MESS ME­DIA

Gina Rush­ton on life in The Aus­tralian news­room

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - GINA RUSH­TON is a re­porter with Buz­zFeed News.

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 co­work­ers, 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.

The News Corp of­fices in Surry Hills, Syd­ney.

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