Bendigo Writers Council – March workshop 2016 – Wayne Gregson on column writing

Speaking about the newspaper industry, journalism and the distinction of being a writer, Wayne, let’s be honest, painted a bleak outlook. He is known locally for his work at the Bendigo Advertiser, including his Down the Mall column, and has worked with newspapers throughout Victoria, including writing a column that was printed nationally. The dot points that follow are notes from the talk, therefore reflecting Wayne’s opinions. (In some cases my opinions are listed in brackets [aka parentheses].) At the end of this article is a summary of a short talk I had with Wayne on the issues raised.

  • A journalist’s job is to report events, not to send a message that helps form an idea.

  • A writer must communicate an idea, and that is the distinction of a column writer to a journalist.

  • A writer must give honesty and that can be scary for a writer to do.

  • Wayne believes journalists do not work for money, as the money is too low to attract the money seeker. (Though I would argue that it can attract the fame seeker who wants to see their name in the byline and influence society. This is Rupert Murdoch’s key motivation.)

  • Columns are the attractive part of the paper compared to the dry journalism, yet column writers are also poorly paid. (I have seen many people complain about their work and pay. If you are a writer or journalist, or anybody, you’ll unlikely be happy with your pay. So better that you’re happy with your career/work.)

  • The Bendigo Advertiser in the 1990s employed 30 staff to ensure facts and content was accurate. Now it is 12 employees (at most) and content is not always checked for facts or grammar.

  • Column writers can have fun, including word play, which is something journalists don’t do because journalists only do facts and not fun.

  • It is arguable if journalists in newspapers today do, in fact, stick to reporting facts or whether they try to influence opinion. (I suggest taking the same news event as reported in The Age, The Herald Sun and The Australian, and read to see if the use of language could influence opinion)

  • The Herald’s language is/was targeted at someone who didn’t finish school, and therefore the journalist really had to know their topic in order to explain it clearly enough. A journalist for The Age could write to a higher comprehension level but that allowed for some laziness.

  • Back in the day if you got a fact wrong, you personally apologised to the people involved.

  • Reporting is only to be concerned with who, what, when, where, and why.

  • One of the best writers of a column according to Wayne was Lennie Lower, who wrote fun articles, drank heavily, and died young. There is a book of Lower’s articles.

  • In some circles the column is content where advertising should be. (I see that in most circles the blog is where the column have moved.)

  • With the loss of local newspapers there has been seen a reduction of local community involvement. Less people attending events etc.

  • More people read online, but there is so much clutter there, there is less pay. Example: a leading online news service, the Huffington Post, does not pay contributors.

  • Papers are dying because people believe all creativity should be free, because it is free on the internet.

  • Terry Pratchett, a famous writer, was a journalist before having more fun.

  • Dave Barry is a column writer at the LA Times. They pay him and therefore he has time to do a good job at writing.

  • A newspaper should tell you something about the community that you don’t know.

  • Exercise: a message was sent around the room in a whisper, it was returned with great error. Proof that the further from the source you are, the greater need to check facts. This was also shown by the example of a book that analysed newspaper reporting.

At this point the workshop stopped for a tea break and I asked Wayne if, given that newspapers are dying, that journalists and column writers don’t work for money, and if the paper is of high importance to a local community, should papers adopt a Not-for-profit model.

He believed this was impossible, and a little foolish, as only competition helped generate funds and lowering the revenue expected would lessen pay further and reduce the standard of reporting and writing. He stated that society receives the media that it deserves, and if people are not willing to pay for it, then they should not have one. The only exception that could possibly work is the ABC, and even that has faults.

I proposed a kind of donation system that people pay their local newspaper so that it may continue to operate and that society can continue to have the benefits of a local media service.

He believed this was a good idea.

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