in a wheelchair whose body hosts a flesh-eating viral infection that has left her face disfigured and her forearms resembling those of a burns victim, wrapped in plastic for her protection. Tourism is her passion, and so the ward teachers resolve to bring her homework that suits this interest.
These teachers are not medical professionals. They cannot fix these problems or treat pain. They can, however, provide stimulation for young minds, if only for 15 minutes each day.
After lunch on Thursday, the junior school students file into the flexi-room on level eight for school assembly. Only Prep to Year 4 are in attendance, as the middle and senior grades are still on an all-day excursion to GoMA. Brianna Iszlaub, 11, with patchy tufts of blonde hair, couldn’t attend the latter as her blood count was down today. She stands beside a girl in a wheelchair as the two of them co-host the weekly event, beginning with an Acknowledgment of Country and an energetic, indigenous-flavoured rendition of the national anthem. “Thank you, please be seated,” says Brianna at its conclusion. School staff and a few parents are scattered around the edges of the dozens-strong group, while the students sit in chairs or on cushions.
Once Brianna finishes reading from the prepared script, hospital school principal Michelle Bond says to her, “Good girl.” A short and energetic woman who radiates positivity, Michelle, 49, welcomes the younger students to stand up and present their handmade graphs based on a recent visit to a petting zoo downstairs. The principal – who led Royal Children’s Hospital School since April 24, 2006, and LCCHS since it opened – then presents a handful of awards: to an outstanding student who has shown consideration to his peers; to one who has overcome challenges; to one who has made a positive start after joining the school this week. The group sings happy birthday to a shy blonde girl. “Some of these kids would never be chosen to lead an assembly at their own school; they usually choose the school captains and the sporty kids,” Michelle tells Qweekend quietly. “I’ve had parents come and tell me that their child has never received an award before coming here. It’s lovely that we can do that for them.”
The class’s guest for the day, University of Queensland PhD candidate Maddie Castles, cues a PowerPoint presentation loaded with photos from her recent visit to Namibia. The title slide shows a selfie of her grinning wildly into the camera while a giraffe munches on some leaves behind her. She tells the group about her job studying giraffe social interactions, or “who they’re friends with,” as she puts it. A teacher aide quietly brings a boy in a wheelchair into the room. He is barely conscious, his head held in place by brackets. As time passes, he shuts his eyes and dozes while his classmates leap up for a group photo with Maddie, who might be the first scientist they’ve ever met.
Posted on the door inside Brianna’s Year 7/8 composite classroom is a photo of her before treatment. Her glorious, long locks are framed by a beaming face. The photo was taken when she first arrived at the school from Townsville in January, after being diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma in late November. Her chemotherapy has stolen her hair and some of her energy. Sometimes she prefers to hide her changing scalp beneath a black beanie with devil horns. But none of this is discussed during school hours.
Brianna’s teacher is Anna Bauer, 35, a bespectacled brunette with sparkling brown eyes who has worked in hospital schools for three years and now can’t imagine teaching anywhere else. “No one here will ask you a medical question,” she says of her classroom. “The kids are so tolerant … You can walk in with a nasal gastric tube and a drip tree, and that’s it. We might give the drip tree a name, like ‘Molly’, and then everybody gets on with what we’re doing. It’s what I wish the real world was like.” Working here sometimes demands that the adults develop coping strategies for their own emotional protection, too. “I have to believe that, when they walk out the door, they live happily ever after,” she says.
In Anna’s current class, Brianna has cancer; the mother of a bubbly Bundaberg girl is being treated for leukaemia; and the fiercely intelligent girl who co-hosted assembly is temporarily in a wheelchair after two recent strokes. But the students she sees aren’t confined to physical illness. “I have so many kids with mental health issues who don’t look sick,” Anna says. “They walk around without baldness, or a nasal gastric tube, or a limp, or a drip tree. There’s no physical evidence, so there’s a real lack of recognition that there’s something wrong with your child. I’m not a parent yet, but oh my God – how awful must that be?”
During Anna’s second week of teaching at the hospital, a student from the previous day didn’t arrive. When she asked a colleague about their sudden absence, she learnt they were being treated in the emergency department after attempting to end their life. “I took that quite badly,” says Anna quietly. That was when her happily-ever-after belief began to cement itself, as a self-protective measure.
Some days are worse than others. “You’re on and lifting, all of the time,” says Anna. “But I find it quite humbling, and incredibly powerful, that it’s my job to make their lives feel normal. It can be sad sometimes, but most of the time, it is not; it is joyous, happy, friendly, loving and supportive. The children are sick, but I’m not a health worker. When I’m in here, and they’re so excited to see me, because I’m not a doctor or a nurse, there’s no time to be sad. You’ve got spelling and times tables to do, and we’re going to have fun while we do it.”
Posted on the door inside Anna’s classroom, beneath the class photos of smiling children at eye level, is a laminated A4 page consisting of a paragraph of white text against a black background, framed by a pink border. I want a life that sizzles and pops, it begins. That first line popped into Anna’s head a little while ago, on a particularly bad day, when her class of six teenage girls were all in a low mood. “And I don’t want to get to the end, or tomorrow even, and realise that my life is a collection of Post-its and unwashed clothes, bad television and reports that no-one’s ever read,” it continues.
The teacher was getting nothing out of them, that day, so she put the spelling lesson aside and assigned the girls a task: to write about what makes them feel better. Anna kicked them off with that first sentence, and encouraged them to fill the page. She did, too. “I want to see what I see through the lens of a camera and drink wine like it’s real grapes and wrap myself in warm towels that smell like my mum’s washing and dance to songs I don’t even like,” she wrote.
The girls pasted the text into an online image editing program, fiddled with the design, printed the results and took them home to stick on their walls. These pages were intended to act as a reminder of all that is good in this world, especially on the blackest days. Anna stuck hers to the wall of a classroom where nobody will ask medical questions, in a building that none of the children particularly want to be in. Her paragraph concludes, “I want to wrap my hands around warm cups of tea with friends that will make me laugh so hard I wee a little bit, and I want every day to belly laugh with my people, glad and grateful, that I love the life I have.”
A story for the November 7-8 issue of Qweekend. The full story appears below.
