Thursday, July 19, 2012

Watching the Watchman: Swearing and 14-hour days

A couple of weeks ago my mate Glenn alerted me to the next episode of Australian Stories called Letters to the Editor. Sounds like you,” was Glenn’s succinct summary and he sent me the blurb from the ABC website. It read:  
James Clark enjoyed a successful life in Paris when he decided to put his future, his relationship and the family sheep station on the line to chase his dream of running a little local newspaper in outback Cunnamulla, Queensland. 

I didn’t know the ABC were featuring Clark, but I was intrigued by someone I instinctively liked as a rare beast:. He is the owner and editor of a country newspaper, the wonderfully-named Warrego Watchman.  The Watchman is a competitor to our papers and I’ve yet to meet James but our enormous territories of coverage roughly overlap and we’ll had dealings from afar.  I’ve known him for over a year and he kindly offered his help in my masters on country journalism. Given his knowledge of the topic I regret not finding the time to take up his offer in my last-minute rush to finish.  

Despite Glenn’s reminder, I also regretted missing the show on the night it was broadcast but I was able to watch the 30 minute documentary later in the week on the website. I really enjoyed it and felt a deep connection with most of Clark’s responses to his experiences (though my own experiences were very different). I also felt I got to know him a lot better.

After watching it, I immediately emailed Clark to congratulate him on the success of the show. “Keep up the great work for journalism in the south west,”  I told him. His response was almost sheepish. “All pretty embarrassing but about 1.3 million apparently now know about the rag who didn't previously.” As a journalist, Clark knew well how the journalists at the ABC put together the show to get the most emotional impact – by making his relationship with wife Josephine Birch central to the tale. But having the world see inside your marriage is perhaps a small price to pay, when the Warrego Watchmen’s audience expands a couple of hundredfold – at least temporarily.  

My mate Glenn is right up to a point - his story has many similarities to my own.  I don’t know how old Clark is but I suspect he is not too many years younger than my 48. He left high-paid journalism Europe to (eventually) take on a small South West Queensland paper, while I quit high-paid IT in Brisbane to (eventually) work for a slightly bigger small south West Queensland paper.  Clark and I both believe strongly in the future of country media and our towns and see newspapers as important cornerstones of the community and chroniclers of its adventures.

But there were massive differences between us too. Clark had huge roots to his paper. He grew up on a sheep and cattle property of 160,000 acres near Cunnamulla and his family still farmed 60,000 acres at Pabra ranch south of town. I grew up in a small house in a small town half a world away from Roma. Though 20 years in Australia, I’d hardly ever set foot in south-west Queensland until I started working there. I had no idea of rural issues and I’m still green around the agricultural gills two and a half years later. Clark’s intimate knowledge of the land gives him a real grounding to  his writing that is impossible for me to replicate.

But Clark was no country yokel either. He rebelled against farm life as a young man and lived a full and varied career as a journalist across the world – another difference to me, barely two and a bit years in the craft. He got his break with a year on Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. “Once you get a bit of experience on a newspaper that's recognised around the world, you're in, you're away,” Clark said in Letters to the Editor. Clark later worked in Fleet Street and was in France freelancing when his brother asked him to come back and look after Pabra.  He and Birch were beginning to forge a relationship and on impulse he invited her to join him in Cunnamulla. That is another major difference – I don’t have a glamorous French actress for a wife.

Birch said her introduction to Cunnamulla was Dennis O’Rourke’s controversial documentary made in 2000 called, simply Cunnamulla. Clark showed it in Paris to a collection of French friends, including Birch. O”Rourke’s film is an Australian classic but is not an easy watch. It is hated in the town itself  for its unflinching hardness and brutal honesty of its portrayal of remote small town life and its torturous race relations. 

Clark himself wrote an article that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald talking about O’Rourke being lynched if he ever showed up there. O’Rourke’s cinema verite style should have struck with Clark's French audience but all were bewildered by the strange Queensland accents and the apparent lack of action. All that is, except Birch, who thought it intriguing.  She followed Clark to Australia but said her destination wasn’t Cunnamulla but Clark.  The pair took on the paper as well as Pabra and were suffering until they decided they could no longer print the paper themselves. Birch said their printer breakdown saved them from their own breakdown and they face the future with optimism, now printing has been outsourced.

At the “happy ending” of the ABC show, Clark and Birch got married (in April this year). At the very end Birch spoke of their dreams to be “Murdochs of the South West”. While she said it in jest, it reminded me of another difference between Clark and I. He is an owner-editor, I’m just an journalist-editor. I don’t want to be a Murdoch, I’d just be happy to be the Harold Evans of the South West. I don’t have the capital to buy a paper and I don’t have the business acumen and way with money to run one successfully anyway.

Clark would probably also see me as part of the problem, working for the man (the Western Star is published by APN) and producing corporatised papers.  But his goal to make the Warrego Watchman a “lively read” is one I share for the Western Star. It’s just that unlike Clark, I haven’t fully torn myself away from the need to be impartial. And I will never tear myself away from the need to be trusted.  

Yet of the entire documentary, it was one comment, again by Birch, very early in the piece where I most identified with Clark and where my friend Glenn was right on the money. Working on bush newspapers, Birch said, meant “a lot of swearing and 14 hour days.” I squirmed in immediate acknowledgement. Country papers don’t pay much so you must be passionate about them to enjoy them. That means dealing with pressure and long hours. Embarrassed or not, Clark, Birch and the ABC did well to shine a rare light on newspapers in this part of the world.

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