Storming the media barricades – advice for young journalists

nic christensenThis week Mumbrella’s Nic Christensen, who began his career four years ago, gave the keynote address to would-be journalists at the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance’s Student Day. This is an edited version of his speech.

Good afternoon, I can remember distinctly the last time I was in this room.

It was 2009 and I was sitting where you are. I’d come to this event, a friend and myself — from memory we sat up the back — and I can remember at the time wondering if I’d ever get a job as a journalist.

It was only four years ago and then as now getting a job was ultra competitive but I’m not sure there was quite as much media ‘doom and gloom’ as there is now…

There are times when it feels as though my job as a media and marketing writer is to chart the decline of the mainstream media.

Just last week I had do a feature for Encore Magazine – Mumbrella’s tablet-based sister publication – on the topic of: is this the worst time in Australian history to be a journalist?

You’ll be pleased to hear that the answers I got weren’t a simplistic yes. But rather varied somewhere between a ‘no’ and or ‘it depends’ on where you work…

Certainly if you were a journalist in the so-called “mainstream media” it hasn’t been a great year. Up to 1,200 reporters have been made redundant, in just 12 months…

An estimated 380-400 from Fairfax, probably more than 500 from News Limited, 80-100 from Channel Ten and the rest coming from magazines such as Grazia, Madison and other smaller publications…

As the mainstream media seeks to cut costs these redundancies are very likely to have an impact on the number of entry level jobs available to the thousands of journalism students coming out of Australia’s universities.

Indeed it’s one of the ironies of the modern media that while the industry faces some major structural problems — declining revenues, a failing business model and the challenge of completely reinventing itself in the digital era — journalism as a career has never been more popular.

According to the Department of Innovation, in the last ten years the total number of people enrolled in journalism courses has risen from just over 3,013 in 2001 to 4,750 in 2010.

While not all of the people who study journalism want to be journalists… many do. And the reality is that there are not enough jobs for all of the graduates wanting to enter the profession.

But I assume if you’re here today then the thought of becoming a journalist has at least crossed your mind.

What I want to do in the next half an hour is to unpack some ideas about how to get a get your foot in the door, how doing this will make you a better journalist and will hopefully also lead to a job…

I guess if I was to sum up this talk I want to say that despite the difficulties — and there will be plenty — you can storm the barricades that most media outlets put up… but you have to want it, and you have to persevere.

For me back in 2009 I was a politics geek who after four years studying political science at UNSW had decided that I wasn’t really suited to working in government.

I decided to give journalism a go…

And over the four years I’ve had the chance to traverse the 21st Century media landscape… working first as a producer for Radio 2GB, then a tabloid reporter for The Daily Telegraph before being approached by The Australian to run a video/online series and then to work as a media writer, where I also had to help run the online media newsdesk.

Earlier this year I made the move from the “mainstream media” to a website that is somewhere between a “blog” and one of the country’s leading media and marketing news websites Mumbrella and its sister publication Encore Magazine.

And to be honest the job I have now is a world away from the job I thought I’d have… or I guess the one I pictured myself having…  but I love writing about the changing media landscape… even though it does have its fair share of doom and gloom.

Every day I get to cover everything from newspapers and online, to marketing, digital and the world of public relations. I see my work regularly picked up by the mainstream and it’s a really interesting space that feels like it is on the crest of this information / digitisation wave that is currently transforming the media landscape.

Getting your foot in the door

But I’m conscious that none of this is would have happened if it wasn’t for a chance encounter four years ago. Throughout my university years I’d put myself through my arts degree by working at a Telstra shop in the city and there was this one day when I was serving a customer whose face just looked familiar.

After my undergraduate degree I’d signed up for the postgraduate journalism course at UTS and as those of you from UTS will know there’s a strong emphasis there on not only doing university internships but also creating your own internships / opportunities.



With this in the back of my head I soon figured it out that the guy with a familiar face was 2GB’s then Drive Presenter Jason Morrison who at the time was the regular fill in for Alan Jones.

Stupidly upon figuring out who he was I said to him “you’re the Alan Jones fill-in right?” A quick tip: when trying to get an internship it’s best not to insult them by highlighting that they’re someone else’s fill-in.

Anyway it didn’t take long to a) sell him a phone  b) sell him on why I should be his intern. Don’t get me wrong this wasn’t a proper gig… this was just for me to come in and see one show.

After a bit of haranguing I came in and did that one show and while I was there I made myself useful. I made coffee, did research, even booked interviews and monitored the wires.

By the end of the show — and remember it was only the one show — I was able to sell Jason and his producers on letting me come in every Wednesday.

And that’s what I did.

