According to Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, “a primary-coloured beard is a perfect arsehole-detector”. I’ve long felt the same way about my dreadlocks, which I’ve had in place since September 2004.
Connolly referred to the tendency of dreary folk – or “beige people”, as he would call them – to reveal themselves in the presence of someone whose unusual appearance upsets them. So too with my hairstyle, which elicits a range of responses – verbal or otherwise – when I meet people for the first time.
At music festivals, I’m frequently assumed to be holding pot or other treats by both punters and police. When shopping, staff tend to drop their manner a few notches and engage with me in terms of “dude” and “man” far more often than “sir”. At election time, LNP and ALP hawkers don’t bother pressing fliers into my hands – it’s assumed that the Greens are the political party for me. In the street, charity peddlers smile and see me as an easy mark; someone naturally sympathetic to whichever planet-saving scheme they’re pushing.
It’s endlessly fascinating to me how much people can read into a hairstyle. I’ve gotten far more enjoyment from observing how people react to me than from the dreadlocks themselves, which I chose purely for vanity: I liked how they looked on some of my favourite musicians, most notably the singer from Gold Coast hard rock act Sunk Loto, so I decided to try it on for myself.
I’ve never regretted the decision, though seven and a half years of growth – coupled with the gradual thinning and breaking of the locks on top of my head – meant that it was always going to be a finite style.
For years, my plan had been to support the Leukaemia Foundation and their World’s Greatest Shave initiative by turning a fairly drastic measure into a public spectacle. Handily, one that would encourage those around me to donate money and support a worthy cause.
Since 1998, the annual shave has been undertaken by over one million Australians, who’ve raised over $120 million for the Foundation. Donations support families when they need it most, by providing leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma patients – there are over 11,500 new cases across the country each year – with a free home-away-from-home near hospital during their treatment.
The Foundation also funnels millions into blood cancer research. Although survival rates are improving, blood cancers remain the second biggest cause of cancer death in Australia.
In light of these life-and-death scenarios that occur with troubling frequency – today, 31 Australians will be given the devastating news that they have one of the above three blood disorders – shaving my head to raise awareness and money for the cause always seemed a very pedestrian decision.
I’m cancer-free and perfectly healthy – touch wood, I’ll remain that way forevermore – yet the concept of losing my ridiculous hair suddenly became an asset for leukaemia sufferers and their families to benefit from. Most of the people in my life at the moment have only ever known me with dreadlocks: I moved to Brisbane to study in 2006, after graduating from Bundaberg State High School the year before.
I knew that going from full-head-of-hair to bare would spur the people around me to donate. I set my fundraising goal at $1,000. This seemed a reasonable amount. Thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, I reached this goal three weeks after starting the campaign. At the time of writing, the total climbs toward $1,500, which is astonishing to me.
The shave itself took place earlier this week at a Price Attack salon in Indooroopilly. Leukaemia Foundation’s Beverley Mirolo was there to make the first cut, followed by a few of my friends. My girlfriend was particularly happy to shave off my sideburns, which had grown unruly after months of neglect. I watched in the mirror as a new me emerged. Suddenly, I looked vastly younger than my 24 years. Vastly different, too, though not as alien-like as I’d expected.
I love how hair can become a social object; a topic of conversation, a reason to interact with another human. Those with dreadlocks know this better than most. It’d surprise you just how many people are curious enough to stop us in the street and ask to touch our hair. (Just as common: “is that your real hair?”)
This is what I’ll miss most about my dreadlocks: looking slightly different from other folks, and watching them adjust their interactions to suit their idea of what my hairstyle represents. But for now, I’m embracing the baldness: tomorrow, I’m taking it a few millimetres further and getting my first ever ‘open blade’ shave, which will reduce my head hair down to nothingness. Wish me luck.
Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @NiteShok. You can donate to his World’s Greatest Shave fundraising here.
Above photos taken by Scott Beveridge. More photos from the shave can be found by viewing the story on Brisbane Times here.
MT: Being based in Melbourne, I hadn’t been to a festival in Brisbane before today. I have sat outside Ric’s Cafe in the human drain Valley at 5am many times however, marvelling at the annihilated car-wash-of-the-mind humans of all stripes can put themselves through. “A dance festival in Brisbane’s different mate,” said a friend. “You’ll see.”
I did. The first hint comes when I’m in a cab on the way to the grounds at 12:30pm, and witness a couple of clearly munted guys hanging off each other while stumbling down the footpath; one of whom is covered in grass as if having earlier fallen over in the light drizzle. “Must be coming home from the night before,” I thought. Twenty metres on there’s a girl passed out in the gutter, head on her hands, pool of vomit between her feet. A friend is pushing a water bottle to her lips while a flock of five stand nearby on their phones. The scene continues, as if I’m being towed past some complex diorama of dilapidated 21st Century Youth Culture: masses of screeching girls with (what seemsurelylike) fake boobs; everyone with tatts akimbo; all swinging empty bottles of booze and energy drinks. The deeply oxymoronic scene of hugely-buff, chest-waxed angry bros—wearing nothing but tiny shorts—yelling out “FAGGOT” at kids running past is mind-bending. Closer to the gate, a range of people pose outside stretch hummers. It’s completely awesome — “awe” having once been common shorthand for “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful.”
AM: What does the name of this festival mean? The other major Australian festivals are easy enough to grasp: Big Day Out is true-to-name, Laneway originally took place in a series of side-alleys, Splendour In The Grass is named after a film and er, largely takes place on grass (?). Soundwave, admittedly, is a strange one. But this? If the line-up comprised entirely of acts from the future, people wouldn’t be paying $170 at the gate for the pleasure of witnessing acts they’d never heard before. ($210 each for VIP.) Considering one of the headliners is a band formed in 1980, an argument could be made for Past Music Festival. Anyway, nitpicking. A disclaimer worth noting at the outset: this review was written by two sober guys. So why am I here? To see a handful of live performances and otherwise amuse myself among the teeming hordes.
The first thing I notice upon arriving is that complete lack of sniffer dogs. I accidentally walk past the VIP entry down toward the general admission gates and don’t see any there, either. Perhaps they’re just inside the festival: if so, smart call. But considering that this has the reputation of being the druggiest festival on the annual calendar, I expected a strong presence from our canine friends. This is the first time I’ve been to Future. As I walk inside, I’m reminded that every other day of the year this ground hosts horses and gamblers, not tens of thousands of dance fans and half a dozen stages wielding enormous speaker stacks. Organisers have constructed bridges across the horse-racing track so that the turf remains unabused by human feet. Nice touch.
MT: I arrive just inside the festival grounds as rain begins sweeping across the land in great bursts. It’s not cold: I’m in a tee shirt and—unlike 99% of punters—jeans; a dress code that’s akin to walking around as Santa Claus in a nudist colony. But it’s still wet enough to stay seated in the great grandstand, comfortably undercover. From there I watch the lower concourse, seeing five muscly guys rip each other’s singlets off, people dancing in the rain while others run for ponchos, and a girl trying to artfully paste her wet hair across the sides of her exposed boobs. A sign in the distance reads “brisbane – australia’s new world city” — the lack of capitals as deeply unnerving as its implication. The EARSTORM stage is quiet. A bird flies past and it’s momentarily stirring to think of nature.
AM: Future has an interesting stage configuration, in that the four main stages are arranged almost in staggered rows—like consecutive aeroplane seats, say—spread across a couple of hundred metres. None of the stages face each other, though, so there is no sound bleed (but for one memorable occurrence late in the day). Dubbed the Flamingo and Las Venus, both main stages have adjacent VIP areas, meaning I’m up in the bleachers for Gym Class Heroes, who exist somewhere between hip-hop and pop — they boast a capable MC in Travie McCoy and a load of pop-hook choruses. Their on-stage banner shows four guys, yet there’s six here today, including one guy with blue hair who sometimes does back-up vocals but mostly waves a GCH flag, shakes a tambourine, and jumps into the crowd. McCoy pauses for a moment to encourage the huge crowd to hug the stranger to their right, then to their left. Not something you’d see at most hip-hop shows. The crowd particularly enjoys ‘Cupid’s Chokehold’ and ‘Billionaire’. A strange band, but thanks to their confident genre-hopping, easy to see their appeal. They end the set by encouraging the crowd to hold ‘love hearts’ in the air. Most do.
Immediately afterwards, there’s a mass exodus toward the Las Venus stage. I had planned to stick around here for The Naked & Famous but since they’re running 10 minutes late—allowing for a 15 minute changeover between bands was never, ever going to work—I abandon the unmoving crowd stuck before DJ Ruby Rose and head to Las Venus for Skrillex.
Their answer was evidently ‘none of the above’. But the headliner is many hours away as we file into the Showgrounds just before the clocks strike 11am. The days preceding have seen heavy rain pelt Brisbane for extended periods, so it’s admirable that organisers have managed to greet us upon arrival with what appears to be a smoothly running festival. Ground staff are relying heavily on plastic matting to cover up the muddiest spots, and for the time being, the entire venue is easy to navigate with regular footwear while staying dry.
The sun shines overhead as I take up position before the metal stages, 4a and 4b, in anticipation of Finnish metal act Turisas. It seems they’re late; stagehands continue soundchecking, until twenty past, when they instead hoist the next band’s banner, The Black Dahlia Murder. Hundreds of disappointed people file out; nothing has been communicated to the audience as far as I can tell. (I later learn from a friend that they were moved to a midday slot at another stage.) A rare organisational hiccup, and not a good start to the day.
The sky breaks for the first time at 11.48am. I’m standing under a tree watching Chimaira, who sound OK. A little keyboard-heavy, which is odd for a metal band. Lots of blast beats and breakdown. There’s a heart-warming singalong to ‘Pure Hatred’ – namely, the chorus of “I hate everyone!” - while I apply my poncho for the first of many times today. The tent before stage 3 sees a sharp increase in visitors seeking shelter. Zebrahead are playing. Eh, pop-punk. The merch tent between the stages features the most impressive wall of shirts I’ve ever seen.
Out in the main arena, Stage 1 bears a banner that reads Pinkerton. Underneath, a band is playing Weezer’s ‘El Scorcho’. Turns out it’s Saves The Day halfway through playing that album in full. It’s weird, but their version is competent enough and I guess it’s much cheaper than booking Weezer. At stage 6a, CKY draw a couple thousand people before the rain returns at 12.50pm, scattering the casual observers and encouraging the dedicated throng up front to thrash harder. From a distance, it looks and sounds like they’ve got a different singer – his voice seems way off Deron Miller’s on-record delivery – but research afterwards suggests that Miller’s still in place. Just having a bad day, then. Their set is enjoyable enough, but most (all?) of these songs are 10+ years old. I referred to them as “a band seemingly near the end of their tether” in a review of their August 2010 tour, and I feel the same way today. Telling that the quartet don’t even bother with more recent or unreleased material; just the hits, thanks.
“So many good bands today, oh my god. Cannot believe that!” says the singer of French metal band Gojira from stage 4b. He’s right. It helps that his band kick arse. They’re one of the heaviest acts on the line-up, and one of the most anticipated by the metalheads: this is their first-ever Australian show, and they’ve drawn a big crowd to take in their seriously impressive and brutal sound. Sample song intro: “This song is about whales that fly… into outer space!” *crowd roars, horns raised* Apparently they only play for 20 minutes – four songs’ worth – which is disappointing, but in that short time they stand out as one of the day’s best acts. Friends have been recommending them to me for years, but today is my first exposure to Gojira. I’ll definitely be returning.
For the full review and many more photos, visit The Vine. Slipknot photo credit above: Justin Edwards. iPhone photo credit: Andrew McMillen.
Twenty years into this festival’s existence and strangely, the Big Day Out has less cultural relevancy than ever before. Or so you might believe if you paid attention to the Australian music media in the months leading up to the 2012 event. Or the BDO Facebook page. There irate fans compiled a list: the line-up’s shit, all the acts are tired and stale, they booked The Living End for the 18th year in a row, they’ve been beaten to the punch by specialist festivals booking bigger and better acts, Kanye West isn’t a proper headliner – ad nauseum. No wonder festival co-founder Ken West got vocal with frustrations at such concerns.
So travelling to the Parklands today, I’m half expecting to spend the festival in a relatively empty venue. It’s a pleasant surprise to be completely wrong. This show isn’t sold out – none of the 2012 shows reached capacity, for the first time in a long time – yet it’s hard to discern much of a drop in attendance. Despite the vocal online haters, a summer in Australia without a Big Day Out to look forward to seems a sad prospect. This year’s tour needs to be excellent if the event is to survive, and it needs to start here on the Gold Coast.
Up first on the Orange Stage is Abbe May and her three offsiders, who play compact, elegant rock songs led by May’s strong voice and commanding stage presence. The Perth-based singer evokes memories of Magic Dirt’s Adalita Srsen in full-flight; boot resting on the foldback, guitar held aloft. There’s a lot to like here for rock fans, and she seems to impress a lot of newcomers today as her crowd slowly swells past triple figures. Next on the Green Stage are Stonefield, who’re running 15 minutes late due to transport issues. The four Findlay sisters are forced to swallow the embarrassment of soundchecking their own instruments before a nearly full tent. Once they start playing, though, they’re thoroughly impressive. This tour could mark the beginning of their transition into a band who deserve to be taken seriously: strong musicianship, quality songwriting and a formidable frontwoman in drummer Amy Findlay. They cover Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and it slays: the day’s first goosebump-provoking moment. Funnily, Holly – the band’s bassist, and youngest member at 13 – starts windmilling her hair during the drum solo, apropos of nothing. It’s awesome. The crowd goes wild.
On the Blue Stage, Parkway Drive outline the crossover appeal of their distinctive style of metalcore. By now, they’re essentially a mainstream act, so well-known is their image and presence. In ten years’ time, will we look back on these five Byron boys’ output as one of the defining Australian sounds? I hope so. These songs are etched onto the DNA of a generation of young hardcore fans, and they run through a solid set before a big crowd today. They’re a fine example of a band who clearly enjoy the hell out of their success; there’s nothing but smiles on show today. Singer Winston McCall struggles with the heat but keeps up with his incandescent bandmates; he even manages to catch two airborne water bottles during a single song, ‘Anasasis’. Five huge Parkway Drive-branded beach balls bounce around the D section for the duration of their set, which thoroughly satisfies.
The same can’t be said for OFWGKTA, the Los Angeles hip-hop collective. Today is the day that the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All bubble bursts. They sound like shit live. I wrote otherwise when they visited Australia for the first time last June, but today’s performance is truly horrendous. It’s not a matter of how the show’s mixed, either: the problem can be isolated to five dudes holding microphones and using them incessantly, rather than sparingly. Each line is barked by the rappers, not rapped. As a result, the sonic nuance that the group exhibit on record is non-existent today; instead, a hodge-podge of disparate, aggressive voices over a backbeat. The crowd at the Boiler Room is huge, and they explode with joy once the five rappers and one DJ – singer Frank Ocean nowhere to be seen, apparently – show their faces. After 15 minutes of watching and attempting to listen to their set, it becomes funny to think about how bad they sound. On record, impressive. Here? Appalling. At times it sounds like they’re just rapping over an mp3; during the Tyler, The Creator track ‘Transylvania’, the group’s original lines can be clearly heard underneath their live raps. 35 minutes in, ‘Yonkers’ could be the set’s only saviour, yet it too disappoints. Tyler barely raps a word; the crowd does it for him. When he does use the mic, he’s drowned out by his bandmates barking his best lines. In a short, it’s a bomb. Which ruins the last chance that this set had of redeeming itself. The crowd leaves en masse at song’s end and I wonder why I’m still standing here.
