Before an audience of around 40 final-year journalism students at the Brisbane Powerhouse, we each gave a five minute presentation and then fielded questions from the audience for the remaining half-hour. I spoke on the topic of ‘twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind’.
My presentation is embedded below. Click here to watch on YouTube. (Apologies for the footage being off-centre.) I’ve also included the text of my talk underneath.
Twelve points for all beginner freelancers to keep in mind
1. Freelancing, at its heart, is really just hustling. It’s learning how to support yourself through persistence, energy and ingenuity. That’s all. Learn how to hustle and you’re set. The only problem is that it takes years to learn how to hustle consistently.
2.When you start freelancing, the learning curve is steep. You’re fighting against the world; fighting to be heard, fighting to get your name recognised, fighting to get paid. You probably won’t make enough money to pay your rent in the first year, which is why you should do other work on the side until you’re ready to freelance full-time.
3. But eventually – perhaps years later – it becomes less of a fight. You learn to glide through the world rather than struggling against it. You see things differently, with wiser eyes. You can dip in and out of conversations, projects, and work relationships with much less friction, because there’s much less to lose. You have less to prove, because you’ve already proven yourself to some extent.
4. There’s a lot to be said for starting slow, though, and at the bottom. For example, I wrote for street press, essentially without being paid, for nearly two years before I decided that writing and journalism was what I really wanted to do. From there, it was a slow process of me working out how to get paid for what I really wanted to do.
5. Find your gap in the market, but be patient. After doing freelance journalism for a few years, I eventually realised that my gap is to read between the lines and write about what others aren’t. That’s when I’m happiest. That’s not to say that all of my writing consists of that kind of work. I’d say less than half of my income comes from writing those kinds of investigative feature stories. It’s worth pointing out that I only had this realisation in the last 12 months, too.
6. I definitely didn’t know my gap in the market when I started freelancing. In fact I had very little idea of what I was doing when I started freelancing. I just did it. I followed my interests, and my instincts, and kept knocking on doors. Some opened, some remained closed. When I started freelancing, music journalism was the only kind I did. Gradually, other interests took hold, and now music is one of many topics that I write about. I’d likely never have found these other interests, or that I could write about them, unless I’d started with music, though. So don’t be afraid to specialise early. You never know where your career will lead if you just keep at it.
7. Hunger can’t be learned, only encouraged. You, and you alone, must be hungry enough to want to succeed. This is an inbuilt character trait, I believe – you can’t be taught to be hungry. You’ve got to be serious, and dedicate yourself to your work, if you want to succeed at freelancing.
8. Your professional reputation is everything. Guard it with your life. Act with integrity at all times. Don’t do things in private that you wouldn’t be comfortable with, if it became public.
9. Make a list of the best practitioners in your field; your favourites. Consume their work over and over. Work out why you like them and what they do that appeals to you. Then think about how you can put an original spin on their approach, or their approaches. It’ll take you a while to find your style and voice in any creative medium – writing, photography, comedy, illustrations. Don’t rush it. I’m not even sure if you can rush it, anyway. It’s a process that can’t be short-cut.
10. Surround yourself with allies. Not necessarily other freelancers. Not necessarily people working in the same field as you. But you should start building up a support network, and regularly keep in touch with as many of those people as you can, because some of your best work will arise from one-off meetings or incidental friendships. Allies are important because freelancing is generally a solitary activity. Everyone needs to communicate with others at some stage. Best to start early.
11. Be wary of anyone who glamourises the so-called “freelance lifestyle”. Most of freelancing is incredibly mundane. Seriously. Most of my days are spent alone at the computer. Some weeks I don’t even leave the house during my workdays. But there are definitely occasional glimmers of awesomeness that remind you why you’re doing this, and why you love it. Don’t get me wrong, freelancing is great, but to a certain extent it’s a job just like any other. There will be days when you won’t want to do any work. However, if you can push yourself to work even on those shitty days, you’ll eventually be a great freelancer.
12. Don’t talk so much online. Just do good work, make meaningful connections, and be pleasant to everyone you meet behind the scenes. Try not to buy too much into meaningless talk-fests on Twitter and Facebook. Ultimately, you are the only person standing between success and failure. While you’re tweeting away your workdays, your freelance competition is quietly beating you. Don’t give them the chance.
Elsewhere: I participated in the freelance panel at the Walkley Foundation’s last MediaPass student day in September 2011, too. Footage and text here.
According to Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, “a primary-coloured beard is a perfect arsehole-detector”. I’ve long felt the same way about my dreadlocks, which I’ve had in place since September 2004.
Connolly referred to the tendency of dreary folk – or “beige people”, as he would call them – to reveal themselves in the presence of someone whose unusual appearance upsets them. So too with my hairstyle, which elicits a range of responses – verbal or otherwise – when I meet people for the first time.
At music festivals, I’m frequently assumed to be holding pot or other treats by both punters and police. When shopping, staff tend to drop their manner a few notches and engage with me in terms of “dude” and “man” far more often than “sir”. At election time, LNP and ALP hawkers don’t bother pressing fliers into my hands – it’s assumed that the Greens are the political party for me. In the street, charity peddlers smile and see me as an easy mark; someone naturally sympathetic to whichever planet-saving scheme they’re pushing.
It’s endlessly fascinating to me how much people can read into a hairstyle. I’ve gotten far more enjoyment from observing how people react to me than from the dreadlocks themselves, which I chose purely for vanity: I liked how they looked on some of my favourite musicians, most notably the singer from Gold Coast hard rock act Sunk Loto, so I decided to try it on for myself.
I’ve never regretted the decision, though seven and a half years of growth – coupled with the gradual thinning and breaking of the locks on top of my head – meant that it was always going to be a finite style.
For years, my plan had been to support the Leukaemia Foundation and their World’s Greatest Shave initiative by turning a fairly drastic measure into a public spectacle. Handily, one that would encourage those around me to donate money and support a worthy cause.
Since 1998, the annual shave has been undertaken by over one million Australians, who’ve raised over $120 million for the Foundation. Donations support families when they need it most, by providing leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma patients – there are over 11,500 new cases across the country each year – with a free home-away-from-home near hospital during their treatment.
The Foundation also funnels millions into blood cancer research. Although survival rates are improving, blood cancers remain the second biggest cause of cancer death in Australia.
In light of these life-and-death scenarios that occur with troubling frequency – today, 31 Australians will be given the devastating news that they have one of the above three blood disorders – shaving my head to raise awareness and money for the cause always seemed a very pedestrian decision.
I’m cancer-free and perfectly healthy – touch wood, I’ll remain that way forevermore – yet the concept of losing my ridiculous hair suddenly became an asset for leukaemia sufferers and their families to benefit from. Most of the people in my life at the moment have only ever known me with dreadlocks: I moved to Brisbane to study in 2006, after graduating from Bundaberg State High School the year before.
I knew that going from full-head-of-hair to bare would spur the people around me to donate. I set my fundraising goal at $1,000. This seemed a reasonable amount. Thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, I reached this goal three weeks after starting the campaign. At the time of writing, the total climbs toward $1,500, which is astonishing to me.
The shave itself took place earlier this week at a Price Attack salon in Indooroopilly. Leukaemia Foundation’s Beverley Mirolo was there to make the first cut, followed by a few of my friends. My girlfriend was particularly happy to shave off my sideburns, which had grown unruly after months of neglect. I watched in the mirror as a new me emerged. Suddenly, I looked vastly younger than my 24 years. Vastly different, too, though not as alien-like as I’d expected.
I love how hair can become a social object; a topic of conversation, a reason to interact with another human. Those with dreadlocks know this better than most. It’d surprise you just how many people are curious enough to stop us in the street and ask to touch our hair. (Just as common: “is that your real hair?”)
This is what I’ll miss most about my dreadlocks: looking slightly different from other folks, and watching them adjust their interactions to suit their idea of what my hairstyle represents. But for now, I’m embracing the baldness: tomorrow, I’m taking it a few millimetres further and getting my first ever ‘open blade’ shave, which will reduce my head hair down to nothingness. Wish me luck.
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @NiteShok. You can donate to his World’s Greatest Shave fundraising here.
Above photos taken by Scott Beveridge. More photos from the shave can be found by viewing the story on Brisbane Times here.
Darwin-based journalist and author Andrew McMillan [pictured below] died yesterday, January 28 2012, aged 54. I received word via a text message from Andrew Stafford just after I went to bed, around midnight. I wrote back, “Holy shit. Thanks.” Then I lay awake for the next hour, cursing myself. I was to meet him in Darwin, six days later.
I first became aware of the eerie reality that I was following in the footsteps of my near-namesake soon after my work was nationally published. Looking at my email history, the first mention of his name is in a note from Australian writer Clinton Walker on August 12, 2009.
this is so funny because only lately been in touch w my old friend from bris old rock writer andrew mcmillan, you must be aware of your precedence, and a fine one it is too [...] i had a look ata bit of your stuff and really enjoyed it and wanted to say goodonya and keepitup. clinton walker
In February 2010, I was emailed by the international label manager/A&R at Shock Records, David Laing.
