Once upon a time in the Western Star

As of Monday, I’ve been a journalist at the Western Star in Roma for six months. I came out here as a blogger of several years standing who wanted to be a journalist. It was time to take the advice I heard from the wonderful Marian Edmunds at a journalism conference in Brisbane in August 2008. The advice was simple: “learn the craft”. I was a discontented project manager for IBM but had just completed a degree in communications majoring in journalism. In 2009 I quit IBM and started a masters in journalism with on-campus study at QUT where I learned much of the theory. The biggest lesson was that if I was serious about becoming a practitioner, I had to go bush. I spent a couple of enjoyable weeks in June-July 2009 filling in at The Western Times in Charleville. On 1 December 2009, I accepted a permanent offer to work at a sister paper, the Western Star in Roma. The Roma Western Star is one of four newspapers I know of with the same title. There is a Western Star is Bessemer, Alabama another in Ohio (the state’s oldest) and the third in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Canada. This latter is roughly analogous to the fictional newspaper “The Gammy Bird” of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

The owner of my Gammy Bird is APN. APN is still controlled by Tony O’Reilly’s Independent News and Media group and his son Gavin is the CEO. It is the first Irish company I have worked for in 25 years and APN is the most profitable part of the business.

I’m learning every day from my mistakes and they have been many. In today’s paper alone we forgot to put what date one event was happening (we just gave the time) and brought forward another event a whole week (wish fulfillment based on was getting too excited about the long weekend, which will actually be a long weekend for me). I apologised profusely to the organiser who had to field several confused phone calls.

But nice things happened too. One of the town’s pastors I bumped into was amazed at how many events two journalists cover here and said the paper was greatly improved these days – he is not the first to tell me this. This is gratifying because it is something we consciously set out to do.

I am slowly coming round to the opinion I’m not just a journalist but also a “reporter”. A journalist may investigate an incident or event, but a reporter tells you what happens. To report takes time and honesty. You need to be there (or have a proxy), then process it before writing the story. It is not easy, and I work long and hard to achieve this. I have no idea how many hours I put in because I think work-life balance makes no sense (it is all “life”) but it is safe to assume it’s a lot. With no overtime I don’t want to calculate my hourly rate because it would depress me. Yet I don’t begrudge a moment of the time. I’ve had more fun and met more people in Roma in six months as a journalist than in five years as a blogger in Brisbane.

Despite the low salary, journalism has in-built prestige mechanisms. Three that come to mind are regular publication, the right to ask questions of decision makers, and the ability to get to be involved in whatever special events are happening. In the last two days I got to go along and listen for free to great people like Geraldine Cox and Adam Penberthy when they came to town. Listening to the down-to-earth Cox was liberating. Though she’d probably hate the description, Cox is a genuine secular saint. A former diplomat and merchant banker, she got herself sacked at 50 and went to Cambodia where 15 years later she now runs two 200-children orphanages with a third on the way. Penberthy was an entrepreneur since the age of 13 and now 12 years later runs his own advertising company in Brisbane called Fresh. Cox and Penberthy are different but their stories are inspiring and it was an honour to be there to capture it for the public record.

The public record or “newspaper of record” is a difficult concept for any newspaper bottom line. Profit is of no concern to my irate “clients” – the public – who demand the news regardless of whether my employer will make money. Journalism fits uneasily into the capitalist system as there is no obvious way to make money from it outside of it being used to hide advertising. Big news rooms are an expensive cost centre that produces no revenue. But without them, the news hole would remain exactly that, a hole.

The problems these holes cause for profit-seeking media companies were shown up by a recent ACMA decision to rap Bill Caralis and his shoestring Super Radio Network over the knuckles. The communications authority deemed Caralis’s networked programs in breach of local content rules. They did not satisfy the minimal three hours of local content with Sydney content beamed into Coff’s Harbour, Orange and Kempsey.