In July 2011, my girlfriend and I travelled to Ukraine as guests of a dating website named Anastasia to report on one of their so-called romance tours. It was one of the strangest and coolest experiences of our lives.
“This is a situation that very few men in the world have ever been in, to walk into a place where there’s no pretence about what everybody is there for.”
We’re in a seaside city called Odessa, in south Ukraine. More accurately, we’re in a stuffy basement conference room at the Continental Hotel in the city’s centre. We’re being addressed by Larry Cervantes, public relations manager of a website named Anastasia, which claims to be “the world’s leading international dating and romance tour company”. My girlfriend Rachael and I are here as guests of Anastasia to report on their Ukrainian ‘summer romance tour’.
“Beautiful women grow in certain parts of the world more than others,” Larry continues, “and you’re in one of them. Maybe six or seven thousand guys in the world have experienced what you’re going to experience: being put into a situation where you have so much choice that it’ll be mind-boggling. So be prepared, gas up, and I guarantee you’re going to have a wonderful time.”
One seasoned summer romance tourist adds, “Plan to do this a lot in the future!”, and two dozen men join him in laughter.
Larry is impressively tanned, speaks in a deep, low Californian drawl, and offered us a forceful handshake at Odessa Airport yesterday afternoon. Odessa is a strange, beautiful city; in the midst of summer, the air crackles with a dry, insistent heat that’s a pleasant change from the humidity of Brisbane. It’s home to one of the largest ports in the Black Sea basin, yet as our taxi driver threads his way through traffic sans seatbelt while yelling into his mobile phone we get the distinct impression that most buildings outside of the tourist-friendly city centre are slowly falling apart from decades of neglect.
Larry tells us that 45 men have signed on for this tour; a statement which seems strange, as over the next seven days we follow the tour, we never see more than 30 at any one time. One can only assume that their reasons for attending lie somewhere on the spectrum between searching for casual sex and lifelong commitment. Whatever the case, they’re each prepared to spend US$5,000 – including return airfares from New York’s JFK airport and local accommodation – to be here. The median age of the mostly-American tour group sits between 40 and 45. There’s one Australian: Owen, a West Australian miner in his early 40s. Most of the men are educated professionals. Many of them have at least one divorce under their belt.
The walls of the basement conference room feature tasteful oil paintings of the London Bridge and World Trade Centre. Four Anastasia reps are seated at the front of the room: Larry, William Tate – an affable American tour representative who served in the United States Marines – and two Ukrainian representatives named Olga and Anna. Before they address us, the mood is somewhat standoffish. Some of the 24 men chat quietly amongst themselves; most sit alone, eyes to the front, wondering silently what they’ve gotten themselves into. None of them give off the impression of being pick-up artists, or Neil Strauss acolytes. Just like in any high school classroom, the back row is full, but the first couple are sparse.
Eight media types line the aisle, ourselves included. Two comically large TV cameras – one from Australian 60 Minutes, the other from Sky News – scan the room. Their footage will undoubtedly be edited down to include only the most forlorn facial expressions. Over the next hour, the four Anastasia reps give their charges a rough ‘n’ ready guide to the Wild West that is Ukrainian dating. Most of the men have some familiarity with local members of Anastasia, having thoroughly combed the ladies’ profiles in search of their ideal match. Some have already set up dates through the website while they’re in town.
The company reps explore the concept of scamming – or, as euphemistically dubbed by William, “getting sushi’d” – at length. This is an apparently common situation during these kinds of tours, where a foreign man may unwittingly find himself footing the bill for an entire table’s drinks, entrees, steak, sushi; in the parlance of the overwhelmingly American entourage, ’the whole nine yards’. Local custom deigns that men invariably take care of most monetary concerns, and some of the women they’ll meet in the next week will try to exploit this to their advantage. ”You don’t want to appear cheap, or miserly,” explains Larry, “but you don’t want to appear to be foolish with money.”
Based on the witty quips a couple of the men toss in throughout the hour, it’s apparent that they’re return visitors to this region. Their knowledge sets them apart as the group’s worldly alpha males, and they seem only too happy to inhabit this role. A pair sat toward the back snigger conspiratorially over a laptop. The younger, shaggy-haired surfer-type, Derek, shows his white-haired pal Roger a photograph of a European-looking lady lying on what appears to be a hotel bed, dressed only in lingerie.
The next day, on the bus ride to the first social, I meet a portly, genial German in his early 30s named Edward. He’s a return visitor to Anastasia’s Ukraine tours, but claims to be here more out of boredom – he had a week off from his job in Frankfurt – than any real desire to meet local women. It sounds like he’s hedging his bets in anticipation of failure. He tells me that most of these guys won’t get laid on this trip, let alone find long-term partners. “If you’re looking for a fuck trip, you should go to Germany,” he advises me via a thick accent. He politely declines my offer of a more formal interview later in the week.
We arrive at The Park Residence [pictured above], a luxury country club-style venue built featuring a central swimming pool and adjacent tennis courts. Anastasia’s photographer and videographer circle the group, madly recording away as the men stroll through a car park. It’s hot; many of the guys are dressed to impress in dark suits, which must be uncomfortable. They all head for the poolside bar, while a house music soundtrack – managed by a bored-looking dude in his 20s – washes over a crowd of women. The vast majority of them are young and stunning. So begins the group’s first six hours of socialising, Odessa-style.
The men here aren’t only outnumbered by women – perhaps four-to-one at the party’s peak – but female interpreters, too: 45 of them have been commissioned for this event alone, which means that there’s always a few extras lounging around in the shade and picking at fruit platters. Some of the tourists appear to use the trip as an excuse to become new men; performers whose egos float far, far higher than their everyday persona. Others remain trapped by their insecurities and self-esteem issues. They may be in a different country, but it’s hard to forget everything they’ve learned in their life when it comes to women, and the attraction thereof.
Though initially the mood at The Park is more high-school disco than adult social, owing to the awkwardness and segregation between the sexes, most of the guys are mingling within the hour. Larry’s initial prediction about the nature of this event rings true on two counts: the women are improbably attractive, though to be fair, they’re all members of local agencies whose clients consist entirely of beautiful women. And secondly: they all know that they’re here for the sole purpose of meeting men. Given the median age of the tour group, it’s likely that these guys won’t have been in this kind of environment – as artificial as it may be – since college keggers. Which is ironic, as many of these girls would appear to be college freshmen at best. There’s eye candy on display, sure, but when it comes to the likelihood of a middle-aged man finding both physical and intellectual stimulation in a barely-adult woman, it’s easy to slip into scepticism.
In the late afternoon, tour host Olga MCs a poolside dance-off that’s narrated entirely in Ukrainian, for the benefit of the local women. Derek is paired with a lustrous blonde, who he later tells us is a stripper. Tour guide William Owen – the West Australian miner, who is being closely filmed by 60 Minutes – and an American attorney named James battle it out over a few rounds. James is incredible shape for a 53 year-old: he pops, locks and swings his partner around like a hula hoop. He’s also a spitting image of a younger Sean Connery. Derek’s shirt is soon removed and he engages in some crude arse-grabbing and breast-motorboating with his partner [pictured below]. As far as gentlemanly conduct is concerned, he and James are oceans apart, yet together they’re the tour’s most extroverted characters. So ends the first of three socials, yet several of the men keep the party going elsewhere by arranging impromptu dates immediately afterwards. Others collect phone numbers with a view to set up dates in a few days’ time.
Saturday’s event – in neighbouring city Kherson – is a four-hour bus ride away. The roads in south Ukraine seem to be populated with vehicles driven by sociopaths. The asphalt is falling apart; indicators are rarely used; seatbelts are never used; and no-one is willing to show the slightest compassion for their fellow drivers. It’s vehicular madness, and it’s utterly fascinating. Tour rep William notices our interest and tells us that, for Ukrainian drivers, road signs and speed limits are considered “suggestive”, not prescriptive. He’s lived here on-and-off for six years, and believes that if you have “$100 and a face”, you’ll be given a driver’s license. He replaces the brakes and tyres on his BMW yearly due to the wear and tear caused by the poor road surface. “You’ve never experienced tailgating until you’ve driven here,” he tells us. “If you can fit a credit card between your car and theirs, that’s plenty of room.”
Luckily we brought three buses on the trip to Kherson, as one breaks down halfway there; its passengers join ours. At the back of the bus, Derek reveals to the group that he met his “smoking hot” Russian ex-wife of five years on a flight from Vienna to New York immediately after an Anastasia tour, not on the tour itself. She recently left him, soon after he’d put her through medical school. Curious. Group morale is high as we pass through the city of Kherson and arrive at a club named Amigo [pictured below]. Its location is anything but central; housing commission-style flats and a couple of convenience stores are Amigo’s only neighbours.
Walking off a bus at 1pm and upstairs into a dark, hot, smoky club feels as dirty as it sounds. We’re late – the bus driver took a few wrong turns – so most of the club’s seats are already occupied by women, who sip drinks and judge every man in eyeshot. If The Park’s circumstance felt questionably artificial, this feels outright plastic. To make matters worse for the guys, the ratio today is more like 2:1. Which still betters most real-world nightclub situations, but it’s a disappointment after the quantity of women in attendance yesterday. To be fair, Kherson is home to only a third of Odessa’s million-strong population.
Spending six hours breathing in Amigo’s poisonous atmosphere is a tall ask for non-smokers like us – though, incidentally, the tour’s smokers are thrilled to discover that 12-packs here cost the equivalent of AUD$1. The strangest thing about this club is that it’s attached to a bowling alley. Apparently Ukrainians are crazy about tenpin bowling, and not in an ironic manner. To break up the monotony of watching men dance awkwardly with women half their age, Rachael and I hire a lane for an hour and throw down.
Halfway through our second round, Olga announces another dance-off. Predictably, Derek and James reappear; the former loses his shirt again, while today James is paired with a chesty 20 year-old in a green dress who appears to be having the time of her life. Alarmingly, one of the tour’s oldest – and heaviest – men is relieved of his shirt and tie by a cunning local. A topless, sweating fat man is not something I thought I’d ever witness on a Saturday afternoon in south Ukraine. 7pm rolls around, mercifully, and then it’s adios, Amigo.
There’s a striking contrast between the tour’s mood upon arrival and departure. Under the blazing sun it was all laughs and optimism; as night descends on the ride home, it’s more funereal, with a dash of crushed expectations. No-one really knows what to say. Many of the tourists opt to stare out the window, lost in thought. To complicate matters and unintentionally rub salt in the group’s wounds, one Canadian guy has picked up a woman and is bringing her back to Odessa. Other than Rachael, she’s the only female on board. James is practically beside himself with incredulity. “How did this happen?” he asks the smug dude and his date, who both appear to be in their mid-30s. “You only met today, and you’re bringing her home?”
Moments before we left the venue, Derek gave a silver dress to a woman he’d met here years ago, yet within minutes of the gift-giving she left him drunk, shirtless and dejected. As our bus begins the long trek back to Odessa, Roger won’t stop giving him shit about it. “What happened with your gal? She didn’t like the dress?” Derek says she fed him a story about having to leave due to a sick mother – which makes sense, he says, as last time they met, she bailed on him to take care of her sick father. Roger laughs like a hyena. Derek, nonplussed, passes out flat on his back, blocking the aisle with his feet. His accomplice, too, has been drinking, and he deems now an appropriate time to share his perspective on these tours.
Roger – a personal trainer from St Louis, Missouri in his early 40s – has toured Odessa with Anastasia four times. He’s the relatively introverted yin to Derek’s relentlessly provocative yang. “I come for the party; for the kick of it,” he says. This’ll probably be his last trip. “The only reason I did it this time was because whine-bag back there” – he points his thumb at his recently-divorced friend Derek – “begged me to.” In his mind, he can either spend “$5,000 to go to Florida and lay on a beach for 10 days”, or the same amount of money to do the same thing here. He’s sceptical about the long-term prospects of any relationships formed here. ”I’m not saying that guys don’t find girls, because I’ve brought two back to the States.” Neither worked out for him; one was an interpreter who was simultaneously courting both him and another guy in Texas, unbeknownst to either of them. She used Roger for the airfare to St Louis, then fled south. It was a crushing disappointment at the time, but an experience he can laugh about now.
He believes that every man on this trip will return home alone. “You ain’t gonna meet somebody and fall in love in five days.” Roger says hasn’t used the website in 11 years, but still gets weekly email notifications from the site that Ukrainian women are allegedly “trying to connect with him” – which he deletes, unread. His take on Anastasia is that it’s simply “bringing a bunch of old men a little bit of happiness. It’s money for [Anastasia], but it’s also happiness for the old guy on the computer thinking he’s writing a cute girl.” Which is not always the case: often, the girls’ interpreters answer their mail on their behalf, he says. These tours are rarely a try-before-you-buy scenario for guys seeking potential brides; Roger says he “guarantees that 95 or 96% of the guys never sleep with the girls.” He laughs and tells me that “all men are lonely old fools. You’ll get there one day.”
We pull into a petrol station for a break, which rouses Derek from his slumber. He hasn’t eaten all day, yet he selects a Stella Artois for sustenance, returns to the bus, and starts drunk-dialling every woman in his phone. Which is amusing for a while, until I realise I’m speeding through the dark Ukrainian countryside, listening to a grown man acting like a desperate and dateless teenager. It’s a dark thought, and I try to shake it immediately, but it’s stuck. If the tour’s most experienced and extroverted guy is striking out, what chance do the rest of these dudes have? My mind is filled with despair for the plight of the summer romance tour. It’s nearly midnight when we return to Odessa. The Kherson trip has been a failure, and everyone knows it – except for the Canadian guy and his date, perhaps.
The tour’s third and final social takes place on Sunday evening, and it’s going to have to be something special to recoup the team morale lost in Kherson. It’s also the guys’ last realistic opportunity to meet local women and set up dates for the remaining five days. After this, they’re essentially on their own, which is a tough place to be in an unfamiliar country. Stakes are high.
On Sunday afternoon, we’re ushered into the same room used for orientation on Friday morning. Again the mood of the room tilts toward tension, as an overweight, greying Anastasia media rep named Walter Bodkin treats the 24 guys in attendance like naughty schoolchildren by, essentially, warning them to behave themselves tonight as there’ll be “loads of media there”. Upon our arrival in Ukraine, Larry spoke in awed tones of Walter’s presence on this trip: his 35 years of experience at US television network CBS lends heft to his professional capabilities. On Friday, Rachael and I spent nearly an hour listening to his tales and theories regarding international dating. Walter has been married twice; his most recent divorce cost him over $1 million – which he didn’t tell us, but I later discovered online.
