All posts tagged News

  • The New York Times story: ‘How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout’, May 2017

    My first story for The New York Times. Excerpt below.

    How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout

    Its businesses and consumers burdened with some of developed world’s slowest speeds, the country is a cautionary tale about big-money ambitions.

    The New York Times story by Andrew McMillen: 'How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout', May 2017

    BRISBANE, Australia — Fed up with Australian internet speeds that trail those in most of the developed world, Morgan Jaffit turned to a more reliable method of data transfer: the postal system.

    Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have downloaded Hand of Fate, an action video game made by his studio in Brisbane, Defiant Development. But when Defiant worked with an audio designer in Melbourne, more than 1,000 miles away, Mr. Jaffit knew it would be quicker to send a hard drive by road than to upload the files, which could take several days.

    “It’s really the big file sizes that kill us,” said Mr. Jaffit, the company’s co-founder and creative director. “When we release an update and there’s a small bug, that can kill us by three or four days.”

    Australia, a wealthy nation with a widely envied quality of life, lags in one essential area of modern life: its internet speed. Eight years after the country began an unprecedented broadband modernization effort that will cost at least 49 billion Australian dollars, or $36 billion, its average internet speed lags that of the United States, most of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. In the most recent ranking of internet speeds by Akamai, a networking company, Australia came in at an embarrassing No. 51, trailing developing economies like Thailand and Kenya.

    For many here, slow broadband connections are a source of frustration and an inspiration for gallows humor. One parody video ponders what would happen if an American with a passion for Instagram and streaming “Scandal” were to switch places with an Australian resigned to taking bathroom breaks as her shows buffer.

    But the problem goes beyond sluggish Netflix streams and slurred Skype calls. Businesses complain that slow speeds hobble their effectiveness and add to their costs. More broadly, Australia risks being left behind at a time when countries like China and India are looking to nurture their own start-up cultures to match the success of Silicon Valley and keep their economies on the cutting edge.

    “Poor broadband speeds will hold back Australia and its competitive advantage,” said John O’Mahony, an economist at Deloitte Access Economics. A 2015 report by Deloitte valued the nation’s digital economy at $58 billion and estimated that it could be worth 50 percent more by 2020. “The speed of that growth is at risk if we don’t have the broadband to support it,” he said.

    The story of Australia’s costly internet bungle illustrates the hazards of mingling telecommunication infrastructure with the impatience of modern politics. The internet modernization plan has been hobbled by cost overruns, partisan maneuvering and a major technical compromise that put 19th-century technology between the country’s 21st-century digital backbone and many of its homes and businesses.

    For the full story, visit The New York Times. Above photo credit: Jason Reed for Reuters.

  • The Global Mail story: ‘Sources Of Tension: SourceBottle and online sourcing’, April 2012

    A story for The Global Mail, published in April 2012.

    Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story on The Global Mail website.

    Sources Of Tension
    by Andrew McMillen

    Times have changed for journalists, and some have changed the way they get their information. It’s time to let readers in on one of the shortcuts.

    Pre-internet, journalists had it tough. If they needed quotes, they had to use initiative, combing their existing contacts, working their telephones, or wearing out their shoe leather meeting people face-to-face. Often, all three tactics were employed simultaneously.

    In 2012, not only are supremely useful online tools such as Google, Facebook and Twitter making the hunt for sources a much more efficient process, there are now entire digital businesses built around connecting journalists with sources – namely, the “real people” you find dotted throughout broadcast, print and online news stories. While Facebook and Twitter are useful for this purpose, they can be limited by a journalist’s existing network of “friends” and followers. So, aiming to streamline the process by offering volume and efficiency, new digital services will push a journalist’s message out to a large audience as quickly as possible.

    At face value, such businesses may appear no more than a slick machine pushing the antiquated skill of personal sourcing into the interconnected present. But the media-consuming public usually are unaware of how the voices in news stories have been gathered, knowledge that might colour the way readers interpret the quotes. To examine the ethical complexity of the issue, The Global Mail looks in detail at one such direct-connect business: an Australian website named SourceBottle .

    A cursory scroll through the website’s Twitter account, @SourceBottle , offers a depressing insight into the way some Australian journalists are using the service. On SourceBottle’s Twitter feed, wedged among requests for the generic (“Magazine seeks Gen Y girls who ditched the city life for the country”), the hopeful (“Magazine seeks people to lose 5kg in 2 weeks”) and the plain lazy (“Magazine seeks details on the Titanic for article”) is this jaw-dropper, tweeted on December 10, 2011: “Mag seeks women who have rejected a 6-figure salary, gone blonde, adopted a rescue dog or converted to Islam #beasource.”

    It’s a shame that the link leads to a dead-end on the SourceBottle website — the journalist’s deadline has long since expired, and so the “call-out” is shielded from public view — as that story sounds amazing. (Imagine if they found one women who’d done all four disparate tasks?) Mirth aside, it also sounds like an Australian women’s magazine has planned an article and then attempted to find sources to fit their idea of reality, rather than using reporting to inform the outcome. It’s the journalistic equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

    SourceBottle, founded by former PR rep Rebecca Derrington in July 2009, advertises two functions. Firstly, it helps journalists and bloggers find sources for stories. These voices are essential across all forms of journalism: without sources, we’d only ever see, hear and read fiction or opinion. In order to find people to interview for their stories, journalists are allowed to post a “call-out” on the site. If all goes to plan, the journalist can “sit back and sources will find you”, according to the site’s bolded marketing spiel.The concept is instantly appealing to any time-strapped journalist (as most are, after all).

    To read the full story, visit The Global Mail.

  • A Conversation With Trent Dalton, 2011 News Award-winning Features Journalist Of The Year, November 2011

    A year ago, I wrote the words, “Trent Dalton is the best feature journalist in Australia.”

    Absolutely nothing has changed.

    Last Friday, 4 November 2011, Dalton [pictured right] was awarded Features Journalist of the Year at the 2011 News Awards for the second year in a row. (He won the same award in 2008, and was a finalist in 2009 and 2007, too.)

    Two months earlier, he was awarded Queensland Journalist of the Year at the Clarion Awards. These accolades are a result of his feature writing for The Courier-Mail‘s Qweekend magazine, where Dalton is a staff writer. He’s also an assistant editor of the newspaper.

    Earlier this week, Dalton and I met to discuss a recent pair of Qweekend cover stories over sushi and green tea. Simply named “Story of a Teenage Boy” and “Story of a Teenage Girl“, these features delve deep into the lives of two children who live in Queensland: Casey Tunks, 15, and Chloee Gwynne, 16.

    In a way, they’re companion pieces to the last pair of stories I interviewed Dalton about in 2010: “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman“.

    I highly recommend clicking the below images to read both stories, before moving onto our extensive interview, which was 90 minutes long and runs to 13,000 words. (Clicking the images will open the stories as PDFs in a new window.)

    ++

    Andrew: When we last spoke a year ago, it was just after you were awarded the 2010 News Features Journalist of the Year. This is not really part of why I wanted to interview you today, but – which stories did you put forward this year? I believe “Home is Where the Hurt Is” is one of them.

    Trent: Yeah, and also a story called “The Longest Night,” where I spent 24 hours alongside [Queensland premier] Anna Bligh, when Cyclone Yasi was coming in. And then “The Long Goodbye”; lots of ‘longs’ this year! “The Long Goodbye” was about a guy, Scott Sullivan, who is dying of motor neurone disease.

    Then five Queensland flood stories, which was where I tracked the up and downs of one particular street n Rosalie [suburb of Brisbane], throughout the whole Brisbane floods; in the days preceding the flood, during the flood, and also afterwards.

    And then a story all about kindness, a story where I went around and asked people to share random stories about kind acts they’ve done, or people have done to them.

    You were just putting together that kindness story when I interviewed you last time.

    That’s right! I had just interviewed a girl who dresses objects in wool. So yeah mate, they’re the ones, those five. They responded mostly to the “Home Is Where the Hurt Is,” the domestic violence one. And Anna Bligh. Oh, they said kind things about all of them but probably mainly that one that really broke through this year, which is great. It’s such an important topic and really close to my heart. It’s a great thing.

    Anyway – yeah. I feel like such a dick…

    I don’t want to talk about any of those stories. I want to talk about “Story of a Teenage Boy” and “Story of a Teenage Girl”. I want to talk about the mechanics of how you write things, as well as how the stories came to be. We’ll start with – how did you find Casey?

    Here’s the brilliance of always hanging out with work-experience people, because they make you seem like you’re a bit nicer than you probably are. It was really a handy thing, that we had this wonderful work-experience girl with us, Rose, who’s just out of high school or university, or something. She was with me on the day and we were just walking around talking to potential people who could be the teenager. We were walking through Queen Street Mall.

    It was very difficult to find in the sense that I had to find someone who… maybe a lot of kids might be up for it, but then you had to convince their parents. Basically I said, “I want to do this story where I spend time with you, and you share with me every last thing that’s on your mind, your hopes and fears, your dreams and your worries, and what drives you, and where you want to be, and what’s it like to be a teenager.”

    Eventually, after asking several people, this amazing guy Casey said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and I said, “I’ve got to ask your mum,” because he was 15. Then he said, “No worries. Here’s my number.” I called his mum and thankfully she had read “Story of A Man” and “Story of a Woman” and she knew I wasn’t a complete crackpot, and that I was trying to do something worthwhile and something that would hopefully give some insight to people, and be done in the sort of way that won’t be exploitative or going to be a horrible experience for the family.

    She said “yes”, and so from there we spent all this time together. The mum welcomed me into her home, basically, and said, “Yeah, you can come around at 6am and watch as our family has breakfast, and be there just documenting in the corner what people do.” [laughs]

    Is that weird?

    Well yes, it is, but I’ll tell you about my next big… I’m very excited… no, I won’t let it out of the bag. What I just said leads into that idea of the anthropological study really driving where I want to… hopefully, the story I want to do next, which is going to be really exciting.

    We’ll talk about Casey to start with. You start the story by saying “he’s afraid of two things”, and then you list a bunch of his traits and characteristics. Was that the first intro you came up with, or did you try a few things?

    No, these sorts of stories in particular have always been riffing on a whole bunch of intros. I don’t normally spend that much time but these ones I really spent a lot of time on. I don’t think that was my first. I knew I wanted to get in there something about his fears, so hopefully the reader would be mums and dads; looking at the readership going, “Well, the readership is going to be these certain types of people.” You want to get them in, hopefully, by saying something like, “here is an insight into what fear a teenage kid in Queensland might be feeling”.

