Close to home: investigative reporting in regional communities

Shining a light on inconvenient truths is rarely comfortable, especially for journalists who report on their close-knit regional communities. But Newcastle Herald investigative journalist Donna Page wouldn’t have it any other way.

Donna Page always wanted to be a journalist.

While most children were engrossed in Disney movies or reading their favourite story books, eight-year-old Page spent her Sunday evenings watching 60 Minutes with her grandfather.

It was during this formative weekly ritual, immersed in the world of news and current affairs, that Page decided journalism was her calling.

She never wanted to be anything else.

After almost three decades working in the industry and three Walkley Awards under her belt, the investigative journalist has fulfilled her life-long dream.

Donna Page was eight years old when she realised she wanted to be a journalist.

Page’s career started at the Maitland Mercury, where she undertook work experience as a high school student.

The young journalist graduated from the University of Newcastle with a Bachelor of Communications and the promise of a cadetship with Fairfax (Now Nine).

Page spent the next five years at the Newcastle Herald, before moving to the Northern Territory to work for News Limited and later, the Department of Sport and Recreation.

With a wealth of new experience, Page returned to the Newcastle Herald first as a crime reporter, then as chief of staff, at a time when the paper had more than 100 reporters and photographers.

“I was maybe 26 and I absolutely loved it. It was basically my life,” Page says.

Starting a family did nothing to stop Page from pursuing her passions. With a two-year-old in tow, Page uprooted her life in Newcastle’s sleepy suburbs and moved to Hong Kong in 2006.

Page describes her overseas stints at the South China Morning Post and Macau’s Portuguese news agency, Lusa, as “a lot of fun” with “lots of long hours.”

Despite nearly three years living in some of the world’s busiest cities, regional journalism never lost its appeal for Page. In 2009, she returned home to work at the Newcastle Herald once again.

“I’ve been really lucky. I’ve left the Herald a few times, but they’ve always been kind enough to take me back,” says Page.

“I’m always really proud to say that I work there. The Newcastle Herald does an awesome job of advocating for its community.”

Since returning to the outlet 13 years ago, Page has claimed three Walkley Awards for Coverage of Community and Regional Affairs.

Some of Page’s most impactful stories for the Newcastle Herald have focused on environmental issues.

Exposing environmental crimes

Page’s Walkley hat trick began in 2016, when the Newcastle Herald team exposed a toxic chemical leak at the Williamtown RAAF base, north of Newcastle.

“The Foam and the Fury” investigative series revealed the human cost of pollution, telling the stories of residents grappling with contamination which led to a sudden drop in the values of their properties and health concerns.

“It was nothing short of heart-breaking. It completely and utterly destroyed their lives,” Page says.

“It was really important that those stories were told. The issue is unfortunately still ongoing.”

That was not the only time Page would be commended for her reporting on toxic chemical leaks in the Hunter region. In 2019, she received her second Walkley with reporter Nick Bielby, for their investigation, ‘Dirty Deeds.’

Donna Page and Nick Bielby’s report on a preventable chemical spill in the Hunter region won them a Walkley Award in 2019.

The duo uncovered that one of the Hunter region’s industrial firms had illegally dumped millions of litres of toxic waste. Their investigation culminated in legal action against the site owner, the State Government acquired the land and more than $20 million will be spent remediating the former waste-oil refinery.

Donna Page and Nick Bielby celebrate their win at the 2019 Walkley Awards.

Page’s winning streak continued the following year when she, Matthew Kelly, Helen Gregory and Anita Beaumont secured a Walkley Award for their contribution to the national ‘Your Right to Know’ campaign.

The team spent months on a series of investigations into a range of local education and environmental issues that involved accessing sensitive government reports.

“Holding power to account — that’s what all those stories are about. Giving a voice to people who didn’t have one,” Page says.

As part of the Walkley Award-winning ‘Right to Know’ campaign, Page revealed toxic firefighting foam had polluted creeks in the Hunter region.

Part of the community

Page concedes that standing up for the little guy isn’t always easy.

The journalist is often approached by disgruntled locals who feature in her reports.

“If you write something about somebody that they’re not going to like and the next day you see them at the supermarket, it can be a bit awkward,” Page says.

“Someone might have a go at you in the street, at a football match or a netball game.”

While connecting closely with the subjects of her stories can be difficult, Page explains that this is also one of the great advantages of working in regional areas.

“I see it as something that can work in your favour,” Page says.

“The thing I love about working in regional journalism is that you’re close to your community.”

Although Page admits the Newcastle Herald has a reputation as a “training ground” for young journalists keen to work in the city, she observes that some of the country’s most important stories come from regional areas.

“I think that you only have to look at Joanne McCarthy,” Page says, referring to her investigative journalist colleague who exposed sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

“She was dogged and she was determined and she was telling stories of people that had been cast aside.”

Publishing articles on the issue for more than a decade, McCarthy’s work was a decisive factor in Julia Gillard’s decision to announce a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2012.

Just like McCarthy, Page proves that regional journalism can be a life-long career.

Donna Page has spent the past thirteen years at the Newcastle Herald, a publication she says she is proud to be a part of.

“Whether you’re in the city or a region or a rural community, good reporting is still good reporting, no matter where you are.”

Still at the coalface

After 13 consecutive years at the Newcastle Herald, Page shows no signs of slowing down.

She and her colleagues have just launched their new project, ‘Power and the Passion,’ which investigates the impact of the climate-change led transition away from coal on mining communities in the Upper Hunter.

Page hopes governments will fund a “just transition package” to support local businesses and the 13,000 Hunter coal miners who rely on the industry.

“We’re always working on [reporting] projects that are important to our community,” Page says.

“As long as that continues, I have absolutely no intention of going anywhere.”

Interview by Ella McCrindle, 2021 Jacoby-Walkley Scholarship-winner.

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