Ostensibly, a lot is riding on this final social for Anastasia in PR terms, and they don’t want the guys to mess it up. Tonight’s centrepiece is the Miss Bikini 2011 contest, which, frankly, the Anastasia staff seem more excited about than the tourists. Walter takes an ominous tone when advising the group that “once the local guys hear that there’s a bikini show on, they’re gonna want to get inside”, and that security will be tight. Yet, walking down Odessa’s main shopping strip a few days ago, we came across several large billboards advertising all three Anastasia socials in Ukrainian. To publicly advertise what’s being portrayed – by Walter, to the tourists – as a secret event seems deceptive. Olga presents each man with an Anastasia-branded gift bag containing a white sailor cap, which the guys are asked to wear before disembarking from the bus and strolling down the main strip of the popular Arcadia Beach. It’s corny as hell, but most of them comply.
The footpath to the social venue – a beachside club named Itaka – is congested with human traffic heading in the opposite direction to our group. Someone comments on this, and Walter laughs as he tells us that “they” – Anastasia, presumably – have cleared the beach ahead of our arrival. Which sounds like it’d take considerable cash and muscle to pull off, as there are hundreds of shirtless, suntanned locals streaming past us and throwing dirty looks. It’s impressive, to some extent, that they’d do that just for a couple of dozen guys, but also questionable considering that all these people were, until a few moments ago, doing their best to snatch some sunny Sunday joy amid a challenging day-to-day life. As in any other tourism-reliant city around the world, cash is king.
The group pauses for a brief photo opportunity outside the club [above], and then we venture into the belly of the beast. We’re led down three flights of stairs and through a busy bar to the bottom level, where 22 bikini-clad models are fanning themselves and posing for photos. Like Friday’s social, it’s centred around a swimming pool; like on Friday, security are actively discouraging patrons from diving in. Opposite the impromptu stage is the ocean, which shimmers as the sun starts to dip. The cordoned-off section of water at the foot of Itaka’s real estate is eerily sparse for such an idyllic location, until I remember the fleeing crowds. Now, dozens of empty plastic sun lounges face the Black Sea [pictured below]. A stray cat paws at the sand in search of salty snacks. House music – a fixture in this part of the world, it seems – thumps soullessly from the speakers as final preparations are made for Miss Bikini 2011.
The tour group has been led into this surreal scene and left to fend for themselves. There’s a lot of standing around and gawking at the bikini girls. The wiser members of the tour fan out and begin introducing themselves to women seated poolside, interpreters in tow. The smartest guys ignore the bikini contest altogether and relocate to a second, smaller pool area to court women away from the glare and noise. The West Australian miner Owen – who, incidentally, is attending this tour for free as a guest of Anastasia – is judging the contest; so too is Walter, a British journalist from Loaded magazine, and a woman named Dasha Astafieva, who was Playboy’s 55th anniversary Playmate in January 2009.
Larry MCs the event in English; a female offsider does the same in Ukrainian. He introduces Dasha with an air of reverence, as if she discovered penicillin. Interestingly, scores of local women queue for photos with the porn star between breaks in her judging duties. Here, she has far more female fans than males, but that could also be because there are far more women in attendance. I’m watching the fawning group from behind [pictured below], when an overzealous admirer suddenly clutches her too hard and Dasha’s left breast momentarily slips out of her strapless dress. The crowd of surrounding women gasp in amazement as she quickly fixes herself, embarrassed. I’m convinced that I’m the only male in attendance who saw this happen.
We meet another Australian named Chris. He is dressed in a blue singlet, jeans, work boots, trucker cap and sunglasses, and sports ponytailed grey hair and a foot-long grey beard. He wields an explosive laugh and speaks in the broadest Australian accent imaginable. Within our first five minutes of conversation, he reveals himself to be a xenophobe and a climate change sceptic. It’s fascinating to meet an archetypal bogan in a place like this. Naturally, 60 Minutes sink their claws into him immediately, and he’s plainly thrilled by the idea of appearing on national television while holidaying in Ukraine. This is his first trip outside of Australia. He’s only paid to attend this one social; the rest of his trip was self-arranged, including his apartment on the outskirts of Odessa. I’m impressed, because organising something of this scale seems far beyond his abilities. [Pictured below, left to right: 60 Minutes reporter Michael Usher, Chris, and myself.]
The bikini contest is won by a petite blonde from neighbouring city Nikolaev named Natalia, who earns a Yamaha jetski for her trouble. Dasha then leads a performance by her pop group, Nikita [pictured below], which features another female vocalist, backup dancers, and a shirtless male DJ who does little more than press ‘play’ and show off choreographed dance moves. There’s around 50 girls in the audience. I can only see five guys from the tour in the throng. After their eight-song set – performed alternately in English and Ukrainian – the stage is broken down and a dance floor opens up in front of the bar.
By this point, Itaka could be any club anywhere in the world. Some guys pick up; some don’t. Chris hits the beer pretty hard; he’s tanked before midnight, and asks an Anastasia rep to arrange a taxi home, alone. Looking across the crowds dancing poolside or conversing with the opposite sex, it does seem quite a stretch that this is all worth it, romantically speaking. In terms of meeting new people and having new experiences – sure. Just by signing up to this thing, it’s impossible for the guys not to tick both boxes. But finding a long-term partner – let alone a casual sex partner – in Odessa seems no more likely for these men than in their hometowns, were they actively pursuing either outcome.
With the three socials over, the rest of the week is left fairly open. Daily sightseeing tours run to nearby venues like a winery and the Odessa catacombs. They’re sparsely-attended, but interesting and worthwhile for Rachael and I; less so for the single tourists, it seems, though a couple of guys bring dates and interpreters. From an Irish bar on the main strip on Tuesday night, we spy three of the tour guys walking alongside a tall, leggy blonde. ”So many hoops to jump through to probably not get laid,” remarks the American journalist we’re drinking with.
We get to talking with a couple of the other guys about their impressions of this trip. Lee [pictured in foreground, above], 43, owns a small trucking company in western Pennsylvania. “I’ve been married three times before,” he says. “No regrets. I never wanted to be divorced once; never thought it would happen three times.” He’s been a member of Anastasia since January 2011. This is his first trip outside of the US. He’s been on several dates and is particularly keen on two women: one in Odessa, who we’ve seen him with on several occasions and seems lovely, and another in Nikolaev who has been having problems finding a babysitter for her young child in order to meet Lee again. He doesn’t think dating here is any easier than back home. “If everything was easy, why would I need to come to Odessa? If it was easy I could walk down to the local pub, and – there she is.” He advises those intending to join a tour like this to “not set your expectations so high that they’re unattainable, because then you’re going to be disappointed”, and “just be yourself. I’ve been myself since the day I landed.” It seems to be working well for him.
Like Lee, James – the 53 year-old attorney, stunning dancer, and Sean Connery lookalike – wears his heart on his sleeve. They’re both totally sincere, and make no bones about their intentions here: to find their respective soulmates. “Most of these men are here for that reason,” James believes. “We’re not looking for a good time for a week. We’ve had that back home. We’re looking for somebody we can share our life with, but we have to be attracted to them as well, on every level. Do you really think we’d come all this way if we could find it at home? We can’t!” He first visited Odessa in May 2011, and says he did everything he was told not to do – “except wander off by myself. I didn’t do that. But – did I take them shopping? Yes. Did I fail to attend the socials in full? Yes. Women took me elsewhere; they took me out of the competition. I bought girls a pair of shoes, a purse, a cell phone, a laptop… it was about a $2,000 lesson, in total. Painful, but necessary.” He wasn’t self-aware last time, but believes he is now. He’s been on several dates, and he’d been corresponding with almost all of them through Anastasia beforehand. “I genuinely want to find the person who can love me the way I want to love them,” he says. “That’s what my parents had for 59 years. I’ve seen it. It exists.”
Word spreads among the group that Roger got sushi’d big-time earlier that night; his date and interpreter took him to the tune of US$900. We also hear that the oldest guy on the tour, Richie, yesterday proposed to a local girl. We catch up with him on our final night in Odessa, and he lays it all out on the table during a two-hour conversation. Like many elderly people, he goes to great pains to describe the smallest, most insignificant details of his stories, as if to justify his continuing existence. He tells us of his three failed marriages; his six children; his careers in construction, firefighting and police investigation, and everything in between. He tells us of meeting his new fiancée, Tanya, through Anastasia in March, after dreaming of a woman who looked exactly like her and combing the website for nearly a year.
“I flew 7,000 miles – a third of the way around the world – to meet the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever met in my life,” Richie says. “She’s beautiful inside and out. Every word she said on the computer, she’s proven beyond any reasonable doubt that she is the person that she claimed to be. I love her dearly. We’re hoping that we can get her visa and passport through as quickly as possible. We’re both very excited. We both want it to happen,” he says of his intention to take her back to his home in the United States. “I’m ecstatic. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love her. Our biggest argument is who loves whom more. If our whole life goes that way, it’ll be the best argument the world has ever seen!”
At 29, Tanya is 39 years Richie’s junior. She doesn’t speak English; he doesn’t speak Ukrainian. I suspect deep down he knows the odds are against him. But what is love if not an insane leap at happiness? As we shake hands and say goodbye, I wish Richie all the best, and mean it more than I have in my whole life.
Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) is an Australian freelance journalist.
“There’s a lot of things where, when you think about them, you think they could work. But it’s different when you do them.” Wayne Coyne, singer and songwriter of The Flaming Lips, is sitting before a microphone at Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ. It’s 12.50am. Four hours earlier, Coyne and his band headlined the Windmill Stage at Harvest Festival. Now, at Triple Zed, he’s here to lead something that’s never been done before: an attempt to simultaneously play all four albums of the Lips’ 1997 album, Zaireeka, live on the radio, in sync, via 160 iPhones split into four groups of 40 fans.
“It’s tough to get this many people together, and to be doing it live on the air, and not knowing whether it’s going to work,” Coyne says. “But you seem to be open to the idea of experimentation, and I think your audience will be forgiving enough if it’s not perfect. Everybody out here is having a good time, so that seems to count for something.” He’s right. The station’s three floors and car park are buzzing with the excitement of iPhone-wielding fans, harried-looking Zed staff, and plenty of hangers-on who’ve snuck in via the back entrance just to be a part of it all. Judging by the sunburns, most spent their day at Harvest. Many are in altered states.
The singer is being interviewed on air by Zed presenter Brad Armstrong, who began petitioning his ‘Bring The Lips to Zed’ campaign in late August. Armstrong eventually got through to Coyne’s camp, and the two have been in touch for weeks leading up to his arrival tonight. “In the end, you and me were texting back and forth,” Coyne says to the 23 year-old presenter. “There was a couple of times you were calling, and we were just getting ready to walk on stage. I was like, ‘Hey Brad, I can’t talk to you…’” The pair laugh. Armstrong is nervous; his mind repeatedly blanks during the interview. “But persistence is a good quality, for sure,” the singer smiles. “You seemed like you were interesting to work with. Now I’m at the mercy of your organisational skills.”
Though Armstrong is clearly enjoying himself in the booth, he’s shot himself in the foot somewhat. He’s the default mastermind of this whole operation. While he eats up airtime, a handful of Zed staff flit between the groups, trying to make sense of it all. Guest ‘conductors’ include Richard Pike from PVT, a dude from The Holidays, and local punk duo DZ Deathrays. None of them have any idea what they’re doing. Someone forgot the seemingly obvious step of supplying radios for the four groups; these are eventually put in place, while Armstrong attempts to lead a test run. In the preceding week, the 160 iPhone holders were instructed to download the Atomic Clock app and transfer one of Zaireeka’s four discs to their phone, plus a test track. Eventually Armstrong communicates that everyone should set the test track as an alarm for 1.32am, and then hold up their phones so that microphones can pick up the sound. Zed staff then run throughout the building, yelling out the same message. Watching all of this unfold is exhausting.
For the full story, visit The Vine, where you’ll also find a gallery of photos taken by Justin Edwards, including the image used above.
Harvest Festival Riverstage and Botanical Gardens, Brisbane
Saturday 19 November 2011
Harvest Festival is not above flattery. “Congratulations on your good taste and adventurous spirit,” reads the first line of the 36 page colour program I’m handed upon entry. This psychological ploy makes me smile. Which music fan, anywhere in the world, does not believe that they have the finest music taste? To argue otherwise suggests a lack of self-belief, or false modesty. And the rest of us? Our taste is fantastic. The best. Thanks for asking, Harvest. For AJ Maddah to align his festival with that sort of stroked-ego sycophancy exemplifies tact, and more than a little self-belief of his own. After all, he booked the bands.
“You are about to witness an amazing collection of great artists and memorable performances.” No minced words there. He then bangs on for a few short paragraphs about a vaudeville tent named Le Boudoir, a Secret Garden full of “world renowned DJs” and “specially designed seating”, and the festival’s Australian art installations and “troupe performances popping up from nowhere”. (Maddah’s emphasis on the nationality of the art is interesting, given that of the five Australian acts on the main stages, just one (Gung Ho) is not from Sydney and all are confined to the smallest one – The Big Red Tractor Stage. His other festival, Soundwave, traditionally has but a couple of Australian artists each year.) AJ’s program spiel ends with the line, “We know that you have come for the bands but hope you will return year after year for the experience!”
In the lead-up to the event, an emphasis was placed on how Harvest is “a feeling, not just a festival”. That’s a fairly airy-fairy thing to say while attempting to make a mark in an already crowded festival market; let alone in the notoriously cutthroat live music industry. What could this statement mean, exactly? Clearly, Harvest is pitched slightly left-of-centre. It is, apparently, for the more discerning punter. More mature, perhaps; not just in age, but probably in terms of “good taste”, too. I think about this statement all day. Though it’s probably marketing-speak not worth the scrap of paper it was scrawled on, perhaps there is some truth to AJ’s spin.
Those words flit across my mind while I watch Portishead. What feeling might they embody, then? I think ‘isolation’, then ‘boredom’. Cruel, perhaps. After an hour drinking in their enormous sound, though, I settle upon ‘empathy’. You’d have to be a hard bastard to not believe that Beth Gibbons was in a dark place, hurting, when she wrote these songs all those years ago. Even if she’s putting on a mask, 17 years later – who could sustain real sadness and hurt for so long, and still function as a performer at this level? – it’s a very convincing act. I fall for it, time and again. Right up until she thanks the crowd, and then lets out a nervous little laugh, just before the encore break. The spell is broken then and there, but I like her – and her band – a lot more after that tiny reveal of real human emotion. Earlier, I was put in mind of Interpol’s headline performance on this same stage in January. That, like this, was technically brilliant but delivered from a position of icy disaffection. The overwhelming enormity of a song like ‘Glory Box’ reduces these kinds of complaints to cinders, though, thanks particularly to its cutting, perfect guitar solo. During the encore break, two of the band members return to stage to thank AJ by name. “It’s tough doing festivals at the moment,” one says, “but I think this has got a really good vibe.”
For the full review, visit The Vine, where you’ll also find a gallery of photos by the always excellent Justin Edwards. He took the photo used above, too.
