Alan Attwood: Working journalist profile

11 November 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Alan Attwood

‘Our office is not exactly swish,’ says Alan Attwood, editor of The Big Issue, but one gets the feeling that a salubrious office is not important in the scheme of things for Attwood. After a career in the mainstream media, he says he was attracted to The Big Issuebecause it is unique – it’s a general-interest magazine sold on the streets by vendors who are often homeless or otherwise disadvantaged, giving them a chance at an income and a means to engagement in the community.

Attwood got his start in journalism without meaning to – he says he falls into that category of people for whom ‘career choices are made almost by accident’. While studying law in the 1970s, he started writing for Farrago, University of Melbourne’s student paper. On the strength of that involvement, he landed a job with The Age.

Since then, it’s been a varied career for a writer who has little patience for labels. Attwood is also the author of two novels, and I spoke to him about his role with The Big Issue and his thoughts on the profession of journalism.


You wrote an article about The Big Issue in 1998 while you were working for The Age. Back then, did you think you’d end up working here?

I do remember thinking from my first exposure [to The Big Issue] – what a brilliantly simple and practical idea. Then I started buying the magazine more regularly, and I liked it as a magazine. From the initial encounter I thought it was a terrific concept, but no, I would not at that stage have thought I would end up spending so much time here.

Did The Big Issue’s mission of helping those who sell it become harder to achieve with the onset of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis?

When the GFC hit, the sales started sliding quite alarmingly. What it suggested was that people who had previously handed over their five dollars without too much thought were now holding onto that. The problem of course is it’s just hurting those who can least afford to be hurt any more. Since then our sales have pretty much recovered to where they were.

Over the last five years, while I’ve been here, a lot of publications have died. Print publications have just ceased to be, like The Bulletin. Other publications are putting much more emphasis on the web. We have to remain what we are. You need to have a physical tangible product. And in some ways I think that’s part of our appeal, because we are a bit different.

Where is The Big Issue’s place in the uncertain future of journalism?

I actually think in some ways we are working on what I call anti-journalism, which is that quite often, we get people to tell their own stories. It’s interesting to me that it seems to be a much more powerful and compelling form of writing than to have things filtered through intermediaries, as in journalists. I’m very aware that in some ways I might be undermining my own profession, but I think it’s interesting.

Do you feel that journalists in the mainstream media are sometimes insensitive to their subjects?

I’ve always believed that reporters don’t pay enough attention to the impact of what they do on the people who are being reported on. In the same way that I’ve always felt that every doctor, somewhere along the line, should have an illness that requires hospital stay, so they can see their profession from the other side, I do believe that all reporters somewhere along the line should be on the other side of the process. It might give them some greater insight into what they do.

One of the interesting things Annabel Crabb said about Twitter, and I’m not a Twitterer, is that you get instant feedback from people about things you’ve written or broadcast or interviews you’ve done. She says that’s changed journalism quite a lot. Once upon a time it was quite unusual to get feedback from the other side. Now it’s very easy, and instant. I think that’s probably a positive thing.

What was it like working as a foreign correspondent for The Age?

The New York job was good for me, because I’ve always been temperamentally a one-man band. The way I’ve always preferred to work is basically, leave me alone and I will deliver. New York, unlike Washington, was everything. News, sport, arts, features, whatever. That’s always suited me. I’ve never let myself be pigeonholed into one particular field. I’ve always liked moving between those worlds and New York enabled me to do that.

What do you think of Fairfax’s decision to outsource subediting at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald?

It’s very sad to see it come to this. I think the people who are making the decisions are aware that this is a very significant thing. It’s unravelling the old fabric of how newspapers have been put together.

But there’s a bigger question there too, which is, I don’t think newspapers have quite worked out where they stand in a world where most people don’t go to newspapers for news. It’s as simple as that. Newspapers have to come up with something different.

What might that something be?

Newspapers have to think through a bit more than they have, what are people coming to us for? If it’s not the news, maybe it’s for analysis, or comment, or predictions as to where things are going to go. More than that – it sounds corny – is you need real people and real stories, and you need to be engaging with the readers.

Do you think there can be a relationship between journalism and creative writing?

Absolutely. I think they’re not incompatible at all. The skills you need for both can be adapted one into the other. My last published book was essentially my take on the whole Burke and Wills thing, telling that story from the point of view of the most unrecognised member of that expedition. I would look at Wills’s account of the Burke and Wills expedition, and all you have to do is ask yourself a very simple journalist’s question – what if Wills was telling porkies? And it suddenly becomes very, very interesting.

So I think [a] journalist’s skills can be adapted to fiction. Some of the disciplines you learn in journalism are things like deadlines and writing to length; they’re useful skills to have when you’re writing fiction. Also, I think it goes the other way – narrative drive, the importance of developing characters, those are things that can be used in journalism, particularly long-form journalism. They’re not totally discrete things that will never come together.

What would be your advice to emerging journalists?

Good question. The simplest answer is, persevere. Everyone knows how hard it is to get jobs. That sucks. What I tell people is you have to keep doing what you want to do, because if you’re not producing, if you’re not getting things published or put online or whatever it might be, there’s no potential for anyone to see it. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, you have to do what you want to do, and then just trust to luck or perseverance.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and a former member of the upstart editorial team. She blogs at equineocean and you can follow her on Twitter: @equineocean.

Read more about our Working Journalist project here.