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The Writers Hour

Hear from the best writers in the business

The Writers Hour discusses the art and craft of writing and storytelling with the very best journalists and editors in the business. If you're an aspiring journalist, part of the industry or simply curious about how the
Latest Episode8/16/2020

11. Peter English

[2:20] Pete on his background in journalism and how he came to be a senior lecturer at University of the Sunshine Coast"You've got to be prepared for the criticism – but you've got to ask for it, too … pick writers you respect, and ask for their feedback … and you've got to be brave to take whatever it is they say."[4:30] Pete on learning on the fly at The Guardian in London[8:15] Pete on his "stupid question"[11:40] Pete on the importance of self-editing in today's media world, and why one needs to be careful with descriptions"I'm very precious with what people tell me and how to report it – the way that comes back can often be misinterpreted. We see that throughout the world; what is a fact these days? What is truth? What did you mean when you said this?"[18:10] Peter on ethics when dealing with interview subjects[23:50] Peter talks about how he entered the academic world"I know there's often an uneasy relationship between journalists and academics, but even just thinking about what it is that you do as a writer, a journalist, as a communications officer, as a sports lover, [and] those blurring of roles – are you a cheerleader, are you critical of the team, even just thinking about that helps make you a better journalist."[26:40] Peter talks about his story on former England captain Adam Hollioake, which you can find here[30:05] Pete on original writing and being present, versus the daily news churn "The whole point of what we're doing is trying to get something original. When 30 people are asking, let's say Pat Cummins, questions at a press conference, there's nothing original there. And then the whole pack goes to the next press conference, and the next one." [32:25] Pete on where journalism students are landing jobs nowadays"If you're interested in being a sportswriter one of the key things you need to do it train … you read sports, you write sport, you listen to it, you watch it. That is your training."[35:44] Pete talks about ways journalists can prioritise their workloads in order to focus on quality writing[39:10] Pete on the key lessons he wants his students to have learned by the time they leave[41:15] Pete on the lessons his students can only learn in the workforce[45:40] Pete on his forthcoming book, which looks at the sports media industry in Australia[55:30] Pete on the person he'd most like to interview and write about in-depth
8/16/2020

11. Peter English

[2:20] Pete on his background in journalism and how he came to be a senior lecturer at University of the Sunshine Coast"You've got to be prepared for the criticism – but you've got to ask for it, too … pick writers you respect, and ask for their feedback … and you've got to be brave to take whatever it is they say."[4:30] Pete on learning on the fly at The Guardian in London[8:15] Pete on his "stupid question"[11:40] Pete on the importance of self-editing in today's media world, and why one needs to be careful with descriptions"I'm very precious with what people tell me and how to report it – the way that comes back can often be misinterpreted. We see that throughout the world; what is a fact these days? What is truth? What did you mean when you said this?"[18:10] Peter on ethics when dealing with interview subjects[23:50] Peter talks about how he entered the academic world"I know there's often an uneasy relationship between journalists and academics, but even just thinking about what it is that you do as a writer, a journalist, as a communications officer, as a sports lover, [and] those blurring of roles – are you a cheerleader, are you critical of the team, even just thinking about that helps make you a better journalist."[26:40] Peter talks about his story on former England captain Adam Hollioake, which you can find here[30:05] Pete on original writing and being present, versus the daily news churn "The whole point of what we're doing is trying to get something original. When 30 people are asking, let's say Pat Cummins, questions at a press conference, there's nothing original there. And then the whole pack goes to the next press conference, and the next one." [32:25] Pete on where journalism students are landing jobs nowadays"If you're interested in being a sportswriter one of the key things you need to do it train … you read sports, you write sport, you listen to it, you watch it. That is your training."[35:44] Pete talks about ways journalists can prioritise their workloads in order to focus on quality writing[39:10] Pete on the key lessons he wants his students to have learned by the time they leave[41:15] Pete on the lessons his students can only learn in the workforce[45:40] Pete on his forthcoming book, which looks at the sports media industry in Australia[55:30] Pete on the person he'd most like to interview and write about in-depth
8/9/2020