A three-part live review of the music festival Splendour In The Grass 2011 for Mess+Noise. Excerpts from each day are included below. The photos used in this blog post were taken by Justin Edwards, who shot the event on behalf of M+N. His photo galleries are linked from my reviews.
Report: Splendour 2011 Day 1
Woodfordia is a really good venue, Gotye will top the Hottest 100, showers are best taken in the day and Kanye West apparently likes fish sticks – things learned on day one of Splendour In The Grass 2011 by ANDREW MCMILLEN.
In the lead-up to Splendour In The Grass 2011, it felt like the first year where the honeymoon could be over for Australia’s largest music festival. Most notably, this is the first Splendour in recent memory that failed to sell out. Days away from gates opening, promoters even decided to offer tickets to each of the three days at a heavily discounted price. Compare this to last year’s event – the first time the festival had been staged at Woodford in Queensland, and also the first time it stretched across three days – which sold out in around five hours. Evidently, an $80 price hike while offering what’s arguably an inferior line-up appeared like a mistake, but once on site, all the bad press in the lead-up to the festival all but slips away.
Organisers even seem to have sorted out a better entrance process this year. Rather than hours spent sitting in slow-moving traffic kilometres away from the gates, those who arrive after midday on Thursday are impressed by how smoothly it all runs. Perhaps the speedy entrance can be attributed to the lax security when it comes to searching vehicles for alcohol. The tray of the M+N ute could’ve been filled with bottles of spirits – and we’d have gotten away with it. Maybe they were relying on last year’s scare tactics to discourage BYO booze? It didn’t seem to work. On a cold Thursday night, a man next to me at the urinal exclaims, “There’s fucking steam coming off my fucking piss!”
Day One: July 29
We learned last year that Woodfordia is a very good venue for accommodating 30,000 music fans for a weekend. This rings true today. Very little has been changed as far as the layout is concerned. The majority of the musical action occurs at three stages. Mix Up and the G.W. McLennan are housed under tents in the centre of the festival grounds, while the Amphitheatre – the main stage – is located at the far end. It’s a huge bowl that’s entered by taking either the high road – which is quite a steep climb – or the lower path, which funnels into the “D” section in front of stage. The first Amphitheatre performance of the festival is scheduled to start at 11am, yet the gates remain closed until 11.10am for no apparent reason.
Once inside, Brisbane act Millions are playing to a crowd that seems to consist largely of triple j staff, including music director Richard Kingsmill. The quartet won an Unearthed competition to play today. They play catchy indie pop built around confident songwriting and a laidback delivery. This slot may well give their profile a nice boost. The band who played at this time last year, Jinja Safari, take the same stage at 1pm today to what I assume is a far bigger crowd than their first time around.
Perfect 10 performances from Gareth Liddiard and The Grates, strange timetabling decisions and disappointing sets from Mona and The Mars Volta – ANDREW MCMILLEN reports on a musically inconsistent day two of Splendour In The Grass in Woodfordia, Queensland. But, hey, at least the weather was good.
All weekend, the weather is a dream. It couldn’t be better. It’s so good that you tend not to notice the clear skies, and instead take it for granted. There isn’t a moment of rain, which makes for happy camping.
First on the Mix Up stage are Ghoul, who admit to not having played a show in six months but prove to be captivating. Evidently I’m not the only one who’s fond of Ivan Vizintin’s distinctive voice. By the end of their 45 minutes there’s a few hundred heads facing the stage. At the Amphitheatre, it’s a tough day to be a Cut Off Your Hands fan. Their set is bland and uninspiring, but this could well be the Kiwi quartet playing at their best. It’s indie pop that you can dance to, but the absence of hooks leaves the crowd cold. They lean heavily on material from new release Hollow. Fifty minutes of Nick Johnston’s voice becomes grating. They save their best for last, when Johnston ditches his guitar and wails along to early singles ‘Still Fond’ and ‘Expectations’.
“If I was booking a festival, the first thing I’d do is not book me,” says a typically self-deprecating Gareth Liddiard. He attracts a few hundred punters to the McLennan tent at 1.30pm just to hear his voice, acoustic guitar and between-song gags. He tells us about the inspiration for writing ‘Highplains Mailman’ and ‘Strange Tourist’. He refuses ‘Khe Sahn’ requests as he says he’s got his own; in ‘Shark Fin Blues’, presumably, which he plays without fuss. He mocks the techno bumping from Mix Up, and reflects on how people tend to romanticise the decade in which they were raised. He bemoans the current fascination with the ’80s. “Joy Division and The Birthday Party aside – what the fuck?” A stagehand gestures at him. He replies, “Is that 10 minutes left? Or 10 out of 10, Gareth?”, before finishing with ‘Jezebel’. The latter, Gareth.
Looking down on the Amphitheatre at 2.20pm from the top of the hill is hilarious. “We’re Mona from Nashville, Tennessee,” one of the tiny figures on stage says into a microphone. “Let’s bump up the party!” There are perhaps three dozen people in the D-section at this point. The entire crowd here wouldn’t fill The Tote. It’s mind-boggling to look down at the mostly empty hill and recall that last night, every square inch was packed during Kanye West. “Never trust anything that blows up,” the figure says after a few songs. “All great things start small.” Right. Their music is embarrassing. It sounds like a cross between Jet and modern Kings Of Leon.
A fatigued ANDREW MCMILLEN powers through the final day of Splendour In The Grass 2011, taking in performances by Pulp, The Panics, Coldplay, The Vines and the last ever show by Townsville’s The Middle East.
By now, fatigue has set in. I’ve spent Splendour sober – I’m in the midst of a three-month break from drinking – and I’m still ruined from the walking, the dust, and the volume of food and soft drink consumed thus far. Time for one last push. At the Amphitheatre, Melbourne’s Alpine are winning fans under a cloudy 11am sky that threatens to break. They tell us that it’s their first festival, yet the six-piece handle their set like true pros. “I can’t stop smiling, even though some of the songs are sad!” one of the singers enthuses between tracks. They end on ‘Villages’, a fantastic indie pop song that hints at their potential for greatness. The prospect of relocating to another stage is too much to handle, so I sit in the shade and wait for Grouplove, a band about whom I’m blissfully ignorant.
As it turns out, they play a set consisting entirely of Arcade Fire covers. I kid. these guys are from Los Angeles, not Quebec, so there’s at least one point of difference. Their showing at midday is powerful and evocative. It’s all blustery, feel-good indie rock, which fits the zeitgeist like a glove. They pull a big crowd. It feels as though a lot of those here are discovering a new favourite band. They thank Splendour co-founder Paul Piticco for inviting them here, and dedicate ‘Naked Kids’ to him. They’re a very easy band to like.
On the same stage at 1.10pm – like I said, fatigue has set in – Hungry Kids Of Hungary prove their sound works well in an arena context. With no one else really playing at the time, they’re handed the perfect opportunity to impress a good chunk of Splendour-goers. They don’t miss the mark. They play most of debut album Escapades and kick beachballs into the crowd (as you do). With a new record reportedly underway, they’re well on track to continue ascending the Australian pop ladder.
Under the McLennan tent, Leader Cheetah sound great but are otherwise dull. They show strong songwriting, but give us nothing else to latch onto. We might as well be listening to the album. I arrive in time for ‘Bloodlines’ and a wave of material from the newly-released Lotus Skies. I stand at the back of the tent and look out across the pond of filthy water upon which the nearby “pontoon bar” is housed. There’s a momentary break in the timetable, so I scamper for an early afternoon shower and return to catch the final 30 seconds of Liam Finn’s set – which is a shame, as it looked like a good time. A decade into their career, The Herd are a classic festival draw by now. They play a set of crowd-pleasers intermixed with material from forthcoming fifth album Future Shade, which are well received. I prefer them over most Australian hip-hop acts because they treat melody with as much respect as their rhymes. Watching thousands of people sing along to their hooks, it’s easy to see why they’ve established themselves near the peak of the genre. While they mightn’t have the hardcore fanbase of acts like Hilltop Hoods or Bliss N Eso, they’ve certainly carved out their own niche.
For the full report on day three, visit Mess+Noise.
A feature story for the ‘issues’ section of monthly street press Junior, July 2011. It’s an updated version of a feature that originally appeared on TheVine.com.au.
Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.
Music photography: First three songs, no flash – and no copyright
Earlier this year, Iron Maiden – the most recent headliners of the national Soundwave Festival – brought more than just a custom-built stage, hundreds of guitar solos and an enormous British flag. As Junior photographer Cameron Edney discovered on the day, they were also the only Soundwave performing artist to present a customised photography contract.
“It was pretty tight,” Edney says. “Their contract stated that they wanted shooters [photographers] to send the best shots via mail to London for approval. Once the band’s management had looked over the shots put forward, they would contact us to let us know what shots we could use. They also wanted a minimum of 30 days to do this.”
Such rights-grabbing statements are nothing new in the live entertainment business, where artists’ images and ‘trade secrets’ have always been fiercely protected. Eddie Van Halen was known to turn his back to the audience when performing innovative electric guitar solos before Van Halen were signed, so as to prevent both his newly-discovered techniques from being viewed by rival guitarists – as well as being captured by keen-eyed music photographers.
Recent Australian tours by popular rock acts like The Smashing Pumpkins and Muse have demanded that photographers shoot only from the sound desk. Muse, too, issued a contract which states that photographers “hereby assign full title guarantee the entire worldwide right, title and interest in and to the Photographs, including the copyright therein”.
Which means that if Muse – or, more likely, their management and/or lawyers – happen to be browsing your live photo portfolio and they’re particularly taken by a picture of bassist Christopher Wolstenholme in his fetching red suit, they can request the high resolution image file (or negative), and you have no power to negotiate because you’re bound by a contract.
Why, then, in an age where the vast majority of gig-goers carry web-ready media devices in their pockets, are bands still so insistent on attempting to shield themselves from the close scrutiny of cameras? Recent news reports even suggest that Apple is developing software capable of disabling the iPhone camera whenever a punter tries to film a gig, via clever infrared sensors installed at venues. Though live footage and still images may fall under different arms of copyright law, one wonders: are such heavy-handed measures really necessary?
British-born, Australia-based Tony Mott has been photographing musicians across the world for over 30 years. He’s been the Big Day Out’s official photographer since the festival’s 1992 inception; his work has appeared on the cover of just about every music and news-related publication imaginable. When it comes to photo contracts, though, his approach is blunt: “I don’t read them, and I never do.”
Mott says he’s never had any legal trouble as a result of signing contracts in this effectively sight-unseen manner. “Not one single person has come back to me and told me that I’ve been doing the wrong thing. I sell [photos] to music magazines. That’s it. That’s all anyone’s doing with them. I mean, if you started making posters and merchandise [with your photos of the artist], I think you would get into trouble.”
According to Matt Palmer, a Brisbane-based photographer, “You get treated like a bit of a bastard with these contracts. The reality is, you’re there as a fan, and as a photographer, you’re trying to take the best photos you can of a band. So it’s a bit weak to be presented with these contracts when you’re actually trying to help them out.”
Sydney-based photographer Daniel Boud notes that two bands that don’t treat photographers like bastards, however, are also two of the biggest in the world: AC/DC and U2. Both acts toured Australia last year.
“It says a lot that, for two of the bands whose fans are so rabid that you might actually be able to sell the photos for commercial gain, neither act even bothers with having photos contracts,” says Boud. “They’re also two artists that, when you shoot them, their tour managers and publicists are incredibly nice and welcoming to photographers. They thanked us for coming. Whereas a lot of the time, concert promoters make you feel like you’re a pain in the arse to them.”
It’s a tough line to tread, between respecting the rights of the artist and satisfying both professional photographers and the average punter holding their iPhone aloft. Though their hardware varies, they both want to capture the moment for posterity.
Junior’s Cameron Edney admits that such contracts “can be a joke; the demands can be laughable, but for the most part, it’s expected. It’s part of the job, and if you get into this side of the business and want to shoot live music, you have to be prepared to sign release forms. If you don’t, you may lose out on shooting bands you really want to cover. Just like any job, music photography has its own disadvantages.”
Embedded below is footage of my second live Q+A event as Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month 2011: a conversation about journalism with Christina Ongley and Janette Young.
The 80 minute conversation took place on May 20, 2011 before around 20 young writers – mostly high school students – at the Bundaberg East State School library. I’ve included some background information about the event below. Scroll down to watch the conversation via the embedded Vimeo clip, or read the transcript underneath. All photos taken by Paul McMillen. Visit Facebook to see the full set of photos.
From left to right: Janette Young, Christina Ongley, and Andrew McMillen.
Under 25 and interested in a career in journalism? Ahead of National Young Writers’ Month (NYWM) 2011 – which runs from June 1-30 – two of Bundaberg’s most experienced journalists will discuss how they’ve built their lives and careers around writing and publishing words. Given the focus of NYWM, this free 90 minute session will be targeted toward aspiring (and current) writers and journalists under the age of 25.
Christina Ongley is the editor of the Bundaberg NewsMail and the Isis Town and Country. Her career in journalism began in Bundaberg in 1998, when she worked in the NewsMail’s newsroom for four years. During that time, her roles included reporter, feature writer, sub-editor, chief of staff and news editor. For the following six years, Christina lived and worked in the UK for a three-edition daily paper in Essex named The Echo, where she was soon promoted to news editor. Prior to her reappointment at the NewsMail, she was the media and communications executive for Surf Lifesaving Queensland.
Janette Young is an editor and journalist of more than 30 years’ experience, starting in the newsroom of her local newspaper in the UK at the age of 18. At 26, she became the first woman editor in her newspaper group and from there moved on to work on The Times in London and at the Press Association in Fleet Street during the Gulf War. Since moving to Australia in 1991, Janette has worked within News Limited, West Australian Newspapers and APN News & Media. She was Assistant Editor with The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and subsequently with The Sunday Times in Perth, and in 2009 was a finalist in the Queensland Media Awards for Best Business / Property Report. During her career, Janette has been Launch Editor of a number of magazines and newspapers, and has lectured and tutored Bachelor of Communications students in Print Media, Media Law and Ethics and Online Journalism. For more on Janette, visit her website.
Andrew McMillen (@NiteShok) – the Queensland ambassador for National Young Writers’ Month 2011 – will facilitate the session. A graduate of Bundaberg State High School in 2005, he’s now a Brisbane-based freelance journalist whose work has been published in Rolling Stone, The Weekend Australian, The Courier-Mail, triple j mag, Mess+Noise, TheVine.com.au and IGN Australia. For more on Andrew, visit his website.
Embedded footage below. Please note that the vision does drop out a few times throughout the video due to camera file size restrictions. The audio remains consistent throughout, however.
Q+A transcript as follows. Andrew + audience questions and comments are bolded; Christina and Janette’s comments as labelled.
Andrew: Thank you all for coming. This is the second event I’m running in Queensland for National Young Writer’s Month. I’m the Queensland ambassador for that event. And here we have two women who have spent most of their adult lives in journalism. So I wanted to invite you all to come and talk about that, and what that involves.
I’m a freelance journalist myself, and National Young Writers Month’ is about… the funny thing is that it starts next month. I have to explain to everyone who I meet. So these events are to inspire people to set goals for themselves, register on the website, join the community, start talking about writing, and start meeting those goals during the month of June.
