It’s a funny thing, how life can be shaped by a person believing in you. Nana, one of my first correspondents, foresaw I would be a scribe from a young age. ‘That girl is going to be a journalist,’ she pronounced every time she received one of my letters that updated her on All Things Important in my life. ‘She has a way with words.’
The discussions of my future profession re-emerged every time I produced a funny poem or won a certificate for writing at school, but the journalism edict never quite stuck in my head. Being a secretary appealed more, fuelled by my mum’s wonderful old manual typewriter with its impossibly deep keys I was forever jamming my fingers in. Most of my games would have me typing important notes that then needed to be filed in a convoluted system of empty tissue boxes and biscuit tins. Red pens, rare and precious things in the 70s, also featured prominently among my precious secretarial kit.
Words, my first love
Little Golden Books were my first readers. I loved the gilt-edged pages and the way their sparkly spines stacked in my bookshelf to create a shiny golden brick. Cinderella was the hardest one to read and when I finally cracked that, it was time to move on to more advanced material, the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘It’s too hard,’ said Dad, probably because he found it difficult to tolerate my constant questions of what this word was, and how do you say it and what does it mean.
Newspapers were in their heyday back then and my father was an avid consumer of the written word: our house was always strewn with folded up newspaper sections, Time, Newsweek the Bulletin and National Geographic magazines, and the business of updating the prized, leather-bound Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes was always being addressed. ‘So expensive, but so important.’ I loved the weekend trips to the library with Dad, too, because spending time with him was prized but hours among my beloved books was truly a treat. I still remember the purple beanbag I sat on to read through my pile of books I had grabbed greedily from the shelves. I loved the reverent quiet, the solitude of the library. There, I felt safe and filled up. It was like my church.
Books may have been the ultimate, but they shared the limelight with Barbie dolls. Mine never wore clothes but had fabulous hair. Hour upon hour was spent brushing their frayed and sticky platinum locks, learning how to plait, French braid and twist elaborate chignons. I longed to practice my skills on humans too, pestering my friends with long hair to let me at their tresses. I taught myself how to cut hair and managed to keep my family looking well-groomed for years. The delight of words faded into the hormonal abyss of puberty. I was going to be a hairdresser.
Ever-respectful of words, I’ll fast-forward to the prospect of media. A troubled teen who left school at 15, my 19-year-old self found herself on the phone to a university careers counsellor, wondering what she should do with her life besides no longer wanting to be hairdresser after an ugly stint as a shampoo girl, or passing time with waitressing and partying. ‘The things to ask yourself,’ she told me, ‘is what are you good at and what makes you happy’. It didn’t take long to return to the great comfort of words. Could it be that I could actually make a living from writing them? How? Weren’t writers poor wretches condemned to a life of poverty, suffering for their art?
Words are knowledge, and knowledge is power
A few months later, I sat in my first lecture theatre at a university: a hallowed campus that I felt intimidated by but privileged to be at. Everyone was on a quest for knowledge and words were the key. I was full of hope and excitement and as I learnt about the profession of journalism, I finally felt in the right place.
And, bonus! Journalism also provided a channel for my frustration and anger at the world’s injustices. Inspired by campaign reporters of time like Pat Booth (crusader for Arthur Allan Thomas’s innocence) and Warwick Roger (founding editor of the-then formidable magazine, Metro), I dreamed of making a difference by being a word warrior. Print journalism, in all its scrappy glory, offered so many ways to make sense of the world: great thinkers were given space in ‘serious’ newspapers and all the tawdry business of consumer’s daily lives could be hung out to dry in the tabloids. Most importantly, public servants were held to account, which seemed only just. Once again, surrounding myself with piles of papers and mags shaped my days. I loved to get into work early to wade through the day’s publications with my coffee, gathering news and ideas for my own stories.
It’s easy to get sentimental at this point. I learnt what I did could be powerful and that everyone wanted to influence me. My desk groaned with press releases from politicians and lavish gifts arrived daily from PR companies. The phone rang constantly with ‘have I got a story for you’ types ranging from conspiracy theorists through to whistleblowers keen to settle debts. It was bedlam and sifting through it all was a job in itself: my news judgement was crafted through feisty newsroom debates with cranky, jaded old journos who seemed to take great delight in shutting down my pollyanna aspirations. ‘Where is the value for the reader? Try to disprove each side before you consider a story worthy. Remember PRs are paid in column inches … who are you working for?’
Just as my university lecturers said, I learnt that journalists were gatekeepers of information. It was a serious responsibility and we must always use a multitude of checks and balances in gathering, selecting and reporting news. Journalism was a cornerstone of democracy – a voice for all but also a way to shine a light into the dark corners of society. It was a way to keep account of those who serve us. It was important.