10. Naomi Arnold

You can read Naomi's story, Let there be Night, here[02:05] Naomi on life as a full-time freelance journalist through the pandemic[03:03] Naomi discusses her career background and how she became a journalist"I bought five freelance journalism books … read them all, drew up a spreadsheet and just started sending pitches out, which was hilarious.""I loved finding all out about a subject and then telling the story and writing it. But I found – probably like many journos actually – ringing people up and asking them things was just terrifying.""Don't be precious, just get the words down, [then] send them off and be on time. And watch out for any legal challenges."[06:55] Naomi on her shift from working for a newspaper to being a full-time freelancer[09:14] Naomi on why she is optimistic about the future of media"I'm optimistic about the future of media – I don't think it's doom and gloom; I think people are valuing it more and more as we realise what we're losing." [cite 'The Spin-Off' here?]"It's almost like in the internet age you need to be more honest and transparent than media organisations used to be. I think organisations that embrace that … will probably be doing a lot better than the traditional behemoth, where they were the gatekeepers and what they said, went"[10:42] Naomi on how to get a foot in the industry, and tips for freelancers, which she detailed in-depth in this Twitter thread[16:27] Naomi offers some tips for writing a cold pitch for a story[19:21] Naomi talks about her voice and her writing styles adapting to certain publications"I would hope my voice would disappear in a way; the goal is to have the reader get involved in your work, not necessarily notice who [is writing] or how it's being told. I think that's the way to get people to the end of your story, which is your goal.""So it's the whole 'kill your darlings' thing, isn't it. The editor will say, 'You're being a bit wanky'. They'll tell you that when you think you've written something particularly great. If you're lucky enough to get a good editor, they will also help you turn the flourishes into something less egregiously wanky."[21:40] Naomi on seeking advice from editors and others with your writing[26:40] Naomi dives into her story for NZ Geographic, Let there be Night"You have to respect the research while painting a picture for the reader that's not going to put them off. I try to think about it as writing for a curious high school student. Just guiding them through the piece while coming up with concepts that illustrate the science in a way that's not dumbing it down."[40:43] Naomi on the challenges of accessing up-to-date scientific research to help write her story"That's what I like about writing science actually – just the wonder and the curiosity that you can really imbue in it. The wonder at the natural world."[47:05] Naomi on writing her endings, and her thoughts on outlining[51:57] Naomi on taking random freelance assignments, and her view on saying yes or no to work opportunities as a freelancer[54:46] Naomi on her potential future as a freelancer, and why writers shouldn't necessarily feel they have to work exclusively in that field"If you get too attached to this career, it can really chew you up and spit you out if you feel like you need to be making all of your money from journalism … there's nothing wrong with having a day job and doing a few pieces on the side that you're really passionate about."[56:35] Naomi on the writing and writers she likes to read[59:18] Naomi answers our (slightly different) hypothetical regarding her dream freelance assignment
8/2/2020

