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What I Wish I’d Known is a regular series where we ask some of our favourite people in the writing world to reflect on their careers. In this instalment, journalists share some of the unexpected and useful things they’ve learned along the way about working in the media.

Clem Bastow – Freelance writer and author of Late Bloomer

Like most freelance cultural critics, I often hesitate to call what I do ‘journalism’, but I think approaching even the fluffiest lifestyle content with a journalist’s eye is important.

In terms of what I wish I’d known earlier, it’s that being able to really work on a piece with an editor is a real gift. When you’re starting out, I think a certain level of ego is necessary just to survive, but it can manifest in thinking you’re writing Walkley-worthy content straight from the top of your dome—this is rarely true! Don’t fight them; a good editor and subeditor will be able to recognise what you’re trying to say and help bring it to life.

Finally, and most importantly, install a comment-blocker plugin in Chrome.

Broede Carmody – State political reporter and author of Shouldering Pine

At journalism school, professors are really good at teaching you how to craft a story on the page. I wish I’d known more about the work off the page when I was starting my career. My younger self would have built stronger contacts earlier on if I’d done more expectation management. Speak to someone for 40 minutes? They might just get one or two quotes in the paper. A traumatised flood victim invites you into their home for a cup of tea? Their story may not run on the front page, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make a difference.

And have more fun! Journalism is, by its nature, the opposite of a conflict-avoidant industry. Therefore, it can be a delight to everyone involved if you bring a bit of humour and cheer to your own or someone else’s tough day. Being tenacious will get you far. But so will being a good human.

‘Journalism is, by its nature, the opposite of a conflict-avoidant industry. Therefore, it can be a delight to everyone involved if you bring a bit of humour and cheer to your own or someone else’s tough day.’ —Broede Carmody

Kate Evans – Radio presenter, cultural critic and host of The Bookshelf

I entered radio as a history specialist—and had no affinity (then) with the label ‘journalist’. I thought that was all about conventional ‘news’ and daily deadlines. I wish I’d known that it wasn’t a label to reject or be afraid of; I came to know that it meant the media could be many things, from public history to literary life and criticism. I’ve learnt that deadlines are useful things and that, when required, you can just put your head down and write your arse off. As the media and all cultural institutions are pared back and back, remade and reinvented, I think I always knew it was a helluva field to be in.

I wish I’d known how fast you can think when on a deadline, and that there’s a real pleasure (and pressure) in always saying, ‘Yep, sure’ to any question. Also, five minutes before writing this, someone emailed me to ask for a reference to something I had written in 2001, with research that went back years before that. So I also wish I had kept all digital files in a highly organised state…

Elizabeth Flux – Arts editor, writer and podcaster

Time is of the essence. Work expands to fill the time you have. You may delay, but time will not. All of this is to say: sometimes you have to write things faster than you would like, and procrastination will come for you so you have to learn ways to stave it off. Oh, and more often than not you can actually cut your first paragraph without harming your article (see preceding sentences).

Three of the most important things in journalism: file your work clean, file on time and don’t take edits personally. Unfortunately, my need to get things right the first time and have it be perfect can get in the way of writing quickly. Next thing you know, you have a seven-hundred-word document of notes, a draft word count of zero, and forty-five minutes left to actually write something coherent.

What’s taken me a long time to realise—and that I still struggle to accept sometimes—is that there are infinite ways you can write something, so try not to tie yourself in knots figuring out which approach is the perfect one because there is no such thing. One fifteen-minute interview could be written up in a thousand different ways—and probably a hundred or so are good. Find one and run with it—and if it really isn’t working, you’ll at least have something to pillage for lines when you try another approach. Also, often the introduction is the hardest part of a work to write. If you’re continually hitting a wall, just skip it and circle back once you’ve written the rest.

Farrin Foster — Journalist, filmmaker and editor of Splinter magazine

Journalism is in conflict with itself, and I really wish I’d known that when I started out. I became a journalist because I saw the practice as some sort of wordy glue that sticks societies together by facilitating a public conversation, and because it was a way to practise my writing while getting paid (mostly, to be honest, the latter).

But I came to realise that the business model of journalism is in direct conflict with its supposed purpose as a public good; it is very difficult to serve the readers first when you are also selling them as a product to advertisers. It is also inherently ethically fraught. Telling someone else’s story is a huge moral responsibility, and that’s difficult to fulfil under deadline pressure and at a thirty cents per word pay rate. I still think it is essential work, but I wish I’d known how many existential crises the essential work would trigger.

