A WEEK after the 2013 federal election I was driving to my casual sub-editing job on a Fairfax weekly newspaper when I let a brilliant photo opportunity go.
During the campaign I’d had to pass a vast billboard of our electorate’s returned sitting member, Andrew Laming, along that route.
But on that day, Laming’s face was burning into black ash as a farmer torched his latest crop’s stubble. It was one of those moments when your mind takes the shot, writes the story and formulates the headline in a flash.
‘Laming wins, Redland City loses’ was my angle, with the remnant of that smiling, burning face front and centre, while Redlanders settled in for another stint of terrible representation because our federal member had no currency in Canberra.
Laming’s team, the Coalition, had won the election, but after representing the people of Bowman, Queensland, for almost ten years, he’d sent inappropriate tweets that put us on the map for all the wrong reasons. Word was he wouldn’t be getting a promotion in the Abbott Government.
“Having an opinion is not reporting. Reporting is getting off your bum, taking a few risks and meeting people.”
It was a scorching week. Parts of the nation were ablaze. At work there were half-hearted jokes about not mentioning the D-word – drought – for fear of scaring-off advertisers.
Up to my ears sub-editing, I sorely missed my stint as a citizen journalist for No Fibs.
I stumbled into No Fibs following a Twitter conversation on the Peter Slipper fallout and was immediately drawn to its fresh interface.
The election was just weeks away and my gut told me marriage equality would be a hot issue, but when I tried to find the subject on the site I came up with nothing.
I mentioned that to editor Margo Kingston and she immediately suggested I write it.
My opinion piece was published the week that tweeters were bitching about lack of pay for online journalists.
Mia Freedman of Mamamia was praised for finally paying some of her contributors, but slammed for suggesting most of what she published was opinion so shouldn’t attract a high dollar value.
I tended to agree. Having an opinion is not reporting. Reporting is getting off your bum, taking a few risks and meeting people in order to flush out the truth. But it was clear a generation of hungry media graduates blogging in their pyjamas expected their musings to garner a living wage.
“Can’t pay the rent with a by-line,” one tweep fired-off.
“That’s where the day job kicks in,” I fired back.
My young tweep admitted she had a day job that kept her in the flow of human experience that will never be replaced by the internet, but wanted to blast down the doorways of media companies to create entry-level positions.
What would she have found if she had?
At my workplace she’d have felt the fear of cutbacks, amalgamations and redundancies, like standing on the deck of a ship when a list starts to show, and someone’s just noticed there are not enough lifeboats.
It was an extremely bleak landscape for journalists. No wonder a reporting stint on the No Fibs election project was so attractive to me.
It didn’t matter that Bowman was safe Coalition territory. I wanted to meet the candidates and decide where my preference votes should go. I also wanted to flex my journalistic muscles.
Not for me the ease of press conferences. Here in Bowman, otherwise known as Redland City, politicians need flushing-out.
Most Australians don’t know where the region is and many locals like it that way. It’s a blind spot perfect for parachuting any political aspirant into.
I lined-up interviews with candidates from the Palmer United Party, Labor and The Greens and netted thousands of words of material in three hours’ work, knowing none of it was going to make an ounce of difference to sitting member Andrew Laming’s 10.4 per cent margin.
As I published, a few savvy heads popped up on Twitter – critical thinkers dotted across greater Brisbane, grateful for more than the coverage in the local paper, The Bayside Bulletin.
Andrew Laming said he’d talk to me once the election was called, then reneged. Knowing that nothing I’d offered him was different to what every other candidate had agreed to, I got despondent, wrote my wrap-up piece and sat back to watch the reporting on the neighbouring divisions.
One day later, a breaking story on campaign cheating landed in my lap, with a great editorial photograph (taken not by a journo, but one of the candidates), and a social media audience urging me to file it with No Fibs, so I did!
A week later I read The Bayside Bulletin was hosting a candidates’ forum. No-one could recall if they’d been held before, but the perception was they were ineffective.
So I called the editor, Brian Hurst. Before I’d finished saying “No Fibs” I got put through to him. He’d read my work, heard Margo interviewed, and was more than happy for me to tweet from the event.
“We made a tiny scratch on the surface of the area’s democratic future.”
I sat up the back, all thumbs on my phone while The Bayside Bulletin’s journos had luxurious tablets, but I got as many tweets out to my audience, who were glad I was providing a less-constrained voice on Bowman’s newly-minted hashtag #bowmanpol.
Brian generously gave No Fibs permission to publish his paper’s photographs with my article on the event.
The election came and went and I struggled to settle back into sub-editing and blogging, because I acknowledged to myself I should have taken that photograph of Laming’s poster burning – it’s just in my nature to report.
I’d been part of nudging the mainstream media (MSM) into a brief communion with the social media, and we made a tiny scratch on the surface of the area’s democratic future.
But a scratch can become the infected wound which brings down a sizeable political animal like Sophie Mirabella, a process that was unfolding at the other end of the country in the division of Indi.
The No Fibs election project had excellent, strong rowers, skilled navigators who knew the currents, and the courage of explorers charting new territory. I just couldn’t let it go, so I decided to take a risk and stay on the lifeboat.
It felt buoyant enough for a journo wanting to join the great reader migration to the new news world.
This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.