Surprise is not a word often associated with the media. It seems the 24-hour news cycle means less time and more groupthink among journalists. Although Fairfax and News Ltd started to look different after the election was called, Labor has been the sole clown in one newspaper, while both sides have been clowns in the other. The actual stories they wrote were much the same.
Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz got widespread coverage after he demonstrated ‘real solutions’ require real memory. He was soon outdone after One Nation’s Stephanie Banister became an international sensation when she said Islam was a country. Then, of course, there were all the gate stories: note-gate, sex appeal-gate, shut up-gate, even make up-gate. Unfortunately, none of them lived up to the original Watergate scandal from which they got their name. The media collectively lowered themselves to reporting jokes and novelties at a time when the future leadership of the nation was to be decided. It seems original stories that challenge us, surprise us, are increasingly hard to come by.
But these are the stories The Monthly editor, John van Tiggelen, craves. In late August, van Tiggelen took the time to speak to some RMIT journalism students about longform writing and his role as editor of one of Australia’s most respected magazines. John van Tiggelen had been writing for Good Weekend for over 20 years before he started as editor of The Monthly in January 2012. When the announcement was made public, publisher Morry Schwartz said, “John is one of this country’s leading longform journalists and literary stylists. Under his watch, I’m confident that TheMonthly will continue to go from strength to strength as Australia’s premier magazine for fine writing and in-depth stories.”
The transition from writer to editor hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Van Tiggelen says when he was a writer the only ego he had to deal with was his own. Editing other people’s work is a different story. Not that having an ego is necessarily a bad thing: the writers van Tiggelen continues to go back to are the ones who really care about their work, down to the placement of, even, the last comma . When he took over the helm, John wanted TheMonthly to stop taking itself so seriously and start surprising its readers. “I remember it was once joked about as TheManne-thly,” he said, referring to academic Robert Manne who was at one stage on the editorial committee and virtually every second front page of the magazine. While Robert Manne continues to be an influential thinker and contributor, John was looking for ways the magazine could branch out.
A piece by Karen Hitchcock published in March, entitled ‘Fat City’, is one of the ways van Tiggelen believes he is starting to do this. ‘Fat City’ challenged people to think about obesity as a matter of individual responsibility. “The choice is in your hands. Are you going to eat it?” wrote Hitchcock. In a society dominated by neoliberal rhetoric, where self-interest and personal choice are paramount, this argument may not seem too controversial. For a left-leaning magazine like TheMonthly, however,it was a surprising stance to take on a social issue like obesity.
The internet hasn’t been great for attention spans. Today we commonly skim articles and get distracted by Facebook, emails and tweets. Everyone is busy, but van Tiggelen says there is still an appetite for longform journalism. It’s an opportunity to step back and put the day-to-day torrent of information into some kind of context. To read long form regularly requires either commitment or commuting time according to Van Tiggelen, who lives in regional Victoria.
When I started my journalism degree we were confined to the straightjacket of hard news writing, with its strict inverted pyramid, economy of words and pretense of objectivity. News values are few and simple: impact, proximity, conflict, celebrity, human interest and, of course, sex appeal. Perhaps this straightjacket is informing groupthink? Van Tiggelen suggests the opposite, perhaps news values aren’t used enough. Take science journalism, where reports about ‘breakthrough’ discoveries often read like a press release. The real story, says van Tiggelen, can be found in the conflict and disagreements between scientists.
While news values may be underused in feature writing, van Tiggelen says objectivity should be openly disregarded. If people are going to spend 30 minutes reading an 8000-word piece, they don’t want neutrality at the end; they want emotional gratification, a payoff for the time they invested in the piece. It is about your observations, your opinion and your voice as much as it is about the subject of the piece.
Listening to van Tiggelen taught me three things about writing: it’s important to read good work, find your voice and most of all surprise. Surprise your friends, surprise your editor, even surprise yourself by finding the stories yet to be told.