In their underground “carparktopia”, the women of Brisbane Free University dispense knowledge to anyone within earshot.
by Andrew McMillen / Photograph by Russell Shakespeare
About once a month, beneath a bank on Boundary Street in Brisbane’s inner-south West End, an enterprising trio of young women direct their energies toward setting up a classroom unlike any other you’ll find in the city. Under harsh fluorescent lights and between 13 Westpac customer car parks, dozens of plastic chairs are sat facing a white banner taped to the brick wall, covering the bank’s logo. A second banner is hung above the entrance, so that curious passersby might be drawn in by the impromptu gathering of education-minded locals.
Since November 2012, a motley crew of passionate, engaged learners has been flocking to this initiative, dubbed Brisbane Free University. Pictured on the banner beside the name is the unmistakable image of an ibis taking flight, its wings outstretched. This bird was chosen for its antagonistic scavenger spirit, and illustrated by 26-year-old co-founder Anna Carlson. It wasn’t until much later that a happy accident was uncovered: the Egyptian god of knowledge, Thoth, was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis. There’s a curious duality at play here, then: the inner city-dwelling ibis takes what it can from its surrounding environment to survive, while the women of Brisbane Free University enjoy nothing more than to share knowledge with whoever happens to be in earshot, free of charge, to enlighten the lives of those around them.
Carlson and her two co-founders – Fern Thompsett, 28, and Briohny Walker, 30 – do not take an adversarial approach to the city’s existing tertiary education institutions. To do so would be a touch hypocritical, as the trio met while studying arts/law, anthropology and philosophy, respectively, at the University of Queensland, and a review of BFU’s past sessions show a strong presence of UQ, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith alumni. By 6.30pm on this particular Thursday, Walker steps forward and speaks into a microphone connected to a solar-powered PA system whose two speakers are positioned atop wheelie bins.
“Thank you for coming down to carparktopia for BFU. It’s lovely to see you all,” she says, beaming. “Tonight is particularly special because it’s a meta-BFU: tonight at free university, we’re going to be talking about free universities. The acoustics here are a little bit weird, so can I check that everyone at the back can hear me?” After getting the thumbs-up from those in the back rows, she hands over the mic.
Facing the audience are two chairs; one for Thompsett and one for the American guest speaker, Laura Nelson, a 26 year-old student of Harvard University who is studying a PhD on the history of free universities. Both are casually dressed and clearly comfortable with fronting this crowd of around 30 attendees, whose average age appears to be about 22. After acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we sit, Thompsett gives a brief overview of how the event came to be.
“When Briohny, Anna and myself co-founded BFU, we didn’t realise that there were any other free universities in operation, even at this point in time, let alone in history – which is probably really politically naive of us,” she says with a smile. “It was just an idea that came out of the blue, and a bottle of wine, and then it took form in this very carpark approximately three years ago. It was only a couple of months into the project that we realised that what we’d tapped into was a global movement that stretched back in time, and right around the world.”
Last year, Thompsett spent five months travelling throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, visiting free universities and studying the interrelated concept of radical education.
While spending time in Australia, Nelson has been researching this country’s founding movements. She reads aloud a quote to begin: “Training for the economy is the de facto centre of the university’s operations. Students flow in from the public examinations and flow out clutching tickets to membership in the occupational elite. Through the university, a semi-closed upper status perpetuates itself from one generation to the next, preserving the lines of privilege which universal secondary education was thought to destroy. Because their attention is on getting good jobs, the mass of students are insulated from the academic culture of the university and from the radical traditions of student life and thought.”
As Nelson explains, this quote was first published in a Sydney University student newspaper in October 1967 and became the foundation manifesto of what became known as the Free U, which ran out of a rented house in Redfern and reached a peak of 300 students within two years. The Sydney experiment inspired similar movements in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, among others. As Nelson speaks, buses noisily accelerate out on the street, while occasional hecklers direct their voice toward the carpark, an action which is met with smiles by the organisers. The whole point of using this space is that there is no door between the public and private; instead, anyone interested may walk down and take a seat. That doesn’t happen tonight, perhaps because the audience is among the smallest in recent memory – possible a reflection of the meta theme – but previous discussions on sex and consent, the future of West End and women in media have each attracted healthy crowds.
After chatting amicably for an hour, Thompsett opens the discussion up to questions and comments from the floor. A young guy in a suit and a flat cap raises his hand; he drones into the microphone for minutes on end about several tangentially-related concepts before attempting to form a question for the two women. I find myself quickly frustrated by his presence, and reflect on how this behaviour would not be tolerated in a mainstream university classroom; he would soon be drowned out by groans, and the lecturer, sensing the restlessness, would likely intervene. Here at BFU, he is indulged with silent patience by all in attendance, though a couple of young women in front of me start rolling their eyes at one another and quietly giggling to themselves.
This young man is passed the microphone several more times during the group discussion. His barely coherent monologues fill the space, and each time Thompsett skilfully acknowledges his contribution before steering the conversation toward more productive pathways. I realise my frustration toward him is rooted in my own studies at UQ several years ago. I rarely enjoyed the Bachelor of Communication program, doing the bare minimum to scrape through with a pass while pouring my time into socialising and extracurricular activities. This is a fault of mine, not the university’s, yet even here, I found myself thinking in terms of exams and assessment criteria.
Thoughts such as these are in direct opposition to what BFU represents: learning for learning’s sake, rather than simply chasing a piece of paper, an admirable grade point average or a high-paying job. It’s a beautiful, freeing approach to education, as it opens up avenues beyond the traditional classroom model. It rejects the notion that learning ends with high school, or university. Instead, it’s a lifelong process, and movements such as this acknowledge the universal human hunger for knowledge, discussion and understanding.
An informal “tutorial” is scheduled to take place in the beer garden of the nearby Boundary Hotel once the organisers have reset the carpark and packed up the PA, but for now, says Thompsett, “I don’t have any conclusions, I just have more questions, which I think is probably the sign of a sound research project – at least for within this framework of anarchist learning spaces.”
As the audience filters out onto Boundary St after helping to stack chairs, minds and mouths alive with inspiration, it’s clear that this has been another successful chapter not only for BFU’s three founders, but for a radical educational concept that first took root almost 50 years ago.