    But I think I was going to go with more of a “here we are”-type thing; something that detailed, gave context, some contextual sort of introduction. Something about the smell of his room; everyone can connect with the smell of a teenager’s room, and that sort of thing, and the fact that it was 6am so we’re basically waking up with this kid. Then I thought, “no, let’s get to the heart of it really quickly.”

    And that whole line was just all about the livewire brains of a teenager. “Man, I’m really scared of spiders, but I’m also really scared about my future,” this big thing. “I’m only scared of spiders and my future” – yeah, right. Fucking massive, ‘the future’, that’s what it was all about. It was also trying to be empathetic as well, sort of saying, “I’m with you man, because the future scares me as well, it scares everybody.” It probably scares a teenager even more.

    That’s why I chose that. Then that leads into all those traits, a throwback to the style of “Story of a Man,” “Story of a Woman” which was all just… these ones were much more “this happened, and then this happened”. But the “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman” were really just all about their character. I was really trying to tap into, or get a bit of the guy’s character.

    That’s classic screenwriting sort of stuff. The first 15 minutes of the film will offer you a little insight into your character so you know either you’re really rooting for this character, or you’ve already worked out their… you don’t like the character or you do, but either way you’ve invested some sort of emotion in him pretty early. That was the idea about writing all those traits.

    I sound like a wanker. I feel like a dick talking about my stupid magazine story.

    You’re not allowed to say that anymore, because this whole thing is about you. Relax!

    [laughs]

    I’m not sure if it happened this way, but the way this story appears, you’re spending a Saturday with Casey. Why a Saturday, as opposed to a school day?

    As you know, getting access to schools is really difficult. It could have been done, but I just knew I wasn’t going to get the access to him that I needed for the piece if I had done it on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday because it was just going to be… “okay, he gets up, goes to school.” It would have been great if I could have sat in the classes right with him and been right next door to him every time, but I think that would have made him a bit uncomfortable, as well as I couldn’t imagine the Queensland Government giving me the okay. I would have had to have written probably 300 emails that would have gone back and forth to allow that to happen.

    In the end, it was a matter of speaking to his mum and saying, “Look, can I just hang out on a Saturday?” when a kid actually does do stuff. Like you know the school day goes from… school’s very interesting. That’s another whole world I’d love to explore one day, but that Saturday; all I said was, “is there a time in the near future when you’re doing something with your friends?” He just went “Yeah, two Saturdays from now we’re all going to the mall.” I went “Okay great, that’ll be perfect,” and then we’ll just track that from start to finish.

    Then also one or two catch-ups around that, so you get to know him as well, but then focusing on that day, if that makes sense, using a couple of different days, and sort of knowing the guy. We had a good discussion when we first caught up, but then I realised this was going to be the day; ‘showtime day’. As it turned out, he had a fairly interesting day, for him, coming from Wamuran [a town near Caboolture].

    He doesn’t always go into the city, certainly not as much as the girl did. It was a pretty big thing him and his mates going to the city… well, not a big thing, but maybe a once-in-a-month thing. That’s how it came to be on a Saturday. And just the given thing that his parents would be home as well. His dad usually worked, but it just worked out pretty well on a Saturday. People are a bit freer and fun. Weekend work is always really good because everyone is appreciative of the fact that everyone’s out on their weekend, and just a bit more relaxed.

    You’ve got a few good lines about his mum in there. “She lets him know she loves him by telling him she loves him.” That’s a fucking great line. There’s also a line about, “she loves him so much that whenever she thinks of seeing his face for the first time, she bursts into tears”. That’s really nice.

    Yeah, and I guess that all just comes from, again, the beauty of arriving somewhere at 6am, and you’re there. Can you imagine a kitchen in those early hours? A mum in a kitchen; it’s just a really safe space. It’s a beautiful spot to have a chat to any mum. So you’re there and she’s just in her own kitchen. She’s thinking about her boy. It’s a really wonderful place, and then she gets teary when she mentions him.

    A question I’ll often ask people, “Do you remember the first time you saw his face?” That’s always an emotional space to go to. It’s a beautiful thing to talk about. I remember the first time I saw my kids’ faces. I’m sure it was going to be the same for her, and then that was a beautiful moment.

    Then you’re just getting the insight into the deep, deep love that she has for this boy. Then he comes out [of his room], and he’s just this 15, 16-year old boy who’s just a knockabout sort of guy. She’s in this space of “he’s an angel,” so it’s a really great thing to see. That wonderful thing that a teenager has no idea how much their parents are just totally in love with them, and just worship them. They have no concept of that. I mean, they have a concept of it but it was just perfect. In this kitchen she had tears in her eyes, and he’s just going “Oh, they’re all right.” It was just great juxtaposition.

    His father Warren gave you and Casey a lift to the train station. You glossed over that a bit in the story. Was there a reason behind that?

    There just wasn’t much happening, for one thing. It was probably a lot more talk about practicalities, like, “Have you got my number in your phone?” and all that sort of stuff. I guess it’s also timeframes. [pause] A lot happened in that conversation that maybe came out later on in the piece. You go with trying to take the most important things.

    It was partly on that trip that Casey started talking about this time he came home drunk, and I think it was sort of a sensitive area. I was consciously trying not to make his parents look like they’d ever done anything wrong. I can’t even remember what was exactly said in that conversation, but it was more riffing on their sort of fear, their terror, at seeing their son come home pissed, and then he passed out.

    It was glossed over, and you could write about a 4,000 word story on any father and son, taking a trip somewhere. I think I probably should have, but it was more I wanted to get to those friends pretty quickly, and really keep it about Casey, not so much be a father-and-son relationship. I don’t know, but Warren was cool.

    He didn’t really know what I was about, just going, “What? Why the hell are you following my son around?” I’m sitting in the backseat of his car taking notes. [laughs] He’s this earthmover, sort of ‘tough dad’ type guy. He’s driving his son, this really great loving father, just trying to get the best for his son. He was constantly befuddled at why this journo would want to do it.

    The mum really understood and was like, “Yeah, I can see,” because she had read those pieces she was like, “I know exactly where you’re coming from.” As has been the case with these, there’s great trepidation there, but they always say, “I think what you’re trying to do is probably worthy, or worth it if it adds national insight into our teenagers”. I think that’s where the mum and dad were coming from, and God bless them. They were so wonderful. He was cool, the dad.

    In the end, after a while he sort of ignored me, forgot I was there, which was really cool. That was the whole idea, that he’d just be going “All right, back by 2pm,” and he’d go “Yeah, yeah,” and pops out of the car. He maybe gave him a “yes Dad,” and that was it. It was a funny dynamic to see that. There’s probably another great story in there between fathers and sons that I probably should have dwelled on a bit more. Anyway. [laughs]

    There’s a lot of Casey’s language in this story. Is that important to you?

    Totally. That was the big thing I love about teenagers now, and I’ve always loved about teenagers – they’re creating their own words, and creating their own dialogue, and having their own little language. I think that’s such a special part of being youthful. I think it’s so brilliant and something that we all… I feel like I’m so far removed from, even though I’m 32, but I feel so far removed from all the things that he was saying. I had my own language with my friends at that age, but I thought that was brilliant.

    From my anthropological journalism style stuff, this is magic. I kept going, “what does that mean? What’s that?” And also – I couldn’t keep up. My notepad couldn’t keep up. I was just going, “Man, gotta get all this stuff.” It was gold firing out of their lips and I only got probably half of the great stuff. You speak to any teenager, and they’re just invigorated.

    Casey and all his friends were just amazing. There were some classic moments I had to leave out because I didn’t want to bring myself into it. But for example, when I turned up at the train station… one of the girls looks me up and down and goes, “Ugh, you soooo need some Vans.” [laughs] It was just stuff like that. Then one of the boys told me that he was going to meet these two girls, Danielle and Beth, so when he introduced me I said, “You must be Beth.” It wasn’t Beth, it was Danielle. She goes, “Are you kidding me? I would never, in my life be called Beth.” I said, “Oh, that’s funny, because that’s my daughter’s name.” [laughs] She was mortified, but it was a great little ice breaker.

    No one quite knew what I was doing hanging around this guy. But Casey knew where I was at, and he thought it was kind of cool that he had this guy following around documenting and asking him about every aspect of his life as well. Then in the end the girls found it cool as well, so they were going, “Casey does this,” and, “you’ve got to know this about Casey,” and all that sort of stuff.

    On that train trip, you’ve got the old ladies, Bev and Shirley, who are “staring at the group like they might regard a Reeperbahn burlesque show”. Did you consider speaking to them, or were you happy to let them sit in their own world?

    Maybe in a different story… like, I’ve been following around Campbell Newman a lot lately for a story I’m doing down the track. Everywhere you go, you have periphery people that you’re constantly asking, “What do you make of Campbell Newman? What do you think about this policy?” With Casey, this was telling his story. Casey doesn’t care what Bev and Shirley think. They’re not even on his radar, and that was partly the point of me not going there. These people, you see them on the train, and they don’t even know, or care.

    That’s what I love about it. In the girl’s story in particular… I love her so much in the fact that she does not give a shit. All four kids on that train didn’t give a shit either. They’re just talking loud and they have no concept of, “Gee, I better not talk too loud because Bev and Shirley might …” They were just curious. I kept on looking at them. It was priceless. They had the name tags “Bev,” “Shirley.” Even their names were clichéd. It was brilliant.

    They had these amazing outfits like they were going to the races. [laughs] Casey and his friends represented the complete opposite to where they were heading on that train, but yet Casey was in this exciting place, heading into the future. The world’s going past outside, and it was such a great little moment. I just loved that.

    [quoting the story] “A look of bewilderment on Bev’s face, as this alien world rushes by in blurs of green and gun-metal grey.”

    Cool, man. [laughs] Thanks man! That’s great. Just that whole concept of: Casey’s going one way and not really realising that he’s heading somewhere, he doesn’t know where it’s going. That was the thing about the whole piece, too. A teenager is going somewhere really, really fast, but not really knowing where. That’s really exciting.

    Bev and Shirley know exactly where they’re at. That’s beautiful, too, but it was this great thing to have them side by side, these two generations. And Casey and his friends were being so oblivious, to the point where they’d be dancing and singing songs, and throwing out F-bombs, not even realising there were two women over there going, “God, who are these creatures?” That classic generational difference, it was right there.

    Where were you? If they were sitting in the four train seats, the four teenagers, where were you sitting?

    Where you hop onto a train, turn right, and the first place you sit down; you know, the two-seaters? That one there. Bev and Shirley were diagonally across from them. Casey probably could’ve seen them. Casey had his back turned, but his mate Jade could’ve seen them. He was aware of them, but I guess the two friends, Casey and one of the girls, they were just… it was them probably most of all who were completely oblivious.

