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Start small, dream big: the road to journalism

Start small, dream big: the road to journalism

Sometimes it’s the small stories that make a difference.

The Age’s social affairs editor, Jewel Topsfield, says it’s important for journalism hopefuls to take the time to gain a meaningful understanding of the issues they want to write about.

Where did your passion for journalism come from?

Since I was young, I have loved reading, English and writing. In year 10, I did work experience at a local suburban newspaper called Messenger Newspapers in Adelaide, and it was an incredible week. Every day was different—going out with photographers, meeting people, interviewing them—and that was really exciting.

How have your experiences led to your current role as the social affairs editor?

In all my reporting across the different portfolios, I was always interested in areas where social policy intersects with people’s lives. When I was the education editor, I focused a lot on disabilities and when I was in Indonesia as a correspondent, I looked at a lot of human rights issues. So it felt right when I applied for this job; it felt like a synthesis of the areas that I’d been interested in over the years. Social affairs just fit what I am really passionate about.

Do you enjoy being a journalist?

I love it. It can be stressful, but I love that it’s an adventure. It gives you a sense that you have achieved something tangible, that you have done something that a lot of people have access to, and that you hope might help or make a difference in some way. I think it’s a very rewarding career.

Start small, dream big: the road to journalism

Jewel Topsfield (centre) won the 2016 Lowy Institute Media Award for her reporting on Indonesia and the bilateral relationship with Australia in the aftermath of the execution of several Australians in Indonesia and the cash-for-turnbacks allegations. She is pictured with (from left): Michael Fullilove, Jane Anderson, Michelle Guthrie and Steven Lowy. Picture: Lowy Institute archive.

What is one of the highlights of your career?

I once wrote a story about Indigenous people who didn’t have birth certificates and as a result, couldn’t access passports, credit cards or welfare. Years later, I was contacted by an academic who had seen my piece and written a book about it that led to laws being changed to try make it easier for people to get birth certificates. You tend to think of the big pieces in a career that you might be better known for, but often, it’s those smaller stories that actually make a difference and can be just as satisfying.

What are some challenges you face?

In journalism, it’s that battleground of how can I, with a limited number of words, present the story with some sort of nuance? How can I make sure that it’s not a hatchet job on someone? Is this an actual representation of the situation? The longer I’ve been in journalism, rather than those questions becoming easier, they become more complex and thought provoking.

How might a young reporter break into the social affairs round today?

Volunteer for organisations that work with all sorts of people to gain experience on the ground like volunteering for a food bank or teaching English at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. That would be an excellent way to meaningfully understand some of the issues. There are so many platforms for young people so experience life as broadly as possible and really try to get your voice heard.

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