9. Sam Pilger

Read Sam's piece on Cristiano Ronaldo here[02:45] Sam talks about freelance work during the pandemic[04:15] Sam on the gradual move of his work from largely in magazines to online, including the US-based Athletic website"There's never been more content but people are annoyed if they have to pay for it, but … the research and time that goes into great pieces requires money."[09:20] Sam on the origins of his journalism career, which began at Manchester United Magazine"I left when I didn't think it could get too much better. They played in the World Club Championship and my assignment was to go to Brazil for 10 days in January – during the British winter – at a hotel on Copacabana Beach."[11:55] Sam on being a 'Manchester United expert', and branching out from that both within and outside football[13:22] Sam talks about his parents, who are both Australian journalists"Coming from a journalist family, where both my parents were on Fleet Street, naturally I thought, 'I'd like to do that too'. But then sport was my passion, so I thought I'd marry the two"[16:40] Sam talks about his father, John Pilger, a renowned investigative journalist and documentary maker"He's been making documentaries for 50 years. He has inspired me. He's my dad, he's my hero, I love him and his work has always been a source of great pride."[17:30] Sam talks about the current journalism/media climate"It does seem things become harder as you go along in terms of access and in terms of making a living from freelance sports journalism. It is possible – I wouldn't shy anybody away from it.""In many ways it's harder because the competition is huge and there's so much and there's less opportunities, but in many ways it's easier because the gatekeepers aren't there."[22:50] Sam on interviewing and writing about Lebron James, and the "incredible" access to sportspeople in the US"Ten minutes after the buzzer, the locker room door would open and you'd walk in and you could talk to who you like … the access is incredible. The Premier League would never let anything [similar happen]."[26:00] Sam on the importance of establishing contacts, maintaining relationships and having a preparedness to "play the game" as a freelancer"I feel I'm lucky looking back that I did so many interviews, because I think interviews are becoming a dying art now … we were the conduit, now they don't need [us]; if they want to say something they put it on Instagram or Twitter."[29:45] Sam goes into his story about a young Cristiano Ronaldo's audition for Manchester United"If that draws you in, that's great, I've done my job. If you can find that morsel, that moment, that symbolises the piece and offers you more, then you're doing your job."[38:35] Sam talks about ways to get superstar sportspeople to go beyond their usual clichés in responses"I think the best writing is telling people something they don't know … if you can find that morsel of information or a bit of colour, that's what they want, and to feel they're there. An old editor of mine said, 'Let them smell the cologne'."[44:00] Sam on his work as a copywriter[46:20] Sam on the writers who inspire him[48:45] Sam answers our hypothetical: dead or alive, who would you love to interview in-depth and then write about
7/26/2020

8. Steph Gardiner

You can read the ABC story on Ivanhoe, by Miacaela Hambrett and Don Sheil hereYou can read Helen Garner’s Why She Broke in The Monthly here[2:30] Steph talks about teaching during COVID[4:20] Steph on the longform subject she teaches at CSU "Longform journalism takes the standard who, what when, where, how, why and expands it into a compelling narrative … it's all about trying to get students to really open their eyes and think bigger picture, and use some of their creative talents"[6:10] Steph takes us through her background in journalism, dating back to grade five!"The court round is so addictive and multi-faceted and interesting and exciting and stressful. It's just the perfect job I think"[9:15] Steph on covering the courts round for The Sydney Morning Herald"Sometimes courts are horribly boring and slow, so you can take the opportunity to wander around and just look in different courtrooms and see what happens. That's how you can uncover treasure in courtrooms. It's great"[11:15] Steph on work now and how she maintains positivity with her students"I haven't broached the topic of newsroom closures and things with my students too much. I don't think it's worth extinguishing their fire before they've gotten started. If any of them did ask me about it I would say, 'Remain hopeful'"[13:10] Steph takes us through a longform story on the remote NSW town of Ivanhoe"Often when you're out on a story, you might have absolutely no idea how it's going to come together, but your sources and your interviews and the place itself will inspire that, and guide that for you""They've had a couple of years of being taught about being objective and fair and accurate, which is obviously extremely important, but there's also room to just explore these other worlds"[26:55] Steph takes us into the award-winning Helen Garner piece, Why She Broke"Longform journalism does often look into dark corners, and looks at things that other people may look away from. And Helen Garner is exceptional at that"[46:50] Steph answers our weekly hypothetical: Who would she love to interview and then write about in-depth
7/19/2020