I tried taking lessons. I tried reading guitar tabs online. The only thing that worked was Rocksmith.
Music has long struck me as a kind of magic. In terms of my life essentials, it ranks only just below oxygen, food, water, shelter and love. For 11 years I have been attempting to conjure some of that magic myself by learning to play guitar.
Yet for most of those years I practiced fitfully, and at some point I stopped improving. When my progress plateaued, so did my enthusiasm. Despite the pleasure I derive from watching a person with a six-string plugged into an amplifier, plucking and strumming to elicit beautiful noise, I seemed destined to never fully master this iconic instrument.
But then I discovered a video game that rekindled my obsession. It’s calledRocksmith, and it is designed specifically to teach people to play guitar. Earlier games, namely Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had shown that tens of millions of people could become hooked on playing fake, simplified instruments while fake, simplified musical scores scrolled down their televisions. After clocking in several jam sessions, many players even began to sound competent. But that expertise evaporated the second the game shut off.
Laurent Detoc, the North America president of Ubisoft, a game development studio, hated the gulf that separated actual and simulated musicianship. In 2011 he told the San Francisco Business Times, “I just could not believe the amount of waste that had gone in people spending so much time with plastic guitars.” His company had assigned some designers to figuring out how to make playing real guitars just as fun for gamers as jamming on a plastic replica. What they came up with is, to my mind, the purest demonstration of the power of gamification—using the principles of game play to make actual learning feel addictive. Case in point: I’ve learned to play more songs in two and a half years with Rocksmith than in the previous eight years of lackluster progress combined.
My attempts to learn guitar followed a path familiar to many teenage rock enthusiasts. They began with an acoustic guitar my parents gave me in 2004, for my sixteenth birthday, and weekly lessons with a tutor. My teacher—a bookish, chubby, middle-aged man who looked nothing like Jimi Hendrix—was prescriptive in his instruction. He told me that my left thumb mustremain pointing skyward against the back of the neck, regardless of the notes or chord shape required. This dictum puzzled and infuriated me, as none of the popular musicians I’d seen in music videos were so staid in their playing; rather, they were fluid and catlike. I wanted to be like them.
Learning to read music was an unwelcome chore, too, especially when my setlist consisted of nursery rhymes to be wrung out one note at a time. I wanted to learn guitar because an expert player sounded and looked cool, yet there wasn’t much that was cool about my tutor’s dry approach. So I quit lessons.
Many of my favorite songs—from bands such as Tool, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Rage Against The Machine—sounded thin and bloodless when ineptly fretted on an acoustic guitar. Eventually, my wallet lined with money saved from my first job as a dishwasher at a Sizzler restaurant, I acquired the desired technological upgrade: an electric guitar—a handsome, dark blue copy of the classic Fender Stratocaster—and a 30-watt amp.
Anzac Day at Bundaberg East State School in 1993 was an unceremonious affair all but indistinguishable from the weekly whole-school assembly.
To the school’s newly appointed teacher-librarian, Paul McMillen – my father; a traditionalist who carried a briefcase to work, and coupled shorts with long socks pulled up to his knees – the spectacle was an embarrassment.
On that April morning, 250 primary school-aged children sat fidgeting on hard concrete, scarcely paying attention to what was being said by the adult addressing the student body.
At one point, as the restless murmurs grew, an admonition was delivered in a raised voice: “You should be showing more respect for what was done for you in the past!”
To which any of the students wearing bright green shirts that morning might have replied: what, exactly, are we supposed to be respecting?
It wasn’t clear.
The remembrance ‘service’ was little more than a dull formality composed solely of adults talking down to children.
The teachers’ hearts didn’t seem to be in it, either.
In all, a thoroughly forgettable occasion.
Then aged 38, and having recently transferred from a deputy principal role at a nearby primary school, McMillen had neither a particular interest in military history nor a connection to the armed forces.
Yet something hidden stirred in him that day.
Soon, he approached the school principal, Doug Ambrose – himself a recent appointment; a no-nonsense sort of bloke who wore a bushy moustache – and said, “I think we can do better than this.”
“Kids today watch war movies that are ‘glitz and glamour’; full of massive explosions and CGI,” Mr McMillen said to his boss.
“They have very little idea of what war is like. If the kids are going to respect Anzac Day, they need to have ownership. If their peers are running the service, it’ll belong to them more than a teacher talking to them, as they’re used to in the classroom.”
In response, the principal gave his new teacher-librarian the nod to proceed with his plans.
After Mr McMillen’s year of preparation outside of his regular duties – tasks which included networking with the local RSL, writing scripts to be read aloud by the Year 7 students, and building anticipation among the classes that visited his library each week – the school’s Anzac Day service of 1994 was a “monumental occasion”, says Mr Ambrose.
“It was new ground. The response from the kids and the parent community was astounding; it was one of those special moments.”
A senior student played the ‘Last Post’ on trumpet.
No adults spoke to the hushed crowd; instead, a dozen or so students.
The president of the local RSL attended, dressed in his Air Force uniform, as well as an Army Reservist who stood out from the crowd of 50 parents by wearing his greens.
Having sat on hard concrete throughout 12 years of unmemorable remembrance services during my own public education in Bundaberg, it is hard for me to imagine 250 children sitting in rapt silence, hanging on the words of their peers as they told stories of decades-old conflict and death under the watchful eyes of solemn men in uniform.
Nearly half of all teaching graduates leave the profession in the first five years, Monash University research has found
Close to 50% of Australians who graduate as teachers leave the profession within the first five years, many citing overwhelming workloads and unsupportive staffrooms as their main reason for leaving the job, according to new research.
The apparent exodus of early career teachers is a significant drain on resources, says Dr Philip Riley, of Monash University’s faculty of education, who is leading Monash’s research into the reasons that lead to young educators resigning at an alarming rate.
“It’s costing the nation a huge amount of money. It’s just a waste, particularly when we’ve got so many threats to the funding of education,” he says.
Riley estimates that between 40% to 50% of “early career” teachers – defined as recent graduates with less than five years of practical experience – ultimately seek work in another profession, a nationwide figure that’s consistent with research published in the UK and US.
