Lifting the lid on the good, the bad and everything in between

A highlight of my time as The Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald was the invitation from Chief Executive Women to give the keynote speech at their 2011 Annual Dinner.

CEW represents more than 400 of Australia’s most senior and distinguished women leaders. Their annual dinner is a high point of the Australian corporate calendar and regularly attracts more than 900 of the country’s top CEOs and their management teams.

Among the audience were many powerbrokers who had been targets of the Herald’s journalists, and others who had never been shy of phoning the Editor to complain about the coverage.

I decided to explain what it meant to be the leader of one of Australia’s oldest cultural institutions and to tell the story of my career path to become the first woman to do so. I also wanted the audience to understand the role of good, ethical journalism in a democracy.

As I told them, being a journalist is a privilege. People let us into their lives, they share the most extraordinary details of struggle, achievement, pain, desire, hardship, rage and grief. People go to journalists when they care so deeply about something they are prepared to risk all to expose injustice or wrongdoing.

Politicians love to hate the media, but there’s a crazy symbiosis most of them find compelling. They also love to use the media.

All of that brings with it huge responsibility for the Editor and every journalist on her team. And the best journalists don’t become the story. They keep their feet on the ground, their scepticism healthy and their ethics intact.

Goof journalism makes a difference. It brings things to the attention of the community which might otherwise remain hidden by those with an interest in keeping information out of the public sphere.

I’m now on the other side of the media fence, helping organisations share their messages through storytelling and content. But I still believe in the power and importance of good journalism.

Read the CEW speech here

2011 Keynote Address to the Chief Executive Women Annual Dinner

By Amanda Wilson, Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald (2011-12)

Before I get down to all the serious stuff I know you’ve come to hear –  you know, where I throw in things like paradigm shift and massive structural change in the media, etc – I want to correct the record. Apparently, some people think it’s funny when I say yes, I am the first woman in 180 years to edit The Sydney Morning Herald, but I don’t think of myself as a woman.

Yes, it’s true that, professionally speaking, I haven’t thought of myself in terms of gender.  I’ve been in a very blokey profession for decades, but I always just got on with being a journalist and left the gender wars to others.

However, I do have one piece of incontrovertible proof that I am a professional woman.

It is an email I sent to the head of HR many years ago when Fairfax advertised for a new Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. I was in a senior role at the Herald at the time and many respected colleagues suggested I apply for the job.

Now, here’s the thing. Only a woman would craft such an eloquent explanation of why she was not going to apply. Wrong timing, single mum, kid coming up for high school, elderly parents needing attention. Plus the niggling doubt that she was ready for the top job.  All that stuff. In an email.  Beautifully written though.  I even headed it:  “Not the Editor of the SMH”.

Hard to imagine a male doing that.  Any doubts a man had about his readiness for leadership would be kept for the bathroom mirror.
I obviously got over that, because I am here tonight. But I am living proof that that there are many paths to leadership – and not all of them involve a crushing ambition, a serious string of letters after your name and a personal life sacrificed for the corner office.
Sometimes the path is winding – life keeps happening and you manage it. You step forward, you step back – but you continue to work in whatever capacity you can manage so that the money keeps rolling in. My own straw poll of women who’ve made it to the top in any field includes many who simply couldn’t afford to take time out. They needed the money to support their family and they had to keep working. So they decided that if they had to keep working and putting in the hours, they may as well go for it.

When you add passion for what you do to such dogged determination to keep going, you have what used to be called a vocation. Somewhere in there, most women who shoot for the top realise that if they don’t do it, they will never know if they could have made a difference.
I’m not saying that having a woman in charge always makes a difference for the better – we’re not all perfect or more talented because of our gender – but how will you know if you don’t have a go?

Australia has some inspirational women in its past and present who gave it a go because of passion, or circumstance or a twist of history. And they did make a difference.

At one point earlier this year [2011], we had our first female Governor and Premier of NSW, our first female Governor-General and Prime Minister, and Australia finally got its first female Editor of a major metropolitan daily broadsheet newspaper. The voters saw one of them off, and time will tell how the others rated. By the way, it says something about media around the world that Le Monde and The New York Times also only appointed their first female Editors this year.
There were some milestones in the late 19th century, when Bella Guerin became the first woman to graduate from an Australian university; and Constance Stone became the country’s first female doctor.

But then there was a bit of a gap. You might be surprised to know that wasn’t until 1966, that the first woman was elected to Sydney City Council.

It wasn’t until 1965 that Roma Mitchell was appointed the first female judge in the NSW Supreme court. It even took until 1970 for NSW to get its first female bus driver.

