Ben Schneiders, investigative journalist at The Age

Ben Schneiders
"If you report a story, people will criticise you, challenge the facts and the way it’s written. You get increasingly thick-skinned about it. It would be hard to survive if you were thin-skinned." Age investigative reporter Ben Schneiders talks to Julia Hende about the challenges in the job.

How did you get started as a journalist?

I always wanted to be a journalist but I didn’t study journalism at university so I got a job on a finance, news and investment website in 2001. I didn’t have any journalism experience or background as a student but I was able to get a job. I worked there for about 18 months. The pay was really poor but I think it was one of the first web-only publications.

Have you had any formal education in journalism?

When I started at Fairfax in 2003, I did a traineeship while working at The Australian Financial Review. They haven’t done it for a few years but they used to have a formal year of training. It was a month at the start where you’re not doing any work, just training every day. Then you would do a day a week training for the rest of the year so it was quite an intensive course. That was the most formal training, actually the only formal training I’ve had…besides on the job.

What is the favourite story that you have covered?

There’s been a few but the one I’m working on at the moment I’m quite into. I’ve spent the last 12-18 months working on a series of stories about the underpayment of workers at Coles, Woolworths, McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza. It’s been about workplace agreements between big employers and the ‘shoppies’ (shop assistants’) union that have left more than half the workforce on each of those agreements paid below legal minimum rates. It’s been a story that’s had a real impact. There ended up being a decision in the Fair Work commission that vindicated our original stories and some people started to get paid much higher rates as a result. It’s been satisfying in the sense that most of the time you write stories that can be interesting but you don’t see the impact from it, with this I have.

What prompted you to start that series?

I work in an investigative reporting team with a guy called Royce Millar. We ended up writing a lengthy profile on the retiring head of the shop assistants’ union, Joe de Bruyn. We also got some news about them paying money to the employers but we didn’t know about the underpayments at the time. So we wrote the piece which got a pretty good reception but the day after it was published, I got an email from someone who said they knew how the ‘shoppies’ cut deals with the big employers and undercut their members so it stemmed from that.

What has been your most challenging moment?

I haven’t thought of any specifics but the general thing with journalism is the constant pressure. It’s a rewarding, interesting job but it can also be very stressful. If you make a mistake there’s real life consequences. If you report a story, people will criticise you, challenge the facts and the way it’s written. You get increasingly thick-skinned about it. It would be hard to survive if you were thin-skinned. You also deal with abuse which can sometimes get really personal particularly via social media like Twitter but you have to get used to it otherwise you just roll in a ball and hide.

Do you try write in a way to set yourself apart from other journalists?

I don’t think I specifically try to but I write about particular things like workplace relations, the Labor movement, the Labor party, stuff around work, employment and jobs that most other journalists don’t look at so in that sense I do set myself apart.

Are there certain things you won’t do in order to get a story?

Definitely! It’s a real privilege to be a journalist and it’s something that if you wanted to you could easily abuse. You have to maintain ethical standards about honesty and not misrepresenting yourself. There’s lots of fine judgement and grey areas that you work in and you have to try give people a reasonable response but sometimes they lie so you need to make judgement calls on what you put in and what you don’t. You always have to think about trying to get to the truth of something as best you can and being fair in your reporting.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in journalism?

I guess all parts of journalism are changing whether its tech spaced or radio or TV. There’s fundamental economic changes and changes to the business model of journalism so it’s important, now more than ever, to understand what’s going on and why. I’d say getting experience in reporting is also really important, you can learn a lot from that kind of thing.