Michelle Griffin – a working journalist profile

20 June 2012

Written by: Justine Costigan

When Michelle Griffin graduated from RMIT’s journalism course in 1990, the future for newspapers looked grim. Australia was in recession and cadetships for journalism graduates were thin on the ground. But despite the messages of doom and gloom, Michelle Griffin has carved out a successful career as a journalist working as both a freelancer and full time for local and metropolitan newspapers as a news reporter, section editor and social affairs reporter. She currently works on The Age’s news desk.

When did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?

When I applied to do journalism (at RMIT) I didn’t want to be one but it was a writing course and there weren’t many of those around then. But I really liked it and it grew on me. I got a job at The Melbourne Times just as I was finishing third year and then I never hated it (journalism) enough to leave.

How did it feel to finally start work as a journalist?

It was a rude shock. The technology was not really up to date. I was used to a uni with a strongly networked campus and this was old style – working with hand printed sheets.  And the workload was startling. You could be pretty busy. There was also a new culture to deal with. It was a drinking culture and a male dominated work environment – everyone called you by your last name – but it was fun.

The most powerful difference when you’re working for a real media organisation is that it gives you a proper licence to be nosy. It opens doors. The things you work so hard at at university, like getting interviews, become automatically easier.

Following your cadetship at The Melbourne Times you joined The Melbourne Weekly. Did you enjoy the experience of working on small, local newspapers?

At small newspapers you do everything. It’s a terrific experience but serious hard work and long hours. After a while I decided to go part time so I could freelance on the side. I wanted to get into the big papers. And, after working in local newspapers, I had a much better idea of what a story was.  I started to get stories published and after a while I was confident enough to think I could get work freelancing full time so I left my job and then spent the next decade working for myself.

How did you end up working at The Age?

I started coming in and doing casual editing, filling in for people on holidays. I filled in for someone for six weeks and during that time the editor didn’t speak to me at all but then he ended up recommended me for a job. That was in 2006. I started working for Preview magazine and then had the job of launching the new M magazine, which was a fantastic experience. Launching something is one of the most fun things you can do

What are the challenges and pleasures of a daily metropolitan newspaper?

It’s hard to keep the entire paper in mind and not just your section. You need a big picture view too. I still find it a daily miracle that we put a newspaper out. And we are doing more than we ever did. There’s a 24 hour news site, more sections. But the daily news room is where it’s the most fun. You look around and see the depth of skill and knowledge in your colleagues. When big stories are happening, everyone works together. I remember when Kevin Rudd announced his resignation, everyone pushed back their chairs and raced to the TV screen.

The terrific thing about a big newspaper is there are so many different jobs. I’ve been like someone distracted by a buffet – I want to experience everything.

What makes a good journalist?

Good journalists need to be really nosy and hardworking. They need to enjoy working under pressure and working fast. Even long form feature writers need these skills. Good journalists are a bit hungry, a bit pushy – characteristics that don’t necessarily work well in other jobs. You also need a bullshit meter, a very good sense of when you’re being lied to. Charm is helpful but not absolutely necessary. You don’t have to be a fierce loud person, you can be shy and reserved. You can get really fine writers that just aren’t that curious – bad writers who are great at getting information do better. There’s a whole system in place to fix bad writing but there’s no system to fix shoddy reporting. You’d be amazed at how many bad writers are good journalists.

Which writers inspire you?

I started reading Vanity Fair’s culture writer James Walker when I was a teenager; Susan Orlean at the New Yorker has a wonderful way of drawing stories out of the mundane; the essayist Barbara Ehrenreich has a great bullshit meter and she’s not vain about her writing; and Michelle Grattan is astonishing. She is the least jaded journalist in Australia. She wakes up every day determined to find and write the news.

Any advice for future journalists?

When I got my first job in 1990 we were questioning the future of journalism – papers were closing, there was a recession. We’ve been here before. Back then you were lucky to have a job, any job. Not all of us graduates got work. Of the 20 in my year only about ten of us got jobs in the media. And of those ten, not all of us are still here. Morale is always the worst it’s ever been. But we still need journalists. There’s a real hunger for content.

I would always recommend new journalism graduates head for the country. There’s a great network of hyper local radio stations and newspapers and they can’t find journalists. Start with a rural paper then move to a regional daily. People who’ve had this kind of experience and training get the traineeships at the ABC and major newspapers. Because they’ve done the work and are willing to do what it takes. And local papers and radio stations aren’t going anywhere.

Michelle Griffin is on Twitter: @michellegriff

Justine Costigan is a journalist, a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and the co-editor of upstart. You can follow her on twitter: @justcostigan