I assume you’re the same AM who used to write for RAM? If yes, first of all, thanks for all the great writing that was hugely influential on me in my teenage years fromthe 100th issue of RAM (my first) onwards… also, I’m responsible for a few releases that you may have an interest in if you care at all for the styles of music you used to write about – including a couple of compilations called Do The Pop! that trace the incluence of the Saints and primarily Radio Birdman into the local real rock’n'roll scene in ’80s, and also some reissued from the Hitmen – and I’d love to send you copies if you’re interested in seeing them…
Thanks and regards
Then in May 2010, in an email conversation with Brisbane writer Andrew Stafford:
By the way, are you aware of yet another rock-writing Andrew, your namesake in fact, Andrew McMillan? Slightly different spelling – but Andrew, along with Clint Walker, was one of the original rock journos in this town, and arguably the most original. Started Suicide Alley (later Pulp) fanzine with Clint – the first rock fanzine in the country – and later wrote Strict Rules, his fantastic account of Midnight Oil’s tour through Aboriginal communities in 1986, leading to the Diesel and Dust album. A fascinating man and a great writer, well worth your checking out. – AS
Then in November 2010, in an email conversation with Australian singer Carol Lloyd of the band Railroad Gin:
It may freak you out to know that in the 70’s, Railroad Gin were often reported on by a guy who wrote for Rolling Stone, Juke etc. who was called Andrew McMillan….! He’s now a novelist based in Darwin..saw him when I did a panel thing with Noel Mengel at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.
I wrote back, “By the way, I am aware of Andrew McMillan! We’ve not met yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually.”
The sad reality is that this will never happen, now.
In recent months – having reached a point in my writing career where I felt up to the challenge – I became more interested in exploring the concept of meeting this man, this well-known writer with whom I share more than a few parallels. I knew that he was ill, first with bowel cancer, and now with liver cancer. On November 25, 2011, I emailed him for the first time:
I don’t believe we’ve ever emailed, but I’ve certainly been aware of you for a few years now as we have almost exactly the same name. I’ve been mistaken for you many times! More on me at the web address in my signature..
How are you? Last I heard was that you were in a poor state following the removal of a bowel tumor – I think this is the last thing I read about you, just over a year ago. Judging by your Facebook page, seems you’re doing much better now. I caught your recent interview on the MusicNT website, too. Good stuff.
I wanted to ask a favour. I’d like to visit you at your home in the new year, and interview you extensively. I think it’d be an interesting idea for a young journalist like myself to talk about writing and life with an older bloke who almost shares the same name with me.
Is this a possibility? Is this something you’d be interested in? Or should I bugger off?
Happy to chat anytime mate. My number below.
He replied the next day:
Tickled to hear from you. The first I heard of you was via a flurry of emails from fans who read a piece in the The Australian and wondered what the fuck had happened to my style. I was bewildered. Then in 2009 when I was due to appear at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival I found myself on the bill of a Queensland music festival with old mate Christie Eliezer etc talking about music journalism. A strange call, given I’d rarely concentrated on music writing since about 1985. I accepted the invitation but got no response. Obviously they had the ‘en’ in mind.
I get emails occasionally congratulating me on reviews of records I’ve never heard. And calls from people seeking contact details for band managers I’m supposed to be best mates with. I plead ignorance; they, no doubt, hold my ignorance against you.
That said, I’m intrigued by the concept of a music journo called Andrew McMillen coming out of Brisbane. I was first published in 1975 and got out of there in 1977. Never looked back.
I’m now dealing with liver cancer and all kinds of shit, so my time appears to be short, hence forming a band The Rattling Mudguards and having much fun on the way out.
I trust your transcriptions are accurate so I’d be happy to entertain you in Darwin in January.
The Christmas period passed. I finished reading Andrew Stafford’s copy of Strict Rules: The Blackfella-Whitefella Tour, Andrew’s account of the 1986 tour of remote Aboriginal communities shared by the Australian rock groups Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band.
(To further confuse matters, a handwritten note on the book’s first page reads, “To Andrew – welcome to Strict Rules. Best wishes, Andrew McMillan.” It’s for Stafford, not me, but plenty of people thought otherwise when I showed them.)
It’s an excellent read; profound, beautiful, and heartbreaking, by turns. You can read an excerpt on Midnight Oil’s website. Drummer Rob Hirst wrote the foreword for a re-released version of the book in 2008; it was first published in 1988, the year I was born.
McMillan captures the feel of the Australian desert better than any writer I’ve read. For the first half of the book, he refers to himself in the third person, as “the hitch-hiker”. (The book is dedicated to Andrew’s mother, father, and “the people who pick up hitch-hikers.”) It’s a cracking read, and the pace never wavers as he explores the logistics behind the tour, the nightly performances to mostly-bewildered locals, the history of the land, and the people who live there. After I finished, all I could think was: I wish I read this sooner.
On January 2, I emailed Andrew to arrange my Darwin visit.
Hi Andrew – happy new year. How are you?
I want to check with you re timing for my planned excursion to Darwin. Are there any particular days or weeks that we should avoid? My January is filling up pretty fast so it might be best to look at early-mid Feb. What do you think?
He replied the same day:
At this stage my diary is free for 2012, apart from putting the finishing touches to an anthology (selected works 1976-2011) and the live album my new band The Rattling Mudguards recorded in October with Don Walker on piano and the Loose Screws on backing vocals.
Apart from that, everything else is dictated by my health. I’m fairly confident, despite the prognosis, that I’ll still be around in February and look forward to meeting you then.
I asked him whether I could stay at his home, and about the exact nature of his prognosis. On January 3, he told me:
You’re welcome to camp here unless I’m in need of a full-time carer by then. Hopefully that won’t be the case.
The prognosis? They got it wrong last year when they said I wouldn’t make through the footy season. The latest, a month ago, gave me three months max. I aim to beat that. I’ve got a few things to finish off yet.
On January 16, after getting caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of freelance journalism for a couple of weeks, I emailed Andrew after working out my ideal travel dates.
How are you? A quick note to let you know that I’m intending to fly to Darwin on Thursday February 2. Not sure how long I intend to stay yet; up to a week is my best estimate at the moment. I just wanted to check that this date is OK before booking flights.
The next day, Andrew said:
Feb 2 sounds good. If we run into problems, friends within the neighbourhood and without have offered to put you up for a few nights.
I’ve attached an old RAM story from 1981 I’ve dug up for my anthology. I transcribed it a few nights ago. Would you mind proof-reading it for words that are obviously out of place? I figure it’ll be a neat exercise for you, giving you a clean sense of how I was writing 30 years ago and how we move on.
I was honoured to proof-read his old work, about an Australian band named Matt Finish. The same day, January 17, I replied:
Flights are booked for Friday Feb 3, returning Wed Feb 8. Arriving around midday on the Friday. I’m seeing (and reviewing) Roger Waters do The Wall on Feb 1 and didn’t fancy the early flight on the 2nd. So 3rd it is.
A good read on Matt Finish. Had never heard of them. I’ve attached a doc with a couple of comments down the right side, but no changes to the main text. Just a few small things that I noticed.
I was chatting to Jim White of Dirty Three today for a story I’m writing. He asked whether I was you. He remembers your writing from RAM.
Do keep sending through some stuff to read ahead of my visit. I finished Strict Rules a couple weeks back (borrowed Andrew Stafford’s copy) and loved it.
That was the last I heard from Andrew. On January 24, I followed up my last email and asked, “Is everything OK – or as OK can be, given your situation?” Four days later, he died.
I feel foolish for having not ventured north earlier, for not having appreciated the urgency of his situation. Upon receiving that text message last night, I felt immediately that this mistake will be one of my biggest regrets.
I have no idea how our meeting would have unfolded. I was looking for inspiration, for insight; I wanted to learn about writing from a man who has written his whole life. It saddens me that we only ever exchanged a few casual emails. I was looking forward to days of conversation, of introspection, of self-analysis, of advice, of inspiration.
Vale Andrew McMillan. I hardly knew you. I wish I did.
Written by Brisbane-based journalist Andrew McMillen, January 29 2012.
Above photo credits, respectively: Bob Gosford, Glenn Campbell, Bob Gosford.
Update, January 30: ABC News NT have uploaded a fine video tribute to Andrew on their YouTube channel. It runs for two and a half minutes and can be viewed below.
As we hurtle towards 2012 and the holiday season, TheVine has asked our critics to give us their Top 10 best music “things” from over the past year — whatever the hell they may be and in whatever haphazard fashion they so declare. Go.
10. The Drones at The Hi-Fi, October 28 2011
I didn’t review this one. I went by myself. I don’t think I even spoke to anyone at this show. But over two intense hours, The Drones reinforced why they’re my favourite band. ‘I’m Here Now’, in particular, blew my mind. I think the bit where Gareth sings, “…and for the first time now, I’m looking right at you” is my favourite moment in any Drones song. Cathartic. It kinda goes without saying, but: never, ever pass up an opportunity to see The Drones live. Here’s footage from Sydney, the night after I saw them:
9. Les Savy Fav at Laneway Festival Brisbane
This was one of those “you had to be there” kind of shows, so I’m a little hesitant to include this on the list. But Christ, are this band incredible live! I haven’t seen one man own a room – or, in this case, a tin shed – like this before, and doubt I will again (until Les Savy Fav visit Brisbane again). Watch this video, and keep in mind that the rest of their 45 minute set was just like this:
“Some bands simply have singers; guys with strong vocals that get the job done. Some have frontmen; guys who, in addition to singing, take it upon themselves to keep the crowd pumped. I’m reminded of that quote from Almost Famous, where the singer is like “You know what I do? I connect. I get people off. I look for the guy who isn’t getting off, and I make him get off”. This is entirely apt when discussing Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav. To say that his performance sets the Inner Sanctum alight is to understate the obvious. For the next 45 minutes, he owns the room. A chubby, bearded, near-bald man with a hell of a voice and (metaphorical) balls the size of grapefruits, has – within minutes of the band taking the stage – commandeered an orange vest from TheVine’s photographer, Justin Edwards and marched through the crowd; extra-long corded microphone in hand, singing in people’s faces, rubbing himself against poles, and drinking whatever people offer him.