7. Will Swanton

Read Will's story on the racehorse Winx hereRead Will's story on surfer Steph Gilmore here[02:17] Will talks us through his backstory, and how he came to be a sports writer"I played a lot of sport … I was a good cricketer and tennis player. I beat Todd Woodbridge love-and-love when we were in the Under-14s – I think Todd was about eight""I really love the atmosphere of a game day, the emotion that surrounds live sport – the psychology of it all and what an athlete goes through from when they wake up on a big day to just how that whole thing plays out."[08:30] Will talks about note-taking in an interviewing, and what he'll take in terms of questions into an interview"Straight after an interview I'll write a lede straight out on pen and paper – just on a scrap piece of paper. A lot of the interviews are so enjoyable, you're still kind of up (immediately afterward) … so I'll write down a couple of parts that I think will make the lede."[12:28] Will talks about his habit of writing in two-hour bursts[15:35] Will talks about his piece on the racehorse Winx, in which he included his daughter, who came along with him to the Rosehill Racecourse for this story… "If there was one yarn I enjoyed writing – ever – it was that""To be honest, not much of that stuff is deliberate … I feel really untrained as a writer … I didn't go to journalism college, so I feel like there's no set method to stick to. I'm lucky I have bosses who give me the freedom to do that.""You can tell if someone's having fun while they're writing – there's fun in the words, there's fun in the story."[27:57] Will talks about finding your voice as a writer, and what that means to him"The mistake can be trying to be something you're not. I've definitely had stages where I've thought, 'Well if I'm going to be a newspaper journo, I've got to forget the colour stuff … and not waffle on. But I didn't enjoy it half as much."[32:24] Will talks about scenes, with the dawn at Rosehill an example "The really enjoyable stuff [is] being somewhere – at a live event, at the stadium or the racetrack. And that's where I just take notes non-stop. That kind of thing of trying to write it in the present or in the moment is really important to try and get the atmosphere across."[34:20] Will talks about rhythm and momentum in a story, and how he writes in the moment, when he's feeling it"That goosebump feeling that you have in the moment won't last – so the sooner you write it, the more it's going to come across in your writing."[38:44] Will talks about finding a 'sting in the tail' to his story"You want to structure it so there's a good proper ending … a lot of the times your best lines might also be your last one … you've got to trust your editors that they're not just going to chop it from the bottom."[41:16] Will talks about teeing up the interview for his profile with surfing champ Steph Gilmore"I remember covering Steph from when she was a teenage rookie – happiest person on the planet. So you've got a long-standing working relationship with someone, and hopefully a bit of trust is part of that.""It had happened years earlier but she'd never really talked about it in detail … and that kind of stuff is so enjoyable to do."[42:20] Will talks about the benefits of a pre-planned interview "If you're willing enough to be open and honest, I give you my word that I will do my very best to say the story in the right way … if you put your heart into the interview over a couple of hours, I will put my heart into the yarn for you and let's see how we go."[49:30] Will on using a technique to put the reader in the room with him and the subject [52:49] Will on striking a balance between his own words and using quotes[54:15] Will on the bane of every journo's existence: transcribing interviews[55:12] Will on the pros and cons of specialising within sport[59:57] Will tackles our weekly hypothetical: Who would he most love to interview and then write about in-depth
7/12/2020

6. Jacqueline Maley

You can read the original story on Dyson Heydon by Jacqueline Maley and Kate McClymont here[2:35] Jacqui talks about how she got into journalism originally "It's just such a fun job. From the moment I stepped into the newsroom I was like OK these are my people … it's fun, it's interesting, you're surrounded by really funny, irreverent, mad and intense kinds of people.""You get to meet incredible people and just ask some intensely personal and nosey questions upon meeting them because you've got this free pass, because you're a journalist" [5:35] Jacqui on the origins of the investigation into former high court judge Dyson Heydon by herself and Kate McClymont, and how things then unfolded across two years"We joined forces and then hit the phones … old-fashioned blanket calling as many people as [we] could … it was this exponential growth in phone calls that ended up being this big web."[12:15] Jacqui discusses the gravity of the interviews with the alleged victims in the case"Let's be honest – the journalistic calculus is like, 'the worse the alleged transgression, the better the story'. So you're looking at all of that … but as a human being you're like, well if it was me, would I want to do it? And how can I ask someone on a personal level to make this kind of sacrifice?""We had all these disparate threads and then it all came together … we were interested in the institutions as well because we knew it was a bigger story than just one man""I don't think it matters what the first phone call is – only that you keep making a lot of phone calls … you have a tip, you think something might be there, and then you call as many people as you can"[16:18] Jacqui on the rollout of not only the breaking high court news story but the follow-ups thereafter[17:50] Jacqui on her personal anxiety around the story and its release[21:00] Jacqui discusses her satisfaction from the way the Heydon story has paved the way for a look at the courts more broadly in the weeks since it broke[21:52] Jacqui on conducting sensitive issues[23:20] Jacqui on the world of investigative reporting more generally, and perception versus reality"It can be quite dispiriting. You go through periods when you're like, 'No-one's going to talk to me, no-one's going to go on the record … I've just spent weeks chasing this thing and it's all going to come to nothing … I've done all this work and I've got nothing to show for it. You've got to have an inner-resilience to just keep going"[26:15] Jacqui answers our hypothetical: What historic scandal would she like to be dropped into the middle of as an investigative reporter, and why?
7/5/2020