The most frequently cited reasons for teachers leaving aren’t related to the traditional complaints of difficult student behaviour or mediocre salaries. Instead, Riley’s research – currently unpublished, with a view to publish later in 2013 – pinpoints unsupportive staffrooms, overwhelming workloads, and employers’ preference for short-term contracts as the main areas of tension.
“Graduate teachers feel relatively well-prepared to deal with difficult kids, although that can be hard,” says Riley. “Young teachers tend to go into schools highly optimistic and full of energy, but if there’s no one to take them under their wing and help them through those first couple of years, they get very disillusioned. The smart ones start to imagine an easier future doing something else.”
The estimates in Riley’s study are supported by the Australian Education Union and highlight a system in crisis. “It’s a very demanding profession,” says the AEU federal president, Angelo Gavrielatos. “Workloads and stress are both high. Teachers remain undervalued, underpaid and overworked.”
This scenario rings true for Nick Doneman, a 28-year-old based in Brisbane. He graduated with a bachelor of education from Queensland University of Technology in 2007. “I really enjoyed my degree,” he says. “My practical experiences [before graduating] were really good. But all of that died quite quickly when I saw that the job wasn’t so much about teaching as it was about being a parent. That was a huge turn-off for me. I felt like classroom teaching was only 25% of the job – the rest was dealing with kids and all their issues, the things that go on between them and their parents, and behaviour management, as well as paperwork.”
Doneman says he got “thrown from school to school” upon graduating; he took several short-term contract jobs, teaching English, Film and Television, and Social Science, but found it difficult to attain full-time employment. His contract stints involved travelling to schools in and around Brisbane, including Kenmore, Bray Park and Carbrook. He found that it wasn’t the kind of job where you could go home at the chime of the three o’clock school bell with a clear head, either.
“It involved a lot of work in the afternoons and on the weekend, if you wanted to do the job properly,” he says. “It’s easy to be a bad teacher, and not plan ahead of time what you’re going to teach.”
In each staffroom, Doneman looked around him and found that very few teachers could relate to the young graduate’s initial passion for making a difference to students’ lives.
“The majority simply did it as a job,” he says. “They didn’t feel like they had the responsibility to do any planning outside of work. I couldn’t live like that, doing a crappy job. There was no teacher at any of those schools where I looked at them and thought, ‘I like what your life looks like’.” After three and a half years, Doneman threw in the towel, went back to university, and now works as a paramedic.
A story published in The Courier-Mail’s Qweekend magazine, July 13-14 2013. Click the below image to view the PDF, or read the full story text underneath.
Learning As One
Mainstream education is the goal for thousands of Queensland children with disabilities. The ideal of inclusion for all remains fraught and Gavin, 8, is one of many yet to make the leap.
Story Andrew McMillen / Photography Russell Shakespeare
The stomping of little boys’ feet on polished wooden floors echoes through the Angas-Johnson family home in East Brisbane. At the front door, Ben greets me with a smile and a handshake. He’s flanked by his excited sons – Gavin, 8, and Lachlan, 5. After the boys are given ice blocks and decamp to the next room to watch television, Ben, 40, and his wife Dina, 42, take a seat in the kitchen and begin talking about their ongoing attempts to find suitable schooling for Gavin, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder four years ago.
“It is an emotional and social disability, not something that’s really obvious,” Dina says. Alarm bells sounded when they noticed that Gavin wasn’t talking like his peers. At first they thought speech therapy was the answer. “We found that Gavin started falling behind because of the limited support in the [state] school system,” Ben says. “He was also doing one hour of speech therapy per week, all year, but that wasn’t enough for him to improve.”
Now in Year 3, Gavin attends The Glenleighden School in Fig Tree Pocket in Brisbane’s west, a specialised co-ed facility that accommodates students from early childhood to Year 12. Its motto is “Helping children to speak … and find their voice.” Gavin needs the extensive speech and language programs that only Glenleighden can provide.
“We’re unbelievably lucky that it’s in the same city as we are,” Dina says. Yet she and Ben want nothing more than for Gavin to be in mainstream education. “He’s going to a special school now, but that’s not where he’s going to learn to live in the world,” Dina says. “It’s just a temporary thing to help him get up to speed.” She smiles and compares her eldest son’s complex educational needs to a puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube.
“You keep adjusting, twisting, and tweaking.”
Since coming into effect in August 2005, the Disability Standards for Education manifesto has sought to ensure that Queensland students with disabilities are “able to access and participate in education on the same basis as other students”. That’s the goal: all children, in the same classroom, learning as one. Previously, Queensland operated on a segregation model for children with disabilities, both physical and cognitive. These students would attend special schools, known then as “opportunity” schools and they rarely interacted with children in regular schools. In 1975, a Division of Special Education was established by the State Government; three years later, following a report titled Future of Special Education in Queensland 1978-1982, this form of teaching was trialled in the state for the first time.
The vernacular surrounding special education has changed over the years, from “opportunity” to “mainstreaming” and now “inclusive” education. Education consultant Liesl Harper, of Ladder Consulting, prefers to talk about diversity, not deficit. “The phrase ‘inclusive education’ gives the sense that somebody’s out, and somebody’s in,” says Harper, 43, who has worked in the area of special education for 20 years. “It says that you’re still working to include someone, as opposed to just saying, ‘they’re actually all here!’ Our communities have diversity, so do our schools, and we have policy and legislation which requires us to understand that diversity.”
This naturally presents a challenge to teachers called on to manage up to 28 students per class – a number which is likely to include at least one child with a disability. “It’s tough to find the time to understand the child, their style of learning, and determine the best way to teach them,” Harper says.
Last year, 24,955 students with disabilities were enrolled in Queensland government schools, roughly 5 per cent of their students. Of that number, 3892 – about 15 per cent – attended 42 state special schools, meaning just over 21,000 were mainstreamed. Within the other schooling sectors, Independent Schools Queensland says 2500 of its students, or about 2 per cent, have ascertained disabilities, while in the Catholic sector, it’s 3 per cent or 4253 students, an increase of 82 per cent since 2007.