It was also exhausting and superficial. I learnt that I had no friends – just contacts and colleagues who I spent all my time with and who would roll me at the drop of a hat for a good lead. It looked glamorous on the outside as I interviewed celebrities, experts and politicians while jaunting between fine restaurants and luxurious junkets but I spent many weekends alone, wondering why my phone didn’t ring. I also struggled with people hating me. Their responses ranged from vicious attacks in letters, to eye rolling once discovering what I did for a job. ‘Muckraker’ was a term levelled at me more than once, usually cloaked in humour over a few pints. In my ever-present outrage, I snapped that just because they hadn’t liked what they read, it didn’t mean it wasn’t accurate. ‘The media is a mirror: if you don’t like what you see, it’s not my fault. I’m here to present the facts – don’t shoot the messenger.’
Journalism is a tough job for someone with a fragile ego, promising much to bolster you but swatting you down as soon as you’re not looking. On top of the world one day with a front page lead meant back-slapping at the pub and a certainty I was part of something important. The next day could mean being hauled over the coals by the company lawyer as someone had threatened to sue for libel. And the pace was relentless. As soon as a story was filed or an issue put to bed, you’d be scrambling for the next story to feed the beast that was your paper or magazine. I would lie awake at nights praying for a great lead to descend from on high to save my arse at the next morning’s news meeting, as I had nothing of substance to offer, only dozens of propaganda-filled press releases on my desk.
Honing a craft
But words still provided me with solace and through constant writing, my craft was being honed. Though I entered my first job with supposed talent and training, I couldn’t write a story to save myself. Thank God for the editors and subs who strained my awkward, self-conscious and way too flowery efforts through their nets of discernment, objectivity, fact-checking and experience. They were relentless in discarding my work, their only explanation apparent in viciously cutting and re-writing my copy, or dumping it all together. Attempts at finding out what went wrong were best left to analysing what words remained.
Though I desperately wanted to tantrum to their faces, I did most of my cursing and foot-stomping with colleagues at the pub. ‘He’s such a bastard. He wouldn’t know a good angle if it bit him on the balls.’ But as each story was hacked away at, so was my ego. Although I hated the editors with a passion, I willed my words to take a tighter form, herding them into the paramount pyramid formula. I found that editing became more important than the writing itself: it shined brighter when lighter. Culling what seemed to be the most important concepts and words was key, a bit like Chanel’s famous advice about removing an accessory before you leave the house. If a story seems perfect, you need to take something out.
It was a good discipline and eventually, the editors became less violent. I was euphoric when my copy finally went through clean, published as I wrote it, word for word. Though still relatively a rare event, I considered that was when I became a proper writer, capable of turning in clean, tight, well-crafted copy. It was also the day I stripped myself of all creativity.
If only being good with words was all that was required in journalism. Although I was curious enough and had one hell of a fire in my belly to fight for the underdog, I was not equipped for the long-haul battle of competition and politics of newsrooms.
Fast, furious, sexist and brutal about summed it up. It was fine when I was perched on the top of the pile, but when turfed off unceremoniously, as happened when a publisher somehow blamed me for the downfall in sales of his cash cow magazine after Princess Diana’s death, it hurt like hell. Like a trippy scene from an Ab Fab episode, I was marched off the premises with a cheque and a Christmas hamper. ‘You’re don’t fit into the culture.’ It was the first time I asked myself what the hell I was doing in the media. But, who was I if I wasn’t a journalist? My only other skills were arguing and drinking. I suppose I could wrangle those dubious qualities into being a lawyer, but I couldn’t be arsed studying again for that long.
Me and Bridget Jones
The next three months were spent on the dole, at the beach, at turns bawling my eyes out over my tattered career and laughing hysterically while reading the then-new Bridget Jones’s Diary. Like her, I was a mess, but I had potential to pick up the pieces and put on a good show, even if I had no idea what I was doing.
Retraining in the book industry diverted me for a while but it was soon obvious from my Marian Keyes-worshipping, populist approach that I was an ill fit in a conservative industry filled with insufferably earnest types who took Literature that no one read seriously. This futile attempt at career resurrection was rudely interrupted by an unexpected pregnancy. Of course it changed everything, and I drifted back into the familiarity and reliable income source that was journalism. As a single parent, I couldn’t afford to be too precious about what I was writing or editing, or who I was working with. I just needed to survive and there was plenty of work about which enabled me to do that.
Yeah, I was avoiding my dreams – I wanted to write books, like every journalist I knew – but I had bills to pay. Parenting, although more meaningful and wonderful than anything else I had ever done, dialled up the grind in my life to the point where writing anything outside of work was laughable. I don’t think shopping lists counted. Between mumming and dealing with an escalating alcohol problem, I could barely think, let alone write a best-selling novel.
By this stage, my news reporting days were over. Like many senior journalists, I had ‘graduated’ into editing, and was now the person who hacked away at other people’s writing. I also picked up other skills from the ‘dark side’ of the media (PR) to adapt to the changing times: you needed several strings to your bow to survive, and that was before digital really kicked off.