In 1980, some 50 years after Nancy Bird Walton took to the skies, Deborah Wardley won a 15-month battle to be allowed to fly as a commercial pilot.

The Herald has been there, day in, day out, for 180 years recording the life and times of Sydney’s women and men.  It’s a sad thing but true that often a woman’s contribution remained unsung in the Herald until she made her curtain call on the obituaries page.
Some of our readers feel like they are part of the paper’s fabric – they contribute letters, they love to be part of the conversation, and they never fail to let us know when we have stuffed something up.
Like every great relationship, there’s a bit of the love/hate about it. I get the complaints, but I am also privileged to hear some of the wonderful personal stories of the Herald’s place in people’s lives. When I met Jackie Weaver a while ago, I congratulated her on her Oscar nomination. But what did she want to talk about? The Herald. She told me she learned to read at the age of three sitting on her father’s knee as he read the paper to her. She’s read it every day since.
At a lunch recently, a woman on my table said:  “I love the Herald. I read it every day. It’s like a religion for me.” Fabulous, I said. We need more readers like you.
” Tell me it’s not true that newspapers are dying,” she said.
Well they won’t die if wonderful people like you keep buying them, I told her.
” Oh, I don’t buy it,” she said. “I read it in the cafe twice a week and the other days my neighbour passes it through the fence when she’s finished with it.”

Terrific! Another one who thinks we are like the ABC, taxpayer funded.

When I joined the Herald in 1995  as Foreign Editor I hadn’t quite realised what an institution it was. I grew up in Melbourne where they have their own institutions – the MCG, the footie, Collingwood, The Age.
But the Herald has claimed an interesting place in Sydney life over the years. Like these images you’ve been seeing. Our photographers have been capturing the highs and lows or daily life and big events for some 100 years. Our picture archive is a real Sydney treasure trove, much of it digitised now, but we still have a wonderful collection of old glass negatives in storage that would take your breath away.
I love libraries and, when I started in newspapers straight from Year 12, we still had an actual physical library. My first job was in the Melbourne bureau of The Australian, where I was a copy kid. I thought they’d given me the job over a hundred other applicants because of my brains. I found out later it was because I came from a theatrical family and they figured that someone raised by delusional actors would fit in perfectly. They were right, of course.

The journalists there became my other family, and I couldn’t believe I was being paid to hang out with them.
A copy kid was a gofer, getting around town in cabs to collect copy – stories – from journalists based at the Stock exchange, in parliament house, police HQ. This was in ancient times, before there were fax machines everywhere. I also had to enter the lair of the dragon librarian to collect files of newspaper cuttings and old photos.
Down the hall were the journos from Truth, a long defunct gossip rag. What a shocking bunch of long-haired, sexist, dope-smoking drunks they were. The only person who could keep them in line was Helen, the librarian, and her space was my refuge from them.

In there, you could sift through files of meticulously labelled musty newspaper clippings and old photo prints marked up with a sub-editor’s black pencil. It was magic. And it was the start of my journey.

When I was made a cadet journalist, I was in the same News Ltd offices and was number two in the two-person Melbourne outpost of the Sydney Sunday Telegraph. Number one was a dashing reporter. He seemed to dash everywhere except to the office. I was left to my own devices and learnt on the job.

When I had to write my first story, an interview with an ageing British movie star, my boss was nowhere to be found. I came back from the interview with not a clue how to start writing it.

I was rescued by the elegant Elizabeth Auld, one of the first and best newspaper women in Melbourne who retired that year. She took me through my notes and showed me how to find a hook on which to hang the interview.

That was my lesson in journalism – after that I was on my own.
I was very much on my own shortly after when someone shoved a shotgun up my nose.  This was during my first death knock. I was sent to interview a young woman whose fiancé had jumped off the top of a tower block of flats. And he’d done it on the morning of their wedding.

The photographer who drove me out to the woman’s house was very experienced.  He stayed in the car with a long lens on the camera while I went up the path to the front door.

It was opened by a very big bloke wearing the leather jacket of a well-known motorcycle club.  I’d barely opened my mouth to introduce myself when he growled: “She doesn’t wanna talk to youse. So piss off,” he said.

Fair enough. That seemed definitive to me. A family that likes its privacy.  I went back to the car and we drove to a phone booth to call the newsdesk in Sydney. This was in life before mobiles. I told the boss what had happened. He didn’t care.  It was Saturday and they wanted the story.

But there’s a bloody great bikie guarding the door!  Tough, he said.  Go back.

At that point, I was more scared of my boss than the bikie, so I did what I was told. Where’s HR when you really need them?

