From before I can remember I wanted to be a journalist. No idea where that came from. My uncle Philip Wynter was a noted war correspondent in World War Two so maybe it’s genetic.
Maybe it was American TV. As a child in New Zealand I watched the Mary Tyler Moore Show and was entranced by the woman who ‘turned the world on with her smile’.
Not because she was thin, pretty and smiled a lot, but because she was an independent woman living alone in her own apartment and having a career. She had moved to a big city for a journalism job and it was hard but her good humoured tenacity and wit got her through.
Mary infused every situation – good and bad – with intelligence, fun, warmth and grace. Seeing how she lived, how she made her own decisions, how she was independent, lit a spark of hope in me; a daggy, bookish kid in New Zealand.
Later, as a teenager on the Gold Coast, with a surfie boyfriend and a hard-partying group of friends, I knew there was more to life than looking bleached, underweight and sunburnt, getting wasted and going to the beach. I knew the journalism dream was my ticket out and I fixated on it like a bush turkey making its mound.
Movies have a lot to answer for
Flashdance was released in 1983 when I was 17 and that year, sitting in a shitty fibro flat in Labrador I watched that film on VHS at least 30 times and cried every time. The story of a girl willing to work in a dirty, difficult welding job to achieve her dream of getting into the Pittsburgh Dance and Repertory Company hit me deep in the feels.
The music, the tears, the jubilant dancing, her moxie and even the mist rising off the pavements because Alex rode her bike to work so early every day inspired me deeply. As most of us know, she got an audition and it went well.
This narrative of cheerfully working hard in dirty jobs to achieve your dream and running on good humoured tenacity in the meantime was the narrative of my teens and early twenties.
School on the Gold Coast was mostly a nightmare Puberty Blues scene of arrogant surfers and football players and shallow, appearance-obsessed mean girls so I left after Grade 10. (There were some really cool people at that school too but I didn’t appreciate them at the time). For two years I studied for my Senior Certificate at TAFE’s night school while working full time as a waitress in Surfers Paradise. (I also met a cool crowd of fellow TAFE students who introduced me to The Cure, The Sunnyboys and alternative culture which was a win in itself).
My dream was to get into a journalism major at the University of Queensland and I made it by the skin of my teeth. The minimum TE score to get into a Bachelor’s Degree was 880. I got in with 888.
A high point
I carried around my UQ acceptance letter, too scared to open it just like Alex in Flashdance carried around her envelope from the Pittsburgh Repertory School. To me every letter on the envelope and the UQ insignia was sacred. Looking back, maybe just getting into university was a high point of my life, just as Flashdance ends with Alex getting into the dance school.
The first knock came when I was told that although I got into a Bachelor of Arts, all journalism courses were full, so I would have to cram a challenging double major into the second two years of my arts degree.
From second year, I was stoked to be at uni studying journalism and sat up the front at every lecture and tute, drinking it in and enthusiastically participating in discussions. I worked hard, sometimes submitting several news stories a week when only one or two were required. I was that student hanging around after class talking to the tutors and lecturers.
To supplement Austudy, I delivered meals on the wards every morning Monday to Friday at the Wesley Hospital. Friday and Saturday nights I was slinging fried food from the hot boxes to queues of hungry commuters at Brisbane’s Central Station.
Hard work isn’t always enough
In between paid work I churned out large quantities of original news stories for assessment. They were not that well written but by third year, I think the tutors were impressed by my work ethic and I graduated with 7s (the highest mark you could get back then) in my advanced journalism subjects.
It should have been a high point but here’s where the dream goes awry. After graduation, working so hard in my last year of uni and at two paid jobs, I was exhausted. There was no time to organise work experience so I had nothing to go on to after uni.
All the unhealed trauma from a childhood mired in domestic violence rose up and ate me inside and I had a breakdown (meaning I moved out of my share house into a flat by myself, closed and covered all my doors and windows so no one could see in, stopped answering the door or the phone and smoked cigarettes and listened to Ricky Lee Jones and Edith Piaf and Michelle Shocked and Sinead).
I worked nights at Lucky’s Trattoria in Fortitude Valley to pay the bills and one of my favourite journalism tutors came in and said ‘What are you doing now?’ and I said ‘This’ and turned away, ashamed.
A few months later, I submitted a few applications to newspapers.
