Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Working in Warwick: tales from the frontline

Just got back from a couple of days trying out for the Warwick Daily News. This was unpaid work, but valuable experience in a real newsroom. Warwick is a small town of 12,000 people on the Darling Downs about 160km west of Brisbane. It is amazing a town that size can support a daily newspaper, and even the editor admits it is tough to survive – especially when there are two other newspapers (both free) in town competing for scarce advertising revenue.

But survive it somehow does as the smallest newspaper in the APN stable, Australia’s third largest newspaper chain. The Warwick Daily News is an old and venerable newspaper starting initially as the Warwick Argus in the 1860s and changing its name to the Daily News after amalgamation with the Examiner and the Times in 1919. Today’s paper still has the smell of an oily rag feel to it. There is a small editorial staff with the deputy editor running a team of four full-time journalists and a couple more part-timers. The staffers are young and enthusiastic and are all excellent reporters. In a small paper like Warwick’s, the reporters do the lot. That means all the rounds, checking the newswires, taking photographs, copy tasting, sub-editing and more.

On my first day there I was sent out to do a follow up on a truck accident. A day earlier a truck had overturned on a dangerous turn of the New England Highway in the centre of Warwick. The original story was already in the paper the morning I arrived. The deputy editor told me that the junction was the subject of a bunfight between the Queensland Department of Main Roads (DMR) and Hungry Jack’s who were building a restaurant on the corner. DMR wanted Hungry Jack’s to include an additional turning lane on the corner but were not prepared to pay to resume the land to make it happen.

As well as talking to the two organisations, my job was also to go down to the corner and find someone who would talk about what they thought the problem was. So having left messages with DMR and Hungry Jack’s I set off to the corner where the truck rolled. There were no pedestrians about and no one answered the door at the first few houses I knocked at. There was a curtain shop at the corner but the two ladies inside didn’t want to be interviewed and they gave me the mobile number of the store owner whom they said “would have plenty to say on the matter”. I rang him up but contrary to expectations, he didn’t want to go on the record. In despair that I would fail on my first job, I finally found someone sitting on his porch a few doors down from the junction who was prepared to talk. While his story didn’t fit in with the DMR/Hungry Jack’s stoush, I did get a photo and a few colourful quotes - he blamed the accidents there on cars cutting in on trucks “like a bat out of hell”.

While I waited on my other contacts to get back to me, I started on my second story. The editor had gotten a media release from the Queensland government who were promoting international travellers using the state’s visitor information centres. I had to walk across the road from the newspaper office to where the Warwick tourist bureau resided. There I spoke to the manager who admitted he wasn’t yet aware of the minister’s campaign but told me 10 percent of Warwick’s visitors were from overseas. Most were what he called “free independent travellers” looking for directions, accommodation, things to do and road conditions north and south - “not many go west”, he said. The rest were backpackers looking for work and these ones he packed off to Stanthorpe where the fruit-picking was.

After another photo op outside the bureau, I dodged the traffic back across the road to write up the second story. In the meantime Hungry Jack’s rang me back to say they had finally acquiesced to DMR’s demands so my angle was now that the corner would be fixed. I then got a terse typically carefully worded statement from the minister’s office confirming they were re-looking at the burger chain’s solution. I finally wrote up the story and managed to keep the photo of the resident and his contribution (the photo alas did not make the abbreviated online version) Happy that I got my first two stories ready for publication, I spent the last few hours helping out by filling “news in brief” columns from wire copy and local sports reports. There was one final bout of proof-reading the news pages before I emerged into the very cool night air of Warwick.

I was finding it a lot colder this side of the Great Dividing Range two hours west of Brisbane. I stayed the night at the Criterion Hotel in town where my book on Warwick told me that the road from the big smoke is named for Allan Cunningham, a former assistant manager at Kew’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In 1827 Cunningham led an expedition from Segenhoe in NSW north into Queensland and found a beautiful area he named the Darling Downs in honour of the then-NSW governor. I then read about the Leslie family who were the first white people to colonise the area 13 years later, before the early start (I left Brisbane at 5am) and the rigours of reporting took it out of me and I fell asleep.