I walked up the path – alone again. Knocked. This time when the door opened, I didn’t even get to open my mouth. Which was good in a way because that would have been a convenient place to place the barrel of the shotgun he was poking at me.

“I told youse to piss off.  Get movin,” he said.

I ran back to the car, where the photographer had the engine running. This had to be a good enough excuse for not getting the story.

I decided not to phone Sydney until I was in the safety of the office and could get the photographer to back me up.  I learnt an important lesson that morning which has served me well over the years. It is this: don’t wear high heels if you think you might need to run away from a situation.

Soon I realised that the only way to escape the other office dragon, the shorthand teacher, was to run away to Hong Kong.

I wrote to The South China Morning Post, told them I was several years older than I really was, and ended up joining as their Education, Health and Social Welfare reporter. They were heady days, when a 19-year-old innocent could sit for hours in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and soak up the war stories from terribly glamorous journalists out from Vietnam and Cambodia for some R&R.

It was the Year of Living Dangerously writ large.

I also learned to swear in Cantonese, drink super-strength G&Ts at lunchtime and still write umpteen news stories a day. I crammed several years of a Melbourne apprenticeship into one. I also learned another important lesson: war correspondents are very good at making you feel sorry for them.

The Herald’s first female war correspondent was Connie Robertson in 1943, although from what I can learn she never left these shores.

She was sent on a tour of women’s army and air force camps, and the photographers loved her – I guess it was because she’d been the Women’s Editor, and was particularly stylish, even in wartime.

In 1966, the Herald appointed its first female foreign correspondent. Margaret Jones, who was sent to Washington, then excluded from the National Press Club because of her gender, so could not report on the major speeches given there. Jones did, however, hear Harold Holt utter the words “all the way with LBJ” at the White House.

There are some terrific pictures in our archive of the very masculine Herald newsroom over the years. The one that is not funny at all is from an election night in the 1970s where not one woman is to be seen.

When I returned from my travels in the 1970s, I moved to Sydney and worked for The Australian, where there were still some barriers.  You could not, as a woman, join the superannuation fund until you had been an employee for five years (for men it was one year). Women had only recently been permitted to join the Sydney Journalists’ Club, which saved them from being snuck up the back stairs by more enlightened colleagues with membership. And the only woman editor at that time was the Arts Editor.

It was the same in Fleet Street when I arrived there a few years later. I phoned the Daily Telegraph to see about some casual shifts.

“Terribly sorry,” I was told. “But we don’t have any ladies’ lavatories here.”

They did have facilities for women at the Financial Times and then The Sunday Times but still, in the 1980s, I was barred from El Vinos wine bar on Fleet Street for wearing a trouser suit.

OVER THE YEARS I have thought of giving up the drama of other people’s stories, to get out of the newspaper game and do something with sensible hours where you are not captured by the 24-hour news cycle. It is draining and many of my colleagues have given up or self-destructed along the way.

When my son was about eight, someone asked him if he wanted to be a journalist when he grew up. “No,” he replied with some force. “They never see their children”.

It’s things like that which see many talented women in my profession hit the wall. It’s often not a glass ceiling but a pair of pleading eyes – and that’s just the dog.
So from time to time I would agonise over what kind of mum I was, especially those times when the kid was off school with a bug and I had to tuck him up under my desk with a pile of books from the Literary Editor’s stash to keep him happy.  That’s when I would weigh up other options like corporate communications or academia. But I couldn’t do it. Journalism gripped me by the throat all those years ago and it still hasn’t let me go.

Besides, my son loved being under the desk at mum’s work. And he is now a voracious reader.

I decided that to have a mother who follows her passion for storytelling while putting food on the table can’t be all bad.

And so I juggled. I stepped up, down, sideways – going for the most interesting job that my mothering duties would allow.  I’m not saying this method works for everyone, but it worked for me, and the fact I wasn’t in a hurry to crash through any ceilings helped.

Not that there wasn’t pressure. At one point my boss wanted me to be Night Editor, a fabulous leadership opportunity. I politely declined on the grounds I would be starting work as my son’s school day ended, and getting home about five hours before he woke up. The only people who’d see him would be his teacher and his childminder.

My boss couldn’t hide his irritation: “When is this child problem going to end?” he asked.
THE FACT THAT BEING A JOURNALIST IS SUCH A PRIVILEGE is probably what’s kept me going all these years.  People let us into their lives, they share the most extraordinary details of struggle, achievement, pain, desire, hardship, rage and grief. People come to us when they care so deeply about something they are prepared to risk all to expose injustice or wrongdoing.

