Courier Ballarat reporter Ashleigh McMillan
What is your history in the journalism industry?
After finishing my high school education at Ballarat Grammar in 2012, I went to RMIT and studied a Bachelor of Communications (journalism) for three years. Once I graduated I pretty quickly got a job at Optometry Australia. At that point they had a little news team where they were posting online news daily, and I would write casual features for their clinical magazines. I did that for 18 months until I got my job at The Courier in October 2017. Here I work on court reporting two days a week, and cut across council, development, culture and emergency services for the rest of the week. I’ve also recently started working one day a week for The Age in Melbourne.
What are some of the challenges you faced when applying for a job in your field? I’ve been really lucky. I applied for two jobs and got one of them. I think the issue at the moment is that there’s not a heap of jobs and it is very competitive. There are plenty of graduates and not many graduate jobs. And also when there are, they’re not particularly well paid. It’s a competitive, shrinking industry. It’s an industry where every job is competitive. Even the ones that don’t pay well, or aren’t the best places to work.
Do you think there is a significant difference between regional and metropolitan newspapers? If so, what are they? I think on a practical level there is a divide in resources. If you’re purely looking at local versus metro papers, metro papers have more resources, more sub-editors, and more time to do stories. But in regional towns you have a larger scope. At a metro paper you can’t do a hyper-specific (writing for a smaller, specific audience, about something that is only relevant to them) story like you can in a regional town. The joy of regional papers is that you can do a hyper-specific story, and chuck a human face on it. I feel like in the regional areas people are more protective of their paper and people are more willing to talk to you because they want their plug in their paper. Regional media can achieve a lot more on a smaller scale then a metro paper. That’s why I love working for a regional paper.
“It was one of those moments where you’re talking to someone on their worst day and you do it with a sense of grace, not a sense of voyeurism, and you’re not trying to disingenuously drag the emotion out of them. When you feel like you’ve done the story justice, that’s a really satisfying day.” Ashleigh McMillan
What are some of the highlights of your career? At The Age, recently,I broke the exclusive article about George Pell being investigated by the Justice Department. It was my first major metro front page. The first really good council story I wrote for Ballarat was about them leaking the contact details of 70 important people including local police and lawyers. It was the first story I wrote where I felt I did a public good. The fire at Bunkers Hill last year was also huge story of mine. This lady lost her home to the fire and was found through the smoke by the Sebastopol CFA group. It was one of those moments where you’re talking to someone on their worst day and you do it with a sense of grace, not a sense of vouyerism, and you’re not trying to disingenuously drag the emotion out of them. When you feel like you’ve done the story justice, that’s a really satisfying day.
Has social media had a significant impact on your own work? I think it’s hard when you’ve got 400 comments on a story for you not to be swayed as to how you write your next article. But you have to try and forget that and write the story on it’s own merit and not by how many likes or comments you want it to receive. Because you’re a person and a journalist there’s this desire to be reactive. You can’t let the opinions of other people influence how you write and how you present information. The delightful part to not letting other people determine how you write is that now we have a better idea of what our readers like to read, how they like to receive their information, what matters to them, if they need more visuals etcetera. We have a better idea now more then ever of what our readers want at a much faster pace. You can get great information out of people, but you can’t take their agenda into how you write.
What tips or tricks would you give to someone wishing to become a journalist? Read a lot of varied journalism. Don’t just read the things you’re comfortable with. Even if you want to be a breaking news journalist you should still be reading features, investigative articles, and even non-fiction. It just makes your writing better. There’s also great things to be brought about storytelling through film, and even podcasting. Watching and listening to other people’s stories will help you develop how you write and tell your own stories.
If you can, cultivate your sources so you’re calling them regularly. Don’t call them to get stories every time, but make a rapport with them so that they start bringing information to you. Don’t be calling people only when you want a quote. That’s not how the good stories come about; they’re based on relationships.