Walking our Walkley path

Vivienne Pearson and Margaret Paton’s project on school fundraising was one of 11 awarded an inaugural Walkley Grant for Freelance Journalism. Based in different areas of regional NSW, the two teamed up specifically for the project and met for the first time at the Walkley Fund Dinner, where the grants were announced in April this year.

“Working with another writer has been sanity-saving and idea-inspiring,” Vivienne Pearson writes.

Vivienne Pearson

After writing an opinion piece about school fundraising for ABC Online in mid-2018, I knew there was more to the story. I also knew that, as a freelancer, I was unlikely to be the one to tell it.

That was before the new Walkley Grants for Freelance Journalism. By funding a level of background research that is hard to justify when you’re being paid on a per-word (or per article) basis, it fitted perfectly.

The fact that applications for the grant were welcomed from pairs or trios, as well as individuals, prompted me to try to minimise the isolation that can be a downside of freelancing.

When I saw that Margaret was an experienced journalist specialising in education, a teacher, and a parent of a school-aged child, it was immediately clear that she was an ideal partner for this project.

Six months later, I can reflect that working with another writer has been sanity-saving and idea-inspiring. Our weekly phone calls have kept the project ticking over and allowed us to gradually get to know each other — something that’s not always easy in the constant flux of freelancing. It has been eye-opening to conduct joint interviews and see how another writer operates. Of course we work differently but, despite our Trello board going by the wayside and our shared drive being a mess of combined filing systems, we have collaborated with total respect for each other’s integrity and skills.

Some elements of the grant have been double-edged. The generous time frame has been freeing but the lack of deadlines — the lifeblood of a freelancer — allowed us to let some valuable time slip away. Early requests for information and interviews, before the project was clear and before we had specific deadlines, were met with a surprising degree of silence. The chance to work on a bigger topic has been empowering but has also allowed my vision to slip out of focus.

Knowing that we were one of the few to be chosen from a large field of applicants boosted our confidence but also allowed scope for impostor syndrome — another pitfall of freelancing — to take up residence.

Halfway through the project, we faced a challenge when we realised the data we planned to write about were not available. We switched tack to write about fundraising more broadly, including why it’s not feasible to focus on the figures. We have explored how school fundraising speaks to questions that are at the heart of our society: equity, policy, history, volunteerism, fatigue, gender bias, the cult of busyness, commercialisation, the downsides of choice and more.

It is not easy to critique our chosen topic, as school fundraising overflows with good intentions. It is not right that outrageously busy parents have to raise funds to prop up a key public institution, yet I have total admiration for those who do.

I have worked on the grant project under the shadow of two ironies: that this grant was only possible because of fundraising (by the Walkley Foundation’s Public Fund — give now!) and that, at times, I put this project aside in order to fundraise for my own child’s school.

As deadlines neared, the solution to all these conundrums has turned out to be simple: start writing. I fell into the trap of trying to “finish researching” (like that is ever possible) before putting fingers to keyboard for an actual story. But we are writers. The story needs to drive the research and, once a blank page has even a few words on it, there is greater clarity about what else is needed to fill it.

The story of our grant is not yet finished. We are writing this alongside our main story for the Walkley Foundation and commissioned stories for mainstream and education-specific publications (with publication dates ranging from late October into 2020).

Thank you, Margaret, for being my freelance colleague. To the directors, judges, partners, donors, staff and supporters of the Walkley Foundation — as well as to the editors who supported our application and will publish our stories — we would like to say a sincere thank you. We are grateful personally and, even more importantly, for the role this grant plays in acknowledging the importance of freelancers in Australia’s media landscape.

“While challenging, when you inhabit another writer’s story in this way, it can also be rewarding,” writes Margaret Paton.

Margaret Paton

Thanks to the Freeline (freelance journalists’) email group, I saw Vivienne’s shout-out for a fellow writer. I was impressed with her chutzpah — she’d been a freelance journo for only four years and had notched up an impressive list of bylines in mainstream publications. In one of her nationally published pieces, she’d already started exploring the inequities that fundraising creates. It helped us hit the ground running.

Securing the grant was amazing, but I was soon to hit a roadblock that would stop me from further teaching. As a provisional teacher and casual K-12 teacher for nearly seven years in NSW, I was running out of time to find a school to supervise me so I could move to proficient teacher status and therefore keep teaching. I was kind of glad I never gave up writing as a career, which I’d largely been doing since I nabbed The Sunday Age’s first cadetship way back in 1990.

So, in late April this year, I cancelled my teacher accreditation. That’s another story, but an important one for our education system. Now that there are moves to gag public servants, state education departments are snooping on teacher’s personal Facebook feeds, then reprimanding them, and neoliberalism is rearing its head in many ugly ways in education policy and practice. These are topics I have written about this year. This censorship is happening at a time when teachers need to talk outside of school gates about what’s happening in and to our education system.

Within a few weeks of tackling our project, Vivienne and I realised the data we wanted weren’t really there. The My School website just wasn’t showing us the fundraising picture in full. So, we set up an online survey (offering the option of anonymity for our target respondents— parents and teachers). We received almost 200 responses, thanks to the survey being shared widely on social media.

We’d hoped to get more insight from principals and were toying with the idea of interviewing 20 around the country about their fundraising approaches, achievements and hurdles. After dozens of calls and fewer than a handful of “yes” responses, we put that project to one side, figuring few wanted to talk given their increasing workloads and media shyness.

Vivienne and I set up a shared Google Drive that soon became the linchpin of our collaboration, with a whopper of a “running commentary” capturing our weekly phone convos, interesting insights, questions and more. We spent weeks (months really) checking out peer-reviewed journals and public-domain coverage about school fundraising. The depth of material far surpasses what I’ve collected for my stories over the years — our shared Walkley Foundation file is a rich resource.

We’re also developing a “matrix” that lists themes and issues we’ve come across through our reading. The same researcher names kept cropping up, so we felt we were triangulating on a niche. We’ve also interviewed for a range of national publications on issues that sit on a tangent to our project title: school fundraising inequities.

For our first pieces — for The Saturday Paper and ABC News Online — we’ve been doing joint interviews using Zoom. This allows us to automatically record the interview (which could be audio or video) so we have that as well as the transcript I type during the interview. I’ve been interviewing-transcribing in real time for a couple of years now, despite having decent shorthand. It works for me as long as I use plenty of truncations. But those interview recordings are really handy to revisit and get a better sense of the nuanced points of interviews.

Oh, and we’ve made sure to collaborate on the list of questions we send to our interviewees before Zoom starts recording. Doing joint interviews at times and melding material from our separate interviews at others has rewarded us with insights into how another writer thinks and crafts. It was a really interesting process to write these personal reflective pieces as we tweaked each other’s stories — something that took a lot longer than it would have if I’d done it on my own.

So, while challenging, when you inhabit another writer’s story in this way, it can also be rewarding, making you see different perspectives and nudging you out of what you do automatically in your writing processes. My gut feel is that this joint project will continue long after we cash the last cheque for this grant. Thank you, Vivienne, and the Walkley Foundation.

Learn more about Margaret Paton’s work at https://realcommunications.com.au/

View Vivienne Pearson’s website at https://viviennepearson.com/

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Inside the Australia and New Zealand media – stories by and for journalists.

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