    That’s what I was doing. I was just there and I was taking notes. They were having the most amazing conversation over an hour’s journey from Caboolture to the city. It was a really great get-to-know-you period, really cover a lot of territory, and get a lot of chatting out of the way, and get to know why they were going into town and who Casey was, and stuff about their teachers, and all that.

    The whole point was just being fly-on-the-wall as well, and not probing them too much because, in the end, they are 15-year olds. You don’t want to be going too weird, too in-depth, or giving them a hard time. It was more presenting the reader with this moment, taking it and going, “This is what I saw.” It’s classic, “this is it; this is all I saw. I’m not even commenting. This is just what I saw.”

    At different points they do discuss drugs, divorce, and cyber-bullying. Casey said, “I’m not sure why any 15-year old would want to kill themselves”. Did they just come naturally, or were they prompted by you?

    No, those were prompted by me. Those sorts of topics aren’t even on their radar. I asked those questions because I knew somewhere along the line, in any sort of conversation with a teenager or in-depth piece on teenage life, you probably should ask those questions. Though I guess parents worry about it more. Honestly, they were almost like, “Man, why are you even asking that?” They’re that cool with themselves, they’re that together, that they were like, “yeah, whatever, drugs.” They were so savvy that it was like yesterday’s news. And the whole suicide thing too, which terrifies me, and cyber-bullying and all that stuff is wrapped up in that whole horrifying end of suicide.

    I remember getting all serious and tense, like “Let’s talk about some issues.” And they glossed over the heavier stuff in a matter of 30 seconds. It was like, the stuff that mattered to them was actual grief. Then Casey brought up his mate who died. I guess the whole heaviness of a topic like that led to another interesting place; here’s a young man dealing with the total weirdness of losing a friend. I found that fascinating, how he was dealing with that.

    That went to a whole different place as well. It was cool, that whole side of it. All those things were prompted by me. Particularly drugs and suicide; they weren’t even going there. They’re just interesting. They had this complete need for entertainment, in many forms. “Look, there’s a guy there picking his nose with a straw! Great!” And then that filled them up for a bit. [laughs] Then they were bored, then… “Oh man, look at this freakin’ King Kong outfit!” That fills them up for a bit. It was this constant need, like those computer game energy bars of excitement. It would go down, something would happen, and it’d be back up. It was really great to see that.

    There’s this line where Casey says, “I just wish mum and dad knew that I was going to be okay.” Was that prompted by you?

    No. I thought that was such a great line. That was when we were talking with his mate. It’s so great to have a mate of his around to make him feel comfortable about talking, so he’s not just… it was almost said towards his mate, almost like “Don’t you just wish they knew we were all okay?” I thought that was so great and such a meaningful thing for any parent. You know how we worry. You put so much pressure on them, and so much stuff. You bring so much of your own stuff to [parenting]. I think that’s what he was sort of talking about.

    He’s got this super-loving mum who’s constantly telling him, “I love you,” and constantly asking all about his life. But he was just saying, “I just wish she knew I’d be okay, and that everything’s going to be all right.” Basically he was saying, “I’m not going to do anything stupid.” He was almost saying, “I’m not planning on doing anything crazy.” I thought that was a great little moment I wanted to definitely get in there somewhere.

    It came up in a conversation about… I remember asking a few times this question, like, “what do you wish your parents knew?”, and maybe that’s where it came out. That sounds like it was prompted. But I think it was in an overall discussion, like, “Sometimes they don’t get you, but what do you wish they knew?” Maybe it’s easier, sometimes, telling a guy with a recorder than it is to tell mum. I don’t know. It was cool, that one.

    It’s at this point, where you’re at the photo booth with them, that I first realised that you’re invisible in the piece. You’re not there at all. Now that I think about it, I think that’s the case for “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman”, as well – you were invisible.

    Yeah.

    So that was a conscious choice?

    Definitely. I’m the first person to put myself in the piece; I’m the biggest egomaniac frickin’ idiot journo. I don’t know, I hate it about myself that sometimes I go, “I’m going to put myself in here.” But I only do that when I feel like it’s necessary and that it adds something to the piece. This was totally all about them and it was all about being, as you say, invisible, and just seeing these magic moments, going “I’m not here,” and hopefully getting to the point where they feel like I’m not here.

    At that photo booth, maybe four hours had passed by that time, and then they really felt like I wasn’t there. I’d gotten boring. “We’re over that, there’s other things, let’s go to photo booth and get some pictures.”

    Then this incredible moment happens where they’re talking about, “should we put ‘best friends’ on the caption?” You’re documenting these interactions, and this wonderful moment in any teenager’s life where you’re weighing up your friends. Beth had asked, “should we put ‘best friends?’” I remember that feeling. “Am I your best friend?” I remember that whole concept, that beautiful thing between relationships between teenagers. You never quite know where you stand.

    Then Casey, that beautiful kid, I just love that kid so much, he made her feel so good and goes, “hells yeah!” or whatever he said. It was just an amazing response, like “yeah, of course.” Just a brilliant… the wisdom of him knowing what she was trying to ask. But to be so cool about it. It was such a great moment and such a rare thing to see those little moments.

    If you just passed by that moment, you’d have no idea what was going on, but the journalist has that… this is the great thing about feature writing. You spend time with these people and understand what’s going on. One little moment becomes huge and can be significant. I thought it was so beautiful. Probably my favourite part of the whole piece, that there.

    So you spent that Saturday with him, and there was about a month gap between that time and the school holidays, I think.

    Yeah, and that was purely because I felt I wanted to get even just a little bit more insight, just a bit more. I didn’t want to end it in the mall again because I knew the girl one was going to be very mall-centred. I called his mum up again…[laughs] And asked them to go through it all again and we did it. We went back and I went over in the early hours of the morning and spent more time with him.

    That’s always the best thing you could ever do – go back. I strongly recommend that. Leisa Scott, who writes for Qweekend, told me that years ago: “always keep going back”. You learn more and more, and then by the time you come back next time they know you even more. Then you see even more insights.

    It was great; the best thing I ever did. One of his other best friends had been there, so I was getting even more insights. Even in the meantime, all these things had happened to him. He’d got a girlfriend and he’d had a party. All these things had happened, and it was getting closer towards the end of the year so he’s sort of… I remember in high school, any end-of-year time… he wasn’t even in his senior year, but you’re thinking about where you’re going, or even in grade 11 you might have to start making those decisions about what you’re going to do, and all that sort of stuff.

    When I came back, he was a different sort of guy, almost. He was a little bit more weighed down by a few more worries, bizarrely, even in that short timeframe. I really got that feeling. He was answering really honestly. It was so cool to do that, he was going, “I’m worried about…” And then he started… that’s probably my favourite bit in the piece, when he starts talking about, “I think I’m really good at English, you know? I think I could do something in English.” I just thought that was so cool, this kid trying to figure out in his head space, “where am I going,” but also trying to work out that inside him, there’s a whole world of possibility, and trying to grapple with that.

    What did you advise him when he said he wanted to go into creative writing? You wrote, “Like any writer worth the title, he’s curious about life and the people around him.”

    Yeah, well I had said, “Man, you’ll be brilliant. You’d be amazing. You’ve got enthusiasm, you’ve got drive, and you love words. You’ve got a great nature.” I said, “If you’re thinking about it, you should completely do it.” I totally said, “Whenever you decide to, give me a call at The Courier-Mail,” because he was such a great guy. I basically said, “Yeah, come into the office and I’ll show you around,” or something like that. I was really trying to go, “If you’re thinking about that, go for it and chase your dreams.”

    I don’t want to sound like too much of a tosser, but he really mirrored my life in many ways. I grew up in Bracken Ridge, which was not far from Caboolture, where he grew up. It was that idea of, in that sort of world you’re knocking around with mates and stuff. No one’s really ever talking about writing, and things like those sorts of ‘cultural pursuits’. A guy like him, he was still thinking, “I think I could do it,” so I wanted to say, “you could do it, and you could do it really well.”

    That really inspired me, from a writer’s perspective. I was so pumped that he was into writing. I was going, “Yeah, you’re really good!” That stuff I said in the piece later on about, “It’s the reason why you’re so good with your friends and you’re so good with those girls; they love you so much because you’re a great listener and you care.” I was just watching this kid. He had all this stuff that makes a great writer and he had time for people. I was like “You should do it.”

    I really made a point of even writing that, but also that whole… there’s something great about that and I’ve always loved this in teenage movies and stuff, where someone’s battling with their family history. Maybe there’s a long line of Tunkses who used their hands and worked in trades and stuff like that, and done very well, but he’s sort of going, “Maybe I could step out.” I love that.

    It was a hard one to put in where he said, “I hope I don’t just become another Tunks,” because I was worried about writing that and saying would that be an insult to his wonderful family. But I still put it in because it was more of an insight into him saying, “I just want to do something different. I want to become my own man.” I thought that was wonderful to hear a 15-year old kid say that sort of stuff, to be there for those sorts of insights. Cool kid. I’ve really got so much time for him. He’s really a wonderful guy.

    Did you ever get to see them de-stressing, with the life jackets and the exercise ball [which they referred to in the story]?

    Oh no, I didn’t! That was him and his mate. They’re going, “Man, we do this thing. Now we’re about to do it.” I think it rained. They went out on the go-kart and it started raining or something, and they decided not to do it. They were going to go do it. They were going to go stand there with those life jackets and then the exercise ball comes down and hits them. It would’ve been hilarious. I decided as far as activities go, the go-kart was a much more symbolic sort of thing, about movement and taking chances. I went with that.

    He offered to introduce you to his Nanna. Do you think that was a sign of trust for him at that point?

    Yeah, definitely. That was when I came through on the second visit. After spending a couple of hours with him that morning, and then him going, “come meet Nanna,” it was totally natural, like when you’re around a mate’s house – especially when you’re in high school – you end up doing all sorts of crazy stuff. You go around someone’s house, you go meet Uncle Joe and then you find yourself in the back of a ute, or whatever.

    It just reminded me of a high school visit to a friend’s house. “Oh, let’s go get a go-kart.” “I’ll just go say g’day to Nanna. I guess that you’re with me, so yeah, you come along too.” That was brilliant too, because you get to peel back more and more layers of this guy’s personality, this guy’s life. Seeing this other wonderful side of him that loves his Nanna dearly and she loves him. It was great, really good moment.

    And just texture-wise, you constantly want to have all these different people, whether they’re speaking to or not, but just places to go. That’s great in a feature article, different places.

    You’ve got this line about going to Warren’s shed where there’s “a calendar showing 12 months of buxom women in togs.” Why did you use the word ‘togs’? That cracked me up when I read that. You hardly ever see ‘togs’, it’s such a Queensland term.

