Gay Alcorn, Melbourne editor of The Guardian Australia

Gay Alcorn, Melbourne Editor of The Guardian Australia
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"In my view, journalism has changed but it also hasn’t. Technologically, it’s changed. Culturally, it’s changed. But in terms of ethics, being fair and trying to get things right, I don’t think those things have changed." The Guardian Australia's Gay Alcorn talks to Vincent Dwyer.

How did you get started in journalism?

 I did Arts/Law at Queensland University. In my second year of Arts I did a journalism subject and I just became more and more interested in that. I was then lucky enough to get a cadetship at the Courier Mail and then a few years later I moved down to Melbourne.

Did you have a mentor or someone who inspired you when you started out?

 I was inspired by one of my lecturers, Ken Edwards. He was probably one of the first people who I knew had been a journalist. He also wrote for TIME magazine. But when I was a young kid in Brisbane, my heroes probably would’ve been the journalists who I saw on TV; Geraldine Doogue, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Masters. As a young writer I especially loved people like Joan Didion; I’m very interested in narrative-style journalism.

What challenges have you faced as a journalist?

 Well, most of my career was during the height of print, and before the internet completely up-ended everything. Looking back, they were definitely the glory days. When I was at The Age and The Sunday Age they were years filled with rivers of gold. That was when money was pouring in from the classifieds. I’ve had a great career; I’ve been a foreign correspondent and won three Walkley’s. But in terms of practical difficulties, the workload [stands out]. I’ve worked tremendously long hours for many years, particularly as a Washington DC correspondent and also as the editor of The Sunday Age.

Is having a substantial workload part-and-parcel of being a journalist?

Yes, I think so. That’s if you want to be any good. But I think younger journos may be a little more insistent on work-life balance than I was. When I had a child, it was challenging trying to juggle everything. Looking back, I probably [somewhat] neglected friends and family for many years due to my obsession with journalism.

Another challenge was disillusionment with the profession. Journalists are often full of ego and byline-chasing, so you start to think ‘What’s it for? How much good is it going to do?’ I do think it’s one of the few jobs where you can, every so often, make a difference. [But] there are concerns about the dumbing-down of journalism and doing work that you think matters in an era of clickbait and sensationalism.

Have you ever found yourself second-guessing or questioning your skills as a writer?

 Oh, totally. I still do. I put a lot of value on writing and clear writing. Spending three years in the US was really good for me, because the best American papers [New York Times, Washington Post etc.] write at a level that we don’t really reach in Australia. I think we have some very good writers here. But in terms of the numbers of them and the culture of very good writing, I definitely learned a lot in the States. Also I liked how the best papers there will do a news story, but write it with a bit more analysis or a little bit more colour.

So they step outside of the formula?

 They’ve got their own formula. I’ve always placed an emphasis on good writing, but it does seem to go in and out of fashion here. I’ve had some editors who really value writing and some editors who just want their journos to break stories. So I’m always trying to improve my writing. I certainly practice and have read a lot of books on non-fiction writing which have helped. When I was in the States I read The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, and I learned a hell of a lot from that.

Would you recommend that university students read The Art and Craft of Feature Writing?

Totally. The main thing I got out of it was the mistakes I was making; I recognised that I was an over-researcher. I also learnt a lot about structure and how to structure your piece properly. Most journalists make the mistake of starting to write a feature piece and then getting stuck after three or four paragraphs; you’ve got to plan the piece. But I’m definitely still thinking about how to improve my writing all the time.

During your career, has there been a particular interview or story that stood out for you?

I’d have to say September 11 when I was in Washington DC. I originally thought the Gore-Bush election would be the highlight of my time in the US, but when September 11 happened that was a transforming moment for me both personally and professionally. I couldn’t help but get very emotional about that story. Professionally, trying to analyse and explain it quickly to an Australian audience was challenging, but also really rewarding. But it certainly made me re-think my values more deeply.

Since starting your career as a journalist, what changes to the industry have you noticed?

Complete revolution. We did have computers when I first started, but no mobile phones, no internet, no email. The industry has been completely up-ended through technology, mostly in a good way. It was that era of the “gatekeeper”, where journalists decided what was important and just told you, and the only way you could push back was to write a letter to the editor. But now people will tell you very quickly on Twitter if you’ve got something wrong.

Now it’s much more a two-way conversation; you don’t pretend you know everything. Particularly for women, this has led to quite a lot of online abuse. You’ve definitely got a changed relationship with your audience now; the audience has a lot more power.

Considering this ‘digital revolution’ what do you think is now the best way for a journalist to find contacts and make connections?

I would still say the best way is to go and have a coffee or meeting with them. In my view, journalism has changed but it also hasn’t. Technologically, it’s changed. Culturally, it’s changed. But in terms of ethics, being fair and trying to get things right, I don’t think those things have changed. So I would still think actually meeting someone face-to-face is the best way to build trust and for them to get to know you. But I still think Twitter is certainly a useful way of trying to find experts in a particular area.

Do you have any tips for a student trying to get into journalism?

It’s tough, but then again it was tough when I was young. Don’t just get your degree; you’ve also got to get work experience. You need to be able to say, ‘I run this blog; I have been published in The Age or The Guardian or my local newspaper, I have volunteered for the local student radio, I’ve put in a couple of stories for the ABC and one’s been published.’ Get as many internships as you can. Also, do not discount going to the country, which was a way in when I was young. Also, don’t think the only opportunities are at The Herald Sun or The Age. There’s a lot of opportunities now in start-up new media. The Guardian is a new player, Huffington Post is a new player. And then there’s Crikey, and all sorts of different groups that you can get a start in. So don’t think the world is anywhere near the same as it was; it’s now much more fragmented with many new players.