I’ve got some postcards here if you’d like to grab them at the end, which tell you more about it. But today we’re talking about journalism. Most of you in the room are high schoolers, obviously. I wonder if any of you know right now that you want to be a journalist once you graduate?
[no-one raises their hands]
Christina: No work experience candidates?
Andrew: No one? That’s interesting, because I wondered if you two knew that you wanted to be journalists when you were in high school.
Christina: Partly, actually. When I was about seven or eight years old I used to make up my own sort of mock newspapers and show them to my parents and get them to give me marks [for] them. And I was the editor of my school paper as well. But I’ve always had a really strong background in sports, so when I went to uni I actually was going down the human movements and physio sort of path and then it took me about six months to figure out that that wasn’t what I wanted to do after all. So quick smart, went straight back to journalism. So I sort of floated with it for a long time and then decided it was something I wanted to do.
Janette: Well, actually from a very early age I was very determined to become a journalist. I went to a girls’ school and in my day they used to try to push you towards secretarial work. And they set me up for work experience which I cancelled and contacted my local newspaper and at the age of 15, basically started working in newspapers. They used to pay me expenses, which, for me, was huge amounts of money. And I started getting published even when I was 15. I used to work in the local paper on my school holidays, which was great because when I left school I was one of the lucky ones who got taken on direct entry, because I’d already been published and I was obviously passionate about newspapers.
I never particular had a desire to work in radio or TV. It was always about print media, because I love writing. And I qualified at the age of 22, so they put me through university, which was great because I didn’t go broke while I was studying. And I learnt so much on the job. It was so good to have the direct entry because it meant that I could put the theory into practice and it was just wonderful.
Christina: That’s something that was really rare these days now, as well.
Janette: Very rare, and it’s really unfortunate that they don’t do that because my son’s studying journalism and I taught journalism at Edith Cowan University [in Western Australia] for a couple of years in my spare time because I believe that people don’t get taught enough by people who actually know what they’re talking about. And the practical experience of working in newspapers cannot be replaced by any amount of theory. And I’ve seen young people come through who might not necessarily have excelled at school sometimes, but they make fantastic journalists because they’re hungry.
[Audience]: I started journalism at university, but got so disenchanted by the theory that I decided to become a schoolteacher instead.
Christina: I think it’s a real shame the way that journalism degrees are going now. When I studied about 15 years ago, at the time the body of lecturers were people who had really impressive journalism CVs and it wasn’t just about crafting a story. They could tell you about really tough interviews they had to do, or tough situations they had to confront and how they dealt with them. That was really inspiring. Some of these were people who’d been there in the Bjelke-Petersen era and had some really amazing stories to tell. Just as I was leaving, because I’ve still got a couple of good friends who were lecturers back then, there’s been this real shift towards academia in the lecturing body. I think, for me personally, it sort of sucks all the life out of it because you learn, as you say, all the theory. But it’s very hard to get inspired by people who have spent their life in research and not actually at newspapers or at other broadcast media outlets.
[Audience]: One lecturer who my friend and I counted the number of times he would say the word ‘commonsensical’. He said it like 47 times in two hours and then I was like, “Well, maybe this isn’t for me.”
Christina: I guarantee that word would never make it into a newspaper.
Janette: Absolutely not, and never in a headline. Anyway, but it is true and it is a shame. My son, I have had to encourage him to continue to be focused but at the end of the day it is worth it. It is an exciting job and the potential for an individual to make their mark and make a difference in the world is huge. And even now, even though strictly speaking I’m not working in newspapers, I still mentor a lot of young journalists. When I left university for some years after that, I continued to mentor young journalists.
It’s about having a passion. It is a trade if you like, it’s a practical skill. I call myself a wordsmith, and that doesn’t leave you. It’s a great trade to have. I can take you around the world; can take you to all sorts of places that other people can’t get to, and you can meet loads and loads of people that you would never otherwise come across. So if that’s what you like doing, great. If you don’t like talking to people all the time, then don’t do it.
Christina [pictured right]: I think that’s probably one thing that… this is National Young Writers’ Month coming up, and I think it’s great when people have a real passion for writing and I interview a lot of young people for jobs. I’ll say “what is it that you love about journalism, and why do you want to be a journalist?” A lot of them say, “I really love to write”. And that’s really important, because you can’t teach someone to write well. You can sort of hone their skills and get them to a reasonable standard, but if they’re not a born writer, you can’t teach them to be.
But the thing I think that’s almost more important to me is: do they like people? Because everything we do is about people. It’s telling peoples’ stories; it’s telling stories that affect people. Readership and people are generally at the core of what we do. So I’ve interviewed a number of young people for cadetships of various kinds. And I’ve looked at some of their submitted work. They write well, but they’re so timid. And I think, “can they pick up a phone and ask someone a tough question? Can they stand up for themselves sometimes when they get a bit of criticism, as we inevitably do at a newspaper? Do they really enjoy having a rapport with people?”
And if they don’t think they can do that, then I’d much rather have someone who has those personal skills and maybe isn’t such a great writer, as someone who’s a fantastic writer but can’t actually talk to people. That love of people and telling peoples’ stories is just as important, to me, as being able to write well. In this field anyway.
[Audience]: Andrew, perhaps now it might be a great time to introduce our panel?
Andrew: Good idea! Next to me, we have Christina Ongley. Christina Ongley is the editor of the News Mail. And to her right is Janette Young, who has worked throughout journalism and media for over 30 years, I believe.
Janette: Afraid so. [laughs]
Christina: Like it or not.
Andrew: And my name’s Andrew McMillen. I am a freelance journalist based in Brisbane. To go back to that question I was asking these two earlier; I didn’t know I wanted to be a journalist pretty much until I was a journalist. I went to Bundy High, as these four did as well [gestures to audience]. And I knew that I loved reading and writing. I was pretty good at English. I got a few English awards, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a journalist.
I went to UQ in Brisbane and studied Communication, which is about half journalism, half media studies. And that degree wasn’t very enjoyable. It was, as we were discussing earlier, quite dry and quite academic in its approach. So that didn’t inspire me at all, but during that time I moved to Brisbane. The second year I was there, I started writing for street press, which is the local free newspapers that are put out in record stores and music venues across Brisbane. Music was my passion. I wanted to write about music, and writing about music for them meant that I got free tickets to go to shows that I otherwise would have paid for, so it was a nice little money-saver. Money [from writing] at that time was negligible. It wasn’t on my agenda at all. It was just free tickets and definitely a hobby for me, not a career.
I did that for a couple of years, getting paid very little. Then I worked for a web design company which was fun for about a year and then I stopped doing that. I was at a crossroads in my life and I thought, “what do I want to do next?” I’d had a couple of years experience in journalism for those music publications and I knew that I really enjoyed, that so I wanted to see how far I could take that. So in the last two years, I’ve been pushing that music freelance journalism angle, and I’ve been published in Rolling Stone, and triple j mag, and The Weekend Australian and a couple of others.
But since then I’ve realised that music journalism is not what I want to do. I want to do feature-length stories for magazines and newspapers, so that’s where I’m heading now.
Christina: It’s a tough area to break into.
Andrew: It is, but with those couple of years of doing [journalism] – first as a hobby, and then secondly as just trying to find my way in terms of what I wanted to do – I couldn’t make that decision [to pursue featuring writing] without having those experiences beforehand.
Christina: Is anyone planning on studying any sort of communications or media-type degree? [one student puts his hand up] What are you going to be studying?
[Audience]: Film and television at QUT, hopefully.
Christina: What’s your greatest interest? Is it the screenplay-writing angle?
[Audience]: I love all of it. Every aspect of media that I’ve explored so far. I really wanted to head down today because I think journalism is such a big branch of media, radio, and film, and television. It’s pretty imperative to know all about it. That’s where I’m coming from.
Andrew: I should point out that, if you have any questions for any of us at any point, just raise your hand and we’ll get to it. I’ve got stuff prepared, but this is about you. It’s about what you want to get out of it, so if it’s not going where you want it to, just raise your hand and ask a question. The answer was for these two: Janet knew she wanted to be a journalist. Christina was a bit iffy, and I didn’t want to be a journalist.
Christina: And we all ended up in the same place!
Andrew: Were you setting goals in that point in your lives, in your late teens; your early 20s, in terms of where you wanted to be?
Christina: I went to a private girls’ school on the Gold Coast, and I probably can’t say I was a particularly rebellious teenager. I wanted to do well but what I did really rebel against was the intense pressure that was on us at school to decide the rest of our life at the age of about 13 or 14. At the end of year eight, they sat us down and said, “you’ve got to choose these ten subjects for years nine and 10, and then those will pare down to five or six subjects at year 11 and 12, and then those will go onto probably decide what you study at uni, and that’s going to be the rest of your life.” So, figure that out at 13 or 14. I thought, “what?!”
So I studied the subjects that I enjoyed and I wasn’t too fussed… it didn’t bother me that I started a course at uni that I then changed my mind away from and switched courses. I mean, I was setting goals. I guess they just changed along the way and I wasn’t too bothered if they changed. I just thought that [in] my late teens, early 20s, surely there was going to be a little bit of wiggle room in there to maybe not get everything right and make some decisions later on if I needed to.
Janette [pictured left]: I think the reality is that in today’s world it’s accepted that most people will have two or three careers. Just because you happen to start doing something at 20 doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be doing it 40. And I left News Limited after 20 years. I hit the 20 year mark and went, “okay, what do I really want to do now?” Because I could stay there quite happily for the next 20 years after that.
And I had a very successful career and I was not only the first female editor but the youngest editor of my group when I was 26. In the U.K. I worked on the Times in London. I worked on Fleet Street. I worked on Press Association during the Gulf War, which was very exciting. I worked with News Limited over here. I was launch editor of magazines. Great fun.
But sometimes you get to a point where you think, “well, what else can I do?” And the great thing about a journalism degree… I think journalism, law, and engineering are the three degrees that are so practical and so useful in the world, because you can take them anywhere and they’re basically like a tool kit. Journalism teaches you so much, teaches you about people and how to talk to people, how to write, how to manage yourself, how to present; how to do so many things that are important today.
I think that, personally, I was very goal-driven and I still am very goal-driven. Everyone’s different. Everyone has their own path to travel. Although I work in PR work – mostly with not-for-profits, although I work a lot with large corporate as well – I [also] work in behavioural communications. And I love pushing peoples’ buttons and making them behave in a different way. It gives me a real sense of pleasure.
I work up to the highest level and that’s because I used to, as a journalist, talk right up to the prime minister. I’m not scared of anybody, because I know what they do, who they are, how they operate. And so for me, working in the communications world – which is really what I do, though it’s just the corporate and the not-for-profit areas – I find it very comfortable, because I’ve been there as a journalist for so many years. And I know a lot of people. You meet all sorts of people, and people remember you. And you just have the best time, and sometimes the best parties as well, which is great. I was in the budget lockup for three years in a row and that’s a really exciting thing, because you’re there at the cutting edge of what is happening right now.
I think that’s the thrill of being a journalist. You’re actually ahead of the news, and I get a real buzz out of that. I still keep myself pretty involved in what’s happening out there. I like to make a difference. I like to lobby. At the moment I’m lobbying a couple of ministers over getting some funding for Salvation Army because they’ve said ‘no’ and I’ve said, “well, not good enough”.
So you can do that sort of thing. And I think that if you treat journalism as something [where] every day you rock up to work and you give it your best, you’re going to do really well with it. If you’re looking at a soft option, don’t bother, because you won’t last very long.
Christina: It is one of those things where every day is very different. It’s not like you work on a project for a week or two, and carry it over from day to day with you. You might have some stories that might need a few days’ work or some things that require ongoing investigation, but generally every day is a fresh day. Every day is different, which is one of the great things about it, really. If you’ve had a bad day, you can leave it behind and move onto the next one.
One of those things to draw on – that both Janette and Andrew have said – is I think sometimes we forget, too, that journalism can be a really great privilege. We’re allowed into a lot of settings that the general public sometimes isn’t. We’re given access to people and places, whether it’s getting free concert tickets or getting to have a chat with a minister or the prime minister or whatever it is; we do get these privileges as part of our job.
I think because of that, we need to respect the responsibility that we have then to deliver those messages to people and not take advantage of the position that we get given. There’s a lot of criticism, and this is something that probably Janette will be very familiar with.
You’ve got the press gallery, who are the core of people who are in Canberra covering Parliament all the time. They’re the regular parliamentary reporters that each of those larger newspapers send down to Canberra; there’s often a bit of criticism because they’re there all the time, mingling with MPs and press secretaries and the people who make Parliament tick, that there’s a bit too much closeness. Sometimes they will say “is the press corps getting a bit too close to the politicians?”, and these are things that can be easy to forget when you don’t think enough about the privileges you get in this part of the job we have.
Janette: It is true, actually. One of the things I used to teach was media, law, and ethics. Very interesting; what I used to do was teach the students the law first, and then the ethics, because often what is ethical might not be legal, and what is legal might not be ethical. Just because you’re allowed to do it – coming back to that point – doesn’t mean that you should.
The impact of newspapers and all media on peoples’ lives can be huge. So you have to treat people with integrity. I think if you do that… and as I say, I’ve been in the business for 30-odd years, and I dealt with a lot of very difficult stories and I was a fixture at The Courier-Mail for quite a while there. We were doing some real head-kicking stuff over prostitution and drug use and all that stuff.
If you treat people with integrity and remember to be a bit kind, because not everyone is used to dealing with media, and just remember that what you write or what you put to air or whatever can have a big impact on peoples’ lives, so it’s a big responsibility to be a journalist. You have a back bench behind you. You have people like Christina standing there, basically being a safety net for you. At the end of the day – and this is the great thing about it; you’re out there representing your organisation, but representing your newspaper or TV station. You have to behave with a high level of personal integrity.
There’s a really important message that I like to get out to the general public, that yes, there are some people out there who abuse the system [as journalists]. There are people out there who unfortunately don’t check their facts and who stop asking the questions. I always say to young journos, “you don’t stop asking questions until you get the answer you actually believe”. If you can keep your feet on the ground, and actually get to the heart of whatever the issue is, then you’ve got a great story.
It’s done with integrity and kindness. I’ve done a lot of what we call ‘death knocks’, where you go to someone’s house when someone’s died. It’s a terrible thing to have to do to somebody. But the fact of the matter is that if you do it kindly and if you do it with humanity, they actually… I’ve had people ring me up thanking me for the story that I’ve written about their family member, which is a great feeling because what you’ve done is encapsulated someone’s very valuable life, and paid tribute to them. Because everyone’s valuable to people around them.
If you take that sort of approach rather than a ‘knock ‘em down and take no prisoners’ approach, you can actually do a real community service through your paper. The News Mail does an excellent job in that, in that it tackles things very respectfully and really thinks about the people and community before it charges in and starts publishing things willy-nilly.
Christina: Thank you.
Janette: It’s true. There you go; it’s the only praise you’re going to get. [laughs]
Andrew: How do people react when you tell them you’re a journalist?
