Nick McKenzie, Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Four Corners investigative journalist

Nick McKenzie, journalist for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and ABC's Four Corners. Photo by Lucy Slade.
"I felt like we were doing our job in giving those victims, the most vulnerable of people, a voice." Investigative journalist Nick McKenzie has won the prestigious Walkley Award seven times. He talks to Lucy Slade in an ongoing Q & A series on journalists.

How did you get started in the industry?

I studied journalism at RMIT and was fortunate enough to get a cadetship at the ABC in 2002. I was a cadet for a year and did various things in the ABC and then moved to Fairfax in 2006. The cadetship was in Melbourne and the industry was profoundly different then, it was much easier actually to get your foot in the door. The ABC was a great place to work because I didn’t want to work behind a desk. I like the variety and glimpse into different parts of life that journalism offers you. It’s an exciting job and I knew I didn’t want a boring job. I was interested in writing, politics and power so it seemed to be a good fit. I wasn’t five years old saying, ‘I want to be a journalist,’ but as soon as I started I knew I loved it. It’s a good thing because I’ve managed to stay at it for 16 years.

What have you been working on this week and would you consider it to be a fairly normal week?

Yeah there is no normal week in journalism, at least not what I do. I’ve been working on issues of propriety in state parliament. We’ve done a piece on sexual slavery/ human trafficking and the modern slavery act. My team always have 10 things on the go at one time and so your trying to pursue stuff that your audience thinks is important and that the paper thinks is important but it’s very broad. I guess the theme that interlinks everything is it tends to be about the abuse of power or the abuse of position is some way or another.

How do you know if a story is best suited for print or for television?

Television is all about human stories and you need to get compelling people on camera – people you can identify with. Television when it’s done well can be extremely powerful, much more powerful than print in my view. There are some wonderful writers that can bring a story to life. But when you have a really good human case study of someone telling their story, maybe for the first time, or they are a whistle-blower breaking their silence- seeing that person live is an amazingly powerful thing. But television is quite frustrating because there are a lot of logistics involved. You have the camera crew, you need to set up the interview, convince people to go on camera but all the effort is worth it when it works. There is a lot more freedom in print, you can just go out by yourself and report what you see and what you find, you don’t need to lug a camera around. But then again now you can shoot stuff on your phone. One person can do a hell of a lot with technology.

What is the story you are most proud of?

I’ve done so many stories over so long. There is a story I often think about which involved a sexual abuse scandal in disability homes and that was very effective. I felt like we were doing our job in giving those victims, the most vulnerable of people, a voice. These people were on television telling their stories and they were brave enough to do so. It was very empowering for them and stories like that where you really help people who don’t get heard or who don’t get seen is very rewarding.

Have you ever felt threatened as a journalist?

When you do the work that the journalists I work with do, you get occasional threats and things. What scares me or what concerns me the most is getting sued all the time, often by criminals who abuse the court system. That can be extremely time consuming and expensive. But we don’t live in Russia or China, we have a free press here. We have a strong rule of law so it’s a good place to work. You get the odd threat but that’s all part of the job.

Have you ever been too emotionally involved in a story?

I think when I deal with victims- sexual abuse victims, corruption victims or people who have had their live profoundly affected by some injustice it’s tough. I remember doing a story about a guy who was murdered, just part of a human trafficking/ sex trafficking issue, and I got to know his family extremely well. You can’t help but feel their loss and you mourn with them. Occasionally you report on terrorist attacks and natural disasters you see people at the lowest and toughest point in their lives and your inclination is to help them so it’s very emotional.

What advice would you give anyone wanting to pursue a career in journalism?

The moment you decide you are a journalist, start writing, start getting your work published, start reporting wherever you can. Don’t wait for the story to find you, you’ve got to go find the story. There are so many stories out there and I think it is easy to go and find a great story. My advice is go and get published.