What I learned on my Young Journo fellowship
The stories that took me from regional Queensland to the Big Apple and beyond — and the lessons I brought home.
“I didn’t know how to cope with it … the only way I knew how to cope was have more ice.”
Jasmine Adams had put on a brave face for me, but I could tell she was hurting. She started taking ice after the death of her brother and some tough cards life had dealt her. I knew as she was telling me what it was like to take ice, that her insight was something special.
“You become this whole other person, you think you’re the world’s greatest,” she said.
“You’re floating cloud nine.
“You’re tough as nails.
“The high is really high, but the low is rock bottom.”
Jasmine’s story was featured in a body of work I entered in the Walkley Young Australian Journalist of the Year awards in 2016. She could encapsulate something I had never understood: why someone would take a drug that wrecks lives and kills people. Her candid interview was featured in a radio special on the use of ice in St George, southern Queensland: my hometown.
The body of work also included a story about the reunion of three sisters separated by the Stolen Generation, and a piece about a remote community who say working together on dinosaur bones helped them through depression during the unrelenting Queensland drought.
To tell these kinds of stories and call it ‘work’ is something I try not to take for granted. To then be awarded for my work at the Young Walkley Awards was an honour. The prize has opened so many doors and made for a very busy 2017, with two trips to America to visit and learn from some of the best in world. I visited CNN, HuffPost and Twitter as part of the prize and I also spent some time working in the ABC’s Washington DC bureau. I actually did two trips so I could attend the CNN Journalism Fellowship (CJF) in October.
When I walked into one of our first sessions of the CNN Journalism Fellowship there was a quote projected on the screen: “Journalism is not brain surgery. It’s harder,” — Dr Sanjay Gupta, MD CNN Medical Correspondent and Emory Neurosurgeon.
The program is the brainchild and great passion of CNN Founder Ted Turner. As soon as he read ‘Australia’ on my name tag he started singing Waltzing Matilda, at top note. Everyone else in the room was confused. His idea was to bring journalists from all over the world in one place to talk trends, swap ideas and learn from some of the best in business at CNN. The other journalists in my group were from a diverse range of countries including the Dominican Republic, France, Kenya, Taiwan and Uruguay. We met a star-studded range of executives, anchors, correspondents and reporters.
Of course, Trump dominated so many conversations, at both CNN and the other media organisations. The Trump bump as it’s known is being credited for has boosting numbers at HuffPost and Twitter. CNN’s ratings are at a five year high. It launched its facts first campaign the day we arrived.
“This is an apple,” the ad begins.
“Some people might tell you that it’s a banana. They might scream banana, banana, banana, over and over and over again.
“They might put BANANA in all caps. You might even start to believe that this is a banana.
“But it’s not. This is an apple.
The campaign made news around the country and also helped comedians out with material for weeks.
The program also included coaching from consultant and former CNN correspondent Jim LeMay. His focus was on blurring the line between online reporting and ‘traditional’ TV reporting. He encouraged us to ditch the ‘polish’ and become more ‘real’ as reporters.
We were advised to use social media to help bring our work to life and show that behind the scenes is far from the glitz and glamour that many people believe it to be. Interestingly, under the leadership of Jeff Zucker the company has moved towards a “We don’t have to be first, we have to be right,” model. That phrase was uttered again and again from people in all kinds of jobs, from those writing the stories to those in charge of fact-checking and quality control.
Earlier in the year I visited Twitter in both Sydney and New York.
When I first walked into the New York office there was a neon sign that said #lovewhereyouwork. With beer and wine on tap and food around every corner — it would be hard not to. There’s also a fully catered kitchen so staff are fed three meals a day (or trapped into never going home — depending on how you look at it).
Many people have written off Twitter as a dying platform, but the company says user numbers are up — with an increase of 4% year-over-year.
It’s now focusing on live and unedited video, believing eyewitness reports are seen to have more credibility than packages edited by journalists.
HuffPost was still recovering after the departure of founder Arianna Huffington. I was more than 15,000 kilometres from the studio in Toowoomba and I felt like I was in another world — the offices were complete with sleeping pods, a karaoke machine, table tennis and kitchen full of snacks.
In New York I was taken under the wing of Aussies at every opportunity and also shown through the Bloomberg office and Al Jazeera’s operations at the United Nations.
In Washington DC I covered Trump’s first budget, the removal of confederate statues and the Texas bathroom bill.
It was such a privilege to work alongside some of the ABC’s best journalists and producers and work on stories that were so important through this tumultuous time in history.
Everywhere I went the message was that audiences are done with robotic delivery, carefully-crafted sentences and a polished finished product.
They want to know what this story means for them; they want to connect with it as a human being.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the type of work I do as a journalist, learn from people at the top of their game and come home to put those lessons into practice by continuing to tell stories that matter.
Elly Bradfield is a journalist with ABC Southern Queensland. She was the 2016 Walkley Young Australian Journalist of the Year.