Nour Haydar – Political reporter and audio producer of Full Story

I’m writing this on a day when I despair at the state of journalism. I wish I’d known how many days like this I would encounter.

I was drawn to journalism not simply because I enjoyed the craft of storytelling and believed it to be a noble career when done right but because growing up, I saw Western media’s many faults and failures. So perhaps I should not have been surprised by the articles and headlines to which we all woke this week—the Islamophobia, the racism, the sensationalism and the prejudice.

My advice for those entering the media, particularly women of colour, is your voice, your words, your coverage, your contributions matter—perhaps now more than ever. But in an industry that rewards conformity, don’t let that corrupt your conscience.

Brodie Lancaster — Journalist and author of No Way! Okay, Fine!

I wish I’d known a good interview is about conversation. All the prep in the world can’t measure up to the experience of asking a well-timed follow-up question, and really making efforts to understand the person on the other side of the table (or Zoom window).

I try to tell music writers who are just starting out to avoid What was it like working with X producer?-style questions. What does the reader learn about the subject of the profile they’re spending time reading by hearing the answer to that? Unless the producer in question is, like, Dr Dre—and even then, you’re likely to get more from asking the artist how they felt during that experience, or what it taught them about themselves. In this time of fifteen-minute Zooms during album release cycles, getting quality time with an artist to paint a picture of their life and work is rare and special. When I’m lucky enough to get good access, I like to come back to advice Konrad Marshall has shared—advice that came to him via Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom French—for capturing detail in a profile: ‘Always get the name of the dog, the brand of the beer, and the title of the song that was playing as the car crashed off the road.’

Patrick Lenton – Journalist and co-author of the Nonsense Newsletter

As someone who studied creative writing at university, I had people asking me if I wanted to be a journalist for many years before I even considered it—and I always told them something to the effect of ‘fuck no, that sounds bad’. I had this idea that journalists were truth-seeking gumshoes with little cards in their hats that say ‘press’, serious public interest warriors who are constantly getting murdered by gangsters for whistleblowing. As someone who actively seeks out lies, who could only be described as ‘soft hitting’ and who spends their life trying to be less serious, this felt like a bad fit. But it was only when editors actively started asking me to write for their publications that I worked out that journalism can be for silly billies too. Journalism can include all your thoughts about TV, or a story about the time you met a huge duck. Since then, it’s been like a playground for all my stupidest thoughts. Journalism can be interviewing people about sandwiches. As long as you are an accomplished writer, with a unique or at least forceful point of view, there’s a place for you in the weird wide world of journalism.

Alex McKinnon – Journalist and author of the Everything is Fine* newsletter

The first story I ever wrote in a professional capacity was about a community soccer game. I looked up the score on the team’s Facebook page, spoke to the winning coach on the phone, and more or less spun three hundred words out of nothing. My editor skimmed it, nodded and assigned me my second story: I had to interview the parents of a twenty-year-old kid who’d been missing for six or seven years. The cops were convinced his boyfriend had killed him and buried his body in the forest, but they couldn’t prove it.

Journalism throws you into a lot of situations you’re unprepared for. Workplaces typically provide you with minimal support or guidance. You’re often encouraged to get a story with little regard for the people whose story it is—people who are vulnerable, or scared, or bewildered by the workings of the media cycle. I wish I’d known earlier in my career that the story doesn’t come first—the people do. Building a relationship with someone based on trust and respect is smarter and more rewarding than milking their pain for a headline. Everyone you interview is a human being. So are you.

Gyan Yankovich – Lifestyle editor, author of Just Friends

When I was studying journalism at university, I never would have imagined I’d end up working at a newspaper. As a teenager and into my twenties, I was largely uninterested in what I thought was ‘traditional journalism’. I didn’t know the difference between the major political parties (I promise I do now) and was much more interested in what my friends were up to than in any global news event (this may still be somewhat true). But I loved writing, so off to my journalism lectures I went.

What I now realise, but didn’t then, is that lifestyle journalism—which spans health, relationships, fashion, beauty, and so much more—would provide a more than viable career path. For the last fourteen years, I’ve been lucky enough to work at outlets (including the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, where I’m currently the lifestyle editor) that have understood that service journalism is not only valuable but requires the same level of skill and integrity as any other topic. Just because a story is a ‘change of pace’ from news or politics doesn’t mean it’s any less important. If I had known this at uni, maybe I would have been a little more excited about those lectures.