While social media has transformed some newsrooms, the behaviour of an abusive colleague at The Australian shows old-school cultures haven’t disappeared.By Gina Rushton.
Navigating News and modern media
I miss that magic hour, when everything quickens towards a deadline.
In Sydney’s central business district, the shade hoisted itself up the side of skyscrapers. But on Holt Street, two floors up at The Australian, things were just getting started.
The first few pages of the paper were subjected to a refluent power struggle – from editor-in-chief, to chief of staff, to reporter and back.
Business journalists scribbled down the closing share prices, court reporters checked what the lawyers would let them get away with. Photographers rushed back from last-minute shoots to file their pictures, hoping for the front page.
The national chief of staff paced the newsroom with a wireless headset, chugging Diet Coke, trying to co-ordinate copy from interstate bureaus while most reporters received their final word counts and began to butcher their stories.
I would leave one last voicemail for a final quote and then keep an eye on the 5pm and 6pm news to make sure we had everything the television stations did.
Most days at this hour, I would pause to thank my lucky stars that I was allowed to sit beside these veterans of print and spin my own tiny cog to help get the paper out on time.
I took one of these moments during my last week in that newsroom, before I started as a breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed Australia. “I think you’ll miss reporting,” a colleague whispered in my ear, “and breaking news.”
I turned around and waited for him to explain, but he just smirked and went back to his desk.
When I left, I was told I had made the “wrong decision”. I had chosen to produce “churnalism” and “clickbait” just a year after finishing my cadetship.
The chief executive of the paper shook my hand and told me, to a chorus of laughter, I must come back and teach the newsroom “how to break news via Grindr”.
In established newsrooms, journalism is still treated like an indentured apprenticeship. To leave a newspaper where I was the youngest reporter for a website where the average age was 26 was a decision to be derided.
We all noticed a somewhat sadistic pleasure some older colleagues took in us fetching coffees or taking night shifts. The enjoyment was always justified by a “back in my day” or “I suffered even more” anecdote. This is an industry thing: it is the same for colleagues at Fairfax and the ABC.
One day, right on deadline, my phone rang. “I need you to find an Indigenous footballer who believes in constitutional recognition but is preferably gay and doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage,” a voice barked down the line. “And who earns in the second top tax bracket and lives in the eastern suburbs.”
I stopped taking shorthand far too long into the prank. “Oh, and they must be a Virgo.”
One time, an editor complained of what he thought was a particularly rainy season but I couldn’t find a single meteorologist with figures to back that up – mine all said it had been an unseasonably dry month. A more senior reporter found a weatherman whose quote aligned with the editor, so that reporter wrote the story instead. It was more valuable to find an interviewee or picture option that served to echo the editor’s belief than to take a story further.
At house parties and in pubs, I defended what I still believe was first-class reporting from the paper’s investigative, features, crime and social affairs reporters. I implored my mates to stop reading before the op-eds or buy only the weekend paper. But they couldn’t see the forest for the offensive columnist.
Since leaving The Australian, the inverse has been true. However hard I worked to persuade anyone under 30 that stuff worth reading could coexist beside offensive rhetoric, I’ve worked twice as hard to persuade anyone over 30 that “real journalism” can sit alongside lighthearted content online.
The idea that an important scoop about the National Disability Insurance Scheme might sit pages away from a Gerard Henderson column surprised people less than the fact my story about reproductive rights in rural New South Wales was one click away from “14 Absolutely Breathtaking Photos Taken at Night”.
In The Australian’s newsroom, there is widespread distrust of social media.
Whenever I would sprint over to editors on the backbench with a story that had broken on Twitter, I’d be sent back to my desk, tail between legs, until it was “verified” by another news outlet, even if this was hours away, even if the people tweeting were at the scene of the event, even if other outlets were sourcing Twitter.
There was an underappreciation of social media’s value when reporting, apart from a vague understanding that it could be used to pry into the not-so-private lives of victims or convicted criminals.