At times, his performance veers toward the unbelievable. Like when he grabs some silver paint from his bag of props – the dude comes prepared with all manner of costumes and supplements – and rubs it all over himself, before dropping into the front row and leaving gigantic silver handprints on the faces of the entire front row. Or when, right near the end, he marches through the crowd, picks up an orange security barrier, and has the crowd hold him aloft while he stands and sings. All the while, his gun band thrash away at their idiosyncratic style of danceable noise-punk, with barely a glance toward the mesmeric insanity of what their singer is doing. Even as it happens, it feels like one of those performances that you’ll be telling people about for years to come. Harrington redefines the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable onstage.”
8. Nova Scotia – Nova Scotia
This fine debut was released at the start of the year, but it’s still one of 2011’s best albums. They’re an indie rock band who live in Brisbane. They’ve hardly toured outside of this city so you’ve probably never heard of them, but believe me, they’re worthy of your attention. Try this track:
Excerpt from album review: “Final track ‘The World Is Not Enough’ is the best cut they’ve put to tape. Built around an instant-classic bassline and subdued guitar licks – which must have been tough for the three guitarists – the song does an abrupt about-face at the halfway mark and becomes another thing entirely. The inclusion of brass instruments late in the piece is the final inspired decision on an album full of them.”
7. Warpaint [pictured above] visiting Australia twice: Laneway Festival and Splendour In The Grass
I would be even happier if this was an annual occurrence. A fantastic band.
Laneway review excerpt: “On the Car Park Stage, four women called Warpaint prove themselves as one of the day’s highlights, soon after shouldering instruments and counting in. I spend most of the set in awe of Stella Mozgawa, whose control and power behind the drumkit is a thing of rare beauty. While all four of the LA-based band are strong instrumentalists, Mozgawa is the band’s beating, metronomic heart. She’s not a particularly flashy player, but the way she dominates her kit with an insistent, rolling flurry of notes has to be seen to be believed. Warpaint’s sound is rarely brash; they often opt for creeping subtlety in their guitar lines and vocal delivery, though there are occasional moments of raised heartbeats, as in standout ‘Undertow’. The crowd increases as their set progresses; quite possibly the result of text messages sent across the festival instructing friends to come witness this shit-hot American rock band. Highly recommended.”
Splendour review excerpt: “Under the McLennan tent, Los Angeles quartet Warpaint are the closest thing to perfect we’ve heard so far today. They write intelligent dream pop and deliver it in an effortlessly smooth style. In Sydney-born Stella Mozgawa, they’ve got one of the best rock drummers alive. It’s clear that Warpaint live, breathe and love their music. They toured with the Laneway Festival only a few months ago, but they’ll always be welcome on these shores.”
6. Witch Hats – Pleasure Syndrome
An incredible second album from one of the best rock bands in Australia. I hope I don’t have to use the phrases ‘criminally underrated’ and ‘underground’ when describing Witch Hats for much longer. Here’s a taste: ‘Hear Martin’, the first single from an album which you can – and should – buy directly from the band. Here.
5. Eddie Vedder dedicating ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ to — the very recently deceased (at the time) — Mike Starr, at Vedder’s first show of his Australian tour, 10 March 2011
This broke me. An incredibly sad, beautiful, powerful, unforgettable moment. I had a strange feeling that something remarkable would happen at this show, which is why I brought my audio recorder along. I was right. Excerpt:
“Though Vedder’s performance – nearly two hours long, and featuring nearly two dozen songs – is thoroughly entertaining, there is a very dark moment embedded toward the end; curiously, right after ‘Betterman’, a track whose narrative shifts from depressed to optimistic across three minutes. Here’s the moment transcribed below in its entirety.
[Vedder finishes playing ‘Betterman’. Crowd cheers. A few moments later, a woman yells from the back of the room, “That was beautiful, Eddie!” Crowd cheers again.]
Vedder: Thank you very much. First night of a new tour – that’s exactly the kind of support you appreciate.
[Crowd laughs and cheers.]
Vedder: There was a, um… the first tour our group ever went on was with another band. It all seemed… I mean, it’s still new and exciting, but you have to work at ways to make it new and exciting. It was just a trip. It was just mind-blowing, starting out. I’d never actually been, like, in a band, and on tour. I’d played little shows here and there. But this was, like, the real thing. There was another band that we were with, and they had records out, and I was kind of looking at them to see how to behave. It was pretty intense. There was a guy in that group – the group was Alice In Chains, that we toured with.
Vedder: The guy who played bass in that band, his name was Mike Starr. Our orbits changed a long, long time ago. We hadn’t seen him for years. He’d been going through a rough time for quite some time. Uh, yeah. I don’t know if you heard, but he’s no longer with us, as of yesterday. I’ve just been thinking about him. A lot. I don’t know what anybody could have done. It’s just really sad when life, and living life, and all that the planet and the people on it have to offer; and all that you can offer it, and them. It’s too bad when sobriety’s just not enough to keep you alive.
[Crowd applauds. Vedder begins playing ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ by Neil Young. It's heartbreaking.]”
4. The Dandy Warhols at The Tivoli, May 31 2011
This is one of few shows I witnessed this year that I wish I could relive. Despite going to dozens of gigs and nearly every major festival that visited south-east Queensland in 2011, I find myself returning to this particular set. An unlikely Tuesday night highlight at the tail end of a national tour. Magic. Excerpt:
“What if I put it to you that The Dandy Warhols are one of the best American rock bands alive? The more I watch and listen tonight, the more plausible it seems. I didn’t walk in expecting to happen upon this realisation. It hit around halfway through, when the rest of the band left the stage—keyboardist Zia McCabe and drummer Brent ‘Fathead’ DeBoer for a toilet break, apparently—which left frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor to unveil his “secret weapon”: a solo version of ‘Every Day Should Be A Holiday’. I doubted whether he could pull it off. The Dandys tend to work through sheer volume, I figured, not cutesy, sentimental moments better suited to stadium schlock-rockers. I was way the fuck wrong. From the first downward, loosely-strummed chord, CT-T begins singing. Right near where I’m standing—up the back of the balcony— a bunch of middle-aged men begin bouncing around, arms around shoulders, singing along at the top of their lungs. Then, what seems like the entire crowd joins him to harmonise during the chorus. Its ascending melody is irresistible; contagious. Over a thousand voices follow his trajectory: “Anytiiiii-hiiii-IIIME / Baby let’s goooo-hoooo-HOOO / EverydAAAA-AAaay-aayyyyyy / Should be a holidaaaaaay”. Which sounds fucking stupid on paper, sure, but in the flesh, it’s hair-raising. He gets to the line in the second verse – “Super cool / The Dandys rule, okay?” – and…I can’t disagree. All of a sudden, I realise I’m watching one of my favourite bands.”
3. Daring to criticise Tool’s Big Day Out sideshow in Brisbane (see here)
Even though I’ve been a hardcore Tool fan for around half of my 23 years, when I saw their Brisbane show the day after the Gold Coast BDO in January, I had forgotten just how intense their fanbase is. So when I wrote a mostly positive live review that poked fun at a few elements of their oh-so-serious concert, I was surprised at the reaction from a handful of Tool fans who took umbrage at my decision to criticise the band. It’s worth clicking the above link and reading through all 31 comments to witness the sheer blind insanity that Tool invoke in certain people, but here’s a sample of awesome eloquence:
“SHUT THE FUCK, UP AND GO BACK TO YOUR UNEDUCATED,OVER CRITICAL CORNER, WITH YOUR CD COLLECTION THAT NO DOUBT, CONSISTS OF SHIT LIKE “SOMETHING FOR KATE” “OPERATOR PLAESE” “MILLI VANILLI” “MGMT” AND THE LIKES, AND refrain from slowing down the natural evolution of mankind!”
And from the same commenter, this time sent to me via TheVine’s personal message system:
“Put your pen down, and do the world a favour…. kill yourself!!! Kind regards. Pete.”
2. Gotye feat. Kimbra – ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’
I was in Odessa, Ukraine with my girlfriend when I saw this video for the first time, soon after Gotye tweeted its release in early July. Our hotel’s shonky internet connection meant that we had to pause halfway through to let the rest of it load, but once viewed in full, the song’s power was remarkable. Even then. Incredibly, it still is, even after hearing it hundreds of times. The intertwining male and female vocal harmonies toward the end of the song still give me goosebumps, every time. Watching the pair duet at Splendour 2011 was a revelation: the crowd response was extraordinary. I knew then and there that this track would win the Hottest 100 (and wrote as much for Mess+Noise). Simply a killer tune.