A year after graduation, in 1990, I was offered a journalism job by a lovely editor at the Roma Star so I did some research on the town. Two gay men had just been locked up for two weeks for being gay and nine year old Stacy-Ann Tracy had just been raped, murdered and dumped in a dry creek bed. Going through my own trauma, I couldn’t cope with the idea of Roma at that time and made up a story about why I couldn’t accept.
At the age of 22 it seemed like my years of studying had been for nothing. Then I found an amazing counsellor, got into recovery for a year and got my shit together. I got a job as a copywriter with a multimedia company who were left-wing, funny and cool. It was my dream job and for two years I floated on a cloud at work and revered my bosses who generously spent many hours training and mentoring me. I moved into a massive old flat in Highgate Hill by the Brisbane River with a cool flatmate and all was nirvana.
In my third year in that job I was the fall guy for a client who upset the state government and it all went to shit. It was time for another try at a real journalism job anyway.
My supportive flatmate and I packaged up and sent out 200 job applications to newsrooms and thanks to my experience at the multimedia company, this time I got interviews.
The editor at the Courier Mail asked me ‘What does this newspaper need?’ I took a deep breath and said ‘Better coverage of social justice issues like sexism and native title and the environment’. He said ‘You are what we need at this paper’ and I thought my dream was coming true.
Two weeks later the cadet counsellor told me I’d done well and come second out of hundreds of applicants but the person who came first had an IT qualification and the digital media revolution was coming. This made complete sense.
Sometimes it takes a while to get back up again
I went to bed for two days. The line from Flashdance ‘If you give up your dream, you die’ reverberated through my head because it seemed I had no option but to give up. I wanted to die.
Luckily, a few months later I did get a journalism job in a Cairns newsroom and without a cadetship which felt miraculous. The station manager said he listened to my audition reel and thought I had a ‘sexy voice’. I was mature aged at 26 and had a university degree so was hired at fully qualified journalist rates. The dream sparked into life again.
Cairns was an amazing town for news and I was breaking good stories and pumping out important information about cyclones, murders, disease outbreaks, human rights, edgy art and dodgy developments.
But the editor quit suddenly and was not replaced so for six months I was alone in a newsroom and expected to deliver a news bulletin every half hour from 6 am to 6 pm. I flogged myself, covered some big stories and some of my reports were run statewide and interstate by our sister stations. It was classic burnout scenario.
Just before I crashed and burned, those stories put to air in cap cities got me an offer of a job at 4BC Radio, a respected newsroom with a dozen or so staff. The news editor said I had a ‘sexy voice’ and would be a newsreader on the afternoon and weekend shifts (the worst shifts).
Was I going to make it after all?
Dream sparks to life. Cap city meant ‘making it’ in the 1990s. But the male editors wouldn’t run my stories because they probably didn’t fit the formula and I wasn’t hard-nosed, conservative and focussed enough on bad news. One reporter baited me by talking about how he would like to have sex with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader I made the mistake of praising in the newsroom. I was sexually harassed by another reporter. No one criticised my newsreading so I read the bulletins but hardly got any stories up. I lasted six months and left very disillusioned.
Next job was Press Secretary with the Australian Democrats where I used my journalism skills so my fearless and committed senator could get media coverage of the bad guys doing various bad things to the environment, farmers, food production, native title holders and the list goes on. I got to be part of a team of super smart, super effective and super nice colleagues at the top of their game which probably the best part of the job.
At a high point I was sitting in the ABC TV’s 7.30 Report studio with a respected reporter helping shot-list a story on faulty airplanes that were poisoning passengers and crew. Those planes got grounded as a result of our work. For five years that job was exciting, meaningful, fulfilling, glamourous and well paid and it ended spectacularly when the Democrats Leader of defected to another party.
Are you sensing a theme here?
I’ve gone on to hold high level communication jobs and publish freelance feature articles in most capital city newspapers in Australia and a few magazines. The first time The Sunday Mail published one of my features as a centre spread, I floated on air for a day and celebrated with chocolate, pistachio and vanilla buns from my favourite Flour Power bakery. I still feel happy when I think about that day.
However, I never really ‘made it’ which I defined as working in a newspaper with a hot shot team like the reporters in all the movies I revered: All the Presidents’ Men, Broadcast News, Citizen Kane and The Paper.
I’ve never won a Walkley Award and while a small group of people say my name sounds familiar, I never did make a name for myself.
Does that mean that I failed to ‘make it’?
