Saturday, June 05, 2010

Once upon a time in the Western Star

As of Monday this week, I’ve been a journalist at the Western Star in Roma for six months. I came out here because as a blogger of several years standing who wanted to be a journalist, it was time to take the advice I heard from the wonderful Marian Edmunds at a journalism conference in Brisbane in August 2008. The advice was simple: “learn the craft”.

At the time I was a discontented project manager for IBM but had just completed a degree in communications majoring in journalism. In 2009 I quit IBM and started a masters in journalism with on-campus study at QUT where I learned much of the theory of the craft. The biggest lesson of all was that if I was serious about becoming a practitioner, I had to go bush. I spent a couple of enjoyable weeks in June-July 2009 filling in at The Western Times in Charleville. On 1 December 2009, I accepted a permanent offer to work at a sister paper, the Western Star in Roma.

The Roma Western Star is one of four newspapers I know of with the same title. There is a Western Star is Bessemer, Alabama another in Ohio (the state's oldest) and the third in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Canada. This latter is most pleasing as it is roughly analogous to the fictional newspaper "The Gammy Bird" of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.

The owner of my Gammy Bird is APN. APN is still controlled by Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News and Media group and his son Gavin is the CEO. I like the irony it is the first Irish company I have worked for in 25 years. Less ironic given Ireland's current woes is the fact APN is the most profitable part of the business.

I love my job. I’m learning every day particularly from my mistakes and they have been many. In today’s paper alone we forgot to put what date one event was happening (we just gave the time) and brought forward another event a whole week (wish fulfillment based on was getting too excited about the long weekend, which will actually be a long weekend for me). I apologised profusely to the organiser who had to field several confused phone calls.

But nice things happened today too. One of the town’s pastors I bumped into today was amazed at how many events us two journalists cover here and said the paper was greatly improved these days – he is not the first to tell me this. This is gratifying because it is something we consciously set out to do.

Other things are happening that are more surprising. I am slowly coming round to the opinion I’m not just a journalist but also a “reporter”. A journalist may investigate an incident or event, but a reporter tells you what happens. To report takes time and honesty. You need to be there (or have a proxy), then process it before writing the story of the event. It is not easy, and I work long and hard to achieve this. I have no idea how many hours I put in because I think work-life balance makes no sense (it is all “life”) but it is safe to assume it’s a lot. With no overtime I don’t want to calculate what my hourly rate is because it would depress me. Yet I don’t begrudge a moment of the time I spend on it. I’ve had more fun and met more people in Roma in six months as a journalist than in five years as a blogger in Roma.

Despite the low salary, journalism has several in-built prestige mechanisms. Three that quickly come to mind are regular publication, the right to ask questions of decision makers, and the ability to get to be involved in whatever special events are happening. In the last two days I got to go along and listen for free to great people like Geraldine Cox and Adam Penberthy when they came to town. Listening to the down-to-earth Cox was liberating. Though she’d probably hate the description, Cox is a genuine secular saint. A former diplomat and merchant banker, she got herself sacked at 50 and went to Cambodia where 15 years later she now runs two 200-children orphanages with a third on the way. Penberthy meanwhile was an entrepreneur since the age of 13 and now 12 years later runs his own advertising company in Brisbane called Fresh. Cox and Penberthy are very different but both their stories are inspiring and it was an honour to be there to capture it for the public record.

The public record or “newspaper of record” is a concept difficult to put in any newspaper bottom line. Profit is of no concern to my irate “clients” – the public – who demand I tell them the stories that matter regardless of whether my employer will make money from them. Journalism fits uneasily into the capitalist system as there is no obvious way to make money from it outside of it being used to hide advertising. Big news rooms are an expensive cost centre that produces no revenue. But without them, the news hole would remain exactly that, a hole.

The problems these holes cause for profit-seeking media companies were shown up by a recent ACMA decision to rap Bill Caralis and his shoestring Super Radio Network over the knuckles. The communications authority deemed Caralis’s networked programs in breach of local content rules. They did not satisfy the minimal three hours of local content because it was Sydney content that was beamed into Coff’s Harbour, Orange and Kempsey.

Roma’s major radio station Zinc ZR (formally 4ZR) meets the three-hour goal. It is owned by Prime Radio which runs a stable of stations under the Zinc logo. The Roma station broadcasts local content from 6am to 9am with “Gazza” (Gary Sands). I’ve met Gary on a number of occasions and he is a very experienced broadcaster who is passionate about the town. I'm not sure he would call himself a journalist, though he certainly acts as one from time to time.

In terms of other professional media in the region, there is the freebie Maranoa Mail which employs one journalist on a part-time basis. I have met at least two other independent media people who live in Roma who provide content for a number of organisations (including the Western Star). ABC Local Radio broadcasts out of Toowoomba and provides reasonable coverage of the region. I think one of their journalists lives in Roma though I haven't met her. But I can safely say that the Western Star (with two journalists) is the biggest content provider of local news in the region.