1. Tyler The Creator – ‘Yonkers’
32 million YouTube views and counting, this still stands up as my favourite track of the year. Released in February seemingly out of nowhere – I hadn’t heard of Odd Future before ‘Yonkers’ – this sparse, menacing narrative sent me and many others down the rabbit hole of discovering a prolific and diverse catalogue, one self-released by a group who only just left their teens. Coupled with an instant-classic music video and verse after verse of memorable lyrical hooks, ‘Yonkers’ is a modern hip-hop masterpiece. Though nothing on Tyler’s 2011 release Goblin came close to the quality of this first single, this young writer/producer and his crew of collaborators certainly made their mark this year.
If you want to make a hardcore gamer roll their eyes in exasperation, tell them that the PC gaming industry is dead and/or dying. Variations on this well-worn statement have been circulating for years, and it’s never been particularly true. In 2011, it’s less true than ever: thanks to digital distribution, more people are buying and playing PC games, so it’s no surprise that developers and publishers continue to invest heavily in the space. Their efforts don’t necessarily have the goal of extracting gamers’ wallets from pockets, either: the burgeoning ‘free to play’ model is being taken seriously by publishers like EA and Activision. And though the hardcore among you might be loath to admit it, those who choose to while away their hours playing Facebook games are technically PC gamers, too.
All told, PC game sales accounted for $16 billion in revenue worldwide last year, according to research conducted by DFC Intelligence on behalf of Nvidia. If DFC’s forecasts are to be believed, PC games will eclipse console game sales in 2014, and incur a sense of deja vu among those gamers old enough to remember a pre-console period where the PC ruled the emerging market for home video games.
In this two-part feature, GameSpy will examine the health of the PC gaming industry across two fronts – retail and digital – in an effort to dispel those pesky death rumours once and for all.
Bricks and Mortar
When compared to the reams of laudatory material that have been dedicated to praising the virtues of digital distribution platforms, it’s easy to overlook the roots of PC gaming: the humble bricks-and-mortar retailer, a place where chunky, colourful cardboard boxes containing CD-ROMs once received pride of place on shelves a few short years ago. Though the cardboard boxes have been downsized and the CD-ROM technologically superseded, Steve Nix counters that there’s still a significant market for over-the-counter sales of PC titles.
As general manager of digital distribution at GameStop, the world’s largest video game retailer – who employ some 17,000 full-time staff, and whose annual earnings in 2010 were $9.47 billion – Nix is well-placed to survey the PC gaming landscape. It also helps that he spent four and a half years at id Software, as director of business development and later, director of digital platforms. He’s been with GameStop since February 2011. “Many years ago, PC games were the largest category for GameStop,” he says. “But PC retail sales didn’t look good over the last ten years. There’s been a steady decline. As a PC gamer first and foremost, that always was very concerning. In the early 2000s, I was wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to the PC? Is it going to become completely extinct at some point, as a gaming platform?’”
We now know that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no’. At the time, Nix reflects, “my strong belief was that we were seeing a user experience problem with PC games in a retail box, versus console games. Really, if you think about the fastest, easiest way for people to get a game and start enjoying it, it’s the consoles. They offer a really nice experience: you get your game disc, you pop it in, and you’re playing in under a minute. Whereas, by the mid-2000s, for PC gamers, games had gotten quite a bit larger. Before the DVD, you’d have nine CDs for some games. And then you might have to search the web for the latest patches. If you’d done everything correctly, maybe a couple of hours later, you’d actually be playing the game after all this work. Really, I think that a lot of customers who were PC gamers started transferring to the consoles just because the user experience on the PC was poorer at that point,” he reflects.
According to Nix, all GameStop saw at that point was “the decline of the physical PC box sales, so they decided to focus on the console business. But fortunately, in the last few years, some of the leaders in the PC digital space have been more public about going out with their numbers. They’re seeing amazing growth. That information started to get back to GameStop, who did some extensive research and said, ‘the PC market is thriving, but it’s just shifted online. It makes sense for us to be a major player in the PC digital space’.” The company will invest $100 million in digital initiatives in 2011, according to a report in March. We’ll return to Nix and GameStop’s recent forays into the online marketplace in the second part of this feature, which focuses on the digital market.
To read the rest of part 1, visit GameSpy. An excerpt from part 2 follows.
In part one of this feature, we examined the boxed-retail past that many gamers have abandoned. Now we take a microscope to the digital-driven future of PC game distribution, which many gamers have already embraced. Like downloading music, downloading games for your PC makes a shitload of sense: it’s fast, convenient, better for the environment, and you can do it in your underwear and no-one will ever know. Sneaky and classy.
Where did all the money go?
Half to 70% of the $4 billion market for downloaded PC games are purchased through a platform named Steam [pictured below right], according to an article published by Forbes earlier in 2011. (Steam operator Valve refused to comment on the accuracy of this claim.) Though Steam was a right royal pain in the ass when it launched in 2002 during the beta period of Counter-Strike 1.6 – any gamer who recalls that frustrating time will no doubt concur – using the software is now as akin to the average PC gamer as breathing and circle-strafing. It’s the gaming equivalent of iTunes. Both are clear market leaders; both maintain an enormous brand loyalty worldwide.
That same Forbes article quotes North American market research firm NPD Group as stating that, in 2010, “sales of PC games via download outstripped sales of boxed games in stores for the first time”. When I question Valve VP of marketing Doug Lombardi on the significance of this outcome – was this always a goal on the agenda, or happy coincidence? – he cryptically replies, “Our goal has always been to deliver a higher quality of service to the customer, regardless of where or how they purchase the product.” Perhaps enormous consumer uptake and financial success was always going to be a consequence of aiming to develop the market’s best digital distribution platform.
Lombardi makes it clear that Valve still values traditional retail and healthy competition in the digital distribution market. “We don’t advise folks to skip retail, or other digital outlets,” he says. “Every publisher and developer should consider the widest possible distribution possible.” I’m curious as to how he pitches the service to prospective Steam clients – from indie developers, to the world’s biggest publishers. “We start with the 30 million-plus gamers connected to the service, the instant access to data on their Steam sales, and the increasing number of Steamworks features we offer free of charge such as matchmaking, anti-piracy, support for in-game DLC, and more.” Also of note is Lombardi’s eyebrow-raising claim that “Steam has grown over 100% year-over-year for the past six years.” A userbase of 30 million is a fairly compelling reasoning for both developers and publishers to do a deal with Steam, I’d imagine.
Game developers such as Tripwire Interactive are among the legions of Steam supporters. The Roswell, Georgia-based studio – creators of Red Orchestra 2 and Killing Floor – have been fans since they signed up in 2005. “And we still are”, says vice president Alan Wilson. “They still have that Valve sense for what the people buying the games actually want, will give it to them at a good price, good customer service – and they treat the developers/publishers right as well. They’re always easy to work with. There are other good services out there – D2D, GamersGate and so on. But until Steam either starts getting it all wrong, or the others find some miracle formula, Steam will stay king of the pile.”
This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Brisbane Emerging Writers Festival on Saturday 15 October 2011, as part of a panel discussion around the topic of “Writing online – How different is writing for an online audience, how can you do it creatively, and what are the challenges and opportunities for writers working in this field?”
Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News
by Andrew McMillen
This is a cautionary tale about online journalism. It’s about learning first-hand how the internet can be a beautiful and terrible place to break news. It’s about choosing what kind of writer you want to be.
In June, the biggest story of my career was published. It was the result of four months of investigation, based on my interviews with 11 former employees of a company named Team Bondi, who made the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia, called L.A. Noire. These 11 sources all spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. Between them, they’d spent a combined 24 years at Team Bondi. They each alleged that their experiences working there were uniformly terrible: long hours, no overtime pay, a praise-free workplace led by a guy who treated them like crap. As a result of these factors and high staff turnover, the game took seven years to make, which is an incredibly long time in the games industry. I put these allegations to the Team Bondi founder, who did not deny what his former employees had told me, and made no apologies for his style of management.
My story encapsulated all of this, and was published on the gaming website IGN. Within 24 hours it received over 120,000 hits, and was being reported and analysed by the gaming media around the world. My four months of patient work – including building trust with my sources, and many conversations with IGN’s editors about the story’s final shape – were reduced to a handful of quotes and rushed summaries rewritten by other gaming journalists. To my knowledge, nobody tried to track down my 11 sources and verify what they were saying, nor did anyone seek additional comment from Team Bondi.
Soon after the story was published, two other former employees emailed me, and provided some more information, including company emails they’d saved from their time at Team Bondi. This new information shed more light on the fact that the company had been stringing their employees along for years, consistently saying that the game was close to being finished, even though it clearly wasn’t. I combined this new information into a supplementary feature that was published on the gaming website, GamesIndustry.biz.
One of the more interesting comments made by one of my sources in this second story related to the breakdown of the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, who published L.A. Noire. You might know them as the guys behind games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. My source said, and I quote:
“I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged.”
Now, keep in mind that these are informed comments made by a person who worked at this company for a few years. Still, these are some pretty strong allegations to make, about some high-profile businesses. My source has inside knowledge, for sure, but it’s very easy to start these kinds of rumours – namely, that one of the world’s best-known videogame companies has decided to cut ties with the Australian studio that they’d sunk millions of dollars into. In the eyes of every sane and rational person in the world, though, allegations and rumours stay just that until they’re either confirmed or denied by those in the know.
Over the next couple of days, I was surprised to find that many websites were not exercising caution when publishing these additional rumours. Some sites didn’t even acknowledge the source of these allegations, instead simply saying that, quote “Rockstar have decided not to publish Team Bondi’s next game”. Full stop. It was alarming and disappointing to see my work skewed beyond its original form, purely because other writers didn’t care enough to provide full context.
To complicate the situation, neither Rockstar nor Team Bondi made any public comments on any of these matters. I learned during this process that their silence bred a kind of quiet acceptance of ‘the facts’ of my stories – which is a really shitty thing. To this day neither company has publicly commented on what I reported.
This whole experience was simultaneously exhilarating and depressing for me. Exhilarating because it was the first real newsworthy story I’d worked on, and I got a kick out of watching it being passed around the world. Depressing because I also watched commenters misinterpret my findings, and fellow journalists misrepresent my work in their editorials. It made me wonder what would’ve happened if I was less restrained with my own analysis and storytelling. Arguably, my stories would never have been published if they didn’t meet editorial standards, but the manner in which other online publications were loose with the facts made me wonder how far I could’ve stretched the truth and gotten away with it.
This is an interesting thought to entertain. And I should point out that my two published stories on this topic did not stretch the truth in any way. But hypothetically, let’s say that I’d fabricated a few quotes that were supposedly made by my anonymous sources. The reader wouldn’t know any better, and it’s doubtful that I’d even get found out. The story was re-reported with such breathless enthusiasm, often containing only the most inflammatory and controversial quotes, that it would barely have mattered. The success of the stories, and the additional opportunities that have since been offered to me, might have led me down an entirely different path. I might have become addicted to seeking easy controversy in my journalism, had I made that choice.
I didn’t, and I haven’t. I’m glad I was thorough and responsible in my reporting, but the alternative is still fun to think about occasionally.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson, about how quickly people tend to believe what they read online as the truth, especially in the absence of denial from the parties in question. The more the story was reported around the internet, the more true these allegations became to most readers. This is reflected in the comments sections of these articles. I watched the tide turn from acute doubt, to utter contempt for Team Bondi and Rockstar, in a very short period.
This experience taught me that no matter how thorough and careful I am with my own work, once a story is published online, it’s completely out of my hands. I think that, in the rush to ‘first’, some web publishers are a little loose with their words. This is troublesome, because whoever reads their articles may not have the time or inclination to read the initial source material, and if a website has their facts wrong when re-reporting a story, then the reader’s understanding of a situation may be compromised. It’s hard to shift facts in people’s minds once they’ve come to a conclusion, and I think web journalists, editors and publishers have a more pronounced responsibility than their print counterparts to check the facts and exercise caution before hitting ‘publish’.
It’s tough, though, because on the internet, there is little incentive for this kind of cautionary, responsible journalism. Inflammatory and controversial stories spread much faster than their circumspect alternatives. This has always been the case, with any kind of news, but the trouble with the web is that the publishers of these kinds of stories are rewarded with traffic, which in turn directly benefits them, as advertisers are more willing to pay them to run ads on their sites.
A few thoughts to close. Writing for the web, it’s very easy to become swept up in instantaneous, inflammatory, controversial reporting. But I urge you not to go down this road. To do so is to toss away your integrity, to swallow your pride and sense of self-worth in favour of short-term gratification. It is a fucking shame that online journalism appears to be built on this principle, and that it is so ingrained in our day-to-day web browsing that you probably don’t even notice.
Like I said, there’s little consequence for following the path of ‘publish first, fact-check second’. But if you have even a shred of integrity, again I urge you: do not take the path of least resistance. Always err on the side of caution before pressing ‘publish’. You owe it to your readers, your sources, your fellow journalists and yourself.
A story for Qweekend; my first contribution to their weekly ‘what I saw’ series of observational short stories.
Click the below images for a closer look, or read the article text underneath. Photography by David Kelly.
I went to the drive-in and this is what I saw
Thirty-eight kilometres south-east of Brisbane lies a large, lumpy car park just off the Pacific Motorway. It’s an unremarkable piece of land but for the two enormous white billboards at either end. At half-past five on a Saturday afternoon, a dozen vehicles are queued at the entrance. Relaxed female staff stride out to the central booth and begin letting traffic through.
Two different sessions screen simultaneously at the Yatala Twin Drive-In Theatre – hence the name – and since seeing one costs adults $13 each and two costs $16, it seems wasteful not to commit to the double. “What movie are you watching, darlin’?” the attendant asks. My partner and I opt for the pair showing in field two: fantasy-action film Thor and medieval-themed comedy Your Highness.
The parallels between regular cinemas and the Twin begin with “seating”. As with an indoor theatre, central real estate is snapped up first, while late entrants are relegated to the wings and neck-craning front rows. In the middle of the property, a single-storey building serves the dual purposes of business HQ and food outlet. The decor borrows heavily from the ’50s-era American diner aesthetic, right down to the life-size Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe statues in the foyer – “Please don’t touch”, reads a sign on Elvis’s guitar. A formidable wall of sweets makes young eyes water. Attendants serve dagwood dogs, Chiko Rolls, hot chips and popcorn, while an elderly manager potters behind the scenes.
All four films screening tonight are new(ish) releases. Those parked in field one will be privy to Rio and Fast & Furious 5. This ensures that visiting the Yatala Twin isn’t a novelty excursion into yesteryear but an independent alternative to watching films at a megaplex.
Beyond a row of tall trees at the foot of the property, the queue of brake lights on Stapylton-Jacobs Well Road extends into the fading dusk. Most headlights are dimmed once inside the theatre, as drivers heed a sign that reads: “Definitely no lights”. Seated at a table outside the diner, eyeballing the procession of slow-moving vehicles, we’re glad we got here early.
It’s chilly in Yatala tonight. Slippers and ugg boots are common; children, especially, are revelling in the chance to publicly parade their brightly-coloured pyjamas. The painful shriek of low-bodied sports cars scraping their undersides on the bumpy terrain occasionally interrupts a PA soundtrack comprised solely of golden-oldies.
We gaze up at the giant white billboard and attempt to estimate its height. Twenty-five metres? Thirty? (We learn on the theatre’s website later that it’s actually 13.4m.) As we walk back uphill, the diner’s painfully bright fluorescent lights destroy what limited night-sight the human eye can muster. It’s a complaint echoed by a pair of teenage girls, with whom we nearly collide. “We can’t see a bloody thing!” they say, startled.
Dean and Jess, a couple of Yatala regulars, are lounging on a mattress in the back of their station wagon. How does tonight compare to previous outings? “It’s cold,” Dean says. “That’s about it!” We all laugh. His mother once worked for the defunct Richlands Twin Drive-In Theatre. After getting his driver’s licence, Dean and his mates often spent weekend nights within these very grounds. “We like coming here. It’s peaceful. You get to lie back,” he says, gesturing at the mattress.
A strange feeling descends in the calm before Thor. It’s the realisation that we’re sitting in a dark carpark with hundreds of others, listening to a live Elvis album recorded in the 1950s. Parents tell their children to stay within sight. Some have brought fold-up chairs; others make use of ute trays. Blankets are a prerequisite. Many simply sit in warm little bubbles, radios tuned to the relevant frequency. Everyone respects their neighbours’ space. There’s something incredibly romantic about the manner in which this experience brings people together, far more so than an average trip to the cinema. Who knows how many children have been conceived here?
Beside each parking space is a steel pole lit by tiny, candle-like orange bulbs. The poles hold two chunky, steel-encased speakers designed to be hung inside car windows. The units are hefty. They give off the impression that the hardware hasn’t been upgraded since the theatre was opened, in October 1974, with one screen. (It became the Yatala Twin in 2000.)
The speakers buzz with distortion whenever things explode in Thor (which is often), or when starlet Zooey Deschanel breaks into song in Your Highness. Those who possess adequate stereos and generosity toward their fellow man blast the radio at windscreen-rattling volume.
During the interval, the queue for the ladies’ is dozens-deep. Happily, the guys’ queue is non-existent. Most of those parked in field two leave after Thor. Some cars creep forward a few rows.
Fifteen minutes into Your Highness, the yellow glow of the RACQ logo glides by. Three cars over, 32 year-old Alisha and her partner Frank are stranded. They had intended to relocate and watch Fast & Furious 5, only to find that their engine wouldn’t turn over. Theatre staff have a battery pack on hand to assist but it hasn’t helped. Frank’s son, Ryan, is in the back of their white wagon. “We come here every three or four months, just for something different,” says Alisha. “Ryan likes coming. In summertime, it’s awesome.” She butts out her cigarette on the bitumen. “There needs to be more of them,” she adds. “We come all the way from Ipswich. There’s one there, but it just shows old movies.”
As soon as the credits start roll, brake lights pierce the darkness. Our neighbours shoot off a few minutes before the film’s end. They leave in such a hurry that they fail to put their rubbish in a nearby bin. It’s the sole instance of unbecoming behaviour witnessed during nearly six hours spent parked before the giant, white billboard in field two. Our engine starts with the assistance of crossed fingers.
Before around 50 journalism students, we each gave a 10 minute presentation and then fielded questions from the audience for the remaining half-hour. I chose to spend my allocated time by giving a brief overview of my path so far, and then speaking about things I’ve learned in the past two years as a freelancer.
My presentation is embedded below. Click here to watch on YouTube. It was filmed by Matt Shea and edited by Henry Stone. I’ve also included it in text form underneath.
