Tag Archives: Journalism

Art might just save journalism

WHEN journalist Margo Kingston described the existential crisis of journalism, and that she wouldn’t advise anyone to enter the industry, she expressed what very few media punters were willing to say.

Journalism dropped to the bottom of satisfying career lists during the last decade. In the 2013 ‘Jobs from Best to Worst’ survey, conducted for the past 25 years, CareerCast.com listed Reporter last, at number 200, with Editor not much higher, at 168.

How did we get here?

It’s hard to gauge, but things can hardly get worse. As advertising revenue continues to take a dive, and limitless access to social media fosters the expectation that content should be free, neither the mainstream or social media allocates much money to the creation of content.

On this score alone, Journalists have entered the career bracket previously inhabited by Artists, where remuneration is never guaranteed, product floats below the surface of a constantly uncertain marketplace, and validation is in very short supply.

To put things into perspective, the CareerCast.com survey ranked Artist at 148, Choreographer comes in at 156, even Actor, once considered the most marginal of careers with 99 percent unemployment at any given time, gets a higher ranking than Journalist, at 197.

On this advice, Journalists might be wise to start thinking and operating like Artists in order to change the ranking of our industry.

Depressingly, holidays are the hardest time of the year to do so. If you’re an Artist, the silly season can be anything from an inconvenience to a handy escape from the fact that it’s another year, another blank canvas.

“Journalists might be wise to start thinking and operating like Artists.”

Unless you’re a successful practising Artist of any stripe, it may have been devastatingly easy for you to take time off from your creative work and spend summer days with friends and family, joining in at the edge of groups of ‘real people with real jobs’: Web Developers (ranked at 24), Hair Stylists (83), Architects (61), Statisticians (20), and a host of other very sensible folk who listened to their parents and forged careers with prospects.

It takes plenty of self belief and a plastered smile to get through. Having even a shred of an official day job goes a long way to keeping you off most naysayers’ radars.

And you don’t have to be anything nearly as extreme as an Artist to raise eyebrows over the Christmas pudding.

Try adding something even slightly different or new to your repertoire (Citizen Journalism, for example), and notice how the occasion soon becomes like the dinner table scene in August: Osage County.

“How is that going for you?” cousin Peter (let’s imagine he’s a Financial Planner, snug at ranking number 5) asks, topping up your glass with his wine, and you have no answer, because you’re really not sure, exactly, how it is going for you, you only know you’re drawn to spend your life doing something different than he.

As the summer days lead us from parties and fireworks back to the working week, friends and family in the great good workforce drift back to their routines.

The mainstream media fills this period with an array of self-help articles of the New Year’s Resolution stripe (purchased from syndicated news sources for a pittance), the perfect panacea for people who only ever dream of pursuing their heart’s desire.

But Artists generally have no back-to-work start date. We need to make one for ourselves. Of course there may be an app for that, but is there anything to inspire the independent Artist into resolutions to sustain our dreams?

During the holiday I read some alarmingly depressing ideas about being an Artist: apparently it doesn’t get any better than it already isn’t.

I hasten to add that this comes from a very successful UK-based Author (a profession ranked at 156) of many published books, who may well be having to fill 2014 with checking over the proofs of her latest release as it hits the shelves in another edition, poor thing.

HANDY ADVICE Georgia O'Keeffe, hands 1918 (Photo: Alfred Stieglitz).
HANDY ADVICE Georgia O’Keeffe, hands 1918 (Photo: Alfred Stieglitz).

Lest this all get too negative for words, let me redress the imbalance with some inspiration from working Artists who’ve been there, done that, because Artists learned, long before Journalists came on the scene, that the only solution to negative situations is to just keep creating.

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” Andy Warhol

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Georgia O’Keeffe

“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.” Erica Jong

WRITE REGARDLESSAnd one for the Citizen Journalists.

“Writing is a struggle against silence.” Carlos Fuentes

Working in the lowest-placed profession for nothing ranks you as a legend.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Voyage to the new news world – part one

ON THE JOB reporting the news cycle like an old school journo.
ON THE JOB reporting the news cycle like an old school journo.

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.

NOT SHORT of an opinion: Mia Freedman of Mamamia (Photo: Anthony Johnson).
NOT SHORT of an opinion: Mia Freedman of Mamamia (Photo: Anthony Johnson).

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.

HE WINS WE LOSE Andrew Laming and family.
HE WINS WE LOSE Andrew Laming and family.

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 PartyLabor 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.

The truth about writing advertorial

AD OR STORY? Actually, look closer, it's both.
AD OR STORY? Look closer, it’s actually both.

LUCKY is the writer who has never had to turn their hand to advertorial, that postmodern (possibly ‘Newspeak’) phenomenon which fills so much of our media.

Apparently around since the late 1940s, advertorial has a few tricky names: ‘commercial writing’ is the latest on the list, which includes ‘infomercial’ (usually on television) and ‘cash-for-comment’ (the bane of commercial radio).