Politicians love to hate us, but there’s a crazy symbiosis most of them find compelling. They also love to use us.

All of that brings with it huge responsibility, because a journalist bears witness to someone’s story.

The best journalists don’t become the story. They keep their feet on the ground, their scepticism healthy and their ethics intact.

Goof journalism makes a difference. It brings things to the attention of the community which might otherwise remain hidden by those with an interest in keeping information out of the public sphere.

John Dewey, the American philosopher and psychologist, wrote:

“Journalism creates a great community of citizens who participate actively in public life, in that community. The clear conscience of communal life, in all its implications, constitutes the idea of democracy.”

I believe my job is to run a newsroom that produces journalism for all times, and all platforms. That is to say, the newspaper, the website, the iPad app, mobile phones, and anything else the changing technology throws at us.

I believe it is this kind of journalism, produced by people with passion, dedication and commitment to facts, which helps our community keep its conscience clear, and our democracy strong.

THE JOB OF EDITOR brings with it a lot of flak, which lands at my desk. I’ve been engaging with readers for years – there’s nothing new in that. But now that the buck stops with me, I am even more conscious of the need for me as Editor to ensure everyone in the newsroom understands that when we publish something, it reverberates.

Whether it reverberates in Sydney, in the halls of power in Canberra or in someone’s family – every reporter, every Editor, every photographer and everyone who answers a reader’s query, must understand the impact their work can have on people’s lives.

Whether or not someone’s life is lived in the public eye, I think the media can sometimes forget they are also human beings. Some of the excesses of tabloid TV in Australia are a case in point.

In recent times, we have seen a cancer at the core of journalism – or whatever it is you call what they were doing at the News of the World. I wouldn’t call that journalism.

The knowledge we now have – thanks to a whistle blower and dogged investigative journalism at The Guardian – has been a lesson to everyone who believes in a free press, freedom of speech and the right to privacy.
At the Herald, we have introduced a new role of Readers’ Editor in response to our readers demanding more engagement with the paper. This is not just a channel for complaints – we already have a process for that. It is the task of this new role to explain how the newsroom works and be a direct channel for our audiences to how we make our Editorial decisions.

It has become hugely important to apply more critical thinking to what we do – and I don’t think that is confined to the media. Everyone in this room will spend much of their working day considering how their firm or their department can become more engaged with and responsive to the community, and how all your staff can be more self-aware.

Of course, if there is to be a debate around introducing laws to protect personal privacy, then the Herald and Fairfax Media will be part of the discussion.

It will be a complex debate. Technological advances mean there is potential for appalling intrusions, yet it may be difficult for regulators to keep up with the pace of change.

There are millions of people who are unconcerned about posting the most excruciatingly intimate images and details of their lives, relationships, thoughts and feelings on social media.  All of it freely available for anyone – including journalists – to see.

Then there are the bigger questions of how to balance a reasonable level of personal privacy with the public’s right to information, freedom of speech and the right of press freedom – all things we need in a thriving democracy.  There is much to discuss.

Freedom of speech must not be lost in a rush to protect privacy.  Freedom of speech works both ways – it can offend as easily as it can enlighten.

As Editor, I see criticism from readers and other interested parties that the paper is too far to the left. And I see as much criticism that the paper is too far to the right. I am asked how I can permit X commentator to write for the Herald when they are obviously right-wing or left-wing. Our Readers Editor tells me this was the topic that most consumed her time in her first week.

Balance is often in the eye of the beholder. When people stop complaining about this kind of thing, I know we’re doing something wrong – we’ve become boring.

My aim is to get it right, to play fair, and to make it interesting enough for the readers to want to come back for more.  We try not to get it wrong, but if we do we correct our errors in print.

What readers on all sides hate is opinion masquerading as news. And I don’t blame them. It is another interesting point for me, in this age of exploding social media, that opinion is busting out all over. Some of it is stimulating, some of it is rubbish, much of it is ill-informed.  Now, more than ever, people want their news unadulterated.

SO WHAT IS THE EDITOR’S ROLE? If you’ve read Ian McEwan’s novel Amsterdam, you’ll know he describes an Editor’s day in detail, so much so I could feel the stress building as I read that book and almost had to reach for my meditation CD. It is unbelievably busy.
A good Editor is fair minded, they have a vision, they have a thick skin and they know how to lead a group of talented people with strong egos.
When I took on this role, one of my writers gave me some invaluable advice – that being Editor was like being manager of an opera company where everyone’s a diva or a touchy tenor. He included himself in among the tenors of course.