Every Wednesday — like clockwork — I’d come in and it didn’t take long for them to expect me and have work ready for me… Now don’t get me wrong, none of this was glamorous stuff – it was mainly looking for stories in local papers, and writing the scripts no-one else wanted to write.

But looking back I realise that I learnt so much over the course of those first six months and that’s why you do these unpaid internships.

To learn and to build your CV.

Now of course university marks are important and you should also push to get your work published as a freelancer… but in the end the question that people in the media industry often ask is: where have you worked?

And one thing that happened for me is that eventually I started to be asked to do shifts and it was at this point I had to explain to them that no-one had actually hired me…

I was just there but I had a foot firmly in the door.

Absorbing from the newsroom 

Anyway after learning to answer the talkback lines I was able to convince the program director to give me a job.

And for the next couple of years I would work across all the shows — Hadley, Jones, Drive, midnight to dawns, weekends – everything – and I kept learning and absorbing.

A friend of mine recently described this process as “being a sponge” – it’s incredibly important to put yourself in a different situation where you can pick up so much.

In my case I was also careful not to just get radio experience.

Today’s journalist needs to be a multimedia journalist across all media and while I loved radio I knew I had to try my hand at a bit of everything…

Looking back, while I was a casual producer at 2GB, I did work experience everywhere – local papers, community radio at 2SER, The Punch, the ABC, The Herald, The Daily Telegraph, The Australian. I did a bit of everything/everywhere and what I soon found is that I liked and was good at “print journalism”.

In my case I got real experience because the Herald picked up a piece that I did for uni and I was able to work in their newsroom with some of their most senior reporters on getting that story published.

That story, which outed businessman Chau Chak Wing as Australia’s largest foreign donor, saw me win the student journalist of the year award, but it was not important to me for that… it was important because the process and working with senior journalists Deborah Snow and John Garnaut, I learnt a lot from them in a short amount of time and that inspired and helped make me into a journalist.

In the end, it’s the practice of journalism that makes you a journalist and it really doesn’t matter where you do it as long as you are learning as you go.

In my case I really learnt to be a journalist while interning at the Daily Telegraph…

From my first day I’d promised myself I’d pitch to the newsdesk every day and make the most of the opportunity. After two months as an intern I was fortunate to be offered a job as a casual reporter on the Telegraph.

Paying your dues 

It was the most interesting 12 months of my life, the life of a tabloid reporter means one minute you can be doing vox pops, the next you’re at a crime scene or a press conference, covering the story of the day.

As the junior reporter on the paper most of the time you get the worst jobs… night shifts, dawn shifts, the assignments no-one else wants – from memory the worst assignment I got was the day they sent me to Santa School.

But if you embrace the ‘shit kicker’ work then it will be noticed.

The best example I can give of this is that not long after getting a job on the paper I was given the ‘Something To Talk About’ section which was essentially a super vox pop.

I assume most of you know what a vox pop is. But the ‘Something To Talk About’ section required me to get 12-16 people in the one photo, each with a comment, a head shot and it ran as a full page in the Monday paper.

If one person in the scene said no, it was off and I have to tell you it was like herding cats – only the cats were unsuspecting bystanders going about their business in Sydney’s streets.  I distinctly remember failing the first couple of times I had to do this assignment. I felt like the worst journalist in the world…

But I eventually learnt how to do it and I actually made the section look good…  and rather than being a ‘shit task’ we started doing photo shoots at the aquarium, centrepoint, at interesting places that made it more than just a giant vox pop.

The significance of this is not the photos… in the end they were always a difficult and somewhat thankless task but the newsdesk saw I could take whatever they threw at me and that was important.

Also in journalism there is an expectation that you will “pay your dues”. Whether it’s midnight to dawn on talkback or doing a Friday night shift at the Telegraph, like any junior reporter I had to show a willingness to do what was asked because it’s only by doing that that you earn the respect of your editors.

Making connections & opportunities

I should also mention here that you need to get to know the senior journalists and editors in your newsroom. Don’t be shy. They were you once – most of them love giving advice – and if you’re scared of them you won’t get their respect.

Newsrooms are not places for shrinking violets.

I would also encourage you to make friends with your classmates and the young reporters in your newsrooms. It’s often about who you know and not what you know and I’ve been helped and been able to help a number of friends over the last couple of years.

In the end though, it was while paying my dues at the Telegraph that I got offered a great opportunity by The Australian to come downstairs and run my own project – a video online series.

As a print journo/radio producer the challenge of running a video online series was daunting, but if there’s one thing I’ve discovered over the last four years it’s that you sometimes have to jump in the deep end to learn how to swim.