I was once asked if I could “call a jihadi” on Facebook.
“Apparently Facebook has a phone function,” I was told.
“You can’t just call anyone, you have to be friends with them and then they have to pick up,” I said.
The editor sighed a sigh that said, “What is the point of having a young person to chase stuff on social media if she can’t even ring a suspected terrorist?”
I was told to be “careful” with my tweets, and another young reporter was told to stop using Twitter altogether. Meanwhile, older columnists picked fights a few times a day on social media, about the national broadcaster or identity politics. Mistakes weren’t made along generational lines, but, in my experience, the policing of accounts was.
In April 2016 I reviewed a book about intergenerational inequality for The Australian’s Review section and received a tweet from an orange egg account.
“Gina that’s a shocking poorly researched yarn. There’s no point dumping on the vast majority of your readers.”
I looked at the account and realised some of the oldest tweets were signed off with the nickname of a subeditor I hadn’t met before.
In one tweet, the account responded to a former sports reporter for The Australian with a phone number, which I saved. I called News Corp reception and asked for the mobile number of the subeditor. The digits matched.
I went through the rest of the tweets. They were mostly abusive comments directed at journalists from rival publications.
After The Australian Financial Review’s Joe Aston wrote about a trip to Paris, the account tweeted that it would “expect better from a year 8 kid on its first trip OS”.
The account posted a tweet calling Mike Carlton a “sad old sack of shit” and a “gutless, gormless piece of shit”. It told a young female journalist at SBS to “get a job” and tweeted “how about you’re an idiot” at Guardian Australia’s assistant news editor, Bridie Jabour.
It tweeted at journalist Lisa Wilkinson to say that her husband, Peter FitzSimons – who was referred to in other tweets as a “fucking rag-headed imbecile” – was “not worth pissing on, you fucking goose”.
To Sky News reporter Amy Greenbank, it wrote “best tits ever”.
It tweeted at two American adult film stars asking when they were coming to Sydney, one it deemed a “stunning lady” and the other a “perfect doll”.
The account tweeted to a prime minister: “What a fucking lowlife. And I love the yarn about your youngest daughter copping it up the arse.”
It tweeted again: “hey […] you know your youngest takes it up the arse.”
I consulted two older female journalists about this account. Both told me to take it to the managing editor.
“That tweet to you was no different from him sliding a note across your desk which said your article was crap, and that is workplace bullying,” one said.
It took a lot to persuade the managing editor that the account might belong to a staff member. Eventually, a representative from human resources asked if I wanted to take the tweet directed at me “further”.
A week later I was called into another meeting and told that the subeditor had denied the account belonged to him.
“I think it was definitely him; he was pretty embarrassed,” the managing editor said.
The tweets were deleted within a few months and, as far as I know, no further action was taken.
Recently, I caught up with two former co-workers, one an esteemed former foreign correspondent, the other a multiple Walkley Award winner. They both grilled me on what kind of analytics I had access to at BuzzFeed and what it was like being able to measure a story’s reach in metrics.
“I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that,” one said.
“Well, maybe we should be worrying about it,” the other said, “so we don’t have to worry about losing our jobs.”
At first I was indignant about the numbers. I thought important but less shareable stories would be dropped because of the statistics or, worse, massaged into palatable schlock.
The numbers force you to learn more about your readers, to experiment and test the boundaries of what they might care about. In this two-way relationship, you are working more in the public’s interest rather than your editor’s. You’re no longer looking for a weatherman who thinks it seems more rainy than it has been.
I still expect an upswing in energy as the last fingers of sunlight poke through the window and reach across my desk, but I have realised that in the digital newsroom the verve I love is constant.
The traditional reporting skills I feared might atrophy from lack of use have improved faster than ever as we sprint to keep up with a perpetual deadline.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 11, 2017 as "Grave News world". Subscribe here.