Andrew McMillen: Things I’ve learned about freelance journalism, September 2011
The best way to be a freelance journalist is to wake up every day and be a freelance journalist. This means you’ll spend your day researching story ideas, pitching stories to editors, requesting interviews with people you wish to speak to, transcribing interviews, shaping stories until they’re as good as they can be, and then filing them to your editor. I’ve just summed up the entire job in a sentence. That’s what freelance journalism involves. You’ll think of an interesting thing to write about, pitch this interesting thing to an editor, get permission from the editor to write about this interesting thing in exchange for money, and then go out and do just that. Over and over.
In a way, it’s not glamorous at all, but it depends how you look at it. I choose to look at freelance journalism as: getting paid to learn things, and sharing that knowledge with readers. In many cases I know very little about a particular topic when I pitch a story, but through curiosity and initiative in approaching an editor to write about it, I get paid to familiarise myself with an industry, or a culture, or an issue that affects a lot of people. I’m not saying that I become an expert on something after researching it for only a week or two, but I’ll generally know more about it than the average person. And then when the average person reads my story, they too become informed. It’s a beautiful cycle, and it’s a wonderful way to make a living, as long as you have an interest in learning things. If not, freelance journalism probably isn’t for you. But you should still try it anyway, because you never know.
Ideas. You need to have absolute faith and conviction in your ideas, because ideas are your lifeblood as a freelance journalist. Without them, you fail. Without them, you’re nothing to nobody. But to have an idea is not enough: you need to conceptualise an idea in a full enough manner that an editor will read your idea and be willing to part with a few hundred or thousand dollars from their budget in order for you to bring that idea to fruition. When I started freelance journalism, my ideas were terrible. I look back on them now and I’m embarrassed by how lame and elementary they seem in comparison to what I’m pitching now. Like anything though, freelance journalism is a learning experience, and you get better over time. But at the heart of this game is the quality of your ideas, which you need to hone and sharpen and polish on a daily basis if you have any hope of getting anywhere.
Curiosity. Curiosity is currency. As I mentioned earlier, I see this job as being paid to learn, and to teach. Curiosity is key, though, because 95% of my ideas come from reading or watching something and wondering, “why is that?” Or, “how does that work?” Or “why did that person or company make that decision?”. Generally, the question is “why”. The “why” should be a question that you ask yourself constantly. Not out loud, because you’ll probably sound like a lunatic, but as you move through the world, be curious. Story ideas should come easily if you keep listening to the “Why” in the back of your head.
Mentors. This might be the most important thing I’m going to say today. You need to find a mentor. You need to find someone knowledgeable, who believes in you, who you can report to on a weekly basis and whose input you greatly value. I’m not saying it’s impossible to succeed without one, but I’d guess that it would be much harder. I’ve had a mentor for two years and I wouldn’t have achieved anywhere near as much as I have without their help. I don’t quite know how to explain it, or even how it works, but being accountable to someone other than yourself is a massive productivity boost. You need someone who’ll give you a kick up the arse if you have a slack week, or gently pick you up if you’re feeling deflated for whatever reason. This person doesn’t necessarily have to be a writer or a journalist. As long as they understand the freelance lifestyle and have a background in anything creative, they should be a good fit. But you won’t know if they’re a good fit until you try a mentor relationship. So start thinking about mentors, if you’re serious about pursuing freelance journalism.
Always look up. Always keep moving forward. Try to have a couple of projects on the go at any one time. Even if you’ve got a few commissions in hand, always be researching new ideas and thinking of new angles that could work for particular publications. The image I like to think of is Tarzan, swinging from tree to tree, only you’re swinging from idea to idea, and from publication to publication. While you’re a freelancer, you shouldn’t settle, even if you find one or two consistent, well-paying gigs. Always be looking up, for your next opportunity, your next big break. Try not to stand still for too long.
Set goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Not every day will bring you closer to your goals. You’ll have days where the thought of pitching and writing stories makes you want to crack your skull open against the wall. This is fine, as long as most days aren’t like that. Try to maintain a generally productive mindset, but pay attention to your mental state. Don’t force yourself to work if your mind is screaming out against the concept. If you do take a break, whether for an hour or a day, try not to feel guilty about it.
Self-motivation. It goes without saying that you have to be self-motivated to have any kind of success in this game. Most of the time, you’ll probably be working alone. If you’ve never worked this way before, it can be a shock to the system. It was for me. It took me over a year to find a rhythm where I could sit at my desk all day and work alone without craving some kind of distraction or human interaction. But I found it, eventually, and it’s a nice place to be. Even if I do mess it up occasionally.
Self-talk. In a similar vein to the last point, self-talk is hugely important in this line of work. You are directly responsible for your income. You can’t just show up at your desk and get paid. You have to research, think, send emails, and maintain relationships with people who might know you only as words on a screen. It is a pretty ludicrous situation to be in, if you really sit down and think about it. So try not to think about it. But you need to believe that you can do this, if you want to have anything resembling a career in freelance journalism. You need to believe in yourself, most days of the week. There isn’t a whole lot of room for self-doubt in this game. I think the best way to avoid self-doubt is to always be busy, so that you don’t have time to doubt yourself.
A to-do list to keep track of your daily tasks is a must. Being a freelancer means you’ll be doing lots of follow-ups with people; chasing invoices, chasing interviews, chasing stories you’ve pitched and never heard back from the editor on. These things are tiny and easy to forget, which is why you need to keep track of them. I use a to-do list called teuxdeux.com, spelt the French way. It’s very simple but clean, and lets you see five days ahead at a time. It also has an iPhone app which allows me to refer to it and cross things off when I’m out of office. There are probably many other sites and apps with the same functions but this one works very well for me.
Set up a blog. This is simple and non-negotiable. Set up a blog to act as your portfolio of published work. It doesn’t have to be flashy, it just has to show your work and be regularly updated. If you can, register yourname.com and set up the blog there. Doing this was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a freelance journalist.
Set boundaries. Since you’re not constricted by a traditional workplace or business hours, it’s quite easy to find yourself working from the moment you wake up, until the moment you go to sleep. I’ve been there. It’s not healthy; it’s how you become burnt-out. It’s important to set boundaries around your workplace as a freelancer, and in this case, your workplace is wherever your PC is. For around nine months I’ve kept Saturday as a ‘PC free day’, where I don’t turn the computer on or do any work-related tasks. I also keep Sunday as a day for catching up on RSS feeds, updating my blog, replying to emails; pretty non-intensive tasks. And Monday to Friday is for work. Structuring your workweek is important. You need to respect boundaries, both for yourself and for those closest to you.
Finally: enjoy yourself. Freelance journalism can be a huge amount of fun if you approach it with the right attitude. It’s a great alternative to the traditional path of cadetships and applying for reporter jobs, and you can start doing it today. With persistence, self-belief and talent, there’s no reason why you can’t make a living from freelance journalism. I highly recommend it.
Note: this presentation also appeared as a guest post on the excellent blog The Renegade Writer, which is edited by Linda Formichelli. If you’re a freelance writer, I highly recommend subscribing to Linda’s blog.
This is a three-way live radio interview conducted by Sky Kirkham, Amy Stevenson, and Alexander Atkinson, the co-hosts of the4ZzZ Book Club, on Thursday 26 May 2011. 4ZzZ is a community radio station in Brisbane.
Our half-hour interview concerned National Young Writers’ Month 2011, my freelance journalism, and my role as co-organiser of UnConvention Brisbane 2011. Their questions are bolded.
If, for some crazy reason, you’d rather listen to the audio of this interview than read the transcript, you can do that here.
Welcome Andrew, and thank you for joining us today.
Sure, National Young Writers’ Month starts next month, funnily enough. So I’ve been organising some events here in Brisbane and up in my home town of Bundaberg in anticipation of next month, to get young people inspired about writing and to start thinking about setting some goals to work towards during the month of June.
I’s really about getting young people talking about writing, and helping them work towards those goals by building a little community around young writers across the country.
How is the event doing that?
It’s online-based, and there’s a website which Express Media have organised. National Young Writers’ Month is promoted by Express Media, who are a Victoria-based arts company. The website is expressmedia.org.au/nywm.
We will put a link to that from our Facebook page at the end of the show. How did you get involved in National Young Writers’ Month?
The coordinator of the event came across my work somehow, I don’t know, through a search engine or something. And she liked what I was doing, so she asked me to be involved because she could see that I was under 25,and the event is targeted towards under 25s. She could see that I’d done a fair few interviews with writers in the past, and hoped that could translate through to helping other people be inspired enough to start writing.
Is there any particular reason for the age 25 limits on it? It seems almost arbitrary.
It does seem arbitrary, doesn’t it? It’s not my decision. I couldn’t answer that question.
I guess you have to cut ‘youth’ off somewhere.
What kind of goals are people going to be setting? Are these all manner of writing, or is it non-fiction and fiction?
It’s all manner of writing. Of the national ambassadors, I’m the only journalist. The rest of the ambassadors are fiction writers, poets, and that kind of thing. So it’s for any kind of writing, whether you want to start a book or get a few chapters down during the month, or start a blog and write every day, or even just write yourself a diary entry every day. It’s just to get the juices flowing.
Whatever achievable goal you think you can do in a month.
Yeah. It’s about making it an achievable goal, too, so not like “I’m going to write a book in a month!” because you’d probably tear your hair out in frustration.
I’m sure some people try.
Are there any physical workshops coming up? I know you’ve just run a couple of seminars or conversations with local authors.