And I really wanted to learn video and online – multimedia is important. For the first six months at The Oz, I got to work with a film crew and web team, we built a microsite and did a video documentary looking at what Australia and New Zealand would look like in 100 years.

It was one of the most interesting projects any journalist could ask to work on and I was offered it because one of the senior editors at The Oz liked some freelance work I’d done for him and because they knew my work at the Telegraph.

In the end you never know when opportunities will come your way but you have to seek them out and you have to build connections with everyone.

The new media world 

After the video project finished up I was asked to join the Media section and help out while the online media editor was on maternity leave.

For much of 2011 and 2012 I made sure the online desk of the media section was current / up to date and had the latest breaking stories.

I also got the chance to carve out my own beat… now to be clear, in a busy newsroom it’s very unlikely that people will come up and ask you what you want to cover. But if you consistently pitch things in a particular area you can often carve out your own niche.

In my case, I carved out a space covering digital and in particular social media. At first my editors weren’t that interested but over time their attitudes changed and I saw my stories move from page 9, to page 6 to page 3.

In the end, the most valuable part of my time at The Australian was working online and seeing how newspapers are grappling with the changing media landscape.

Last week News Limited confirmed it would move to a metered paywall. It’s a bold move and comes after the company experimented with other forms of paywall strategies.

Fairfax is also experimenting, announcing a paywall for international readers and will later this year introduce a paywall for Australian readers as well.

All the major media companies around the world are grappling with the disruption of the internet and the challenge of declining traditional advertising dollars being replaced by digital dimes.

I now find myself working for one of the online disruptors. Four years ago Mumbrella was in its infancy, having been launched by my editor Tim Burrowes in late 2008.

What started as a one-man operation now employs close to 20 people, around a quarter of them journalists, with many of them like myself coming from the mainstream media.

It’s an exciting time to be a digital disrupter these days. It’s not just the likes of Mumbrella, Crikey or New Matilda – it feels like the ranks of the online revolution are continuing to swell.

This week, former editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald Peter Fray launched Politifact Australia and the expectation is that The Guardian Australia will launch any day now.

These launches follow others such as The Citizen at The University of Melbourne and Business Insider Australia.

The online landscape is constantly changing and evolving…

When it comes to thinking about where you might want to work I urge you to consider niche online media – not only because that’s where many of the jobs are, but also because it’s one of the most interesting places in the Australian media landscape.

A University of Queensland study by academic John Cokley in 2011 showed niche media outlets now employ more people than traditional big media.

In the study Cokley said of the 8000 journalists employed in 2007, about 57 per cent or 4500 were in small media outlets employing fewer than 10 people, compared with 34 per cent in major media outlets.

And that’s a trend that has only been accelerated by recent events…

While new media arguably can’t employ all the j-school graduates coming out of Australia’s universities, I will tell you it’s one of the most interesting and rewarding spaces to write for.

Since moving to Mumbrella I’ve arguably taken a step back in my career… I no longer write for a big national newspaper and no longer have the prestige that comes with that big masthead.

But if I’m honest, that prestige is overrated…  I’m more excited by getting to write across a variety of areas and topics and doing both breaking news but also 2,500 word features.

One of my greatest frustrations as a newspaper journalist was getting a great story and immediately being asked by the newsdesk: “will it hold till Saturday?”

Today I rarely have to worry about that question.

One of the joys of being with Mumbrella is that we break news when it happens and we are less focused on the old media business model and more focused on reinventing the journalistic business model.

It’s an exciting place to be and one which allows me to help rethink traditional approaches to journalism.

In the end I believe the great opportunity that the current media flux offers young journalists is that we are no longer tied to the traditional pathways to journalism.

Rather you have the opportunity to reinvent journalism and find your path.

I would also emphasise that while the media landscape is changing, the basic tenets of journalism won’t.

The lessons I learned – make contacts, work hard, make the best of ‘shit kicker’ tasks –  those lessons stand for any publication you work for, anywhere in the world, online or print, radio or TV.

This is one of the oldest professions in the world, and yes, it’s dealing with the challenge of getting people to pay for something that they’ve given away for free for the past 10 years. But if the last two centuries are anything to go by, people will always want the news.

The news man has become a news woman, but both perform the same job.

The newspaper has become the news website, the mobile app or the tablet, but they all provide news

Deadlines have gone from afternoons and evenings to rolling deadlines, 24-hour coverage and a demand for real-time content, but this is ultimately just a reflection of the digitalisation of news.

In the end, the ace cub reporter, the hardened senior writer, the long, hard days – and the beer at the end of it – some things will always stay the same.

Nic Christensen is a senior journalist for Mumbrella and its sister publication Encore Magazine.


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