Another describes it as being like a roadie for a rock band. You do all the hard slog to get the rock stars up on stage – and keep them there – then stand back and let the magic happen.
Growing up in a theatrical family, where there was one big star and a lot of little lights trying to shine, there’s nothing I don’t know about living with creative genius. No one is ever happy with their work, everyone wants star billing, every rejection is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, the more over-the-top your praise the better, and when there’s a stuff-up, it’s always your fault.
J. D Pringle, who was twice Editor of the Herald in the 1960s and 70s, and who sent Margaret Jones to Washington, described the Editor as needing physical, mental and moral toughness. He said they have to be physically tough to endure the strain of long hours of work, mostly at night, and the constant interruptions; mentally tough in order to make the constant decisions about a million different things; and morally tough to withstand all the various pressures brought to bear on him.

Nine months in, I agree with Pringle that you have to be tough. For me, the learning curve is as steep as ever. And I think running the Australian Opera would be a piece of cake. (Apologies to the Australian Opera manager!)

For me, every day is a new beginning. I start with a busy schedule full of meetings with the other Editors and staff, with marketing, HR, the publisher, the commercial side, the finance manager, with clients or community groups.

But all that can change in a flash. It might be that awful moment when a plane goes down, or goes into a building, or when a giant wave starts rolling in; when a coup happens in some Canberra corridor or men in combat gear break into a fortress in some unlikely sounding town like Abbotabad to nab  the world’s most wanted man.
These are days when everything else is dropped and the news takes over.
The Editor spends a large part of every day making decisions at crisis level. And there is usually a queue outside the door of people wanting more decisions. To spend several hours mulling over a decision seems slow. To spend a day is a luxury, yet having the strength to sit on a decision is something people look to the Editor for. If 80 per cent of my decisions turn out to be sound,  I think I am on track.
There is pressure from within – all my sopranos and tenors want to be on page one, and sometimes the church and state divisions of commercial and Editorial all meet at my door. There’s pressure from outside – from politicians, business people and readers. There’s all the free advice from everyone I meet.

As John Pringle wrote, a newspaper is a public thing:

“These pressures may come from the management who may—and almost certainly will—lean on him to do this or that; or from politicians who ring up in tones either of injured innocence— ‘I’m very hurt that you should think that, John’—or furious anger—’I regard it as a monstrous lie and want you to know that I am taking it up personally with Sir Warwick…; or from the staff; or from the public. … I would be enjoying a dinner party on a Saturday night, trying to forget ‘the Herald and all its works, when some ass would turn to me and say: ‘That was a lot of bullshit in The Herald this morning. ..‘and I would find myself involved in an endless and futile argument.”

I know how he felt. Nothing has changed.

HERE ARE MY CHALLENGES. To manage all my sopranos and tenors, to be like a Zen sponge who absorbs the flak without biting back, and to keep giving the Herald’s readers and audiences accurate, incisive news they can trust, and intelligent, independent thinking. And all in a form they are prepared to pay for.
Yes, news you pay for. This is where the paradigm shift and structural change comes into it. Newspapers are doing much better in Australia than in other first world countries – but for how long?  The web, the smart phones, the tablets – they are all so handy, so easy.
But the key for me is to keep the newsroom vibrant, so that wherever you read it, you are taking part in Dewey’s idea of a conversation with a community of citizens.

The narrowing of media ownership and the shrinking of media outlets as newspapers and magazines fold is another concern for those interested in the free flow of information and ideas.

Again, John Pringle was insightful on the role newspapers play in providing rational debate:

“It is more important to be reasonable than to be right. To be right on every one of the hundreds of issues, serious and trivial, which find their way on to an Editor’s desk is an impossible ideal…

In a democracy a newspaper may be doing a useful service if it argues, fairly and logically, a view which may subsequently prove to be wrong. What is important is that there should be other papers arguing different views. An Editor is not god; she is part of the democratic process by which a nation argues and blunders its way towards the truth. Once one accepts this it is more important to be fair to one’s opponents (who may, after all, turn out to be right) than to score points off them. One should try to reason, to persuade, not to bully or to bludgeon. An Editor’s final duty is … to the principles of rational debate.”

I’d like to close by passing on some advice that was given to me by a dear friend in New York late last year when I was mulling over whether I really had the strengths I knew I’d need to take on this huge job.

I still don’t know if I do. But I finally decided to have a go.

My friend is a retired shrink. Her words are for all those women who’d like to step up but who can think of a million good reasons why it’s not the right time.  This would have been good advice for the me who emailed HR all those years ago.

“Amanda,” she said. “Stop getting in your own way. There’s enough assholes out there who’ll do it for you without you doing it to yourself.”


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