From where I stand now, my answer would be ‘no’ because I got to be a journalist and do journalistic work most of my life.
Make your own definition of ‘making it’
What I want to say to young people dreaming of a career is chase your dream and keep your expectations broad, realistic and doable. There is often no justice in this world and horribly disillusioning things will occur. Learn from them: they will sharpen your judgement. Everyone needs war stories! Keep your sense of humour. Be sceptical, not cynical. Be prepared to adjust.
I have had to adjust. At the peak of my journalism skill, mainstream journalism is in a downward spiral. Great! So to keep my dream of doing journalism alive, I’ve had to make some changes.
As mainstream media outlets shrink before our very eyes, there is now nowhere to sell my freelance stories so in March 2023, I started my own digital magazine, The Pineapple, which has a readership of a few thousand people. We’ve only just started, so that’s OK with me. I had readerships of over a million when I published in The Sunday Mail and The Australian but I never got feedback from readers.
Now in the digital age, when I post stories by myself or other writers we get immediate feedback on social media. My web analytics give me real time readership figures to the single digits for every story. Complete strangers, some of them journalists and editors, have commented positively and meaningfully on The Pineapple and my journalism and that’s actually enough for me.
Broken dreams ain’t gonna break me
I’m no Lucy Jordan who in the famous Marianne Faithful song has a nervous breakdown because her suburban housewife life prevented her from the ‘ride through Paris in a sports car, with the warm wind in her hair’. I have actually ridden through Paris in a Renault (it was a nightmare of traffic and police chasing bloodied men down sewage smelling streets).
So I may not walk through the Walkley Awards with the cool air-conditioning in my hair. Instead of mourning the broken dream, I changed the definition of the dream.
Maybe it’s the dream to do what we love and have the time and space to do it, in our own way, without selling out. Maybe never being backed by a major company, music label or publisher means you can produce your work in a way that is authentic for you and maybe not for the mass market.
I do PR for some music clients, politicians and community organisations who, like me, are pretty good at what they do. It’s got me thinking that despite years of hard work, they may never ‘break through’ or ‘make it’ according to traditional definitions: being famous, being written into the history books or being significant players in national conversations. These people make beautiful, meaningful music and work hard improving the lives of vulnerable children and adults and maybe having a small audience recognising their work is enough.
You never really know if you made it anyway
Maybe it’s the dream if the people who know your name number in the hundreds or the thousands, not the millions. Maybe there are people out there whose lives are changed for the better because they hear a song or a story you wrote. Those people may never reach out and tell us, so we’ll never know that we actually made a difference to someone’s life.
The writers of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Flashdance don’t know how much they inspired me with their deeply positive take on life, but they did.
And who knows what fictional Mary Tyler Moore or Alex from Flashdance went on to do with their careers after ‘making it’ into a cap city newsroom and a cap city dance school. Maybe just getting up that first exciting step of the ladder is the best part when the dream is all shiny and full of potential. Maybe Mary and Alex slogged for decades and only made it up one or two more rungs but not to the top. Maybe like me, they got off the ladder and started swimming up and down a pool or dancing at a festival instead.
Maybe with the wisdom of maturity, the small players like me and my clients will one day produce something so new, important, resonant, beautiful, profound and right for the moment that it will reach a large audience and we’ll think we really did ‘make it after all’.
However, is a large audience, national and peer recognition, awards, fame and megabucks really ‘making it’? We all need to think about this carefully, especially the bright young dreamers, because what you decide may be a guiding principle of your life and may inform how you feel about your career twenty or thirty years in.
How far up the ladder do you really want to go?
My talented teenage niece said to me once: “I want to be a singer but what’s the point? I’ll never be famous.” I told her it’s worth trying to make it up a rung or two of the ladder even if you don’t get to the top. Those first few rungs are actually pretty great!
If your dream is to make something beautiful, tell important stories, advocate for social justice, be a great public servant, counsellor or parent, run your own business or support others to achieve, maybe the act of doing it is enough.
If you don’t have a dream vocation and enjoy flying around between different vocational lily pads like an iridescent dragonfly that’s ok too!
If, like me, you are OK at your dream vocation, not outstanding or brilliant, not hot shit and not willing to play all the power games to elevate yourself, keep going anyway and keep getting better.
Not everyone can be a star. If you do what you love, you are the star of your own life.
Maybe that’s ‘making it’ after all.