    [laughs] I think it was because that’s how I remembered it. I think it hadn’t been taken down since 1987, back when women were wearing a full one-piece tog. Not even so much like a bikini. I don’t know, I think that’s maybe why I said togs, as opposed to… what would you call it?

    Swimsuit?

    Swimsuit, yeah! Togs… I dunno. It’s such a hokey term isn’t it? [laughs]

    Based on what you’ve told me – with the momentum of the piece, and Casey going somewhere, but he doesn’t know where – it feels like you had to end it on the go-kart jump. A freeze-frame picture.

    Totally. And what eventually did happen was, he landed heavily. His mate hops in the thing and then we went and rode some horses or something. He got a horse out. But you’ve got to think, “where’s the best, most lyrical, amazing place that says everything?” I really thought hard about that. I thought, “I can, being the writer, end this anywhere I like.” I thought, “well, let’s just take it right up to there.” I thought “Wow, that’s so Casey.” Everything’s up in the air and everything… I thought, symbolically, that was just magic.

    I admired him for even doing it. It was insane, what he was doing. I was going, “I shouldn’t even be around for this.” I was just going, “Nah, this is really bad. If something happens here…” There were no adults around at that time, and I remember just thinking, “Nah, this is probably wrong that I should be party to this, that these guys are doing these crazy jumps on this go-kart.” That’s magic, too, and that’s the balls of a teenage kid that I really wanted to get in there as well. It was all about – “man, don’t lose that.”

    I was constantly thinking, all the way through, how I’ve probably lost that. I used to do crazy stuff all the time but sadly, you get married, you have kids, and you go, “No, I better not do that crazy thing.”

    The end scene is like the great endings of a million different movies. I just loved that; he’s there, mid-air, and the outcome’s his. The rest of the story is only his, like, “we’ve been looking into it, and now we’ve stopped now. I’ve stopped now. The rest is his journey.” That’s what I’m trying to say.

    Did he ask you much about the mechanics of your job, or your approach to the story during the whole process?

    No. He totally couldn’t care less. It was so funny and so amazing… the girl was even moreso. Particularly with Chloee, it was like “Of course you want to come!” It was that great Gen-Y or Gen… I don’t know, are they still Gen-Y? I don’t know, they’re probably something earlier… but Gen-Y, that great, “Yeah, fuckin’ oath man, cover my life story, great! It’s fascinating, my world’s awesome!” It was like, “I don’t care how you tell it, or what you need from me.” It was just, “Come along for the ride, man, and strap in.” It was really funny.

    Even after the story, it took a long time between the story, me actually doing it and then it actually running. It took a long time. Casey didn’t care. I’d call up every now and then and go, “Mate, that story, it’s going to run, the dates got shifted and all this stuff – but it’s going to run.” He was like, “Yeah, whatever, no worries.” He’s just living his life! It’s this heavy thing on my mind, but he couldn’t give a shit. It was brilliant. It was so them, for both of them, they’re like, “yeah, whatever, no worries.” It was funny.

    Were you happy with him as a subject? Did he give you enough; could you have asked more?

    No I couldn’t have, in terms of… this is the big thing, and I’ll probably tap into this more about the girl, which got a hammering. It got smashed. It copped a pasting. The intention was, whoever said yes [out of the teenagers], just cover it, and that would be it. That is the idea, similar to the way “Story of a Man” and “Story of a Woman” were just about random people. The big thing was, I never wanted it to be like, “Here’s Qweekend, coming along and telling you, the reader, what it is to be a teenager these days.” But what we’re doing is, “here’s this teenager, this one guy, and this is his story. Take from that what you will.” In that sense, he was brilliant, in terms of showing me his life, his story, and giving me access into his life. He was amazing.

    He still gave me everything I’d hoped for and more, he was an amazing kid, but as far as what it is to be a teenager, he didn’t really dwell on because he’s almost too cool for that. He was just like “I’m moving so fast, I don’t even have the time to think about what being a teenager means to me.” So the whole process of him was a snapshot, and it was movement and capturing that.

    In answer to the question, he totally gave me that and more. He was amazing, but maybe not what other people wanted, like if you’d come to read the story you might go, “Oh, I wanted to know more about what teenagers think about politics,” or all that sort of stuff. With the girl story, a colleague of mine said, “I love that piece you did on the girl, but I wish you did more insight. I wish you sort of showed more of your own analysis,” she said. I was just going, “Yeah, but that wasn’t my intention.” It wasn’t me bringing my thoughts on teenagers, or commenting or judging, or anything like that.

    So – the story ran eventually. What kind of feedback did you get from Casey and his family?

    Um… [pause]

    Have you spoken to them?

    Nah, I haven’t. I’ve sent them massive letters, and magazines, and that’s it. They either were…

    Shocked?

    Or… it happens all the time. You send them the mags, and go, “Thank you so much, and the family moves on.” You just go – that’s it. It’s an interesting sort of discussion. You go, “Do I keep probing them, and asking ‘how’re you going?’” and all that sort of stuff, and take it to the level, or… yeah. So my thing was, “mate, thank you so much.” I wrote this big letter saying, “Give me a call at The Courier-Mail when you graduate,” and all that sort of stuff. We sent him magazines, and did up a disc of images; every photo that we took. We were like, “Okay, we’ll get out of your lives now.” I tend to leave my card, and say, “If you want to call me, please don’t hesitate to call.” But I don’t want to keep hassling them, you know? It’s always a strange sort of thing.

    But I should probably… I’d love to catch up with him again. I basically said to him, if he wants to catch up, come in anytime. I’ve left it up to him. It’s an interesting one.

    I called Chloee, because I was a bit more worried about her as she revealed a bit more stuff. I called her, and she was really cool, and tough as nails, which is great. But the whole thing, the whole stories never sit easy with me. You’re putting these people’s lives out into a magazine. With Chloee in particular… Casey’s life was pretty straightforward, but Chloee’s was really an eye-opening insight into her life, so that was a whole different story. And also, you call them up to let them know the feedback. I did that with Casey, too. I sent him a whole bunch of feedback from people, saying, “You’re the most amazing, inspiring kid, and you’re parents should be so proud.” That kind of stuff. We make sure we keep all those letters in there.

    With Chloee, it was more like – “We’ve had great letters, and we’ve had really bad letters.” My whole thing with her was more to call her up and say, “You are an amazing teenager, and don’t let anyone ever change or stop your drive, or individuality. Keep being interested, and curious.” It was that sort of conversation. It’s that area of reaction that you always worry about, because when they come to that moment of seeing themselves in a magazine – it’s not easy.

    With Chloee, was it the same process of finding her?

    Yep, same process. Much quicker, in the sense that, like I said before, she was more like – “Cool, that’ll be awesome!” Sort of sensing something ‘rock and roll’ to it all. She was right into everything that it was about: a raw account of a teenager’s life. She was going, “Yep, this’ll be brilliant.” She gave me her dad’s number. I called him, and explained what it’d be, and asked, “How do you feel about that?” He thought about it, and said, “You know what? I would like her story to be told.” Because, he was saying, he wanted people to get an insight into what it is to be a single dad in charge of a teenager, and what it’s like to be a parent.

    That’s brave on his part.

    Very brave. I mean, it’s very brave of anyone to put their faith in a journalist, it really is. Jeff is an amazing guy; I take my hat off to that man. He’s an amazing father, and I tried to get that in there. Chloee sort of realises it. There were elements in there of the sacrifices he was making as a dad, and I really tried to get that in there, as well. How much of that came across, I don’t know. It might get overshadowed by the other stuff. It’s tough. It was a really tough one, Chloee’s story, in terms of – what do you write in? What do you keep out? And there was a lot of stuff that I kept out. It was a funny process, that one.

    You basically walked into a relationship deteriorating; Angela was in the process of leaving Jeff. Was that awkward for you?

    Yeah. She was so good about it. But it was an amazing time to start the morning. It was also a great insight into Chloee. Angela just went, “Actually, I’m leaving.” You go, “Can I interview you?” She said ‘yeah’, so you sit there interviewing this woman. It was amazing to capture this relationship in a state of flux, and get an insight into the dynamics between Chloee and Angela, but also the dynamics between her home life and her city life, which were completely different things. It was fascinating. Journalistically, it was an interesting moment to turn up at her house.

    You open this one with Chloee’s language; “A boring home on a boring street, in a boring suburb”.

    Yeah – “douche”, and all that.

    “Douche newsreader reading douche morning news.”

    Yeah. That was more just language stuff. I love their language. I hope, though, it didn’t seem too cynical, like I was the cynical journo yet again paying out on a nihilistic teenager. That wasn’t the intention. It was more just going – ‘this is the world you’re about to get into’. It was stepping briefly into her mind, going, “This is Mt Gravatt to me.” And it’s true; Mt Gravatt is so anything but where Chloee’s at in her mind, and I loved that. When we were walking down the street, she lights a fag as we walk out of the house. This street is just total Leave It To Beaver. She’s blowing smoke, and I said something like, “What do you make of this place?”. She just goes, [exhales] “It’s fucked.” And then she’s looking around, and there’s nothing about that street that had any connection for her at all. She wasn’t even acknowledging anything around her. She was totally in her mind, or in her phone.

    Were you working on the two pieces in tandem?

    They were in tandem, because I had to get them done at the same time. They were always going to be back-to-back, so you have to get the ball rolling on one. That helped in terms of where I took the two pieces, too. You go, “I can set this one here, and go over here to keep [Casey] away from the Queen Street Mall.” But they were written in separate chunks. As it turned out, I had to overlap Casey after I’d written Chloee, because I had to go back to Casey and get more. After Chloee, I knew that there was definitely more than enough, to the point where there was so much that I had to leave out. I knew that it’d definitely sustain a full piece, from start to finish, about her day.

    They’re wildly different kids; Casey’s clean-cut, and Chloee’s pretty rough. Did you notice any similarities between the two?

    Yeah, definitely. They sort of mirrored each other in the key sense of not knowing where they’re going. They’re not conscious of… ah, no, that’s not fair on Casey. Probably just that key factor of not knowing where they’re going, and trying to find their way, and sort out where they fit in 21st century life in Queensland. That was a common thread. And the sheer influence of friends on them, or how much friends play a massive part in their lives. Their whole worlds revolve around their friends. Everyone remembers that. So those were the two big things – the bonds they had with their friends, which were tighter than brotherhood and sisterhood.

    You left a fair bit of space for Angela’s views toward Jeff, in particular, but you didn’t really have a rebuttal from him in there. Did you hesitate before doing that?