I don’t have anything else planned. In the last 10 days or so I’ve done three events; two here in Brisbane, and one in my hometown of Bundaberg. Last Tuesday I had Benjamin Law and John Birmingham talking about freelance journalism – which is what I do, and what they are both well-known for doing. And this Tuesday just past, I had the Courier Mail’s Qweekend magazine staff talking about feature journalism, which I think was pretty cool because that magazine is regarded as being the best journalism in Queensland. Certainly among the best in Australia too.
So that was Trent Dalton –
Matthew Condon, and Amanda Watt.
Who was your favourite interview?
On stage, you mean?
Andrew: Matthew Condon, because… actually, it’d be a tie between him and John Birmingham, because they both have the rare distinction of being writers who speak as well as they write. Most writers… myself definitely included; I don’t speak as well as I write, because I like to have that time to get my mind focused. But somehow, JB and Matthew Condon have that ability to form whole sentences and witty comments on the fly.
Makes you wonder if their writing comes out that way in one smooth, flowing, fully-formed script.
Yes, we try to do that on the 4ZzZ Book Club. We don’t always succeed. [laughs]
To take a step back; you’re saying you are a freelance journalist. How did you get into that industry in the first place? What was it that drew you to it, and what was your first step in getting involved, as advice to all of our young writers out there who might be interested.
I started… I guess the first time I was published was in mid-2007 and for a couple of years following that, all I did was review live shows here in Brisbane for Rave Magazine and for FasterLouder. So for those two years, it was just purely live reviewing, the occasional CD review. That was my ‘journalism’ for two years, and I was happy to leave it at that was because it was a fun little pastime for me. It meant I got free concert tickets and I could go to see shows that I otherwise would pay for.
So that was cool, but at the same time it gave me the ability to work towards deadlines, and to word counts, and to be concise and to the point. So that was a hobby. I graduated from uni with a Bachelor of Communication in mid 2009. I didn’t really intend to do anything with journalism, but around that time I quit my job in web design, and I was kind of at a crossroads where I could decide to either pursue another full-time offie job or try something else that I knew; which, in that case, was freelance journalism fulltime. So I decided to put my mind to that. And it took many months, in financial terms, before I saw the fruits of that effort, but over those last two or so years, I think I’ve kind of got on top of it.
Is it possible to earn a living from freelance journalism?
It is, but you have to be incredibly dedicated and persistent. You have to get up every day and market yourself to editors, and have ideas, and constantly be thinking weeks or months ahead in terms of publication schedules, and what’s going to be current a few months down the track.
What would you describe as maybe the thrills and perils of freelance journalism?
The thrill is… for the year or so I was working an office job, the morning commute is quite upsetting. You have to get up early, make your lunch, catch a bus or train in… That gets old pretty quickly, as I’m sure everyone can appreciate in some regard. [Andrew’s note: I didn’t get to finish saying it, but the ‘thrill’ I was referring to was setting my own hours, and working from home…]
I suppose in those earlier days you would have been working to finance yourself some other way, as well.
That’s true. I did a bit of copywriting and web account management for a friend’s business, but in the last year or so I’ve given that up and I’ve just been freelance writing full-time. The thrills… and what was the other part?
Perils. Well, it comes down to finance, I suppose. I mean, like I said; you have to be marketing yourself every day, and if you’re not doing that, then you’re not getting paid, and you can’t pay your rent or feed yourself.
And become yet another impoverished writer.
Exactly. I didn’t want to become a cliché, which is why I’ve been successful. [laughs]
Or living the stereotype. Is it all about generating a portfolio? Is that how you tend to market yourself once you have volunteered [as a writer] and you’ve got stuff that you haven’t been paid for, and people can see you’re good at what you do, then you can take your portfolio further?
In a way, yes. Those two years when – I was doing the stuff for the street press and FasterLouder – was essentially unpaid. But at the same time, I didn’t expect to get paid, because it was fun for me; free tickets and all that. But after I quit that job and made the distinction that I wanted to be a writer full-time, then I only pursued paying publications. I did that doggedly, for months on end, before I really saw the return.
That’s how you have to think; months down the track, instead of on a day-to-day basis, because you can do excellent work and people can like your work across Australia or across the world, but you don’t see the invoice until a few weeks or months down the track.
We are talking to Andrew McMillen on the Book Club here tonight on 4ZzZ. Andrew, what was your first paid journalism article?
I interviewed the Brisbane band Screamfeeder for a website called messandnoise.com. It was funny, because I’d been doing – in some ways – music journalism for a couple of years, but I’d never actually interviewed a band. So in anticipation of that I bought a little recorder, and I did all my research and preparation and took notes, and all that sort of thing.
It went really well, and it was published online, and it was worth $60 or something like that. It was a breakthrough for me because it was like, “holy shit”; here’s this article which I put a lot of effort into and I could see the results, and it was well received among the [online] community and all that sort of thing. And that first paying success, as it were, I still feel that to this day when I get published in TheWeekend Australian or Rolling Stone.
I mean, obviously I’m a full-time writer. I like to get paid for my work, but it’s also still a thrill to see my name in print and to see people responding to an article, whether through comments on an article or on Twitter or Facebook; that sort of thing.
You’re saying how you write full-time. What was the draw of journalism in particular? Did you ever have any aspirations of pursuing other writing activities?
No, I didn’t. Now that you asked that, I’m not really sure. I’m curious. I guess I’m naturally curious, and the role of the journalist, I think, is to remove curiosity from day-to-day life. A good journalist is asking the questions that you want to know, and putting them into articles or radio programs or TV shows that are answering those questions. I guess I like being rooted in non-fiction, because it’s where I live on a day-to-day basis, rather than being lost in my head with fictional characters.
I suppose in journalism as well, you get to come out of your hidey-hole and interview people.
Actually have contact with people.
Exactly, because I know from experience you can spend enough time in your bedroom, or your workspace, and it’s days before you actually go out and see someone. So it’s always a thrill to be out and to meet people, definitely.
As one of the challenges of freelance journalism, you’re talking about the need to market yourself constantly, and to look ahead. Is there this trade-off where, I suppose, you would have some freedom as a freelance journo that you wouldn’t otherwise, that you have to work almost as hard at the marketing side as you do at actually writing your articles?
Definitely, that’s the balance. It’s great to be able to roll out of bed at midday, or stay up late and not have to worry about getting up for work, or whatever, but in terms of why I have been successful is because, from the beginning, when I had that first paying article, I started uploading all of my articles to my own blog, which is andrewmcmillen.com. Every time I would introduce myself to another editor, I would show them my blog and show them my three best articles up to that point.
I’m not sure, because none of my editors have ever said it, but I think that taking that kind of time to build a web presence and keep it updated, and take pride in that; I would hope that has swayed them in some ways to think, “Okay, this guy’s serious about what he does.”
Interviewer 1: You see that with authors and websites as well. There are some authors who have the most fantastic websites and then you have ones which look as though they haven’t been touched for years, and are atrociously formatted. You have to wonder whether they’re actually interested in booking themselves up, because they’re obviously not committed to it.
Interviewer 2: That comes back to the balance again, I guess, of authors who feel they shouldn’t have to do anything other than write. I believe we’ve heard even people on this show talk about that, but definitely I’ve heard other interviews with authors feeling quite indignant that they have to do something other than –
Interviewer 1: “What? I have to market myself?”
Interviewer 2: Exactly.
Interviewer 1:: “Don’t people get paid to do that?”
Interviewer 2: It seems pretty lonely to engage in writing that way, lock yourself up in a little room and just do nothing but write. I think it’s a skill that probably our generation is in grasp of a lot more. We are a generation of bloggers and Facebookers. We have no problem really of announcing our ideas to our community of friends, and taking that on to a larger step as a professional basis. You probably have to be quite good these days, because everyone’s tried their hand at that sort of lifestyle.
I was adept at that kind of social media, or whatever you want to call it, because I’ve grown up with the internet. I’ve been using it hardcore since I was 12, and I don’t see myself stopping.
Didn’t you first start writing on the internet; gaming reviews or something?
See, we’ve done research!
The first time I was published in some way, I suppose, is when I was about 12 or 13, for an online video game community [NINTEN] where I was essentially rewriting press releases. Which is as glamorous as it sounds. But it was cool because I was already a member of this community but it was also helping me to show some talent of mine: that I could write, and that people might want to read about the latest Nintendo game or some other thing that’s coming out. It feels silly to talk about it now, but at the time I loved it because I was passionate about video games, and for years I wanted to be a video game journalist, which I have kind of…
Sounds like a rad job.
Video game journalist?
Yeah; you play the games, you tell people about them. The dream job.
I’ve kind of done some video game journalism, but it’s been nothing to do with playing games; more about looking at the business side of games, which I don’t think many people – either in Australia or in the world – are doing. I got into that because, here in Brisbane a studio called Krome shut down the end of last year. For a week or so, there were rumours floating around that they’d fired all their staff, but no one was confirming it.
Because no one was looking into it I was like, “I’m going to go check it out for myself.” There’s a gaming website called IGN, which I approached the editor of. I said, “Can I do this story for you?” He’s like, “Yeah man, I really want somebody to do it because, like you, I’m curious.”
So I found a bunch of staff who had left the studio recently, and I put together their stories and theories on why the company went out of business. Then I got an interview with the CEO. It was the first time he’d spoken to media since the rumours started, because all the Courier Mail reporters [and the like] and all were calling up to say, “Is this true?!”. They were really confronting him, whereas I came in under the radar and said, “Look, I’ve done this research with some past employees. They’ve told me this; is it true?”