Christina: There are a whole range of reactions. Some people say, “that must be really interesting”. Others will tell you that the News Mail spelt their name wrongly 20 years ago, and they’ve never forgiven the paper ever since. Or people say “I better watch what I say”, and I say. “well, if I’m not at work, I’m not at work…”
I think people have varying respect for journalists depending on what their experiences have been with journalism, journalists, or newspapers. We can do a lot of good for community groups and I think you’ll find that most people we work with generally have a really positive outlook about the work that we do and the good that we can do.
But unfortunately the other side of it is that we have to do some hard stories. We have to report on people being in court. We have to report on people when their businesses go bust, and perhaps they haven’t been completely honest with all the people that they owe money to. And these are things that can affect peoples’ reputation, so the work we do isn’t cut -and-dry. And the impact, as Janette said, that we can have on people and in communities such as ours can be vast, that we generally tend to guard what their idea of journalists is, I suppose.
Janette: I agree with you, actually. I think to a large extent the respect that you get treated with is down to you. How you behave as an individual is really important. So when you go out there, say you behave with integrity, you conduct yourself professionally… and this sounds slightly terrible, but you don’t get too involved, because you’re not there to pass judgement. You’re there to actually report.
Reporting changes from era to era. Social issues change constantly. Newspapers are simply a reflection of the society in which we live. If we don’t like what’s in the newspapers, we’re actually complaining about our own society. We don’t write about anything that’s not there. We actually write about what’s there. It’s an interesting thing. I am a big collector of old newspapers, and I’m talking really old; 1800s. My oldest one is 1783 and a copy of the Times. In that paper they talk about slavery, they talk about all sorts of things, but not once do they talk about green issues. Not once do they talk about all the things that really matter to us today.
Christina: Female equality… [laughs]
Janette: Female equality doesn’t even rate a mention. It’s very interesting and all media generally – I can only talk about newspapers because that’s really what I spent most of my life in, although I do work a lot with TV and radio. I go on radio quite a lot now, but to me print media is there, and it’s in law, unfortunately, for us what can be shown on TV – and they can just about get away with it – can’t be put into newspapers, because people keep newspapers, and every newspaper gets read by at least three people.
So you really have to be very responsible in that way but basically, yes, I think that people need to reflect on their own society behaviours before they start criticising newspapers too much, because all we’re doing is reporting what’s going on.
Christina: In fact we had a letter to the editor in today’s paper where this man started his letter not exactly criticising our newspaper but saying, “look at all the rubbish that’s in newspapers these days”. But he ended up by finishing saying, “I guess if they’re writing what people want to read, this is actually what’s going on in the wider world, and what a terrible state we’re in”. I think you’re right, that was really –
Janette: So it was really a ‘I hate the world’ letter. That’s an unfortunate situation for him, but hopefully he’ll get over it. [laughs]
Christina: That’s right, and [hopefully] he keeps on buying the paper. But I guess that’s another thing to think too. We really are chroniclers of history, if you like. When we look back at old papers and think that they’re fascinating, I’m sure those people didn’t think back then that they would be writing something that in a hundred years’ time or whatever we would look back on as a study of society. But of course we do. There’s almost no better reflection of what’s going on in the world at the time, so what we do now, people will be looking at in 10, 20, 30, 50 years’ time and using that to judge what Bundaberg, or what Queensland, Australia was like in that era.
Andrew: Which comes back to the responsibility that you were talking about.
Christina: Absolutely. Down to the slightest thing; if you get a fact wrong then that fact, unless properly corrected, remains wrong for years. As Janette says, when it’s there in black and white print and it’s not something that just flashes up on a screen and goes away and can be forgotten about, it really is very, very final and very long-lasting.
Andrew: I think of journalism as helping people to make sense of the world around them. That’s how I view it; how I define it. I wonder if you have different definitions of what journalists are.
Janette: I think it depends on your audience, actually. I’m a big fan of the Financial Review. I love it because it just tells me what’s going on. It leaves me to make my call. But a lot of newspapers, a lot of people don’t feel comfortable doing that. The Courier Mail’s the perfect [example], every single story they have — don’t get me wrong because I love The Courier. I’ve worked there for years and a lot of friends work there. But every single story they have a comment [next to the story] and I go, “Oh, for goodness sake’s, don’t tell me what to think. That’s okay, that’s me. I know a lot of people do like it.
Christina: I think it’s generally our job too, especially any sort of politically related or anything to do with government or policy can be really dry, and really complicated and you think “people aren’t going to want to read about that, not the way they’re presenting it”. So it’s our job to take those boring or complex issues and try to break them down into something more simple for people.
Janette: You contextualise it, so basically – like the budget. What the News Mail produced was designed to target its own community. “What’s important to us right here, forget everybody else out there, what’s important to our community?” That’s the job of a journalist. You actually dissect the information. There’s reams and reams of it that comes out of the budget and then you say, “this is important to you; this is what you should be aware of. This could actually make a difference to your lifestyle or it could make a difference to your hip pocket,” or whatever. In that way, it does make sense of the world around us. I think it also – if a newspaper gets it right, they put the right stories on the right pages, and that’s why people buy it.
[Audience]: Do you believe it’s possible to be completely objective?
Janette: I do.
Christina: I used to have a lecturer who said, “you don’t always have to be objective, but you do have to be fair”. I think it can be difficult. I do think it’s possible to be but I think it can sometimes be difficult to be. I think probably more so in smaller communities because your access to contacts, or pool to contacts is so much smaller. You’re very aware of the impacts that stories will have on people that you might know very well. It is a lot more challenging, I think, to confront those in smaller communities.
It’s easier in bigger places or with bigger papers to burn a few bridges, because you can build some other ones. You burn bridges here [in Bundaberg], you’ve got to mend them if you want to keep on going. Those things are certainly challenges.
Basically, unless we sort of set out to have a bit of fun with a story, or to say, “we’re going to definitely present a certain kind of angle because we want to campaign on this” or point out that we view an issue a very particular way, our job really when it comes down to it is not to comment, or what they call ‘editorialise’. It’s to say, “let’s take an issue. A few people are going to look at it a few different ways. Let’s report credible spokespeople, not just Joe Blow off the street, and let’s report what they say”. It’s our job to report what other people say on these issues or how they analyse them.
[Audience]: I feel that objectivity can be lost not only in how you structure your article, but where it’s placed. Value judgments on what is on the front [page].
[Audience]: Is it something that’s thought about?
Christina: Probably not in the objectivity sense, but essentially, if you look at the front page of a newspaper, it’s supposed to be your greatest advertisement for your product, which is your newspaper. You want it to sell. You want to put the story on the front that you think will appeal to the widest and greatest audience. That doesn’t necessarily come down to the way it’s reported, but the story itself, and if you think it will be appealing to your readership. Lots of things decide or come into play when you’re deciding where to put things on pages.
Normally, we say in journalism, generally people will put more of their attention into what’s on the right-hand page. They’re natural readership patterns, or reading patterns. We’ll put our best photos usually on the right-hand pages. Probably put our strongest stories, or what we consider to be stronger stories on our right-hand pages; which is not to say that the left-hand pages aren’t as important, but research over time has shown those are generally the way people read.
There are those kinds of decisions going on. At the News Mail, one of the things that I’ve always felt to be quite important, because people have often complained there’s always so much bad news on the front page — and that’s because good news doesn’t sell. We know that. [laughs] We get the figures and we see what sells. But it’s important to me to have page three — that’s generally the first thing that people see when they open the cover paper. For me, I want that story to be bright, and upbeat, or quirky, or entertaining. That’s what page three is to a newspaper, to me.
Janette: What they call ‘water cooler stories’; stories that people are going to talk about the next day. Every paper, when you draw up a broadsheet page – broadsheets are the big papers, tabloids are the small papers – it’s when you draw up a broadsheet page that you basically have a heavy story across the top, heavy duty, because you’ve got about eighty centimetres of copy there. Then you’ve got your mains, which is going to be something probably social. Then you’ve got a quirky one there and the something that’s probably community on the bottom. That’s pretty much the formula for putting together page three in the major papers.
That doesn’t change. That doesn’t change from the U.K. to Australia. It’s just the way people like it. People feel comfortable. People like to be entertained. They like the important or what we consider the big news on the front, and often, unfortunately, it is bad. Not always, but often. But inside once you hit page three people like that mix. It keeps them entertained, keeps them happy, which is great.
Christina: From an outsider’s point of view it may not seem we put that much thought into where we put them, but there’s a lot of different things going on when we place our photos and stories on pages. A lot of it, too, comes down to context. If we’re reporting an ongoing story, and we might report it three or four days in a row. [We’ll say] “we put it on page three yesterday. We don’t really want to do that again. Let’s give it a different position in the paper because it’s probably not perhaps as important as it was yesterday but we still want to make sure we give it a really visible read.” Lots of different competing interests, I guess, in putting pages together.
Janette: Journalists do get questioned quite hard when they’re putting their story together. When you put a story together, you have to be balanced by law. That’s how it works. You have all the right of reply, and all those sort of things that you’d know about. All the right of reply and that sort of thing is very important, but it’s also very important in terms of the whole balance. You’re not allowed to just go out there — unless you stick ‘comment’ on it, in which case you carry the can for that comment. It’s actually saying ‘this is my view, I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me’. Andrew Bolt’s made a career out of that. That’s the way it is.
But, the time you stick ‘comment’ on it and also when you talk about objective… once someone’s worked for a political party, if they work for a mainstream major newspaper again, they’ve got to have at the end of every piece they write the fact that ‘this person worked for a political party’. You’ve got to tell people what you’ve done. That’s why journalists think very long and hard before going to work for a political party.
Christina: I guess in Australia too, where Janette started her career in the U.K., and there’s a much greater breadth of newspapers in the U.K. There are well-known papers that take certain political leanings. They can afford to because there’s a big enough readership, a big enough variety of newspapers. If people know they’re sort of a bit left wing they’ll buy the Guardian.
Janette: People also buy on that basis. They buy the paper that suits their political view.
Christina: They’re catering to their own audience. We can’t really afford to do that. Certainly not as regional papers because we’ve only got one readership and if we alienate half those people, then we’re in trouble. But even for our larger newspapers here, most of our capital cities still have monopoly newspapers. There’s really not a lot of competition, which, although it means they’ve to a point got some guaranteed readership, it does mean that they can’t afford to alienate their readers by taking certain political leanings in their reporting. Even though over years, especially probably in the Murdoch press [News Ltd] there’s been criticism.
Andrew: As an editor, Christina, what do you like to see from your writers; your journalists?
Christina: Initiative, first and foremost. At regional papers we have a lot of young staff, a lot of people who might be fresh out of uni and so there’s a lot of development that you have to do with them to get them to the stage where you could leave them to their own devices. But generally, I like to see people who show a bit of initiative, not just in the way they write but in the way that they deal with people.
If they’re trying to get a comment on a particular story and they hit a brick wall, try and find a way around it. Not to give up, and also to see different angles in stories. You might find there are events we report on every year and we could report the story the same way each year. Or court stories, you’ll find we get people appearing for drunk driving and wilful damage and whatever in court, every single day, but it’s about finding a different way to tell the story.
I like people to be passionate about what they do. Not to see the job as a nine-to-five because it’s not. We try and do the best thing by our reporters that we can, but news doesn’t run on a nine-to-five schedule, or on a Monday to Friday schedule. So it has to be about give-and-take. So I guess we need people to be flexible, and to understand that.
But I guess also I like people to, as we were saying before, realise the privileges they have. If we get a reporter come to us who’s not from Bundaberg, there’s no better job in the entire community to have to get to know your way around town, to get to know the people who drive the place than to be a journalist, because your very job depends on you getting out and about, meeting new people all the time; tackling the issues of the day. That really is, as I said, quite a position of privilege and a great adventure. Every day generally is a lot of fun.
I think flexibility and a willingness to try new things [is what I like to see], because Scott [Thompson] is someone who just started at the Isis Town and Country, which is our Childers paper. Scott does quite a bit of work for us in Bundaberg as well, but every single day we’ve pretty well thrown him into a different situation. He’s show a willingness to tackle it and that’s something that to me, as an editor, is really important. What’s been your most interesting job so far, do you reckon?
Scott: I don’t know. Childers is a place in that, it’s a small town, so you know everyone and you don’t get overwhelmed by it, but there’s always things. It’s very tourism-based so just going out and meeting people and hearing some of their stories have been interesting. You get to do things that you might not do in regular jobs. I’ve been out and I’ve seen scrub pythons eat like seven guinea pigs in a row and I’ve got to pat baby macaws and things like that. Every day’s something different, and you never get sick of your job. That’s a really good thing.
Christina: The other good thing too – the sort of paper that Scott’s working at because Childers is a bit smaller, sometimes people take a little while to get used to newcomers and it’s sometimes hard to crack into that because people think, “this is our local paper, and he’s from Bundy, but that’s Bundy and we’re Childers!”. People can get quite parochial. It takes that sort of persistence as well to say, “I’m not a local boy, but I’m getting to know people”.
We were at an event together a couple of weeks ago, at the reopening of the Apple Tree Creek memorial rotunda, and in the space of about five minutes I must have seen Scott say ‘hi’ to about 20 people who just working past. “Hi Scott,”; “Hi, how you going Dorothy?” People he’d got to know, just in the six weeks that you’ve been with us. It’s a great job in that respect, but if you get knocked back you’ve got to keep trying, that’s for sure.
Andrew: I do want to draw a bit more on Scott, and the path that he’s on now. Could you tell everyone a bit about how you came to work for the Isis Town and Country, Scott?
Scott [pictured right]: I studied a Bachelor of Journalism at UQ, and my biggest regret is I didn’t start writing or looking for stories in my first year. You should always be looking for stories, even if they’re just writing on a blog or something, or looking for small places that are easy to get into. You should always be looking for stories.
I got to my fourth year and I had nothing to show for myself. I’m thinking, “I’m supposed to be getting a job by the end of the year,” so I went out and started writing for, like Andrew, the street press. I did an internship at Time Off, which is one of the free street press magazines, in Brisbane. I blogged for U.K. magazine Rock Sound for Soundwave Festival . They picked one person out of all Australia, and I basically built up a bit of a portfolio and then I approached Christina, because my parents still lived here and they told me that there was this job going in Bundaberg.
I got knocked back for the cadetship because I’d already graduated, but I got the job at Isis Town and Country, so I’ve been here for five or six weeks. It’s been really eye-opening in that it’s a lot more full-on that just doing the street press, but you’re not thrown in the deep end. Christina’s given me a lot of help and I’m quite thankful for that.
I’ve probably learnt more from actually doing my job than learning about it at university. Like other people have found out, it’s very dry and academic based. I think with QUT they do [a] more practical approach [to the journalism degree], and that’s much more important, but I’ve learnt more from actually going out and doing the work, than learning about it.
Christina: And that’s not to say if any of you are thinking about studying any sort of media or communications, that’s not to say that it’s not a valuable exercise [to study at university]. There are a lot of things that it’s really handy you know before you come to a job, like a bit about ground legal knowledge like what’s defamatory, what might be contemptuous. Those kinds of things are really valuable for you to know.