    Oh, that’s only because she was there at the time. These whole pieces were – “this happens, this happens, this happens”. I could’ve had Jeff, but there was nowhere to put him back in, because I had to talk to each person… I was thinking about having Jeff at the end, because at the end of the day, I called Jeff and said, “Listen mate, she’s still in the city, she’s OK,” and I was going to have that conversation, and there it would’ve been OK. But then it’s never… I don’t know. I just don’t like dropping quotes in somewhere, you know what I mean? Taking it out of context, and bringing in some quote that I’ve gotten down the track. I really enjoy just talking about whatever happens there. And that leaves me out of it, again.

    I could go, “Jeff, what do you think about that? Angela said this about you…” But I’m just telling what I see. I have a moral issue with the whole process of feature writing anyway, so it makes it a bit easier on my conscious if I go, “This is what happened,” and I leave any judgments or anything from me completely out of it. It is what it is. If people take things from it, they can. If they take a bad thing from it, that’s fine. That’s the only real thing about it; it’s genuine reportage, going, “Here’s this moment – this is what I saw.”

    The bit where Chloee is getting ready, and says, “I’m going to cake my face to the shithouse” – did you learn a bit about make-up and piercings?

    Oh, totally. I don’t know whether she was intentionally trying to. It was so cool, because I knew that that sort of stuff would come into it. I really want to do that, and god bless that girl, because she was like, “Yeah, of course, come in!” to her bathroom, and watch a teenager getting ready. I totally learned terms that I never knew. I’m so out of date; I’m out of touch. Different piercings, make-up, hairstyles, hair dyes, bandannas… a million different things. Such an insight, you know? That was the stuff that I was most fascinated with, and it probably came through in the piece. Constant references to – “this guy’s got this,” and “this guy’s using his headphones as a belt”, and this other guy who had a shirt saying, “drop dead”. I don’t know whether it was a band, or… it was like, “Are you just telling people to drop dead? Brilliant!”

    I loved that whole teenage life. It was that whole emo scene life, but it was also fascinating from a fashion sense, too. The most interesting thing to me, for the whole thing, was that it wasn’t about the foul mouths, and some of the perhaps-horrible things that they do to people, but it was all just the lingo, and the atmosphere, and the way that they interact with each other. That’s beautiful stuff, from a feature-writing perspective.

    There’s a bit of you in this one. You ask questions, like: “I ask…”

    That’s true. I’m always puzzled by this: how do you get to somewhere deep in a story, to bring it somewhere, without bringing yourself in there? So that goes against what I said earlier. I tried very hard not to, but there were some places where it had to be in there, where she was talking about her father, or where I had to ask her about her terms. Like ‘FOBS’ – “fresh off the boat” – which I’ve since learned is a fairly common term. But I guess it’s a way, in that sense, to talk about an intimate discussion. I really wanted it to get to that point where I asked, “What was the saddest moment of your life?” I wanted to get to that point where she said, “When my mum left Brisbane,” because that says something about her and I wanted to bring it up. It was hard to get there without going to some discussion… if you want to get there quickly, that’s all that is, actually. A really quick way is to just go, “I ask.” It sucks a bit, and maybe it’s a bit lame, but I don’t mind if it’s a little bit personal.

    Or if you can picture the subject and the journalist in the back of a bus, having a little quiet – well, not so quiet, because her radio was blasting out – but having a little discussion between ourselves. It’s personal. Saying, “I ask” is almost like ‘the reader asks’. I don’t know; that’s probably why.

    Tell me about that scene, where Chloee is playing the iPod out loud. Was that extremely awkward for you?

    Yeah, it was. It really was. There were some really awkward moments on both of these stories, because people are looking over at me, going “Why…” [interrupts himself] Oh, this came into it constantly in this piece, though; the girl, in particular. Later on, awkward wasn’t the word. I’d be hanging out with these kids who were just letting people have it on the street, yelling out, and I’d be standing there next to them… It was just so funny. People would look at me and think, “Why are you standing there, being party to this sort of behaviour?”

    On the bus, I could see this woman in a business suit come in and sit down. Chloee was completely oblivious. They just don’t care. It’s not that they’re trying to be smartarses or attention-seekers; they’re just completely oblivious to the fact that their behaviour is being slightly rude, or would be considered inappropriate. I just couldn’t believe it. She had the iPod, and just didn’t worry about it. Don’t worry about earphones. I don’t know whether she didn’t have any, or… maybe she was doing it for me, so I could jive to the song as well? All these classic emo songs ripping out from the back of the bus, and this woman constantly turning around, but Chloee’s just oblivious because she’s texting or on Facebook.

    Me, as a traveller, I’d pick up on that woman looking around in a second. Chloee – nup, no way. That woman was going to have to stop, turn around, and say, “Excuse me.” You can’t give subtle hints to our teenagers these days.

    After the bus, you get off in the city and she says, “I’m home.” The first quote from the next section is like, “Fuck you cunt, what kind of friend are you!”, when the guy is talking to his drug dealer on the phone.

    Yeah – “Fuck your arse then, cunt!

    You had to include that, obviously, because it’s what he said. Although I note the contrast between Casey’s piece, where there is no swearing, and Chloee’s, which is quite vulgar in that way.

    Yeah, it probably was. There was a great lesson in that. That really disgusted people, that teenage girl piece. It was a good lesson for me. You can go so far in the name of… “OK, this is the truth, this what was said,” but – are people ready to read that in print over their Saturday morning cornflakes? In the end, probably not, but I still totally believe, and I’m so grateful we did keep them in there. I know Matt [Condon], my editor, would’ve had to probably fight to keep them. I think there were discussions about how many F-bombs we’d keep in there. Funnily enough, originally I had no ‘dot dot dots’ [censorship] in F-words. I thought, “Nah, let’s just put it all out there!”

    That was never gonna fly!

    Nah, exactly. [laughs] But the whole point was – hey, this is reality. They have incredibly foul mouths. But not in a way that they’re trying to be foulmouthed or anything; that is just the way it is. When they talk, they throw in a bunch of swear words. And that guy’s disappointment; that’s how he showed his disappointment about not being able to get on: “Fuck your arse then, cunt!” I thought that was very strong, interesting language.

    But, in hindsight, when I’m dealing with a teenager next… readers simply don’t like that stuff. Maybe I put too much in there. Maybe it was overkill, and people just went, “Nah, I’m just getting a bit more repulsed by this than I am…” Not inspired, because I didn’t want them to be inspired, but enlightened.

    So that’s a terrible thing. That’s not working. That’s a real mistake… I don’t know if it’s a mistake. But then again, some people who read it wrote, “That was the most insightful one you’ve done yet,” so you just go… you’ve got to try and weigh that up. I was just trying to keep true to… like I said before, if I just say what happened, then that’s all I hopefully have to do. But there’s probably places where it’s up to me to leave stuff out, too, for the benefit of the reader not getting repulsed.

    You had bits like the ‘fresh off boats’ thing, and “every group needs a token black guy”; the kinds of things that would probably offend the 50 year-old mother reading the magazine.

    Totally, yeah. And particularly the way they pay out on adults, the business world; successful people, basically. I found that interesting, but I think people took offence at that, more than anything. I found it interesting from a sense of, “This is how we’re viewed, or you’re viewed, by this particular person.” It gets back to that whole thing. I think people were repulsed and appalled by the piece in a sense…anyone who was appalled by it was disappointed that she was chosen out of all the many teenagers. But that was purely by chance. It was a random selection. But to do honesty to the piece, I had to put in all that stuff. “This is what she said.”

    You write about how, “The Scene is a cultural and emotional space and state of mind in the Queen Street Mall.” What was your knowledge or experience of The Scene before you were in there, talking to them?

    I’d had an indepth interview with an emo guy once. He was a brilliant, wonderful young man, so I’d known a little bit about it, but I didn’t know how it operated, and I didn’t realise anything about this whole concept of The Scene. I didn’t even know it was called The Scene. I found that fascinating, for one thing; so naïve. But also just how… previously I’d only known them as pretty cool kids. Well, I don’t even know if they’re considered cool, but I knew they were into music, and probably into some bands that I used to like back in the day. I still like The Cure; they’re like my favourite band. But they don’t even like The Cure. I was sort of going, “Disintegration, man, that’s my favourite album!” And they were like – “what?!” [laughs] So it’s a whole different world. And that really made me stay.

    I’m telling you, that was the longest fucking day. They just sit in that fucking space…

    [from the story] “Two hours sitting in the sun, watching people pass by.”

    I’m telling you, man! And that was just when nothing was… I could’ve kept writing generic shit they were saying to people that were passing, paying out on them… But I could not keep doing that. I was just going, “When are they going to do something different?” But they just sit there. They just sit. I’d been with Chloee since 6am, and I remember just going, “This is exhausting. You guys sitting around doing nothing is the most exhausting thing I’ve done in a long time.” I’d be sitting in the middle with them…

    Dressed like this, I assume? [gestures to Trent’s clothing; he’s wearing a blue, collared long-sleeve shirt, dark slacks and casual shoes]

    Well, I dressed down a little. This is my mid-range dressing down [gestures to clothes], because I had a job this morning where I had go do one of my Saturday [column] things; out at a homeless place, actually. On this day [with The Scene], I wore my Docs… I don’t know. I was going, “Is that what the Goths still wear?” They don’t. But there was some cool comments from them, like, “Oh man, I like your shoes.” I was trying to be ‘cool Trent’. But I wasn’t cool at all. [laughs]

    With Casey, I was trying to be ‘cool Trent’, and that’s when the girl said, “[sighs] You are sooo in need of some Vans.” It made me feel so out of touch with that whole thing. It doesn’t take long between timeframes.. but anyway, I’m rambling. So I had dressed down, and it was fun hanging out with them and being a part of it, but it was so weird. That whole lengthy time that they spent there. I did feel like I became part of them after a while; like I was one of the gang. We really came together when the cops stopped us.

    What were you doing at that point?

    Well, I was standing there in the line. I wasn’t even going to say anything. I thought it’d be interesting, from a journalistic point of view, to see how the cops treat these kids. But I still looked like a dickhead; like some loser who couldn’t find any friends, and had to go and hang out with 16 year olds, and spend his days… This was a weekday, too. This cop is taking the kid’s name, and I’m next. I hand my license to him…

    [uncontrollable laughter]

    Seriously! It was so funny. But it was only because the guy next to me said, “He’s a journalist!” He was sort of going, “Don’t give us any shit because he’s a journalist, man!” Something like that. So funny. I haven’t been… what do they call that, carded by a cop since I was in grade 12 or something. It was cool. I felt a real camaraderie with the group at that stage. I thought, “Yeah, I’ll just give them my ID…” Because they just come around and do routine name-checks.