The trend for state schools in recent decades is to operate Special Education Programs and Early Childhood Development Programs, which provide learning support for children with hearing, intellectual, physical, speech-language and vision impairments, as well as Autism Spectrum Disorder – 628 SEPs and ECDPs currently operate in schools statewide. “Parents can choose wherever they want to send their student,” Harper says. What parents of children with disabilities find, though, are systemic roadblocks that stand between their ideals and some schools’ attitudes towards inclusion. “Unfortunately, parents of kids with disabilities are questioned [during pre-enrolment interviews] about the skills of that child, how the school’s going to manage, and a series of other, often really intrusive, personal questions.”
The inclusive classroom presents a range of challenges to Queensland teachers. Elliott*, 24, is a second-year high school teacher in a practical field. In his second semester last year, Elliott taught a Year 8 class of 25, which included five children with disabilities. The first four weeks of class were particularly difficult, as the student with the most complex behavioural problems hadn’t yet been assessed but was eventually found to require a full-time carer. “The teacher aide and I spent the majority of our time with those five students, while the rest of the class just worked through their activities,” he recalls. “I was still helping them, but I wasn’t extending their learning. They were getting enough instruction to pass the subject, but that’s it.”
The student with complex problems was eventually diagnosed with ASD and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as well as intellectual impairment. “He threatened students on numerous occasions with sharp implements; he’d fight with them in the classroom,” Elliott says. “It was overwhelming. With that student, I was frightened to go to class.” Elliott his drive to and from school each day thinking about how to manage the situation and at night he was preoccupied with how to control the student. “I’ve never dealt with anyone like that in my life,” he recalls. “This year I have a similar student who is difficult to work with, and although I have the experience from last year, the same techniques don’t work with him. This time I’m just lucky I only have three children with disabilities in that classroom, not five.”
Despite the difficulties, Elliott says he believes in inclusive education. “I have beautiful ‘learning support’ children as well, who strive for excellence despite their disability. But I think there needs to be a hard line drawn on safety. For me, that’s the biggest concern. If any student is being violent, there’s no way they should be allowed in the classroom, regardless of learning ability.”
Now in her mid-50s, Bundaberg primary school teacher Helen* has witnessed the shift to inclusion. “When I first started teaching, any children of the level we’ve got now would’ve gone to the special school,” Helen recalls. “When the change-over first happened, teachers didn’t want to have kids with disabilities in their class. I felt the same. You’ve got enough to do with the children you’ve already got, let alone trying to cater for those with particular needs. I would rather not have had them, but you’re basically chosen because the administration thinks you can cope with them. Someone has to have them.”
In recent years Helen has taught students who are blind, have spina bifida, acquired brain injury, autism, muscular dystrophy and intellectual impairment. Despite receiving no specialised training for any of these disabilities, Helen – like all state school teachers – is expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. “The majority of parents don’t understand the stress and difficulties that the situation presents,” she says.
Shiralee Poed is the co-ordinator of the Master of Education (Special Education, Inclusion and Early Intervention) course at the University of Melbourne. A former Queensland Catholic school teacher, Poed, 42, later worked as a policy advisor for Education Queensland, and is completing a PhD on nationwide court cases where families sued state education departments on the basis of discrimination.
“Within the first five years of teaching – which is when we lose the largest numbers of teachers from the system – the number one reason cited for them leaving is working with children with ‘complex behaviour’,” Poed says. “It might be kids without disabilities who are doing things like ‘out-of-seat behaviour’ – they’ve been told to sit down, but they’re roaming around the room – through to kids who bite, kick and punch as a way of communication, because they don’t speak.”
“The second reason they leave is uncertainty about how to program for all of the children in their class. There’s such tension surrounding inclusive education because everyone wants the best outcome. The family wants the best for their child; to a lesser extent, they’re not as concerned about the peers, whereas the schools, and the teachers, are looking for the best outcome for all kids.”
True inclusion remains fraught. Queensland Teachers Union president Kevin Bates says there are very few circumstances left where that withdrawal model – where students spend most of their time in a Special Education Program, and occasionally interact with students in the general classroom – is the one that dominates within a school. “The employer, EQ, has a very clear policy about inclusion,” Bates says. “and I think schools are gradually moving toward realising that policy across the state.”
One school where inclusive education is working is the 1400-student, independent Canterbury College in Waterford, 30km south of Brisbane. “We have a non-selective enrolment policy,” head of college Donna Anderson says. “Our inclusive education is not solely for students with disability; there are children with other low-level skills, or who need advancement in certain areas. Some of those students may be qualified to receive funding from Independent Schools Queensland, but there are other students who receive no funding, that we support through a range of learning support teachers.” The school funds this initiative itself.
Executive director of Independent Schools Queensland, David Robertson, explains how funding is allocated. “Students have to go through a verification process to determine their specific needs,” he says. “The higher the need, the higher the funding.” Level one allocates approximately $3000 in commonwealth and state government funding per student, per year; level two $7000, and level three about $10,000 annually. “The school makes the final decision [about fund allocation], but ultimately the money has to be used to support the student’s education plan,” he says. “The number of students eligible for funding in independent schools is increasing at a very rapid rate. This year we’re close to 2500 students, whereas five years ago, it was about 1500.”
On March 21, 2011, the sixth anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day, Queensland Senator Sue Boyce addressed her colleagues in the federal Senate. “I am a very strong advocate of closing down all our special schools and moving all the resources of the special schools into the mainstream,” Boyce said. “I see this as the only way that we will, long term, push inclusive education and, therefore, real inclusion into the education system.”
Boyce, 62, has a daughter with Down syndrome, 28-year-old Joanna, and today remains committed to her view. In 2009, Boyce ran a public seminar at the Brisbane Powerhouse, titled Making Inclusive Education Work: Is it the Will, the Skill, or what’s in the Till?
“The answer is ‘all of the above’,” she says, “but I think the will is the most critical part. I had an interesting experience with the primary school where Jo went: about five years later, under a new principal, another child with Down syndrome tried to enrol there, and suddenly the same school ‘just didn’t have the resources to cope’, and was pushing this child elsewhere. In my view, it’s mostly about the will. You can always work your way around the resources, if people want to make it work.”
Academic Jennie Duke finds herself regularly challenging “urban myths” with the teachers of tomorrow, when lecturing in inclusive education at Queensland University of Technology.
