A clear and balmy evening on the rooftop of ABC Perth’s studios provided the perfect setting for Women in Media’s final event for 2015.
An intimate audience gathered to hear a panel of passionate regional journalists discuss the good and the bad of their work.
The panel shared stories and offered advice with a warm-hearted sense of humour that could only come from the bush.
Guest speaker Tara De Landgrafft began the evening with a hilarious account of how she first became a regional journalist.
Ms De Landgrafft, who is a Goldfields – Esperance based ABC reporter, never actually intended to become a journalist. But one fateful night, while attending an agriculture event, she accidentally landed herself a job at the ABC after asking a man for a cigarette.
“I remember stepping outside and hiding around the side of this building and finding somebody who was smoking a cigarette, and at the time I thought: that’s a really good idea, I’m going to go bum a ciggie from him,” she told the audience.
Ms De Landgrafft didn’t realise that she was in fact at the Rural Media Awards, and the man she was getting a cigarette from was former minister for agriculture Kim Chance.
“It turned out he was quite charmed by my yarn spinning.”
Mr Chance spoke with the lady in charge of rural reporters at the ABC that very night, and Ms De Landgrafft suddenly became a reporter.
Four months into working for the ABC country office in Perth, Ms De Landgrafft embarked on her first country stint to Geraldton, which at the time was stricken with drought.
She described her start in Geraldton as “an absolute baptism of fire”.
“I really did question what the hell I was doing there.”
But Ms De Landgrafft said the experience was invaluable and led to her current job in Esperance that she “wouldn’t swap for anything else”.
“It was really hard times that as a journalist, I learnt a lot from and I still think about those times today because they are the cornerstone for what I do now,” she explained.
“Four months in, I was given the opportunity to go to Esperance for a week and cover a flood, and I thought; there’s got to be something better than drought, and that’s a flood.”
Nine years later, Ms De Landgrafft is still in Esperance.
“When you can go and do an on-air shift, then pop out for a swim, file some stuff for lunchtime, then go for a surf and have a two minute commute at the end of the day, would you really want to live in the city?
“For me that answer was no.”
While the audience were likely feeling envious of the idyllic lifestyle Ms De Landgrafft described, it wasn’t long until the panel touched on the downsides that come with being a regional journalist.
Karratha based ABC reporter Lucie Bell alluded to the challenge of working in a small community where everyone knows each other.
“People often talk about the pub test for a story: would it fly at the pub?”
“We have a different sort of pub test in the regions, it’s the one where the person you wrote the story about, or broadcast the story about, comes up to the bar and lets you know how they felt about it.
“And there’s one pub, so you’re going to have to stand there and take it.”
Sound Telegraph editor Clare Negus also touched on the issue.
“You’re guaranteed that if you write something negative about someone, that you’ll run into them in the dairy aisle.”
Bunbury-based ABC radio producer Hilary Smale opened up to the audience about some of the more personal challenges that come with moving from the city to the country.
“I found I really lost my Perth identity,”
“You don’t have much in common with the people that you once really loved and spent time with, and gradually this other life takes over.
“I found that transition really hard and I think each time you move you sort of don’t know where you fit in.”
While there are certainly challenges that come with being a regional journalist, the panel expressed that overall, the positives make the experience worth it.
Ms Negus spoke about how remarkable it feels to see the direct effect your work can have on the community.
“When you write a story in a regional town, you feel the impact of something and you see the wheels of change moving,”
“In Rockingham, we had a homeless campaign last year, and we visited the Salvos a couple of weeks ago and they were saying they directly attribute the work that we did to get eight people off the streets, so we think that’s pretty good.”
An audio recording from Broome-based ABC reporter Erin Parke also touched on the upsides to regional journalism, comparing reporting from the city and the country.
“What I feel about regional reporting is that there’s something really raw and grass roots about practicing the craft of reporting in an area like the Kimberley,”
“You’re held accountable for your reporting because you’re dealing on a personal level with the people, the subjects of your stories.”
Ms Parke spoke about finding her country news patch more stimulating than a city newsroom.
“You have ownership of stories and issues over years, so you can have confidence and authority that you are reporting as well as you possibly can do, whereas I think in city newsrooms there is a bit more of a culture of clocking on, getting assigned a story, churning out a couple of radio stories, then moving on to the next story.”
Finally, the panelists offered some wise words of advice for anyone considering a stint in the bush.
Ms Smale emphasised the importance of listening and not going into rural journalism with expectations or stereotypes.
“Don’t put any kind of stereotypes on anyone because there really are so many varied people out there everywhere in Australia, particularly in the regions,”
“You need to be very open and not go with any pre-conceived ideas of the stories you’re going to cover, and what they’re going to say to you.
“You’ve just got to go back to the basics and tell the stories you hear.”
Canning Times reporter Pia Van Straalen, who formerly worked with the Narrogin Observer, provided some advice for rural journalists who may feel conflicted about writing certain stories.
“Some of the best advice I ever got was: in a small town, you have to be able to look every single person in the eye, and if you cant look at the person you’re about to write about in the eye, then don’t write it.”
Ms Negus had a very practical recommendation to offer the ladies.
“The most practical tip I was given was, especially if you do the environment round, have flat shoes in the car,”
“If you are trying to traipse through an old growth forest, heels aren’t your best option.”
After the panel discussion, guests networked and were treated to a jam sponge cake that would make the CWA proud.
Words by Lucinda Pearson