    In the end, when the kid said something, I told the cop “Yeah I’m doing a story on a day in the life of this girl over here, Chloee.” And he goes, “Just so you know, we do this because…” And that gave another insight into how the parents are terrified for these kids, and the cops have to get their names and details so when the parents call up and say, “Where’s my kid?” They can actually give them some idea. I thought, “yeah, I can understand where the cop’s coming from.” A great moment in my career, though.

    You’ve got this great line where you write, “The only time you’re truly free is when you’re 16 and penniless.”

    Yeah, and I totally believe that, too. That’s me putting that in there, but I know they totally believe that. And they don’t even realise that. They don’t realise how good their lives are. You’re not free when you’re… like in my situation: I’ve got a wife, two kids, and a mortgage. That’s not very free. All that line was saying was, “This guy was completely penniless, and maybe even directionless, but she’s happier than any millionaire out there.” Everything comes at some sort of cost, but you haven’t made any sacrifices at that age. Nothing costs anything at that age, in terms of your own personal life costs. That’s wonderful freedom, so that you can just run around, and dance inside shops. There’s a wonderful freedom to it, because there’s no cost. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Even if the cops stop you, and lock you up, you probably won’t even get charged. It’s a glorious time. I was trying to get at that. And hence that whole thing I was saying about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; this whole world of, “Let them eat cake.” The reckless abandon that comes with being a queen of Queen Street Mall. I like that whole concept.

    ‘The Logical Song’ makes an appearance; tell me about that. Was that a pure coincidence?

    It was totally bizarre. It started because they were going, “What is this song???” This Triple M sort of song, which has probably been played on Triple M every day for the past… And they’re just like, “What is this?” I thought that was cool, but then it was so poignant in a sense of what it was saying. And it’s such a wonderful song, and what that guy was trying to say. You’re going, “Man, that’s great.” Funnily enough, it came back in the Casey story, too. I don’t know why; it must be on the soundtrack they play in those shops, or something. But at the time, it was so good.

    It reminded me of “Story Of A Man”, where you had the Talking Heads song ‘Once In A Lifetime’ flowing through the piece, as well.

    Oh, yeah! That’s true. Man, I’m a massive music fan, and I love when music comes into any situation and sort of comments. You might be here doing something, but there happens to be some music playing, and if that music has some sort of connection to something else, I’ll always put that in, because I think it’s great. It’s another contextual thing; the sound of what was going on, and all that sort of stuff.

    Going into the Commonwealth Bank with Chloee – was that another awkward moment? I’m guessing you might’ve been mistaken for her dad, or something?

    Totally! Oh man, seriously. These moments… I’ll never forget this whole story. It was so wonderful. These are just magic moments as a journalist, when you walk in there and you realise how much journalism is all about having humility, and losing your own ego, and getting amongst it; being part of it. Because this Commonwealth Bank lady is looking at me going, “What the fuck are you doing hanging around these girls?” And they just stagger into the bank. I’m telling you, there were rows of accountants, and Chloee – rough as guts – comes in with her friends, and goes, “Can I get a new card, please?” They go – “do you have some ID?” She goes – “nup. Nothing.” It was just fucking classic. I remember thinking, “that is just amazing.” This ‘16 and penniless’ freedom.

    But she knew somehow she would get something. Something would happen, you know? But the only reason she was having to go through this was because she had this $10 note, and had such lack of respect for the money that it just fell out of her pocket or something. Just this piece-of-shit $10 note that, somehow, had fallen apart. She tried to feed it into this machine at Coles. It was just hilarious! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing with my eyes. This girl putting this crappy $10 note into this thing, and it was just spitting back out. And then she’s walking up Queen Street Mall, and she just throws it in her pocket, and it hangs out loosely, and I just knew later on…

    I should’ve told her, “Chloee, you should tuck that into your pocket a little bit better,” or something. Then she goes, [pats her pockets], “Oh, that $10 fell out”. So then she has to go through this massive, massive rigmarole to get more money. She calls her Dad, and he says no, but it’s like… wow, this is all part of your journey. She wasn’t even phased. When her Dad says, “Piss off!”, she goes, “Lovely,” and chats to someone and gets distracted for another hour. And then – “are we going to get that money?” Oh man, it was just so funny  An amazing time.

    They had this guy, Justice, as the paternal guardian of the group. You painted that really well.

    [laughs] Yeah, that was funny. He was a funny guy. But the funny part about that was their Justice-worship. This guy, I’m telling you… he was just a classic, because every kid on The Scene worshipped the guy. It would be like if Jeff Buckley turned up at a party, and people would be like [whispering behind their hands], “Oh my god, it’s really him!”

    It was just unbelievable. He had a black trenchcoat on. He could’ve been a model. He’s a very handsome guy. He’s got this piercing stare. He holds his hand out and is like, [in a deep voice] “Hello, I’m Justice. That’s it; no last name. Just Justice.” And his comments on Chloee were… he’s a wonderful guy, but he has that trait where he feels as though he has some great insights into the world, and his friends. It was wonderful to see the intensity of friendship that he had for Chloee. But it was a funny thing, finally meeting Justice.

    I’d heard about him from about 6.30am, and I didn’t get to meet him until about 5pm. It’s like in that movie The Usual Suspects, where they talk about this guy, Keyser Soze. He’s spoken about, but never seen, so you have a whole movie to build up in your mind the majesty of this person that you might one day be fortunate enough to meet… and then he turned up. And he was everything that Chloee said, in terms of his charisma, and everyone was fawning over him. But – that was their world. If anyone else saw Justice, they’d just be like, “Who’s this guy?” But in their world, he was almost like a god. A god-figure. A real leader, guiding them. To be honest, I thought – right now, in Chloee’s life, he’s the best thing to ever happen to her. He really cares about her, and he’s switched on, and thoughtful and wise, and really trying to give of himself and protect her. I really thought his comments about how “she’s a gem”, I thought – that’s great. I really wanted to put that in. People might not understand this girl; someone reading the story is not going to like her much, but she’s very well-liked among this group. She has her own place within this group.

    That piece probably should’ve been about The Scene, maybe, in terms of its packaging. It was an interesting one. A fascinating little piece of that series, because she’s probably unlike most teenagers, I’d imagine. I’m sure she shares many similar traits, but still unlike most of them. But yeah – Justice, legend. I’m sure he’s still down there, doing his stuff. There was this great thing with Chloee; she had this other guy, Destry, who was another cool guy. He was the ‘cool happy guy’. I really liked Destry. I was like, “man, he’s a cool kid. If I was that age, I’d be friends with that guy.” I was thinking [from Chloee’s perspective], “This guy’s the guy. You should be asking this guy out, and bringing him home to meet mum and dad. Stick with that guy.” But I think Justice is cool too. Justice was the dark and mysterious, and that always seems to be the one that they go for. But Destry was the wild, open, crazy, interesting, honest and brilliant kid.

    You ended it on, “And she won’t be home this afternoon.” Had you tried a few different endings?

    Yeah, actually I tried a lot of different endings. The night was about to turn into further debauchery. I was like, “I can’t keep going with this. What’s the point?” And that probably suffered in the piece, too. There was no… I found it incredibly insightful, and enlightening, and alarming, perhaps. But it probably lacked a little bit of insight. That was probably a last-ditch attempt to bring back some insight, just to encapsulate it all. The whole point of Chloee’s story, and the whole point I suggested to the people designing the piece, was: “this is just one girl. She is made up of a million, vastly-moving thoughts. And very quick-moving moments.” That whole piece was like that, and the final paragraph was a shot at trying to show people – “This is who she is. She loves animals, loves her friends, loves Facebook. She’s not good at this. She’s brilliant at this. She’s this, this, this – and she won’t be home this afternoon.” It was sort of tying it back, because right at the start, Angela had said, “Be back this afternoon,” and there was no way that was going to happen. It was riffing back on the end of the Casey piece, which ended sort of ‘up in the air’. It was like – “okay, we’re leaving now. She’s going to go off and do who-knows-what.”

    Finally; the criticism of the story that you received. Not a lot of happy readers with this one.

    No. I had more bad feedback on that than I’ve ever, ever had on any piece. I can see why. And it’s good. It’s good to ruffle feathers, definitely. I’m so proud that Matt, our editor, went with that piece. It was really courageous of him. The disappointing thing is that some people took the story for what it was intended, and others took it as me saying, “this is what teenagers are today.” If you took it that way, you’d be rightly and justifiably horrified, because not every teenager is by any means like that. I’ve done a million stories on wonderful teenagers, who are… well, I think Chloee is wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met in a long time. I’m sorry that people didn’t see that, or that I didn’t write it in a way that people really saw that. So it was more probably… I think they just found it appalling. Just some horrible insight into one person’s life. But I was really trying to make it insightful and enlightening. But I think it came across as… frightening. And that’s not a good mix.

    Some of it was warranted. Some people had brought their own really weird places to it. I think they had to edit some of wording that people were using in the letters. They were using some really bad words on a girl who’s 16 years old. I think that says much more about the person writing that letter than it does about Chloee, or the piece itself. But others were very measured, and insightful, in their disappointments. But again, it’s all a product of telling it like it was. In the spirit of every one of those things that had come before, it had to be the same. It had to be – “OK, this is what it was.” This is life, and that is the reality.

    Which is why it was important to check on how Chloee felt about it. When she said to me, “You’ve captured me,” that was all my intention was, and that made me happy. That helped balance out the very strong-worded letters that I received. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s my job. You’ve just gotta be fuckin’ telling it, and if it’s tough, then I’ve got to be willing to take that, but also to realise that was the point, anyway.

    I knew it was going to be a tough read, but my own disappointment was that some people read it in a different way. Some people said, “Thank you so much. That was the most insightful read. I’ve read that story with my teenagers.” That’s great. But you’ve got to take on board anyone who did a problem with it. You learn from where they’re coming from, and keep trying to write the best piece [possible].

    Did Chloee like it?

    I don’t think she… no-one tends to really enjoy the process, because it’s strange. She had so many people come up to her – all her friends – and say, “you were wonderful. You came across really well.” That just comforted me so much, because if she was copping heat from people… but no-one her age came up to her and said anything but, “man, that is awesome, I can’t believe you’re…”

    So that’s great. Good for her. I really just thank her so much for being a part of it, and for being so brave. But it’s tough. You finish them, and you go… [pause] It was there because that was reported. That’s what it was. I was just reporting that world, and that’s definitely worth doing.

    ++

    For more of Trent Dalton, follow him on Twitter: @TrentDalton.