I guess it’s that kind of tenacity that really drives a young journalist. Do you have any writing heroes, or literary heroes that you used as a model for that, or any sort of model for your writing?
Yeah, also around the time I quit that [web design] job, I went down to Sydney to interview my favourite writer, Neil Strauss. He’s an American author who’s best known for writing for Rolling Stone and New York Times for about 20 years, and in 2005 he had a book called The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.
I think I’ve heard of that one.
He had a new book that came out in 2009, and I had an interview lined up with him. He was meant to come to Brisbane for this book tour, but it didn’t come through. He was just going to Sydney and Melbourne instead, because I guess there wasn’t enough media attention up here. So I had resigned myself to just doing a phone interview with him, like any other writer or musician I’ve done before. My friend said, “If this guy means so much to you, why don’t you take a few hundred dollars and take the cost and fly down and see him?” Which I hadn’t considered at all.
So I did that, and I met him. I interviewed him for 45 minutes or so. That was a massive formative experience for me, because here’s this guy who has literally built his life around writing and publishing words. And that made me realise that I can do that; that’s what I wanted to do.
So you’ve clearly gone a few paths as a journalist. You’ve got your musical background and, I guess, more straight stories, things like the current one [‘Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart’]. How do you plan the difference in approaching those, and also, how do the publications you’re dealing with approach your involvement in them as a freelance journalist?
It depends very much on the publication, and what they want from their writers. For example, the majority of music writing I do these days is for a website called TheVine.com.au. And mostly what I do for them is interviews, which are published in a straight Q+A format. So there’s a few hundred word intro and then it’s just the conversation as it happened. Which I’m really big on, because I remember reading street press, before I was writing for it. I would see, “this band’s touring”, or they’ve got an album coming out. There’s this little 300 or 500 word article and there’s a couple of quotes that are plugged in there, but it’s like – “what did the writer and musician talk about for the rest of those 15 minutes?” Because most bands give 15 minute phone interview blocks.
It confused me, because I wanted to see the full story. So both TheVineand Mess+Noiseare quite good at publishing full interviews, but that’s, again, because they are web publications, whereas a magazine like Rolling Stone or triple jmag, they’re constrained by space.
I guess that’s a major thing; the advent of online media to the point where it can actually generate a business model these days and allows that additional space. It also has allowed the rise of a larger group of freelance journalists to get published and get their information out there.
Maybe for less money.
Almost definitely, which is a shame, because I prefer writing for the web. Because like I said; I’ve grown up with it and I spend most of my day online and I like to see what’s new and what’s current. But at the moment, in terms of writers getting paid or journalists getting paid, the scales are definitely still tipped in print’s favour. I like writing more for Rolling Stone or The Australian because they pay really well, as opposed to –
Could you put a figure on it per word?
Yeah. Rolling Stone pays 60 cents per word, and The Weekend Australian pays 70 cents per word.
Online that would be…?
TheVine, for example, pays $150 per interview, or $50 per review. It’s the shift between per word and per article and it’s great; TheVine is run by Fairfax Digital, who had a quite forward-thinking business strategy a few years ago when they launched TheVine and Brisbane Times, and those kind of sites. [Andrew’s note: those two sites launched at different times, however.] They’ve been monetised and profitable for years now. Hopefully that balance between print and web will tip towards web’s favour. I think it will, because more advertisers will be going towards the web, because more people are reading websites.
You are listening to the Book Club on 4ZzZ 102.2 FM. We are joined today by Andrew McMillen, who is the Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month. Let’s talk a bit more about National Young Writers’ Month. You were saying there’s online workshops. Are you involved with that at all? How does that work? How do you get enrolled?
Not so much online workshops as a community built around the forum, and blogs that are on that website.
How are they going? Have they started yet?
All the ambassadors have written their response to ‘Why I Write,’ which I think is where you got your research from, maybe… maybe not. [laughs] And we’ve had a few guest authors do that, like Benjamin Law put his response in, which was, in typical Ben Law style, quite humorous. There’s forums where you can talk about journalism or blogs or fiction writing or poetry. They’re trying to cover all the bases in terms of writing forms, which I think they’ve done.
How do people get involved with that? They go to the website, subscribe and register and then have access to the activities?
Yeah, you can join the community and make friends and do all those kinds of social networking activities.
Is there any other support groups around? I know Visible Ink which is in the valley which is a government initiative supports young writers and I suppose some of the publishing bodies we’ve talked about today like FasterLouder and stuff sort of support young writers in a way, to their own benefit in a way as well. Are there any other associated organisations involved in this one?
We talked about The Edge as well, in the break and that’s something else that’s quite a beneficial, useful little space.
It is, and they often have workshops, government workshops there. I’m not sure how many of them are writing based.
Andrew: They do have occasional ones. I remember last year – which I wasn’t in town for it – they had a feature journalism chat with Trent Dalton. Young writers could come along and ask questions; much like they could at my events in the past 10 days.
There is also a broad range of things that go on at The Edge, one of which is something else you’re also involved in, which is UnConvention, which is coming up on the 11th and 12th of June. Can you give us a bit of rundown on that, while you’re in the studio?
Sure. I am a co-organiser of UnConvention Brisbane 2011. It’s the sequel of UnConvention Brisbane 2010 funnily enough. It started last year as a grassroots independent music community networking event. It’s much the same format this year, with more of a focus on encouraging discussions during the panel sessions.
As well as that, there’s a networking event at the Boundary Hotel on Saturday night, and a few local artists will be showcasing throughout the weekend at the Edge and at the Boundary Hotel.
How did you get involved with the UnConvention organisation?
It’s based on a concept that started in the U.K. a few years ago and it’s since been replicated around the world, like in Brazil and India and all sorts of places. UnConvention Brisbane last year was the first Australian UnConvention. A co-organiser named Dave Carter who is a lecturer at the Conservatorium and a local musician himself, he saw the idea and thought about bringing it to Brisbane because he felt there was a bit of a gap in terms of strengthening bonds within the independent music community and bringing them together.
That’s what we really aimed to do, and based on feedback from last year we had about 220 people come along to the Edge and hopefully we’ll do the same again this year. The feedback was really positive.
I caught a thread online the other day about Brisbane and the difference — a lot of people say that Brisbane isn’t quite as cultural as our other cities of Australia and whether that was a problem of representation in the music industry, or whether that was a lack of talent in Brisbane. The general consensus was that there’s bits of both but there’s slightly less cohesion I suppose was the general consensus of the thread. I wasn’t a contributor or anything, I just took it off.
It’s an interesting thread. I’ve kept an eye on it too, and I haven’t contributed myself either. It’s one of those discussions that’s been around for a long time and I know the guy who started it, Everett True, who is running a workshop at UnConvention about online publishing or self publishing.
He’s a pretty good writer.
Yeah, he’s amazing. He’s literally been a music journalist his whole adult life; he knows what he’s doing, for sure. But he started it because he wanted to answer the question “Why does Brisbane perceive itself to be a cultural backwater”; those sorts of questions. There are no easy answers for that because… I don’t even know where to start.
Interviewer 1: I was thrown to each side of the argument as I read on. I thought, “Yeah, clearly because everyone leaves Brisbane and goes to Melbourne if you’re a creative person.” And the I read a little bit further and I thought, “No, I know there’s venues in the suburbs and there’s music.”
Interviewer 2: We do have a massively creative scene as well. The number of good local bands coming out is always pretty impressive.
Interviewer 1: I think it’s a stigma that holds around that there’s not much going on in Brisbane. Just the fact that there is a stigma, people keep re-saying it.
It’s funny, because it exists down south. People down south perceive Brisbane to be like that, and somehow, for some reason, Brisbane people believe that, in some cases. That’s why I think it perpetuates.
I think so.
So you’re saying Everett True’s running a workshop on self-publishing.
He’s co-hosting that with Bianca Valentino, who’s done a lot of her own zines called “Conversations With Punx”.
I think I’ve been to a seminar by Everett True a couple of years ago. He was pretty cool.
There we go; a reason to get along to UnConvention in a couple of weeks! You panelled, at the last one, a discussion on music and the media. Is there going to be something similar this time or is that retreading old ground at this point?
We have aimed to start a whole new series of topics, although we have retained a similar kind of one in the music and culture discussion. I think that was really valuable. This year that’s being held by Kellie Lloyd of Screamfeeder, and Q Music. What was the question again? The music and media panel, last year. No, we’re not doing that exact topic this year but we are doing ‘documenting Brisbane’s music scene’, which is run by Justin Edwards, a local music photographer.
Cool. I’d say there’s a lot to get to as well as National Young Writers’ Month, which you can log on. We’ll post up the site.
UnConvention is held at The Edge in South Bank, next to the State Library of Queensland, on June 11 and 12. That’s the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. It’s $30 to get in and that gives you access to both days of panel discussions and networking events, as well as lunch on both days. For more information, you can visit unconventionbrisbane.com
Andrew McMillen, thank you very much for joining us today. Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist, the Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month, and one of the co-organisers at UnConvention. So a very busy man, and he also runs a blog, which you heard him mentioning before, which is andrewmcmillen.com.
We’ll also post the link to it on our Facebook page after the show, for those that don’t write at the speed of my voice. It is a quarter-to-eight. You’re listening to the Book Club on 4ZzZ.
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.