Writers could, of course, make a purist stand and never engage in creating content off the back of advertising revenue, but you’d probably never make much money if you did, because all writing (yes, even literary fiction) needs to be commercial at some stage.

Here are my best tips for editors and writers on surviving this trickiest of writing practices, and interfacing with the sales team!

Advertorial can get you noticed

Right now, commercial writers are making decent money finding what is interesting about everything from water tanks to washing machines, and producing serious editorial articles for PR companies and big media advertisers. To achieve excellent results, and get your by-line into the publication, make your article about plumbing products so darned engaging that the editor will run it whole in that week’s paper, and make it look like serious journalism. Think laterally, find the story, interview people in the industry, shape it as you normally would a feature, take the money and submit your by-line at the top of the piece. They’ll snap it up, simply because they have one staff writer and they’re drowning just getting the news together.

Don’t mention the weather

Writing about destinations for travel companies, or regional events, means you’re going to have to find the way to say all the nice things and none of the nasty. Weather and climate are particularly off-limits, because advertisers don’t want readers to waver about heading to their locale. Keep the weather conditions a secret until the Bureau of Meteorology commits itself to a forecast, and remember how often they get it wrong! You’re a writer, right? Embellish, imagine and invent.

Journalist, edit thyself!

Your well-paid advertorial is unlikely to be completely read, edited or proofed by anyone, so spell and grammar check (the computer can do it for you, remember?), but don’t forget to read your own work a few times before sending it in. There are very, very few sub-editors left in the media who will commit to making your work better than it is, so get any notions out of your head about old-style newsrooms with teams of people with their heads down poring over your work. Journos used to have an old trick of making the last four to five paragraphs of a story work as possible endings, and this is great practice for commercial writers too, because it’s likely your work will be used as filler, and be cut down. If any of the last five pars works as an ending, you won’t look like an idiot, and if there is a sub in the process, they’ll remember your name, which means more work down the track.

AREN'T THEY GREAT? The sales team, everybody's BFF!
AREN’T THEY GREAT? The sales team, everybody’s BFF!

Sales reps invented advertorial

But they’ve forgotten they are one half of the job. Everyone knows people buy newspapers and magazines, and click-thru to online media sources, because they are desperate to read ads, right? Well, actually, they don’t, they want to be distracted and entertained by stories. It was ever thus, and nothing is changing in that regard, so don’t buy into the sales rep lies about how their sales are paying your wages so you’d better write what they want you to. Truth is, sales reps and their clients love it when you make the dross they produce look like a real article. Get it right for them, but don’t become a sales reps’ slave (see below).

A businesses’ opening hours is not news!

This is a mantra I have often used on sales reps who have sealed an advertising deal with a promise of award-winning journalism about the local chainsaw supplier, written by me. It’s ‘advertorial’, an amalgam of two jobs – theirs and yours – so feel sanctioned to send them packing with a mission to find the story for you: an award won by the business, some interesting staff member, a business milestone. Make the rep work for the favour you’re going to do them and flush it out, write it down, and email it to you. If you do this from day one, the sales reps will respect you, or leave in disgust to find other hapless writers they can drive crazy. Sales reps change jobs regularly. When they leave, it’s not going to be because of you, but they’ll try to make like it was.

Don’t give your phone number to advertisers

Unless you want them to call you all weekend. Sales reps love it when you agree to meet their clients, because it leaves you to do their job for them. Be nice, wave and smile, but let the sales rep do all the schmoozing. There is no law that says you must do lunch with an advertiser. Keep an air of unassailable mystery, or they will eat you for lunch, and add to your workload like crazy.

Q&A The friend of all commercial writers. Fast, fab, flattering, and fills a page.
Q&A The friend of all commercial writers. Fast, fab, flattering, and fills a page.

Sales reps vs. account managers

I was once seated next to one of my magazine’s big advertisers at a political fundraiser, and once he’d gotten over the fear of me networking him for revenue, he told me something very interesting about advertising sales people: the good ones call themselves sales reps, and the crap ones call themselves Account Managers (their capitalisation, not mine).

The key words are ‘representative’ and ‘manager’: they must keep their energy on the job of selling from start to finish, but so often an account manager will drop their energy once the client has signed the contract. The only way to deal with this is to NEVER take the baton from them. Let it drop, they’ll soon pick it up to reach their sales target.

Be nice to sales reps

Because the publisher (your boss) won’t judge you by the quality of your writing (they don’t read it), they’ll judge you by how much the sales reps like you. Being ‘nice’ doesn’t mean being a pushover, it means being assertive without getting aggressive. Walk the line, forget being liked, go for respect.

Be nice to PR people

If you want to write commercially, public relations people are your friends. Don’t present with loads of writers’ angst, just deliver in a timely fashion. Knock-off your commercial pieces by 10am so you can get back to your novel. Tell them you’re writing a novel, because they might know someone in publishing …

WRITE REGARDLESSIf you can’t find anything nice to write

Make it up. You’re a writer.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, regardless!