Roma’s major radio station Zinc ZR (formally 4ZR) meets the three-hour goal. It is owned by Prime Radio which runs a stable of stations under the Zinc logo. The Roma station broadcasts local content from 6am to 9am with “Gazza” (Gary Sands). I’ve met Gary on a number of occasions and he is a very experienced broadcaster who is passionate about the town. I’m not sure he would call himself a journalist, though he certainly acts as one.

There is the also freebie Maranoa Mail which employs one journalist on a part-time basis. I have met at least two other independent media people who live in Roma who provide content for a number of organisations (including the Western Star). ABC Local Radio broadcasts out of Toowoomba and provides reasonable coverage of the region. I think one of their journalists lives in Roma though I haven’t met her. But the Western Star (with two journalists) is the biggest content provider of local news in the region.

Our turf is large. The region is the Maranoa, an area of 58,830 km². If the Maranoa was a country or territory, it would be the 125th largest in the world, not far behind Ireland in 119th place (70,273 km²) with Norway’s surprisingly large Svalbard and Jan Mayen just ahead of Maranoa in 124th. The region is bigger than Togo (56,785 km²) and Croatia (56,594 km²). But whereas there are 6.7 million people in Togo and 4.5 million in Croatia, there are just 13,000 people in the Maranoa. The roads are long and lonely.

Centred on Roma it goes west to the town of Mitchell (named for Sir Thomas Mitchell who was the first white person to visit the region), south to Surat (named for the city in India), north to Injune (gateway to the Carnarvon Ranges) and east to the small township of Yuleba. We’ve made a special effort to cover these regional towns but it is not easy to know what is going on out there. I love getting out to these places and always feel more welcome and more likely to get a good story when visiting them.

I’m also enjoying getting to know the ins and outs of the people of Roma and learning its history. Originally settled by the Mandandanji people, Mitchell and Leichhardt started the white invasion in the 1840s and it was named for the Greek wife (Lady Diamantina Roma) of Queensland’s first governor. Roma was the first gazetted town in the newly independent colony of Queensland in 1862. Roma has a wine industry that dates back to the 19th century and an oil industry that goes back to 1905. It has a natural gas pipeline to Brisbane since 1969 that is still operational and it has Coal Seam Gas in abundance about to unleash a firestorm of energy exports to Asia in the shape of cryogenically-frozen LNG from 2014 onwards.

Unemployment is low at 1 percent but the town is undergoing the highs and lows of the Surat Basin resource boom servicing the CSG industry. There has been two major floods in a month including its worst ever recorded flooding in March.

When I started at APN I put on hold my journalism masters degree for six months so I would have the energy to concentrate on the job. Now I want to finish the masters in the second half of this year. I want to look at the Western Star and my role in it. I want to look at the paper’s history and where it fits in now. I want to look at other media, terrestrial TV, pay TV, radio, Internet, other newspapers (including the local freebie and other regional newspapers plus the impact of the Courier-Mail and The Australian), the local cinema, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, What does the Roma paper say about rural journalism? What does the paper say about Roma? I’d like to examine what we do…journalism, reporting, photography, page design, interviewing, reading, writing. If time permits I’d also like to find out what does Roma say about the paper. I’d also look at the corrections to identify why we got things wrong.

That scope is probably too much already. Yet somehow I want to shoehorn my work at Woolly Days into the thesis. I’ve been blogging for five years and have found it an immensely liberating and enjoyable practice. I need to find out how my blogging has informed my journalism and vice versa. With my Western Star work, I need to look what mistakes I’ve made and why I made them. What do I write about, what news frame do they fit and which news values do they have? What were the ethical dilemmas, the issues, the sources, the subject matter, the political economy, the reactions. What am I saying to whom in what channel with what effect?

The journey of learning the craft has barely begun.

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One thought on “Once upon a time in the Western Star

  1. I was tidying up my office in Brisbane and found an original Sat 27th March 1875 copy of the Roma Western Star still in good condition. You seem to be taking journalism seriously, so Email me if you’d like it as a keepsake.

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