Our turf is large. The region is the Maranoa, an area of 58,830 km². If the Maranoa was a country or territory, it would be the 125th largest in the world, not far behind Ireland in 119th place (70,273 km²) with Norway’s surprisingly large Svalbard and Jan Mayen just ahead of Maranoa in 124th. But my region is bigger than Togo (56,785 km²) and Croatia (56,594 km²). But whereas there are 6.7 million people in Togo and 4.5 million in Croatia, there are just 13,000 people in the Maranoa. The roads are long and lonely.

Centred on Roma it goes west to the town of Mitchell (named for Sir Thomas Mitchell who was the first person to visit the region), south to Surat (named for the city in India), north to Injune (gateway to the Carnarvon Ranges) and east to the small township of Yuleba. We’ve made a special effort to cover these regional towns but it is not easy to know what is going on out there when we are based in Roma. I love getting out to these places and always feel more welcome and more likely to get a good story when visiting them.

I’m also enjoying getting to know the ins and outs of the people of Roma and learning its history. Originally settled by the Mandandanji people, Mitchell and Leichhardt started the white invasion in the 1840s and it was named for the Greek wife (Lady Diamantina Roma) of Queensland’s first governor. Roma was the first gazetted town in the newly independent colony of Queensland in 1962. Roma has a wine industry that dates back to the 19th century and an oil industry that goes back to 1905. It has a natural gas pipeline to Brisbane since 1969 that is still operational and it has Coal Seam Gas in abundance that is about unleash a firestorm of energy exports to Asia in the shape of cryogenically-frozen LNG from 2014 onwards.

The six months I’ve been here have been turbulent times. Unemployment is low at 1 percent but the town is undergoing the highs and lows of the Surat Basin resource boom servicing the CSG industry. There has been two major floods in a month including its worst ever recorded flooding in March. My job is throwing up unexpected bonuses as I learn the craft of story telling to a local audience.

Now I want to add to my workload. When I started at APN I put on hold my journalism masters degree for six months so I would have the energy to concentrate on the job. Now I believe I can still do the job but also finish the masters. I’m keen to finish it in the second half of this year. I’m not sure where I’ll find the time, but I know the study must be relevant. The most relevant thing in my life right now is Roma. I want to look at the Western Star and my role in it. I want to look at the paper’s history and where it fits in now. I want to look at other media, terrestrial TV, pay TV, radio, Internet, other newspapers (including the local freebie and other regional newspapers plus the impact of the Courier-Mail and The Australian), the local cinema, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, What does the Roma paper say about rural journalism? What does the paper say about Roma? I’d like to examine what we do…journalism, reporting, photography, page design, interviewing, reading, writing. If time permits I’d also like to find out what does Roma say about the paper. I’d also look at the corrections to identify why we got things wrong.

That scope is probably too much already. Yet somehow I want to shoehorn my work at Woolly Days into the thesis. I’ve been blogging for five years and have found it an immensely liberating and enjoyable practice. I need to find out how my blogging has informed my journalism and vice versa. With my Western Star work, I need to look what mistakes I've made and why I made them. What do I write about, what news frame do they fit and which news values do they have? What were the ethical dilemmas, the issues, the sources, the subject matter, the political economy, the reactions. This can be expressed in terms of the communication model – what am I saying to whom in what channel with what effect?

Its time for some serious content analysis of my writing in both forms to see what has influenced what. The journey of learning the craft has barely begun.


Friendless said...

I wrote a long comment on this but Blogger swallowed it and I'm too demoralised to remember what I said. Something like: Although there is skill in being a reporter, don't abdicate the responsibility to have a viewpoint. Too much evil is supported by uncritical reporting of propaganda.

Paul Bailey said...

Good luck, old bean. From one of your ex fellow disenchanted IBM PM's.... Cheers Paul Bailey

Derek Barry said...

hey Paul, good to hear from you. Hope all is well in Brisvegas.

Friendless - sorry about your Blogger-swallowed comment. In theory hard news is objective and the writer keeps their opinion out of it.

In practice subjectivity comes in with choice of headlines, sources quoted and the order & priority of the material.

Friendless said...

Journalistic objectivity is exploited by newsmakers. Just say, Kevin Rudd stated "Mr Abbott eats babies." An objective report of that would be "Mr Rudd said that Mr Abbott eats babies." A responsible reporter might go on to add "Mr Abbott has never been photographed eating babies, nor publicly expressed any desire to do so." A reporter who's just interested in the truth might go on to add "This demonstrates that Mr Rudd is a big fat liar." However, as that's opinion, it probably wouldn't be added, and Mr Rudd's slur has got into the news without punishment.

That's a silly example, but if you read what's written about climate change denialists or Glen Beck or Sarah Palin or John McCain you get this sort of unchallenged lying reported in the news all the time. Because reporters don't choose to not report something just because it's a big fat lie, they are effectively co-conspirators. The great journalists are the ones who tell the stories that are true, not just what happened.

My impression from reading your stories is that you do care about more than just filling the column space and propagating the party line. Best of luck to you!

Friendless said...

Here's what I wish I said: