‘That’s what great journalism is – reading a story that’s truth’
“Opportunities can be so few and far between, and so many of them now are self-made,” says entertainment journalist Jason “Jabba” Davis about the way forward for journalism students.
“So if you had your own podcast, blog or vlog, you never know what could happen. Whereas if you don’t do anything and only just study whatever the curriculum is, and then hope to get a job, then you’re not developing a unique skill set.”
With more than 20 years of media experience, Davis has a number of roles across the industry, including as the entertainment presenter on Channel Seven programs.
What is your most prominent current role and how long have you worked in the industry?
I started in payTV on Channel V, which was a music television station broadcasting on Fox till March 1995. So that’s 27 years. I think entertainment reporter is probably the safest label I would give myself. I’m on weekend sunrise as Jason Jabba Davis Movie Man, so movies are kind of my main area of interest, but I still do music interviews.
How did you get your beginning in journalism?
In sixth grade, I edited a school newspaper and then got into community radio in my very late teens. [Later on] I went to an audition where they were looking for hosts for a new 24-hour music channel. At the time, I worked at a cafe and a friend of a work mate told him that they had looked at 1000 or 2000 people around Australia, and they couldn’t find the fourth person that they needed.
So, I went to an interview and they said, “Why do you want this job?” and I said, “Ah I need a job, I’m about to be evicted”.
So they were like, “Okay, this guy’s edgy – that’s the one.” It demonstrates being in the right place at the right time, a bit of honesty and being off script. Everyone else had said, “well, I love music” so I can imagine, with 1000 people, they’re watching this going “next, next, next” and up pops me wearing a flannel shirt and a high vis vest.
I fluked my way on to the channel and learnt the ropes. Something I don’t think young people get much of an opportunity to do now is to learn on the job. Not in the arena of being on television.
Was journalism always the end goal as a career, or did you have other options at the time?
I think I wanted to be a writer and then I fell into TV, and it was kind of fun and it seemed to pay better. I had been working in a hardware store from the age of 15 and working in a factory or a cafe, which I loved, but it was like TV! It was pretty intoxicating. My first son was born when I was 22 and so the steady income from the TV role really helped, and I ended up sticking with that job for 10 years.
How did you come to specialise in the entertainment / film area?
There are a lot of people I know who are serious journalists who have gone into entertainment, but it is probably one of those areas where it is easier to get a start just chatting to people with some key basics. In entertainment, people are plugging a project, whether it’s an album, a tour, a movie, a show, a concert, a book. So you pick up pretty quickly how to ask the right questions. Unless you do that, you don’t get invited back to interview again.
How important is knowing your field?
I have a friend who writes for Fairfax called Michael Idato who is a culture editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He’s the most amazing writer and he’s a hardcore journalist. He also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of entertainment over the last 50 years and as a result he gets long interviews with people. He might get to ask some personal questions that I can’t ask in what I do because I [often only] get a four-minute timeframe. If he’s doing a cover of the Good Weekend, they have to go into detail, personal stuff and that’s what I love reading.
What do you think was the most important piece of advice you were given during your starting out period?
I don’t know that I’ve got a lot of advice, to be honest. I think that it’s really just being quiet and taking notes and being prepared to witness. That’s why I like to read other people’s writing to think “Okay, how can I write better and how can I edit better when I edit my TV shows?”
I think you just have to be willing to constantly learn in every second that you’re doing whatever you’re doing.
In this field, there are a lot of other great people that have come before that you can look at.
When I started, we weren’t doing live TV, so we would do a piece to camera, like 50 times. The one thing that Paul Fenech, my first producer, used to say was “show me the dancing eyes”. “Good. That was perfect. Again.” So you get to know that repetition. I guess it’s the same with writing. You write a draft, you go back, you edit it, you revise it and it’s immediately better. There’s that point where you want to keep trying something until you get it as good as you can get it. So with live [television], you kind of need to be aware that you need to bring a different kind of energy to it.
What kind of trends do you think are affecting the industry? And how do you think journalism will change in the years to come?
I guess shortened attention spans are a strong current factor, which feels like a really obvious thing to say, but even on Weekend Sunrise, we went from having five-minute segments to a lot of segments that are now three minutes. You’ve got to keep stuff moving, because people’s attention spans are shorter, and you don’t want them thinking the story is dragging on. The danger is that there’s then a lot more resources to create, so you need extra stories and extra journalists.
What related fields do you think are important for a journalist or media personnel to be skilled in?
I think it’s really important that people have a passion – or multiple passions, whether it’s cooking, gardening, golf or sport. When you look at sports broadcasters, they’re almost always guys that have specific knowledge, they’ve played footy their whole lives, then maybe they’ve coached or managed and now they’re commentating. Those guys have a great insight. They know every single person, there’s a real kind of closed ecosystem if you want to be in there.
So I think it’s really important that, unless you want to be a hardcore journalist and just be into whatever medium you are given, I think it’s good to niche into “Are you a political person, are you into entertainment, are you into property, what do you want to specifically write about?”
What do you like most about your job and why?
I lost the hearing in my right ear when I was three from mumps. So I have to listen quite intently to when people speak, so my favourite part of an interview is asking a question and then seeing what someone’s going to say. When I was on Channel V, our interviews would go for like 20 to 40 minutes. I’ve been to Lenny Kravitz’s house. I’ve been to Metallica’s compound. Dave Grohl’s hotel room.
You know, there is a massive buzz from just being some guy that worked at a hardware store that has kind of been on TV for a while, then being in Dave Grohl’s hotel room.
There’s a rapport that you build with people, which the pandemic has kind of wobbled, in that now you have to build a rapport with someone by staring at a green light on the screen, and it’s not such a great shot. Most of the ones [online] that I do have, are four minutes. You know, you get three questions and then in the chat it’ll say “last question, please wrap up”. So, what I love about my job is, when I get the opportunity to go to new places, meet new people, and hear people’s stories, to me, that’s what great journalism is, reading a story that’s truth.
In contrast to that, what parts do you find challenging within your job?
It can be quite difficult to find an angle, to hear somebody say something unique, that is not the same grab that they’re going to give 60 to 100 times, particularly when you’re interviewing people about a project. The trick with that is you kind of need that grab also for yourself, to tick the box. So I’m always thinking about, “what is the great question here”. Often the shorter the question is, the better because you get more of the talent speaking.
The good journalists just ask those simple questions but there is a little spin on it. For showbiz, you have to get the stuff that is going to get Disney, Universal or Warner Brothers to go, “That was a good interview for The Matrix“. For our next film, yes, he can be part of the film junket, because if you just go rogue, it’s like, well, that guy didn’t really talk about the film at all, and you’re not going to get that further opportunity. So the whole thing can be a bit of a game. You know, it can be very hard to not play by the rules. But you do need to find a way to bend the rules a little to get interesting stuff for your audience because, ultimately, you’ve got to try and be as truthful to them as you can.
Do you have a favourite story or interview that you’ve covered?
I get such a massive buzz out of saying that I’ve been to Lenny Kravitz’s house. It was really cool, and that was in an era where a record company would pay for us and a camera crew to go to America for Lenny’s new album. I just remember, there were all these coffee table books on his coffee table, and he was on the cover of most of them. At the time, he was going out with Nicole Kidman, and at the back of his house, it was on the canals in Miami, there was two jet skis and we were like, oh my god, one of those is Nicole’s jet ski. I guess it’s like, Lenny Kravitz is a guy who’s one of the most talented artists. His musical output is just amazing, and you’re in his house!
It’s interesting, too, if you’re a fan of something, and then you interview someone, and it’s disappointing. Like, “I love that character!”, but the actor that plays the character is super boring. Most people on the planet enjoy entertainment as escapism, whether you’re into Superheroes or 50 Shades of Grey, cartoons or high art, people appreciate the artistic output that somebody has been able to create. I think, the thing is, our job is to try and find what’s relatable in the show and the characters and what the artist is saying, and that it can connect with us and makes us think “we should check that out”.
Increasingly, we see industry people and characters who are much more diverse. There’s people that are coming through who more and more of the audience can relate to because they’re not just superheroes or white, older guys. Thank god there are different stories being told now that people are able to more universally relate to, than just the typical kind of the stock standard type.
If you were a young person today, how would you get into the industry?
Right now, in that frame, you can have a platform, but how you get people to tune in – that’s the million dollar thing. I think that’s the challenging element. I do a lot of stuff solo, but I think when I first started out, it was all collaboration. You want to meet with like-minded people, so that you have some numbers with you. That’s the game, but if you want people to tune in to ideas, you’ve got to be creative, you have to try lots of different things.
There’s a quote at my gym that says success is not final and failure is not fatal – just keep trying, learn more skills, add more elements. I think the greatest thing I had was so much on-camera experience with no one watching. Like, in the early days of pay TV, no one watched. So it didn’t matter if I was bad, if I was unlikeable, whatever. It didn’t matter, I got to get all those aspects out of the way.
There’s a great book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers, which says you need 10,000 hours to become great at something.
Do as much as you can, because every time you’re doing it, you’re just getting that little bit better.
So when an opportunity comes along, it’s like, cool, I’ve got some experience, I’ll give it a crack – to then be glad I did all those hours where no one watched, no one cared, no one commented, but I got my skills up.
I think taking advantage of the times when you’re free to experiment and try, so that when it comes to the big moments, you’ve got all that knowledge under your belt – is probably a really good thing to have. When you’re young, you have the energy to try different things and take more risks. You’re only young once.
Jason “Jabba” Davis is a regular entertainment presenter and contributor on Channel Seven’s Weekend Sunrise.