But I’m sure a lot of people – and I know I could say the same thing as Scott – that I felt I learnt so much more in my first few weeks of my job than I probably did altogether at uni. But he’s right; the thing that got him his job was me looking at his published work. To me, that showed someone who got off their rear end and done some stuff of their own accord, who wrote well. I could actually see how he wrote and that gave me a glimpse. Looking at his university record wouldn’t have really done anything. Just because you get a high GPA doesn’t really reflect an awful lot. That was far more important to me.
Even if you guys aren’t interested in journalism necessarily, whatever sort of path you are interested in, do try and get work experience, because one of the reporters that I have at the moment, she very directly got a job because she did work experience with us six months ago. Ever since then we were trying to find an opening for her. If you can take the initiative and in your school holidays, or even through your school-provided work experience programs, definitely take advantage of it, because if you get yourself noticed and they get to know your face, your name, and what you’re capable of, then you’ll definitely find it smooths the path for you later on.
Andrew: Who knows what a freelance journalist is?
Audience: I think I do. I don’t want to embarrass myself…. You write your own stories and sell them to magazines, so you’re not actually employed by anyone? You write the stories and then you sell them to the magazine or papers who want them?
Andrew: Yeah, that’s basically it. I’ve been a freelance journalist for about two years now, and it means that at any one point I can think of a story idea and have 12 or 15 different publications that I could potentially sell that idea to. I don’t actually write them first, though, because I might not know if I’m going to get paid at the end, and I don’t necessarily want to waste my time.
[Audience]: So you just think up the idea and sell that idea to a paper, and tell them that you’ll write about that idea if they pay it?
Andrew: Yeah, it’s about marketing yourself. I’ve got a few good clips under my belt for Rolling Stone, The Weekend Australian. I always mention those first if I’m introducing myself to an editor. [That way] they know ‘this is not just some guy off the street. He’s actually got some credibility’. Maybe. [So it’s about] the intro, and then the [story] idea and how you’re going to approach it, who are you going to talk to, how long you think it’s going to run to, and then you pass it on to the editor. It’s for them to decide whether they go ahead with it.
Christina: Freelancing is notoriously difficult in Australia, to make a career out of it. And to get paid well. But what you’ll find, and what Andrew may have already found this, is that even as a freelancer once you’ve built up a relationship with a certain publication, they might then commission you to do some stories as well. It can actually go both ways. It’ll usually start off with you pitching an idea to them, and then once they’ve looked at your stuff and say, “we can rely on this guy; he writes well, he hits the nail on the head. Next time we need something done and maybe we can’t get it done by our own staff we’ll give Andrew a call and see if he can do something for us as well, because we’re happy to pay for it.”
Andrew: I did an event in Brisbane on Tuesday evening about freelance journalism with John Birmingham and Benjamin Law; two guys who are pretty well-known freelance journalists based in Brisbane. They were talking about how most magazines these days… if you think of any magazine, basically, they only have skeleton staffs. Once upon a time, they would have had dozens of people working on Rolling Stone with staff writers, these days there’s only an editor-in-chief, an editor, an art editor, and the rest are just freelancers or they don’t actually work in the office; they just are around Australia, and can be called on anytime.
Christina: Those people buddy up to local newspapers, because they read stories that you’ve actually done the hard work on and then say, “hey, can you give me a phone number for that person; we’d love to do a story for New Idea”. I say, “no, do your own hard work!” [laughs]
Andrew: Christina referred to it being difficult. It definitely is, because on a daily basis you’re marketing yourself, trying to get paid. You don’t know where your next pay check’s coming from. Some weeks I’ve had nothing. I’ve been pitching stories all week, and nothing’s come back. Next week I get commissioned stories that are worth thousands of dollars. It’s very up and down, and very stressful at times.
Christina: You’ve got to be organised too. If you just work for a newspaper or any organisation, you get your weekly or fortnightly or monthly pay check and that’s fine. You don’t have to do anything. If you’re a freelancer, you’ve got to keep track of your jobs. You’ve got to keep track of, “have they paid me?” Some pay on time and some don’t. You really have to be very organised, to firstly get the work and then make a buck out of it. It’s not the easiest way to do it.
Andrew: I did want to point it out because we’ve been talking about careers, but there are alternatives to that kind of method [of getting a job at a single publication].
Christina: Which is great if you want the freedom to work on your own stuff, or you might actually have another full-time job. Perhaps writing on the side is a passion of yours and that’s something you can still continue to do. I guess that’s a really good thing as well, that journalism is a lot of things. It’s not just working at a local paper and reporting on news stories. There’s science writing and finance writing. You might find a lot of people who have different life experience or different kinds of educational qualifications, but still write well can make really good science writers or health writers or medical writers, or whatever. There are a lot of different paths you can take, I suppose, to get to that place.
Janette: You would often commission a person who’s an expert in their area to write an article for you. They have to have a fairly strong track record to do that. As an ex-features editor, you’re very careful about using people who call themselves freelance journalists but actually haven’t gotten any qualifications to do that. They can be quite dangerous because journalism is full of legal potholes. When you send your journalists out there, the one thing you need to have in them is complete confidence because what they bring back, you’ve got to trust that implicitly.
Christina: You make your decisions based on that.
Janette: You do, absolutely. If people go out there and bring back information that hasn’t been checked out thoroughly, or is incomplete, or even worse… I used to get a lot of contact from people who do some course and think they were freelance journalists and I’d have to break the happy news to them that actually, they weren’t. You can do freelancing if you are an expert in your field. That’s a different set of criteria all together and when you’re writing opinion pages they’re the people you do tend to tap into.
Really to be a freelancer, to be a successful freelancer – and credit to you for working in that area – you actually have to be better than the people they have on staff, because unless I’m really strapped and have no one else to do it, I’m thinking, “who can I get to write this story that must be written?” If I know you’re actually going to go do a better job of it because you’ve got good contacts, got good writing style and I like everything you do – but it’s not a style that I want all the time, or a subject I want all the time – then I’ll go and ask you, because at the end of the day people like quality journalism.
It’s great when people rip out a story or article and keep it. If you’ve got a freelance journalist – and there are some around, some excellent ones around who you know will deliver something that’s out of the ordinary – then yes, you’re going to pay them.
Christina: The other long-held debating point as well – and this goes back to people who have expert areas, but write as well, is reviews. Whether it’s restaurant or food reviews or reviews of theatre, that kind of thing; when I was growing up there was always this argument of, “do you want someone who’s a great journalist and like film and TV, or do you want someone who’s gone and studied film and TV at uni and really understands a lot more of the nuances in it, but also happens to write well?” Perhaps they’ll make a much better critic. Same for restaurant reviews. You don’t want to send someone along who’s like… I like to eat out, but that doesn’t make me an expert. [laughs]
Janette: From an editor’s perspective as well, there’s people who are experts in their field, whether it’s film and TV, they have their own reputation to consider. They are very careful about what they say and don’t say. That gives you confidence as well because you’re actually putting this person out there — if they write something that really isn’t up to scratch, then their reputation in that field can be damaged, so they don’t do it. I’ve found them very reliable, actually. The worst thing is to send in someone, as you said, to do a review of something and they really don’t know their subject. It’s very embarrassing.
Christina: Reviews can get you into trouble. There are actually some really well-known examples of some quite outlandishly critical restaurant reviews which ended up getting the newspapers into legal trouble and costing them quite a lot in fines. Sometimes these things aren’t really judged to be fair comments. Then you end up paying for it.
Andrew: I want to point out that, at no point during the couple of years I’ve been doing [freelance journalism], have any of many editors I’ve been involved with asked “do you have a degree in journalism?” or, “have you studied?” It’s far more important to have the clips, the bylines, that you’ve had published, than a piece of paper saying you studied for three or four years, doing a degree.
Christina: In fact, when Janette first started out explaining how she got into journalism, she said she went in as a direct entry reporter. We have, just probably three weeks ago, taken on a first-year cadet, which… the way the pay structure works in journalism is when you come out of doing a degree in journalism or communications you come out as a third-year cadet and spend a year doing your cadetship, and then you become a graded journalist.
We really wanted to take on a young person who hopefully was local so they’d grown up in the area, who we could really develop at the newspaper, give them on-the-job experience, because we felt we could give them just as good development of their skills and qualifications at the newspaper as they could at university.
I actually approached one of my company bosses saying, “can we still get first-year cadets?” He said, “you can, but geez, we haven’t done that in a long time”. That was really important to us. She grew up in Childers. She moved to Bundaberg a couple of years ago. She doesn’t have a degree. In fact she’d been doing a little bit of work in our advertising department and I said, “you’re going to have to take a bit of a pay cut”. She said, “that’s okay, because I know that’s what I want to do”.
To me, that was far more important, that she was someone who has a lot of ties to the area, so she’s not just going to leave after she’s done a year and got her experience and move onto a bigger paper. She’s at least going to be someone who will stay with us for a while. She knows people and really enjoys what she does. It doesn’t matter to me that she doesn’t have any university experience, because we’ll give her the benefit of our training, of company training that APN as a company puts on.
I already saw the way she wrote and her turn of phrase and thought, “she can do it”. That’s rare. You don’t often get those opportunities, but it’s something I’d like to see happen more often because I think sometimes we underestimate young people and what they’re capable of. I guess the other side of that, there are some people who really want the university experience, not necessarily for the educational qualification but they want the experience of that mishmash of people at university, meeting people from all different walks of life and I guess the coming of age and social experiences that uni can offer. I never discourage it. But it’s not necessary, if you don’t think that uni’s for you.
Andrew: I highly recommend studying at university, and staying on campus at college. I look at my degree; that was neither here nor there, but staying at campus and making all the friends who I’ve maintained for years, and the social events surrounding [college] – that was awesome.
Christina: Yeah, they’re formative years.
Audience: I went to Women’s College, and when you move from Bundaberg you have nobody, and then you go to college and instead of living in a house and knowing nobody, then you meet all these people, it was great.
Andrew: Scott can probably concur, as well. He went to St. Leo’s [College].
Christina: Great. I lived off-campus actually because I was very determined not to be one of those pampered residential kids. I was quite self-righteous about that.
Scott: [College] is kind of bad thing because it breeds laziness. You get everything done for you, get your meals cooked for you, get your rooms cleaned…
[Audience]: But if you’re a scared 17 year-old…
Scott: That’s true.
Christina: Going back to this cadetship job; maybe that’s a risk sometimes, that a lot of 17 year olds are scared. A few of the people we spoke to, a couple of whom are members of the writers’ group actually, really good kids, but just weren’t ready to be journalists. We had this girl come in who’s just a couple of years older and it made all the difference in the way she carried herself.
Andrew [pictured left]: Janette made a reference earlier to how, when she was editor, she would commission experts in certain areas to write opinion pieces or write features on those topics. It doesn’t have to be that way. To give an example, I now do some video game journalism for a website called IGN. The way I got into that was because late last year… to give you a bit of background info, Australia’s video game development industry is about 700 people-strong. That’s 700 people who are involved in making video games you play on PlayStation or Xbox or Nintendo.
The news leaked out [late last year] that the biggest video game developer in Australia had shut its doors and fired all the staff. They were based in Brisbane. The news lingered for a couple of weeks, and no one was really reporting on it, or confirming or denying that it actually happened. There was nothing coming out from the actual company. I wanted to know if it was true, because it interested me – firstly, that the biggest company could shut down and no one really knew the reason, and how it couldn’t be confirmed for so long.
I started investigating myself by contacting some people who used to work for the studio and got a picture of what it was like to work there. With that information I put a request through to the CEO of the company – which was still going, but no one knew it at the time. He was happy to talk to me because I’d done my background research and I hadn’t just called up to say, “is it true that you guys are closed?”
When it first happened he had some calls from journalists who were like “So you’re closed, hey? What happened?” He felt he was being antagonised by them, rather than [feeling] a compassionate approach. With that background information that I’d found myself, he opened up and told me why their business model wasn’t working, and what happened to the company, and what’s next for them – which wasn’t that they’re shutting their doors. They were just downsizing a hell of a lot. That story [‘Krome Studios: Things Fall Apart’] was an international exclusive, because no one else was covering it and no one seemed to care, so I got in there and got the story.
Janette: That’s your news sense coming out, and that’s journalism. With regard to using experts, what I’m trying to say is if I want a piece written about a specific topic or area, that’s when you call in your experts. You’re talking big names here.
If I want a piece of journalism about a business or company or organisation that’s shutting down, that’s news sense. Regardless of whether your credentials have checked or not, that’s where your journalism degree comes into play. All the things you were saying, and what editors want to hear; “I did my background, I did this, I did that”. Regardless of whether you say “it didn’t matter to me”, actually it has made you the person that you are. I hate to say this, but you are a product of your university degree. And you are a product of the system. And that’s not a bad thing, because that’s what underpins, when we come back down to the reliability of information you read in the media, and as an editor, that’s what you’re looking for. That’s what you need.
For instance, everything that you’ve said to me… if you’d rung me up, even without me asking you “are you qualified?”, because you don’t need to. You can tell the ones who aren’t qualified. It’s just so clear. They don’t use the language that we use in journalism and all those things, you tick all those boxes, and then you’ve got a story. Unless you tick all those boxes, you haven’t got your balance. You haven’t got your background. You haven’t got everything that you need to actually make a rounded story.
So yes absolutely, I think that a lot of journalists… and in fact we should talk about initiative as well, there are stories all around us all the time. It’s a question of recognising them. That’s another skill that you gain through training and experience.
Christina: And just living a little as well.
Janette: Absolutely, just being aware and contextualising it and reading other newspapers and actually understanding the importance of what that meant. You said — what were you telling me just then? Seven hundred game companies, so this one closing down wasn’t like a corner store. Actually a corner store is a big thing nowadays. It isn’t like something insignificant happening in a vast industry. It’s like a graphics company closing down. How many graphics companies are there? Most of them are sole traders and dinkering along. One of those goes, but you put it in context immediately. You said “this is a small industry, this is a major player”. It’s gone.
There’s also the “what happens now?” There’s also, “why did it happen?” And so you go and do your background checks. Actually, I have to say you’re a bit following the creed of journalism and if you’d rung me up with that story I’d have listened to you and I probably wouldn’t have said to you “do you have a degree?” I know you’ve got one because the way you talk; you wouldn’t talk that way unless you had one.
Christina: You’ll probably find in situations like that as well, the fact that you didn’t have a big newspaper backing you might actually have helped you out. Because as soon as you say, “hi, I’m Andrew McMillen from The Courier-Mail”, people will freeze up sometimes. But you get the opportunity to actually explain who you are and that you’ve done a bit of looking into it. It’s a different path in sometimes. It’s the same for us. “Hi, I’m [whoever] from the News Mail,” and some people go, “Ohhiiiii, how are you?” That’s a path to success. Other people don’t like the News Mail so much. It’s an instant turnoff. As I said, everyone judges based on what experience they’ve had with the name [of the publication].
Janette: It’s not always the fault of the current editor, either.