    To keep track of Trent’s feature writing, pick up The Courier-Mail each Saturday for the Qweekend magazine, or keep an eye on the Qweekend website, which is updated each Monday with feature stories from the latest issue. You can also follow Qweekend on Twitter.

  • Talk: “Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News”, October 2011

    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?”

    Footage of my presentation is embedded below.

    ++

    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.

    Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. http://andrewmcmillen.com/

  • NYWM 2011: A conversation about journalism with Christina Ongley and Janette Young, May 2011

    Embedded below is footage of my second live Q+A event as Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month 2011: a conversation about journalism with Christina Ongley and Janette Young.

    The 80 minute conversation took place on May 20, 2011 before around 20 young writers – mostly high school students – at the Bundaberg East State School library. I’ve included some background information about the event below. Scroll down to watch the conversation via the embedded Vimeo clip, or read the transcript underneath. All photos taken by Paul McMillen. Visit Facebook to see the full set of photos.

    From left to right: Janette Young, Christina Ongley, and Andrew McMillen.

    May 20: Talking journalism with Christina Ongley and Janette Young

    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.

    Janette:   Absolutely.

    [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.

    Christina: Great.

    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].

    Christina: Absolutely.

    [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 [2011]. 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].

    Scott:  Yes.

    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, “Oh hiiiii, 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.

  • Brisbane Times story: ‘Online scalpers bad medicine for music fans’, December 2010

    My first story for brisbanetimes.com.au. Excerpt below.

    Online scalpers bad medicine for music fans

    A ticket scalping website continues to operate in defiance of Queensland law, a week after 100 music fans were left stranded when their tickets to Bon Jovi’s Brisbane concert were cancelled.

    Suncorp Stadium staff cancelled all tickets purchased by TicketFinders.com.au to last week’s sold out Bon Jovi concert after being alerted by two customers claiming to be ripped off by the company.

    The Sydney-based website’s operators continued to list tickets for sale on the day of the concert, despite being notified by customers that their tickets had been cancelled.

    While the band’s fans are understood to be out of pocket for the tickets, both Queensland Police and the Office of Fair Trading say they remain powerless to investigate the company without official complaints.

    Meanwhile, TicketFinders.com.au continues to flout the law.

    Queesland legislation passed in 2001 as part of the Major Sports Facilities Act states that it’s unlawful to sell tickets for events held at eight Queensland venues – including Suncorp Stadium and the Brisbane Entertainment Centre – for above 10% of their face value.

    Last night, TicketFinders was listing ‘category A’ tickets to April’s Justin Bieber concert at Brisbane Entertainment Centre for $300, despite their $95 face value.

    Bad medicine

    Two disgruntled TicketFinders customers, Steve Taylor and Julia Foster, discovered the website in early July after Googling “Bon Jovi Brisbane tickets”.

    The Palm Beach couple said they ordered two $299 ‘diamond class’ tickets from the website, the day after tickets went on sale through the concert’s official ticketing partner, Ticketmaster.

    Initially wary, Mr Taylor said he rang and spoke with representatives from the website on several occasions before paying, “just to reassure ourselves that we weren’t throwing $600 away”.

    But when their tickets arrived four months later, their face valued was clearly labelled at $99 each, and the location of the seats was much further away than the ‘diamond class’ they’d requested.

    Mr Taylor said he called TicketFinders, assuming he’d been sent the wrong tickets.

    “They virtually laughed in my face and told me to get stuffed,” he said.

    Mr Taylor’s next step was to contact Suncorp Stadium and report the situation. The venue’s response was to ask for the tickets’ barcode, and soon after, all tickets purchased by that seller – around 100 in total – were cancelled.

    For the full story, visit brisbanetimes.com.au.

    This story came about after the couple quoted, Steve and Julia, commented on my last blog entry about ticket scalping, for my Junior ‘issues’ story in October. Thanks for your help, guys.

    Also of interest: this was also the first time I was told by an attempted interview source to “go fuck myself” and that, as a journalist, I’m “the lowest of the low”. Read the story, and see if you can work out who might have said that to me.

  • A Conversation With Trent Dalton, 2010 News Award-winning Features Journalist Of The Year

    Trent Dalton [pictured right] is the best feature journalist in Australia. I first had this realisation sometime in 2005, during my final year of high school. That year, Queensland newspaper The Courier-Mail launched its new glossy magazine, Qweekend, which was included in the Saturday paper. Each week, the magazine ran three feature stories written by journalists in Queensland, as well as the occasional piece syndicated from overseas publications. From the beginning, the magazine’s editorial policy divided its attention between big, complex issues, and profiles of remarkable people doing worthwhile things with their lives.

    Qweekend has since built a reputation for exhibiting the state’s best feature journalism, and, by extension, its best feature journalists. Like Trent Dalton, who has been at the magazine since the beginning. Over the years, I’ve found myself continually drawn to Trent’s distinctive style of storytelling. It’s a habit I’ve been unable – and unwilling – to kick. The man has a freakish knack for crafting engaging, long-form narratives. I covet and cherish his words more than those written by any other Australian journalist. If I can become half as good a writer as Trent, I’ll die happy.

    Last month, Trent Dalton won the News Award for 2010 Features Journalist of the Year for the second time, having previously won the award in 2008. This time around, judges paid special attention to two interrelated stories named Story of a Man and Story of a Woman. You can read them both by clicking on the story names, or by clicking on the images below. (Both links open the stories as PDFs in a new window.)

    Last week, I interviewed Trent specifically about these two award-winning stories. I highly recommend reading both stories before reading my interview.

    ++

    Andrew: Tell me about the process behind the News Awards. Did you nominate your own stories?

    Trent: Yeah. So what happens is every year News Limited runs their national big news awards for all their publications, and so in the feature writing category you submit what you consider to be your five best stories, written throughout the year. I submitted what I thought my five best were. One was an interview with a child pornographer. Another one was an interview with a guy who was imprisoned in Brisbane for 20 years, and believed he was innocent. There was another one on euthanasia, and another one called Home Truths, which was about these boys out at Riverview Boys Home who were chronically abused when they were children. But now they’re 60 years old, and they had a reunion out there which they invited me to, and it was an incredible moment.

    The other one was a combined, two-part story, Story of a Man / Story of a Woman, which got great feedback. And that was the one that the judges highlighted.

    You write a lot of stories. Do you find it hard to pick favourites?

    It definitely wasn’t hard to put in the pair that the judges responded to, Story of a Man / Story of a Woman, because that was also my favourite thing that I’ve done this year. It was probably the first pitch that I gave to my editor that’s come out exactly as I’d hoped it would in the genesis of the actual idea.

    The pitch to my editor was: let’s do a story on a woman and a man, a completely ordinary woman and completely ordinary man, but tell their entire life story. Go up to them and say, “I want to know every last thought that is in your head, and I need you to be as honest as humanly possible.” I asked about hundred strangers in the street if they would be willing enough to share their stories, and everybody said “that’s a wonderful story but I’m not going to be the volunteer who gives you my entire life story, warts and all”.

    Luckily, there was this extraordinary woman called Liz Parr. She got the ball rolling. She said “yep, that’s a great story and I really want to do this, I think it’s going to be great.” She wanted to do it for womanhood, and she took it in the spirit that I was trying to do it. It was an amazing trust exercise, because she totally told me everything, from her hopes and fears and dreams, to literally her sex life and some of the misfortunes she’s had in her life. It was amazing. It turned out to be a really great journalistic experience. It wasn’t hard choosing those ones.

    All Qweekend stories have headings at the top of the page; the heading for these stories was ‘real life’. Did Christine [Middap, Qweekend editor] go for it immediately? It seems like going for this story might have been a bit of a risk for her.

    Yeah, she did go for it immediately, but only because she knew what Qweekend has been thriving on. This is where I think we’ve developed an audience; we’ve thrived on the stories of ordinary people. We have this column called Ordinary People which we started five years ago, and without a doubt, we get the biggest response from that column, more than any other regular feature in the magazine.

    It’s really connected with readers, so if it wasn’t for that column being successful, I think she might have balked at the idea. But given the success of that, she was like “Yeah, I can see the power of this,” and she knew where I wanted to go with it. She knew too that it would take finding the right people; it could have failed abysmally if we didn’t get that right people. It totally taught me the power of finding the right subject in any story that one might be writing. The right person, not just the right topic, but the right human being to actually be the conduit for the reader.

    Qweekend has been around for five years now. When did you first come up with the story idea?

    Around three years into it. I had the idea for a long time and I mentioned it once before to Christine, and then I got put on a really big story. It was a difficult story that took up a long time, and then I came back to it. Then I was chasing down someone to interview and that person couldn’t do the interview for a certain amount of time, so I needed a stop-gap and said, “Christine, what about this idea I had, about a man and a woman?” She said, “Yeah, let’s do that.”

    The man and the woman stories ended up being way more interesting than the story about the guy that I was chasing down, who was holding off on the interview. You never know what’s going to work. It was something I’ve definitely always wanted to do; an epic about just an ordinary person’s life, because I honestly think the person walking past you, any given day, is just as interesting as Tom Cruise… well, not anyone is as crazy as Tom Cruise, but that idea that every human being has an amazing story to tell; it’s just about how much they want to share with you to get to that amazing story.

    Where did you find Tony and Liz?

    Liz was in Indooroopilly Shopping Centre, and I found Tony [Mitchell] in the western suburbs, out where I live, near Darra. He lived out at Richlands, so I was just walking around the shops there and I stopped him and said “Mate, how do you feel about this idea: I want to tell every last bit about your whole life story?” He laughed. And he was a completely courageous guy as well. He’s a normal, blokey type guy and he just said “Yep, I want to do it.”

    He wanted to do it because it was a document for his kids, that idea of: where else do you get someone to write 4,000 words about your life? He was like, “why not?”. And it was totally his life up until that point in time, for better or worse. In his case, it was a completely, amazingly beautiful life, but with moments of such tragedy for him, and moments of doubt. But he was such a brilliant man. I admire him so much because he was willing to share that stuff. I couldn’t tell you how many readers wrote in saying “Tony inspired me to no end because it reminded me of my dad,” or “it reminded me of my brother,” or “it completely reflected my life story.” Seemingly an ordinary guy from Richlands turns out to inspire people; that’s pretty amazing. That was really something great to come out of it.

    Did you censor anything?

    I censored some elements about Tony’s relationships and things, but not to protect Tony, because Tony was more than willing to share aspects of his life. But having a sense of the people that he’s talking about. That was it, which is something we’re always running across, and I’m always getting in trouble with our lawyers because I’m inadvertently defaming someone through a quote that someone has said something about someone, perhaps an ex-wife, or cousin, or anything.