“They think they’re not going to be teaching kids with disabilities, because, ‘Oh, they’ll all go to a special school!’. In fact, 82 per cent of students with disabilities are enrolled in their classrooms, not in special schools,” says Duke, citing a figure taken from the Department’s 2011-2012 annual report.
“They think, someone else will deal with those kids, not me. A lot of our upcoming teachers are white, middle-class people who didn’t go to school with the variety of learners that they’re about to meet [in the classroom] when they graduate.”
Training teachers to cope is difficult: though they’ll encounter a wide range of students with disabilities in their career, compulsory inclusive education modules comprise only a small part of an undergraduate teacher’s Bachelor of Education program. While mainstream teachers are increasingly called upon to educate children with disabilities, this is an area that requires specific skills.
“It’s incredibly specialised,” says Ches Hargreaves, vice-president of the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association. “Not everybody can be a good teacher in this area. [Special education] is not a place for refugees who can’t teach. It’s a place for the very best teachers in our system – because if you don’t have that, then you don’t get the outcomes.”
A story that was published in Qweekend magazine on October 13, 2012. Click the below image to view as a PDF (link opens in a new window), or read the article text underneath.
Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly
A video game that uses collaboration and communication to engage children online has inspired a new method of teaching.
The first thing we need to do is collect wood. We do this by smashing our fists into tall trees until the wood disintegrates into small blocks, which then become ours to keep. Curiously, punching out the tree trunks makes no difference to their structural integrity; they continue standing tall, trunkless, while we pilfer their wood.
The second thing we need to do is make sticks. “Using the crafting table, put one wood block on top of the other,” says James Keogh, who acts as group leader and instructs our gang of five as we navigate this strange world. Easier said than done. Under the clear blue sky, I can’t interpret his instructions to make the most obvious and essential item.
Sticks are the basis of the pickaxe, the shovel and the sword. I need all of these things to survive and prosper in the world of Minecraft, a computer game set in a randomly generated landscape of mountains, valleys, forests and deserts. Minecraft is unlike any game I’ve played – there are neither clear objectives nor clear instructions. The player is left to his own devices in this virtual playground, to spend his time however he wishes.
My fellow adventurers – four 11-year-old boys who attend West Moreton Anglican College, west of Brisbane – try time and again to explain the simple process of creating sticks. I’m sweating as oblong clouds pass across the square sun. The blocky mountains surrounding us seem to be frowning at me. Dark squid float idly in the lake nearby, indifferent to my crafting struggles.
I feel stupid and inadequate, especially in the company of these four well-travelled friends. Darcy Keogh, James’s twin brother, takes pity and gifts me a stone pickaxe, short-cutting the process considerably. It’s a relief. Without my companions, I’d be clueless; come nightfall, I’d surely be dead.
James and Darcy have been busy using their pickaxes to excavate dirt out of the side of the nearest mountain for our “hidey-hole”, while their friend Liam Catlan patiently attempts to coach some success into me. Torrin Beverley has taken it upon himself to begin digging deeper into the earth in search of precious resources like iron, gold, and – if he’s lucky – maybe even diamond. Mining tools in hand – just a pickaxe and a shovel for now – I climb partway up the mountain and stand at the entrance, admiring their handiwork.
James warns us that it’s almost night time. I step inside the hidey-hole, shutting the door behind me. Foolishly, Liam stays out and attempts to fight a giant spider. Anguished howls echo across the landscape as he dies at the fangs of his eight-legged foe. His now-itemless character respawns beside us. “Did you have anything worthwhile on you?” James asks. Two stone pickaxes, his friend types. “Not really much, then,” replies our leader nonchalantly.
Torrin asks if anyone wants a sword. “Yes,” I type, before opening the door and stepping outside. It’s snowing. Pretty, digital snowflakes criss-cross the night sky, falling lazily to the ground. “Whoa,” I say to no-one in particular. It’s a beautiful sight.
I check my inventory and find Torrin’s gift. All four boys have joined me outside, just beyond the light cast by the flames of our farthest torch. The square moon passes slowly overhead. I wonder aloud whether it’s a good idea for us to be out here, given that one member of our gang of five was so recently slain. “Not really,” says James, swinging his sword defiantly at nothing in particular.
The boys tell me that there are zombies, skeletons, Creepers, spiders and Endermen out here, prowling the dark landscape. Horrible creatures all. We head back inside and close the door behind us. I turn and stare through the window once again at the mesmerising snowflakes, reflecting on the wide range of emotions I’ve experienced during my first 20 minute-long day/night cycle: confusion, frustration, satisfaction, wonder and, finally, fear.
Minecraft is fun because it’s so divorced from reality that minds run free with possibility. Key attractions include its detachment from the responsibilities of daily life – school, work, parenthood, traffic, taxes – and the ease with which the digital world bends to your will. Want to dig a hole in real life? It’s bloody hard work, for starters. Then there are property rights and land ownership to consider, as well as the high likelihood of your dad going off at the sight of his well-tended lawn transformed into a crater.
In Minecraft, though, it takes just seconds to carve into the ground, or a mountain, and begin exploring what’s beneath. (Once you’ve conquered the admittedly tricky first act of crafting your mining tools, of course.) Likewise, it’s just as easy to create solid structures in-game. Two of the most impressive mega-creations include a 1:1 scale model of the Starship Enterprise, from Star Trek, and a current project involving a few dozen people working on crafting the entire Westeros realm, from the fantasy series Game Of Thrones. Put simply, it’s Lego in a limitless virtual world where the only impediment is your imagination.
Created by 33 year-old Swedish game programmer and designer Markus Persson, best known by his online handle “Notch”, Minecraft is an international phenomenon. Notch self-published the first “alpha” version of the game online in May 2009, charging a one-off fee of about $12 (€9.95) and updating Minecraft with new features until version 1.0 was released in November 2011 for $24.50 (€19.95). More than 10 million players have bought the game across both the PC and Xbox 360 platforms; it also boasts 42 million registered users, a figure still growing by around 140,000 new players per day.
