Michelle Slater, journalist at the Numurkah Leader

Michelle Slater
"They take it very, very seriously. If you misspell a name, miscue facts or write a story that someone doesn’t agree with, you will quickly find out about it." Michelle Slater, journalist at the independently-owned Numurkah Leader in northern Victoria, talks to Anthony Pinda in a new series of Q&A interviews in which Swinburne students explore the challenges of journalism.

How did you start your career as a journalist?

A long time ago I was heavily into community radio. I did a course at PBS in Melbourne that taught me the basics of journalism and how to present to different audiences. While I was working on radio I grasped all the fundamentals of the industry such as presenting styles, the economy of writing and how crucial media law is when you’re working as a journalist. However, the most important thing I learned was that it’s essential to establish a really good contact network of journalists and other people within the industry.

You began as a radio presenter and now you’re in print. What are the main differences between the roles?

I am constantly lining up interviews, presenting ideas and producing material. The process of creating material is generally the same, it’s just the end product that’s different. When I worked live to air I had to be on the ball and ensure the content I presented was relevant and engaging for the audience. Radio consists of live broadcasting without delay, therefore you need to be careful what you say. This is why a broad knowledge of media law helps. Whereas in print media you can edit your story numerous times before it’s published.

Why did you take up a role reporting in a rural area?

I have a long background in the bush. I worked in the horse industry before I started out in the media. I used to prepare horses for export to The Royal Stables in Dubai. I also worked on a farm. This gave me inside knowledge into the agronomics and the issues people are faced with out in rural areas. It provided me with an understanding in the importance of the environment and how it’s directly related to a lot of issues such as droughts, floods and fires.

People in the country are genuine and what they say is straight from the heart. It’s filled with characters. Journalists in the city spend their day chasing down high ranking politicians, false news leads and they go insane having to deal with public relations and media advisers. Everything advisers say is carefully construed, planned and mediated. They don’t give you the same honesty you get when you’re dealing with the cold face of a rural community.

Do rural journalists need to have a strong connection with their local community?

It’s an important role, you have a very powerful voice working as a journalist in a rural community. In small towns everyone knows one another. The people read the news religiously as everything inside is directly relevant to the local area. They take it very, very seriously. If you misspell a name, miscue facts or write a story that someone doesn’t agree with, you will quickly find out about it. People will stop you the next morning at the bakery or will simply march straight into the office to speak to you.

What should young reporters do to secure themselves a long career in the industry?

Volunteer work has been crucial to the success of my career and I did a significant amount writing for free. I have a stack of magazines and newspapers at home filled with articles that I wrote when I was trying to break into the industry. It’s an essential and invaluable experience that you can’t get sitting in lectures and tutorials. My goal was to be able to approach editors with complete confidence when applying for jobs.

What challenges have you had to overcome as a journalist?

I covered a triple fatality car crash out on a highway. A truck had veered onto the wrong side of the road and collected two cars front on. Taking the photographs for the story was the hardest part. It was an eerie scene. It was difficult separating my emotional response from the fact I was there to do a job. It’s my role in society to report with a neutral mind. This was one of the more confronting stories I’ve had to write. Temporarily, it really messed me up.

Has working as a journalist changed you personally?

I’m definitely not the same person I was when I started. I am more assertive, my thinking is significantly more analytical and I think more logically than emotionally. When someone presents me with an argument I now look at it critically instead of coming out with emotional hysteria. I drive people made at dinner parties because when they tell stories I quiz them about where they got the information and on what basis. I can’t help it, chasing down the truth is part of being a journalist.