    It’s not saying that Liz or Tony said horrible things about anyone, but as a general thing, this happens to me all the time when someone might be bagging a relative or something, but the relative will be able to identify themselves in that. All the person’s other relatives will be able to identify that person, therefore I am defaming them, and I could get in massive amounts of trouble. There is always so much censoring that goes on, and a lot of times it’s to get me out of trouble. Which is great.

    Both stories centred around the home. Did you spend a lot of time in their homes?

    Yeah, totally. I spoke for a long time on the phone with both of them, preparing ourselves, readying for this one day. The idea was building up a relationship of trust with them for a couple of weeks, and in the event that I would be able to focus on one day in their home, in their ordinary lives, and it would be sharing every aspect, crystallised within one day. It was definitely that idea of home life: what goes on behind the closed doors? Any story I’ve ever written has been, like: the person’s out doing something, and you never really find out about what is actually happening in the person’s home, because it’s such a personal place.

    That was the concept. It was like: what happens in the home? And then: can we describe that in an exciting way or some sort of way that might be interesting, just the minutiae of life in the home. Can that be interesting? Can that be enlightening, and have bigger repercussions, or add bigger meaning to something?

    It really did get down to the more routine, mundane aspects of life. I remember the moment in Liz’s story where there’s a hole in a strawberry, and all the kids crowded around looking at it. It’s such a tiny aspect of the story, but it’s interesting and fascinating.

    Thanks for the observation! I love that stuff, from the writing perspective, that you can capture in a factual piece something truly beautiful and eloquent, just this little moment in time. I love little moments in time, that’s my big thing. I’m writing to moments of time this year; I’ve just been writing a lot of moments in time, and it’s been cool because I love that concept that life is just a series of wonderful little moments in time. That strawberry moment was this beautiful moment; the cutest little kids marvelling over a hole in the strawberry.

    Have you re-read the stories recently?

    I have, because to go in the awards entries, you re-read it and write about your thoughts on it and give insight into how it developed, and all that. I have re-read it and I really enjoyed it. Whenever I re-read anything with a certain amount of time in between… actually, it doesn’t even have to take time. It could be from the time I submit it to my editors to the time it’s actually printed on the page. I shudder when I read it on the printed page. You feel like, “that sounds a bit too strong” or it’s a bit too ham-fisted, because at the time you’re writing it, you’re getting swept up in the freight-train vibe of the story, and you’re not detached enough. All it takes for me to get detached is about a week’s time of not thinking about the story, and then you go back to it and you go “Oh no! I shouldn’t have written that. That sentence doesn’t work at all,” but you’re probably overly critical.

    Those two stories were one of the few times I’ve gone, “I’m really quite proud of how that stands up,” in hindsight, whereas some of the other stories that I entered into those awards I thought, “I probably could have done that a bit better”. The other ones were a little bit more complicated in the sense they all had a million different sources and all that; the complexity of a normal big feature article. The beauty of those two stories, Story of a Man and Story of a Woman, though, was that there was only one person that was really driving the story. That made it much clearer, and it was a joy to write. It was a real joy to write those.

    When those days of observation were taking place, were you framing the stories in your head? Did you see certain moments that would fit well, in the structure of the story?

    Absolutely, yeah. That stands for anything I write. They’re the ones that I write in my notepad and I put massive asterisks next to them, saying ‘this was key’; ‘this was some amazing key moment’. That day in Story of a Woman, Liz’s children mapped out the day. By focusing on a day, already you had a natural structure to a story, because it could start very early in the morning. I got around there at about 6am and it went until about 6pm. It had a great, natural structure to it, and then you could blend in Liz’s life story among all those daily things.

    Along there, there’s that idea of narrative payoffs. There are these in-built narrative payoffs. For example, she makes lunch in the morning and then you know that that lunch is going to come back into the story later on, because it naturally will; either the kids won’t eat their lunch, or she won’t ever get to eat her lunch, or a fly’s going to land on the lunch. You just know, so you make sure you take notes that the sandwich is going to come back into it. Take note of what’s on the sandwich, because it’s going to logically have a good, narrative payoff later on! [laughs]

    Did you show drafts to your subjects before you submitted?

    That is a great question, because if ever there was a story that probably the subject did deserve to see, because they were giving so much of themselves, it was this one. But it’s a really strict policy where I work at The Courier-Mail and on Qweekend; you can’t show the story to the subject. Oftentimes I call them and go through it with them. Maybe there’s flexibility there, or maybe there should be, because it’s kind of a nice… people want to have that access. If they’re giving so much of themselves, maybe they deserve to see and protect themselves.

    I called them up and said on the difficult areas, “This is where it’s going,” but they were really good in the sense that they said “Just write it.” They knew what it was about, and they said, “this is my life”. Even during the interview, if they were talking about a delicate thing, you might stop and say, “Do you mind if we talk about that for the story,” and they might think about it and go, “Yeah, right, let’s talk about it, let’s go there.” To answer your question, no, I didn’t show them beforehand.

    Liz told me that when she picked it up, it was really confronting for her. It was really hard for her [to be] picking it up; she was like “Wow! It’s really out there.” She knew it was going to be real, but it was really real. She was like “wow”. And it’s hard on her husband too; the really lovely husband she has. It’s hard to share that much of yourself, but Liz has since said she totally feels like it was really worthwhile because she’s got so much wonderful feedback from other women, and it tapped into something out there.

    She still stands by it, she’s really glad she did it, and I’m so glad that she feels that way. I’m so glad she doesn’t regret doing it, because so often as a journalist you feel so bad. That’s the great dilemma that keeps me up at night. I really lose sleep over the idea that you’re telling someone’s story; that you’re taking the stories and putting them out there. You’re exposing their vulnerabilities. It’s one of the harder aspects of the job.

    Anyway, I’m sounding like a tosser; it’s not all that… you’re being very indulgent! But that is a real concern, that side of things.

    What about Tony? Was he happy with it?

    He’s right down the line, in the sense of “it is what it is”. His wife had to read it – she sent me an email afterwards. She said “Trent, thank you for the story.” She hated it the first time she read it, and then she said “I really liked it on the second time.” So I’m so grateful she gave it a second reading, because I’m sure that first reading would have been “Oh no!”. It would have been all bad, because he shared too much. But I’m happy that on the second reading, she felt some of the power of it.

    Was it harder to write than some of your other work?

    Probably one of the easiest to write, and that’s a great indication of the power of the story for me. Sometimes the stories that I don’t quite hit a home run on…  I should change that. I hate using American terms.  I’m going to say ‘hit a six’;  we use too many American terms now, just in general parlance.

    What I’m trying to say is, the ones that you struggle writing often turn out to be the ones that a reader struggles reading. So often the ones that are easy to write just flow. That saying – ‘they write themselves’. Both of those stories did, because the subjects just gave such wonderful material.

    You nominated your five stories, and then you were shortlisted. And then on the night you were given the award.

    Yeah.

    There’s a photo of you holding a statue and proclaiming something from the platform [pictured below right]. What were you saying?

    Probably saying how amazing my fellow finalists were. There were three finalists from Qweekend, which is fantastic. It was a great coup for Queensland writers out there. It was really wonderful. Basically I’m saying “I can’t believe I’ve got this!”, because those two writers I was nominated with – Matt Condon and Amanda Watt – are absolute inspirations, and heroes of mine.

    I was saying something along the lines of that, and then following it up with saying how amazing my wife Fiona is, because she’s the one at home looking after the kids for the past three years, and indulging me all those times at midnight, when you should be saying romantic things, and I’m saying “What do you think about this for an introduction?” She’s like: “Stop talking about writing!”

    Would you say you’re becoming more obsessive about writing as your career progresses?

    Yeah, definitely. It’s gotten to the point now where, when my wife and I go on holiday, I’m not allowed to bring a notepad and I’m not allowed to bring my laptop.

    Wow. Where do you keep your ideas?!

    I know; you have to write then down on serviettes and things, and secretly stash them into your pockets! It’s getting really bad! Really embarrassing. And it’s become a massive issue in our home. I’ve been really conscious of it because that idea of being present for your partner, and not thinking about a story or some sort of storyline, some way of saying a sentence or something, some little gem of an idea. You just go, “this is ridiculous – my family life is way more important than this”.

    As much as I love writing for Qweekend and writing stories and stuff, it’s nowhere near as important as having a really great relationship with your partner, and with your kids. So I’ve been really conscious. I’ve got countless notepads of just scribbles, to the point where you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re reaching for a notepad. It’s embarrassing, ridiculous. But it’s all good.

    Well, you’re well aware of how inspirational you are to me as a writer, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in Brisbane – let alone in Queensland – who feels that way. So congratulations on the award, Trent.

    Man, thank you so much Andrew. People like you inspire me. I’m not just backslapping; people like you inspire me because it reminds me of the fire. It keeps the fire alive and I think it’s wonderful that there’s a community out there, particularly in Brisbane. If there’s one thing that comes from awards like this, it’s to show that yes, great writing is happening here in this state, and it’s going to continue. That all those people look up from Melbourne and Sydney and go, “yeah, there’s some great stuff going on”.

    Cool. I’ll leave it there.

    Thanks for indulging me!

    ++

    To keep track of Trent’s feature writing, pick up The Courier-Mail each Saturday for the Qweekend magazine, or keep an eye on the Qweekend website, which is updated each Monday with feature stories from the latest issue. You can also follow Qweekend on Twitter.

  • The New Architecture Of News

    Jeff Jarvis writes about the idea of link layers within news stories, based upon blog etiquette:

    …a new Golden Rule of Links in journalism — link unto others’ good stuff as you would have them link unto your good stuff.

    I check ABC News often, wherever I am online. I consider their reporting the most credible and objective of the mainstream Australian news media. They tend to cut the bullshit and get to the heart of the matter succinctly. Few words are wasted.

    It’s foolish to imagine that all of their reporters investigate and write original copy, though.

    The only barriers between the present situation and superior navigation to news are habit and an unwillingness to adapt.

    I’d happily embrace in-text linking to external sources. If news companies think that this would look tacky, they’re wrong. A link would save me the inevitable ctrl+T; ctrl+E; enter query. Furthermore, it’d show respect for their news-consuming audience.

    To pretend that your news organisation is the sole carrier of a story is more than deceptive – it’s disrespectful to the intelligence of web users. The goal of web-based news services isn’t – well, shouldn’t be – to keep the user on their site. Initial content should provide a brief overview of the news story. Links should propel the user further down the rabbit hole of knowledge, if they so desire.

    In an attention economy, taking my attention is stealing my money. That message, taken from a Bubblegeneration comment, is worth remembering.

    When discussing online news, Jarvis is authoritative:

    Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.