Benjamin Preiss, political reporter for The Age
Q. Why did you choose to go into political journalism?
I wanted to get into journalism because I thought it would be an interesting and non-conventional job. That’s definitely proved to be the case. Also, it suits me that there’s a degree of creativity, but also some clearly defined boundaries about what you can and can’t do. It’s one of those jobs where you’re encouraged to be curious and I like being able to follow ideas; sometimes they lead down a rabbit hole, sometimes to fruition.
I did my traineeship at The Age, having already done a bunch of other work in local and regional journalism. I covered education, which I loved. Then there was a chance to come up to state rounds. This wasn’t something that I necessarily aspired to above all other roles, but it was among a mix of things I thought I’d like to do. When the opportunity came up, I took it.
Q. Was it a fairly direct pathway out of school and into journalism?
No, I came to work as a journo quite late compared to some people, who go straight from school into a degree… I studied Arts and then worked overseas, though not in journalism. When I came back I thought ‘I’d better decide what I want to do’. There are other journalists in the family – my mum had been a journalist for a while, my great uncle was an excellent journalist, and one or two others in the family have also worked in journalism. So, I thought ‘it seems like an interesting career, I’ll have a go at that,’ so I did.
Q. Did you have a clear mentor figure in the industry, possibly within your family?
My uncle, well technically my great-uncle. I reckon he’s one of the best journalists that Australia has ever produced. He was the editor-in-chief of The Age for a while. His name is Michael Gawenda. He’d finished up as editor-in-chief before I started. In fact, I think it was before I’d even properly considered a career in journalism, but having someone who had a career as a journalist, who still writes today, with that level of experience, was great. He’s been an incredible mentor and extremely generous with his time.
I was very lucky that I had people close to me who were very connected.
Is there a piece of work that you’re particularly proud to have worked on?
There have been quite a few, but in terms of state politics, one of the most satisfying stories that I’ve worked on was when we exposed a second residence allowance rort. It was a project steered by the then state political reporter Josh Gordon. He really involved the team and it was amazing to be involved. We had a good story, worked with it and in the end it resulted in changes to the allowance. So that was a big win for us. We also won a Quill, so that was great.
How do you separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, when reporting on political stories?
I’ll be reporting back to my editors and telling them, ‘this is what’s happening today, these are the announcements that are being made, these are the stories that have been offered to us.’ We often make a collective decision. After a while you get a sense for what your editors will like and what they’re likely to disregard. You get better at this over time, but sometimes I am still surprised by what they do or don’t want. It ends up being a combination of deciding for yourself and talking decisions through with colleagues.
Do you have concerns about growing restrictions in the allocation of resources in journalism – in particular to deeper investigative stories like the one you mentioned earlier?
I am, but I’d qualify that by saying that we’ve got a pretty well-stocked investigative team at The Age, so we do back that kind of journalism. Now obviously The Age isn’t the enormous publication that it used to be. We used to carry a lot more staff and I guess that gave staff time to really do some of those deep dives, not only on investigative stuff, but on features as well. That stuff still happens, we just don’t have the massive teams that we used to. I don’t think those days are coming back. The days when there were however many hundreds or a thousand people working for The Age. But at the moment we seem to be in an alright place. We haven’t had redundancies in quite a while and we’re hiring people. Cadets, but also senior journalists.
What is a piece of advice you’d give future, aspiring journalists looking to break into the industry?
Try to get a sense for whether you want a traineeship or cadetship somewhere and, if you do, try and get a strong sense for the process. What are the kinds of questions they’ll be asking? Will you have to sit and exam? If so, you can be cheeky and ask if you can get a copy of previous exam papers. So that’s the kind of thing that I would be doing. Also, be prepared to move to regional Victoria, which is what I did.
Working so closely in and around the political sphere, have you ever felt the urge to cross over into a political career?
No, I’ve never felt that. Having covered politics for several years now, I feel even more strongly that I’ll never run as an MP.