5. Nick Walshaw

Read Nick's story on NRL player Braidon Burns hereRead Nick's story on UFC champ Rob Whittaker here[3:35] Nick on the challenges of not interviewing face-to-face during the pandemic"If you want to get someone's story, you have to sit with them face to face. The whole point is making someone feel comfortable and you just lose so much in a phone conversation, even in a Zoom conversation – it's not the same as being able to sit there and just read a person properly"[5:57] Nick tracks through his career progression as a sports journalist"I don't know where it came from but I've always just been interested in people"[8:06] Nick explains the way he carved out his own UFC niche at the Daily Telegraph"Early on there wasn't really a lot of interest in (UFC). When Rob Whittaker, who has since become our first champion, won the Ultimate Fighter up on the Gold Coast, I paid my own way to cover that … and it was a sidebar in the paper.""I love interviewing fighters. There are no more interesting people on the planet, I think, than those people who want to strip down to shorts and a pair of gloves and step inside a steel cage to make money. They've all got incredible stories … and some of the nicest people I've met in sports have been UFC fighters."[11:45] Nick on interview nerves and methods to deal with them"I find myself quite nervous before I do any interview. I've been doing this job for 20 years and I still find when I pick up the phone to people I really have to convince myself to be confident enough to talk to them."[14:24] Nick talks about his story on young NRL player Braidon Burns, which was a Best Profile finalist at the 2019 Australian Sports Media Awards"When you sit down with someone, they're putting their trust in you and they're opening up to you. You have a real responsibility then to do it right, and to do their story justice."[24:35] Nick touches on the problems of access in the NRL particularly[28:10] Nick talks about his writing style, returning to the Burns piece as an example"One of the lessons someone taught me really early on was: narrow your audience down to one person. For me, I've always written for that middle-aged tradie – loves a beer, loves a punt – sitting down on his esky at morning tea reading the Telegraph. That's the guy I write to every time."[33:40] Nick talks about interview techniques and tips"Have a real conversation. Work out what you want to ask and be inquisitive about finding out what makes the person tick. Really listen to what they say, and then your inquisition will tell you what to ask next.""You're asking someone to open up on some really personal stuff, so they have to get a sense of who you are as well."[42:30] Nick talks about rhythm and cadence of sentences and paragraphs"For me, and I don't know where it comes from, but there is a rhythm and a pattern to everything you write, and if I read my story back in the 'paper, if a word has been changed, I'll know."[47:00] Nick on getting meaningful responses from his subjects"When you get to the stuff that usually they don't want to talk about, the way I explain it to them is, 'For people to understand where you are now in your life, I want them to understand what you've fought through, or what you've been through, to get here'."[49:52] Nick talks about his exclusive piece with UFC fighter Rob Whittaker, who broke his silence about his time out from the sport"That most recent [Rob Whittaker] story was of interest to everyone. I know ESPN were trying to get him to sit down with them, so that he chooses to sit down with you and do it, you're honoured to do it, so you want to do it properly."[55:53] Nick on getting the quote he needs and then working around that"When you're interviewing someone, you get to that point and you're like, 'OK, there it is'. I had to take him back to that point on the dunes a couple of times to get a description … you feel like you're bugging him … but just keep asking, because it's going to help you in the writing process.""When someone says they missed a funeral [to train], you're not just going onto your next question. Really listen to what people are saying."[1:08:45] Nick on who, dead or alive, he would love to sit with for an in-depth interview