Few are immune to its charms, even those who struggle with the game’s mechanics at first – which is essentially everyone, as the PC version of the game offers no in-game assistance. (Minecraft Wiki – a popular first destination for the clueless – contains more than 2,000 detailed articles.) This is the kind of unorthodox design decision that few gaming studios or publishers would allow, yet since Notch created it all himself, he was beholden to no such orthodoxy. Evidently, it hasn’t hindered the game’s popularity.
“Younger gamers are completely enthralled by Minecraft,” says Janet Carr, series producer of ABC TV’s Good Game, which screens Tuesday nights on ABC2 and attracts an average weekly audience of 108,000. “Since you create your own fun, it gives you the freedom to play it the way you want to. It’s personally satisfying because you have that feeling of discovery, and of creation. Normal game design theory would say that making it hard to play is lethal to your game. Minecraft is the complete opposite: because the kids have to work quite hard at getting a handle on it, they get invested in it really quickly, and very deeply.”
Carr’s team also works on Good Game Spawn Point, a program aimed at gamers aged 8-12 watched by 80,000 viewers on ABC3 Saturday mornings. She estimates that half of the 10,000 emails sent to the show’s presenters each week are from younger gamers seeking answers to Minecraft gameplay questions. “It’s not even just the number of emails we get about the game that’s surprising, it’s the sophistication of the information they’re seeking,” Carr says. “It’s not, ‘how do I build a pickaxe?’ It’s ‘how do I set up my repeater units so that my mine cart will travel a few kilometres?’ Engineering questions.”
It’s impossible to discuss Minecraft without acknowledging its potential to become truly consuming. Since the game world is randomly generated and limitless, it’s unsurprising that those who fall for its charms tend to invest serious hours in the never-ending process of day and night, mining and crafting, exploring and expanding. “A lot of parents are concerned their kids are spending too much time on video games,” says Carr, whose youngest son was obsessed with Minecraft but has since moved on. Unlike most other games, though, Minecraft is undirected. Players must use their own intelligence, intuition and inspiration to derive enjoyment from the game, rather than relying on objectives and rewards predetermined by game designers.
“A large issue for parents is that they don’t understand what their kids are so enthusiastically raving about,” says Luke Bennett, a 49 year-old ecological consultant who lives in Castlemaine, Victoria and is the father of 11-year-old twins. “When our son first started playing, my wife and I discovered that if he played up until he went to bed, he was so mentally wired that he could not sleep. I’ve responded by letting him play, but not in large chunks of time. Minecraft is a valuable part of a complex lifestyle. You need to leaven it with the other stuff.”
Recently, Bennett and a friend set up a private online server where about ten children aged 7-12 play online together most nights. “This means my own gameplay is now more of a moderator role, rather than just purely building,” Bennett says. “We’ve set up a blog for the kids so that they can discuss differing playing styles, and resolve conflicts. The biggest issues in the game are virtual urban and environmental planning. The kids’ default response is to ask me to intervene, which has resulted in some very odd conversations at afternoon school pick-up,” he laughs. “But I think it’s great,” adds Bennett, who now tends to play late into the nights with his middle-aged friend after their kids go to bed at 9pm. “Minecraft is a game that encourages players to think, create, solve problems, engineer, train reflexes and socialise. It’s almost education-by-stealth, in the guise of a video game. It’s like hiding cauliflower in mashed potato.”
Janet Carr agrees that playing with children, rather than observing their behaviour from a bemused distance, is the best way to appreciate their enthusiasm and set limitations around gameplay. “If everyone in the household understands the rules, it doesn’t become an issue,” she says. “If you’ve got a child who’s really wanting to spend all their time talking about Minecraft, you’re almost beholden to get a great understanding of it yourself so at least you can have high levels of conversation about it, and talk about how to manage that time.”
Steven “Bajo” O’Donnell is co-host of both Good Game shows. “I hate the word ‘addictive’, because it has a negative association,” he says. “I like to use the word ‘compelling’ instead. Minecraft compels you to go back into it, and keep playing it, and keep building.”
His co-host, Stephanie “Hex” Bendixsen, agrees. “I don’t think it’s necessarily addictive in the way that [online role-playing game] World Of Warcraft is addictive, because that game offers you constant rewards for ‘X’ amount of hours that you’ve put in. Whereas Minecraft doesn’t really have any kind of reward system; it’s really about what you get out of it personally. It may be hard for people to stop playing, but that’s really due to their own experience rather than something that the game is doing.”
The Good Game hosts regularly hear from teachers who’ve had to ban the game from their schools, or allocate specific times when kids can go into the computer labs at lunchtime to play. “Some teachers use it as a system of reward: if the students get through a computing studies class, then they’re allowed to play for 15 minutes at the end, because they just can’t stop kids from playing it,” says Bendixsen. “They’ve had to try to find ways to work it into school life. Since it’s a game that doesn’t have any kind of guns or shooting, and encourages kids to be imaginative to work cooperatively, it works quite well in the classroom.”
High above the clouds, I’m standing on a transparent platform bathed in the orange glow of twilight. At the edge of one horizon, a square sun dips; behind me, a square moon rises. Underneath the platform is an enormous mass of blue-green. It’s the kind of view only an astronaut would see in reality: star-speckled blanket of infinite space above, stable blue marble below. Suddenly, a man in a white labcoat appears next to me. The glowing yellow text above his head reads “Elfie”. He begins giving me a virtual science lesson while showing me around his greatest Minecraft creation – an animal cell he built for his biology students.
“The whole idea of these first platforms was to give the kids an overall picture of the cell, because it’s very hard to imagine what it looks like from the outside once you’re in there,” says 32 year-old Stephen “Elfie” Elford, who teaches science, maths and humanities at Numurkah Secondary College (enrolment: 300) in north-eastern Victoria.
As we travel between observation decks by right-clicking on teleportation terminals, we’re getting closer to the giant blue-green mass. Its curvature is reminiscent of the human brain. On the fourth and final deck, I’m presented with the option of teleporting to four unfamiliar, scientific-sounding stations. I choose “Golgi”, the first option. Now I’m inside the giant mass, and before me is a roughly rectangular prism that represents the Golgi apparatus. Right-clicking on an information block at the edge of the platform gives a text overview of its function, written in the same straight-talking language Elford would use while standing at the head of his classroom. “This is an animal cell,” says Elford. “As my biology students tour the cell, they fill in a booklet. I wanted to deepen that understanding and give them a good visual representation they could call on, when needed.”