This morning I woke refreshed and ready for a second day of Warwick journalism. I came away from the 9am news conference with two tasks. Firstly I was to take a photo of two Warwick High School teachers in their respective Blue and Maroon shirts for a backpage spread on the State of Origin. Secondly I had to find out why a local business was changing hands after 23 years. The teachers were in class so I left messages for them to ring me. The business owner was available. He told me he was retiring and selling his steel business at the end of the month to a big company called OneSteel. I arranged to go out there and take a photo of him outside the office. In my zeal, I made several mistakes including taking videos instead of photos, and forgetting to ask him to spell his name. But perhaps with retirement on his mind, he good naturedly responded to all my return requests.

Back at the office, the teachers were still not responding. I got a third story, a bit of federal “he said, she said” tit-for-tat silliness between federal Labor infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese and local National member Bruce Scott. Albanese accused Scott of not supporting road fixing schemes which Scott angrily denied. I went off to Hansard (actually used the more user-friendly Open which had the relevant parliamentary debate and with the help of the two sides press releases and an interview with Scott’s media minder, it was easy enough to write up the article.

But at 3pm, disaster struck on my State of Origin story. Neither teacher had yet responded and I found out that one of them had gone home sick. “Was that alright?” said the person apologetically who took my tenth call to the school. Well no, it wasn’t alright as now we had no back page photo. I rushed out into the streets of Warwick looking for blue and maroon clad supporters I could line up for the “mate v mate” pose. For the best part of an hour I cruised the streets armed with camera and notebook desperate to buttonhole anyone that might look like a fan. But no-one was wearing the colours. I finally holed up an 11 year old boy in the sports shop whose school colours were an approximation of Queensland’s and the shop attendants helped out by putting a maroon jester’s hat on his head for the photo. I asked them would they pose in blue to complete the photo but they both politely declined.

Delighted with my improvisation, I went back to the office only to be told it didn’t fit in with the theme – what was needed was a blue-clad body standing back-to-back to a purple-clad body (similar to the photo shown). Disappointed but not despondent I went back onto the streets and found a second sports shop. Here the owner told me that he had no blue shirts because NSW had changed manufacturer from Canterbury to Classic this year. With daylight fading and no supporters on the streets I had to admit defeat. The paper would have to go without a local photo angle. I still managed to get a couple of late quotes from local footy identities to at least add a bit of Warwick colour, even if I couldn't get the team colours.

After put these stories to bed (or least to copy edit), it was time to say goodbye to Warwick and the lovely people at the Daily News. In two unpaid days there I had worked harder than at any job in recent memory and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I found it a very different experience from blogging. I got an inkling of the daily tyranny of filling up a newspaper and all it entails. There was the joy of talking to diverse sources, the authority that comes with representing a media organisation, the frustration of waiting on people to return calls, the disappointment of not being able to capture a story, and the thrill of meeting a deadline. I think I will be back for more, some time.


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The Chicken said...

@djackmanson on Twitter recommended this link. I'm a QUT journo student too and lots of people are telling me that regional work experience is the way to go so I've been considering that idea for a while. I'm a shy city chick so it's all a bit daunting to me! Sounds like you had a pretty interesting time and learnt a lot though, so I guess it's worth it. Cheers.

Derek Barry said...

Yes if you are at all serious about getting into journalism, then I can only repeat the advice I'm getting: Go Regional.

It might be daunting for a city slicker but country life has its own compensations. And you cannot beat a small newsroom for really learning all aspects of the job.

The bigger newsrooms are always looking to poach people in the smaller newsroom as they usually have great all-round experience.

Ann oDyne said...

Hi DB - for inside info on dangerous curves go to casualty. My friend rolled her car in rural forest, receiving medico at casualty said you are 3rd from that place this month - he made one phone call and roadworks went straight into action. true.

I've 'gone regional' too, straight from p32 weekend australian and 'our' red meat kill industry.
scary stuff.
'Mafia meat in the sandwich' by John Durie triggered my search.
all the abbatoirs are owned by Brazil, singapore dubai malaysia.
they want halal meat. pretty soon WE won't get a fair suck of the sav ourselves.
My interest is vegetarian.AgMates blog is a very interesting place - farmers selling stuff - drumkits and violins - and also thread on KRudds sav sucking comment.