There were many chilling moments – the NZ Herald losing its mind, wave after wave of redundancies stripping any seniority and experience from the industry – when I stopped to examine what I was doing. What was happening to journalism? Why was everyone losing their jobs? The writing was on the wall almost from the moment I began my job but I didn’t want to admit my world was crumbling.
Stupidly, most media provide free content to Google and Facebook but effectively, they’ve lost most of their income while funding their opposition’s editorial bill.
Now we are a couple of decades into the digital era, the picture of the media’s demise is clearer. Essentially, it has been swallowed by Facebook and Google. Why? Most advertisers use these mediums because that’s where everyone is. Stupidly, most media provide free content to these platforms but effectively, they’ve lost most of their income while funding their opposition’s editorial bill. Economics is not my strong point, but this seems like insanity. There are arguments that people won’t pay for content so the media have to hedge their bets and lure them in with free stuff that they hope will be recouped with online advertising dollars. That’s working to a degree for major publishers, but their profits have dwindled to a pathetic fraction of former revenues.
What has this raping and pillaging of the media, some of it certainly self-inflicted, meant for journalists? For a start, no senior reporters or subeditors. It certainly means little, if any, checks, balances or legal assessment of content. It means, as we all have all cringingly witnessed every day, copy and headlines full of spelling mistakes and rambling language that looks like someone tapped it out on their iPhone while they were on a bus, then pressed send without reading it back. It means journalism graduates who have no idea of their profession with no chance of learning anything beyond the shoddy, rough and ready cowboy practices that marketing managers disguised as editors shove down their necks, because they have no one to tell them any different.
At this stage, I have to tell the story of a young journalist who recently asked me to mentor her. In her first job at a major newspaper publisher, she found herself working on a rural rag with no training, no mentoring and no idea, straight out of uni. I was happy enough to feed her a few story ideas and discuss the process of making contacts, working a round and the associated ethics, but the carelessness of her employer and her subsequent vulnerability was shocking to me. A few of the doozies she confided in me included; having to publish her own work without being edited or checked; not meeting in person with any supervisors for five months; no training except for one group session on grammar; having no appreciation of the gravitas of thorough note-taking or recording processes when interviewing. ‘I don’t know much about journalism, really. Thank you so much for your help, I couldn’t do my job without you.’
Jeez. I mean, this was a major newspaper publisher, not some hick family newsletter. And I was someone she barely knew. She’s since moved on to bigger and brighter things within that stable, after I urged her to kick up a fuss. But nothing’s changed: the latest edition of the said rural rag still has typos in most stories and in one case, the same person’s name was spelt three different ways.
RIP free press, proper journalists and spelling
The mediascape is like a graveyard these days, with a few bodies still writhing and moaning in the battlefield. I’m sad to say that one of those poor wretched souls has been me, up until recently. The last few years has seen me picking over the bones of what was left after the maelstrom. Freelancing is good like that, filling the gap for employers after job cuts. Many a time I have been called into an office when they’ve laid off one-too-many staff and needed my services to get them through a tight patch. But one by one, I have witnessed the funeral of many publications, mostly magazines. The ones that have survived have mainly been consolidated by large publishing companies and are so lean and mean they can’t afford me. I know, it’s not like I didn’t see the writing on the wall. As my peers were furiously re-training and reinventing themselves into everything from psychologists to air cabin crew, I knew my turn would come one day.
I took some delight in being the surviving dinosaur for some time but now, I’m laughing on the other side of my face. I can’t compete with young kids who will work 60 hours a week for $40k a year. I don’t want to be a churnalist. I also don’t want to pitch interesting story ideas to editors who are enslaved to advertising schedules and directives, or who steal your freelance ideas to give to their staff because they can’t afford to pay you.
The only skill I am left with now is writing, which unfortunately, in this digital media age, is obsolete. I guess this is how it feels to be middle-aged and irrelevant in the eyes of some. It hurts. It’s done my ego no end of harm but I know I’m not unique in having a mid-life career crisis. It’s made me question who I am and what the hell I have been doing with my life, and a dread of the uncertainty that lies ahead. Oh, your skills are transferrable, confident, smug people in seemingly secure jobs honk at me. You can write, can’t you?
Yes I can. Words are all I am left with and they are what I started with, forty-odd years ago when I first learnt how to form them. I realise now that they have taken me full circle via a strange land called the media.
As I have written this today, my inaugural sovereign scratchings outside of a professional realm, I have felt like I was bathing in a hot spring: deliciously warm water enveloping my body as it sinks down, bubbles rising to the surface. My back arches, my neck slackens. The sighs of relief are palpable and rhythmic. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of water, feeling tears run down my cheeks through the steam. I lull. Before me appears a kooky visual of an Andy Warholesque Statue of Liberty, dressed in lurid pink and lime. No, there’s no wine, but there is an intoxication. It’s called freedom. My words and me, armed with my red pen, are getting ready for the next part of the ride.
Nana, I hope you’re proud of me. Wish me luck on the next leg.