So Elford invested six months, on and off, in creating this three dimensional, to-scale replica of how he understands the inside of an animal cell might look. He estimates that he’s moved two million virtual blocks during the 50-hour building process. The brightly-coloured textures of this fascinating structure bear little resemblance to the lifelike shades of the world I explored with the four 11-year-old boys.
Elford’s animal cell is a remarkable, inspired piece of work from Australia’s foremost expert on MinecraftEdu, a modification (or “mod”) based on the existing game engine. Developed in collaboration by teachers in Finland and the United States, the mod’s disparate but growing network of Games-Based Learning practitioners see efforts like Elford’s as a way to engage the next generation of “digital native” students. (Elford runs a blog called “MinecraftEdu Elfie” where he shares his learning experiences with teachers throughout the world. He has also uploaded dozens of videos to YouTube showing how his classes have interacted with the game.)
For the last eight years, Elford had taught Nurmurkah’s science students about animal cells from the textbook, two or three times a year. “I was kind of over it,” he reflects. “I don’t know if it was a seven-year itch a year late; I just didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself. And then this came along, and now I’m enjoying my job again. It’s given me that little bump to keep going.”
Rather than learning through Elford’s descriptions and the biology textbook, it’s much more engaging for students to see his scientifically accurate representation of an animal cell with their own eyes. I didn’t take any science subjects in senior high school, partly because it all seemed so dry and dull. Had MinecraftEdu existed when I started year 11 in 2004, though, I could well have been drawn in by the technological lure.
Elford is the first to admit that fanciful creations like this won’t entirely replace traditional teaching methods. In fact, he has used this incredible virtual environment in-class once so far, for a total of two hours. He has plans to upload the map so that other teachers can use the animal cell in their own classes. “The time and effort I put in is far outweighed by the students’ immersion in this cell,” Elford says. Using the game, he’s also led students through reaction time experiments; he’s explained the transformation between solids, liquids and gases (by setting his students on fire, in-game, of course); and he’s run an assignment wherein students built energy-efficient houses, then recorded video tours of their new creations. Despite these breakthroughs, MinecraftEdu is only used on occasion at Nurmurkah, when it’s appropriate to the learning at hand.
“Personally, I think it should be in every school,” says Elford as he wraps up his tour of the animal cell while we stand outside, gazing up at the monolith. “The opportunities it provides for students to create, and to be creative, is something I haven’t found anywhere else in my time as a teacher.”
Meanwhile, 15km north-west of Cairns at Kamerunga in far North Queensland is Peace Lutheran College, a prep-to-year-12 school of 585 students. Andrew Wright, 40, is eLearning mentor at Peace. He’s the one who drove the college’s IT department to adopt MinecraftEdu for the first time this term, across two classes of 25 students. “It’s been fantastic,” says Wright, who also teaches Year 7. “We’re studying Ancient Rome at the moment. We found a MinecraftEdu map of that, where the pupils started off in the Colosseum, then partnered up and walked around Rome to have their photographs taken outside iconic landmarks such as the Pantheon. They then went away and researched what that real building would have been used for, and made a presentation about it. You walk around [the virtual] Rome yourself and you think, ‘wow, someone must have spent years doing this!’”
Though a classroom of 25 kids running rampant in MinecraftEdu sounds chaotic – despite the availability of teacher-only crowd control tools that can instantly freeze, mute or teleport students – Wright assures me it’s quite the opposite. “Because the students want to be learning, and they want to be engaged, they’re very respectful of the game and of each other,” he says. “That’s what we try and teach them – within the game, you have to cooperate, you have to use all the skills that you’d need in the real world. Collaboration, communication; it’s all there. There’s a real learning curve going on because the Year 7s are teaching the Year 1s.”
Wright, who is now in his fifth year of teaching at Peace, says that “addictive” is “a strong word” when used in the context of Minecraft. “As a teacher, if you’ve got something that the students are keen on using, and you can use it in an educational way, you’re on to a winner. It can be seen as taking up a lot of time, but as with anything, you have to manage that time. When parents see their children coming home and working on this stuff after doing their homework, I don’t think you can put a value on that.”
James and Darcy Keogh are showing me around their virtual world one week before my first in-game experience. It’s the first time I’ve seen Minecraft in action. James walks through their well-tended farm of pumpkins, melons, wheat, sugar cane and cacti while playing on a laptop that’s connected to a widescreen television in the living room of a house in Chuwar, about 6km north-west of Ipswich.
Parents Robert and Grace, who are separated, watch intently from the lounge as their 11-year-old sons walk them through a world they understand a fraction as well as their youngest children do. Throughout the 90 minutes the twins spend pumping me with information, they chatter constantly, challenging one another on which elements of the game to demonstrate and how best to describe its complex functions. It’s a dizzyingly detailed language spoken by twins fluent in Minecraft-speak.
“There are different ranks of tools,” James explains. “You start with wooden, which is the worst, then upgrade to stone, iron, gold and diamond.”
“But you’ve got to mine all that stuff to make it,” says Robert, who has himself dabbled with the game.
“You’ve got to chop down the trees to get the wood,” Grace adds. “That’s the first thing you do – punch a tree. I never got past wooden tools,” she says, with a hint of regret.
“When you play, you just muck around,” James gently cajoles her, “putting blocks down anywhere …”
“You’re not fanatical like some!” Robert interjects. The Keogh family laughs together.
Countless hours sunk into this intriguing world built on blocks, mining and crafting. Millions of players absorbed by the limitless promise of what this game represents better than any before it – a tangible, tantalising sensation of freedom. Two 11-year-old boys who have been playing video games as long as they can remember, and who have played this particular game practically daily since their eldest brother, Brendan, first showed it to them in 2009.
“So why do you guys play?” their father asks.
“Because it’s creating, and you can basically do anything you want to,” replies James.
“Where most games are just, ‘you do this, then you do that …’” says Darcy, “and you don’t get to …” James interrupts by finding the right word for his twin.
“Most games are linear,” James says. “Minecraft isn’t linear.”
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.