Christina: No, but that’s all right. The other thing I was going to point out, you mentioned some of the different work you’ve done. Sometimes I think people can really pigeonhole what freelance work is or what journalism is. There’s a lot of copywriting you can do. When I was living in the U.K. for a number of years, I worked at a particular paper. I used to write the odd travel article that I’d freelance through a bigger national paper. I used to go out with a guy who was a graphic designer, so sometimes I’d get some copywriting through websites he’d work on. Sometimes that might be as boring as explaining high-definition television, or some gaming stuff. These were things I didn’t know anything about, so you have to do your own research, and make sure what you can write for people will be believable and in laymen terms enough so that it’s understandable to someone who were just like you before they picked up that article, or looked at that website and didn’t know what they were talking about.
Janette: It’s interesting. You have a trivia night with journalists and they have the most eclectic amount of information you’d ever believe because we all… when you work in a newsroom or work in a features department you have to be able to research really quickly and get to groups with ideas really quickly. As a business writer, I can get across company core values, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, where they fit really quickly. They go “Wow!” I say, “I’ve been doing it for a few years; you get good at this stuff”. But most people don’t have those skills, and again, it’s an interesting thing. You are basically a jack-of-all-trades in terms of information. You kind of become instant experts in things. That’s what we need to be because, if you work for a major daily newspaper, you come out of conference and you say to a journo “I want a thousand words on this subject”.
They may know nothing about it but they just go “okay”, hit their contacts book, hit the rounds. Learn about it, find people who know a lot about it, and talk to them really fast, and that’s the difference. The difference between a piece of journalism about a subject and a piece written by an expert in that subject; talk about objectivity… I don’t expect the expert to be objective. They have a very strong view but we stick their name on it and they have to stand by their opinion.
But when a journalist writes a piece it has to be very balanced. When you look at feature articles, I look very hard at the intro but then again a lot of the time the decision on what a story’s about has been made at the back bench level. We’ve told them what the story is and that’s based not on our own personal view. It’s because, like [how] Christina’s here today; anyone who works at senior levels in the media is out there talking to people all the time, and important people, and people who are ordinary, and people who are just connected.
You find out an awful lot of information so you’re not making an impromptu decision. You’re making a reasoned judgment. You’re saying this is what people are saying out there. I used to run what they used to call the Monitor section, the big opinion section in The Courier-Mail. That was my baby. I used to have a range of people in my contacts that I would ring up on a Thursday afternoon and say, “these are the stories I’m working on. What’s important to you? You tell me what’s important to you.” Some of them were housewives, some were business people, all sorts of things. I respected all of their opinions.
Christina: I think that’s a common misconception. I think people think that I’m an editor and I get the opportunity to hob-knob with a lot of well-known or perceived as important people in town, that the opinion of our newspaper is driven by that. It’s not. If we want to address good discussion and debate type stories, we want to appeal to what everyday people are talking about… Janette referred to it before as a ‘water cooler story’. That comes from the idea that in the old days, people used to talk around the water pump in the village, or when they’re at work and go to the water cooler. It’s those discussion topics that, when people are passing each other in the street or in the workplace, what are those basic things that affect them that they talk about?
Whether it’s for instance, one of the big topical things to come out of the budget in the past couple of weeks was teenage mums and when they should go back to work after having had children. That’s something that affects a lot of people. It’s about addressing those kinds of issues that we think the everyday person is talking about, not what the mayor’s talking about or the big businessmen in town. That’s not what drives us as a community paper because they’re a very small part of our readership, in reality.
Janette: We have to talk to them because they’re the decision makers, the influencers, the ones who actually make the call at the end of the day. We need to know what their thoughts are. That’s when newspapers really come into their own in the community, [when] they can put out there what decision makers are thinking about and actually ask the question; “is this right; is this wrong?” I think that’s a very important role to play.
[Audience]: There seems to be a pattern that I know from my experience; it wasn’t just that studying journalism in university is very dry. It wasn’t just that. I was better at that and I knew that journalism was dry, and I could tell like Scott said; you have to put yourself out there and have to have the passion. You have to get up and go find the story. I didn’t really want to do that, and that seems to be a pattern. You don’t just need people skills and writing, you also have to have the real drive.
Janette: The hunger for stories.
Christina: Yeah, look; it depends on what sort of journalism you’re interested in. If you’re into feature writing or music writing, you still have to have the hunger but you don’t necessarily have to have the need to be confrontational. You find a lot of hard news journalists who — one of my friends, we went to uni together, [we were] like peas in a pod. But we knew instantly when we started working for different papers as soon as we graduated, and he was the guy who loved being out staking out peoples’ houses and really loved hitting people up, and had enormous guts. I remember thinking, “oh geez, that’s not me at all”. I loved sitting down and talking to people and getting a great story out of someone, that you know they would tell you something they wouldn’t tell another journalist because you took the time to understand them better, relate to them a little better. That was the kind of journalist that I was as a young person.
I think you can still be passionate and hungry without necessarily being hard-nosed. But at the same time, those kinds of journalists are very sought-after. There’s probably a bit of extra prestige, rightly or wrongly connected with it in some ways, and [it’s] quite hard to break into. You have to really work at it to get into it.
Janette: I think [you need to be] inquisitive as well, in the same way you were talking about that story just now. It’s that interest in the world around you. I find… I have Austar, because I love watching all the overseas news. I watch all the overseas news channels. I love to know what’s going on out there because I don’t get enough of that through my own media here in Australia. I probably will never get enough of it. I watch the [Federal] budget from start to finish. I watch the election from start to finish. It comes on; I’m sitting there glued to the chair. I’m reading; I’m making my own decisions so when they come on later and start interpreting, I’m like “whatever. I saw the speech, don’t worry about it. I know what’s going on.”
That’s me, and I like to be informed. I think that if you like to be informed and you are inquisitive and you see the story and, “go hang on; that’s important because….” and that’s important because it’s what puts it into the newspaper, and it can be important because of its importance to the community for whatever reason. It’s important because it’s got implications for peoples’ lifestyle or budgets. There’s all sorts of “it’s important because”.
I used to work on the back bench to various newspapers as chief sub, which is like the conduit for all the copy that comes through. I used to have a ‘WC’; I used to go through stories because they come in, loads and loads of stories. It was, ‘who cares?’ You put ‘WC’ by it, it was like it was dead, gone. No one cares. That’s my judgment, but someone has to make the call at some point. You’re making that judgment based on experience and based on your knowledge of your readership. At the end of the day your readership is who you’re talking to. ‘Who cares?’ is actually a really important benchmark to have in newspapers. People ring up and say, “I’d like to put something in the paper”. You go, “that’s actually not of very much interest to a lot of people”.
Christina: Or it might affect you.
Janette: You personally, but it’s not that interesting, the ‘who cares?’ And other people you’re talking to them, they go “blah, blah, blah…” and you go, “that’s really important and we should do a story on that”.
Christina: If it’s affecting you, it’s probably affecting thousands of other people in town as well.
Janette: That’s right. And they say, “oh, is that a story?” And you go, “yep, absolutely.”
Andrew: [to audience member who has been asking most of the questions] What are you doing now, if I may ask?
[Audience]: I’m doing my graduate diploma in teaching, and then I’m going to do my Masters.
[Audience]: [to Andrew] You said before about some of the contacts that you made. You said that you got a hold of a few past employees about the video game company. How do you get the numbers of these people if you’ve never met them before? You don’t know anything about them.
Andrew: It’s a good question. The way I did it… I’m not saying this is the only way, but there’s a website called LinkedIn which a lot of people use for their professional histories. You can search by ‘past employer’. I searched for anyone whose past employer was ‘Krome Studios’, which is the name of the company involved, and that uncovered dozens of people. I just hit every single one of them via email. Actually, those that had websites or personal blogs; I hit them and said “I want to look into this. Can you tell me anything, or do you know anyone who was working there recently?” Not everyone replied, and some people even told me to “bugger off, just leave it alone”, but a few did [reply positively].
Christina: Persistence comes in.
Andrew: Yeah. A few people did open up and gave me contacts who had just been laid off by the company. I had a range of people who’d been there from five years ago, up until the week it closed.
Christina: And take this however you will, because I’m sure a lot of you use social networking sites a lot, but they’ve opened up a lot of research tools to newspapers. If we’ve had some crime stories — to give you an example; there was a pretty awful stories probably two or three months back. I’m not sure if any of you might have been familiar with it but a twenty-four year old woman who was seven months pregnant when she was killed, she was found dead in a house. It looked as though she might have been stabbed. There was a bit of mystery around it.
We basically were able to come up with a name because the police wouldn’t release it to us straightaway. We were able to come up with a name through looking at Facebook connections between people. Then, thankfully because we’ve got quite a number of employees at the News Mail, when we threw that name around the building one of the advertising staff said, “my mum knows that girl’s grandmother”. Through speaking to her grandmother we were able to speak to her dad and do this really quite heart-wrenching story about this dad’s pain for his daughter who had a drug problem and got caught up in the wrong crowd. And no one was ever able to crack that story because they didn’t have the same contacts, just through the community that we had. That story is still ongoing, but Facebook particularly has opened up a lot of research paths for us in that way.
[Audience]: Do you find there’s a lot of controversy around reporting peoples’ names in the paper? If you have a court case and it’s particularly horrific, like a lot of controversy surrounding that?
Christina: Actually there is law in place that dictates what you can and can’t report. Sometimes we do make a judgment call. Sometimes we can report someone’s name and we decide maybe it’s better not to, but generally — to give you an example; you’re not allowed to use the names of child victims of any sort. You’re not allowed to use the name of someone who’s been accused of any sort of sex offence until it’s been established that there’s enough evidence for it to go to trial because that recognises the fact that perhaps someone might have maliciously made an accusation against them and you’ll ruin their reputation if you report their name until that later trial time.
There are very specific measures that are put in place legally to govern what you can and can’t report. We just find that the best way to deal with that is to treat everyone the same. You follow the law to the letter because once you start making exceptions, then it’s very difficult for you to justify or explain why you treated this defendant one way and that defendant another. You really need – with court [reporting] especially – you need to be able to treat everyone fairly.
When I talk about using judgment, to give you an example; I had a court case about twelve months ago where there was a couple of young guys who plead guilty and were convicted of stealing from a guy and assaulting him. They said, in their defence, that this man they’d beaten up and stolen from had actually offered to sell his wife for sex to them. The reporter had originally included that man’s name and his wife’s. I thought, “just in case the guys made that story up, for the sake of that woman, I’m going to take that out because people don’t need to see that”. It’s not important; it doesn’t add anything to the story. It didn’t really change anything about it except for the fact that someone’s dignity was protected.
Sometimes it is a bit of a minefield and a lot of people will call us threatening legal action because we’ve used their name in the paper, but generally it’s just because they don’t understand how court works and what we are and aren’t allowed to do. We always take the time to explain it to them. Some are accepting, and others not so much. [laughs]
Janette: It has been accepted in the legal community that, for instance, drink driving. The News Mail carries the names of people who’ve been convicted of drunk driving that week. Where I did my cadetship there was a lot of shoplifting; very poor people who would go shoplifting. So used to get these very upset women saying, “please don’t put my name in the paper,” and I’d go, “[it’s] not my call”.
As you say; level playing field. It is regarded by the police certainly – and by the legal system generally – that part of the repercussions of drinking and driving is to be publicly humiliated. That’s really a sad fact of life, but it is a deterrent for people. They might not be deterred by a large fine, but they would certainly be deterred by people knowing about it in their own community. It’s not something people generally are very proud of.
[Audience]: You were saying before you’re using Facebook. Are you finding some sort of online media and basically everything online is becoming a big part of the industry?
Christina: Absolutely. It’s something that’s a really difficult thing for newspapers to navigate at the moment because we tend to find that we have quite specific audiences, different audience, those who read the paper and those who read us online. Just by people who leave comments on your stories, you get to know the different clients of readers you have. Websites are definitely becoming the way of the future. The difficulty a lot of newspapers are facing at the moment is that they’re not as commercially viable yet as paid advertising is in newspapers. That’s how we survive. Obviously we make money out of the cover price of newspaper, but that’s a small percentage compared to the revenue that comes in through advertising and advertising allows us to exist as a company.
We’re sort of in this state of flux at the moment. We’re doing a lot of work on our websites and making sure that we stay relevant to younger people especially because I don’t know about you guys; would most of you look at websites rather than pick up a newspaper? Would that be fair to say? [most of the audience raises their hands] Yeah. It’s really important for us to maintain that, while not losing our newspaper audience at the same time. At the moment we’re in this awkward middle ground of maintaining the two.
Janette: The other aspect of social media and the internet generally is the unreliability of information that’s contained on it. It’s a real minefield, especially for journalists. It’s a valuable resource, no question about it. I don’t know how we managed without Google, quite frankly. I can’t remember how we managed without Google. It is very important to check the reliability of the information and that comes right down to published papers and that sort of thing. People have access to a means of communication that really has and still has no legislation that is workable around it. It’s very interesting. Newspaper sites, funnily enough are one of the most reliable forms of information gathering.
Christina: And publicly trusted.
Janette: Exactly right, but also all the Facebook sites and that sort of thing; be very careful about what you put on your Facebook site because it is out there in the world and it can come back and bite you. It does put a window into your own personal world, and I know we all warn children and young people nowadays, but do take it very seriously. It’s very important but also, from a journalist’s perspective, if there’s information that’s on the internet in whatever form, we tend to actually require them to follow it up with other means of inquiry. We don’t trust internet information generally unless it comes from a very, very reputable site. Then we tend to identify that source as well. If it’s wrong, we blame them.
Christina: That’s an interesting thing to bring up. When you’re researching for assignments… there’s always this age-old argument that we’re giving our kids as good an education now as we were twenty years ago, and everyone just copies and pastes everything from the internet. There are actually some really good theories around at the moment that says because there is so much information on the internet, actually you are getting really good skills of analysis because you have to weed out the good from the bad and decide what is relevant, and what is trustworthy, and what isn’t. There is quite a lot of skill of analysis that involves using websites these days. I wouldn’t discount it out of hand.
I tell you what; sometimes, if we’re trying to crack some stories or we’ve got a spare 20 minutes here or there, it’s terribly fun if you know a few underworld criminal names in Bundaberg, and figuring out who knows each other and, “oh, I hadn’t expected that name to crop up”. [laughs] It’s actually quite an adventure, but as Janette says, your Facebook profiles are your reputation, and it’s something that when we’re researching stories we get a pretty good idea of who people are based on what sorts of photos, what sorts of comments they put up on their social networking sites.
Andrew: So tell us more about this underground criminal network in Bundaberg…?
Christina: Going back to this story about this seven-month pregnant woman who was killed; because of some names that we were familiar with that were in the mix, we have a court reporter who goes to court every day. You get to know who the usual suspects are, I suppose. I probably wouldn’t want to mention too many names, but [laughs] but once you’re familiar you realise, there really is a network. [A teacher indicates that most of the students have to leave to catch buses.]
Andrew: Guys, thank you so much for coming. This is part of National Young Writers’ Month. There are postcards up here if you want to grab one, for more information about the website. Join the community, start setting some goals about writing if you’re so inclined, and talking about writing.
Please thank my guests, Janette and Christina.
For more on National Young Writers’ Month 2011, visit the website. For more on Andrew’s involvement as Queensland ambassador, click here. For the full set of photos taken by Paul McMillen during the session, click here.