Tehran in August is scorching hot and a world away from Sydney in winter. Curiosity was the main reason that lead journalist Eryk Bagshaw to choose the busy Iranian capital as a place for a holiday last year.
That same curiosity was the reason he received a surprise phone call on a crowded Tehran street, telling him he’d just been named Coca‑Cola Powerade Young Journalist of the Year at the 2016 Kennedy Awards.
“It was the last thing I was expecting, I was absolutely blown away,” said Eryk.
“Don’t ever enter into a story with a presumed set of facts or outcomes. If the facts lead you one way, then go that way,” Eryk advises young journos.
Growing up, Eryk was drawn to nonfiction stories. He thought he’d be a filmmaker but somewhere along the line the written word got his attention.
“One day I realised where we were getting most of our stories from and it was print that was doing the really hard legwork,” Eryk said. “TV and radio really pick up from where print leaves off. I really wanted to be there at the very start.”
When Eryk graduated he threw his hat in the ring for a cadetship at the Sydney Morning Herald. Once, a cadetship (a form of apprenticeship) was the standard route to becoming a journalist but these days they’re rare and highly coveted positions. When Eryk joined the Herald he was one of just five cadets. The company hasn’t offered a single cadetship since then.
“I thought I’d give it a crack and somehow they picked me,” Eryk said. “I was very very lucky and I’m immensely thankful for that opportunity.”
Eryk believes that the best way for young journos to get into the business is to go through the cadetship process because it’s a full year of training.
“It’s a vitally important training program. You learn so much more on the job,” Eryk said.
“It really is a practical, hands-on experience and you can’t really match that outside of the newsroom,” he said.
It is a tradition to give some of the most challenging tasks in journalism to new cadets. One rite of passage is the ‘death-knock’ where a cub reporter has to approach the family of someone who has recently died in newsworthy circumstances and try to get a quote. It’s a grim task but one that’s crucial in breaking news.
“You get put through the ringer. Things like death-knocks, you never get used to,” Eryk said.
“Someone’s passed away under tragic circumstances and within the next hour or two you’ve got to be knocking on some family’s door hoping they’ll speak to you.
“I don’t think any young journo would say that’s easy, but they’re some of the emotions you have to go through and learn how to deal with some awkward situations,” he said.
Thankfully, there was plenty of support on hand. At Fairfax, Eryk had the opportunity to work with some giants of journalism: Kelsey Munro, editor of the News Review section, education editor Alexandra Smith, and economics editor Peter Martin were all early influences on Eryk’s career.
“My bosses have been really instrumental. Over a period of time you meet these people who both inspire you and keep you on the right track,” said Eryk.
“It’s hard to go past Ross Gittins. He’s a man who’s spent an enormous amount of time mentoring young journos and he’s helped me out a lot. You don’t miss Ross for a good perspective on the world.”
The best piece of advice Eryk received – from a number of sources – was not to know the story before you report it.
“Don’t ever enter into a story with a presumed set of facts or outcomes. If the facts lead you one way then go that way. But don’t try and bend a story to your predisposed view of the world because that’s incredibly dangerous,” Eryk said.
“I try to keep that in mind. With every story you try to find a counterfact and read it through those eyes,” he said.
Winning the Coca‑Cola Kennedy Award has already opened doors for Eryk. Since being named Young Journalist of the Year, Eryk has been promoted to federal political reporter, moving to Canberra to work in the halls of political power.
“It’s intense. It’s a really dynamic, interesting place. Because you’ve got all different media coming off the one corridor, there’s a big pool of talent and perspectives on the world. Michelle Grattan’s been here for three or four decades, Laurie Oakes has been here three or four decades. That’s a long time and they know what they’re talking about. We’re lucky to be able to benefit from that institutional knowledge,” Eryk said.
For young people considering a job in journalism, Eryk has some simple advice; don’t give up.
“Don’t discount the possibility of getting into this business. You might read all the headlines about how the industry is struggling but there’s still definitely room and opportunity to grow,” Eryk said.
“It’s not a job that anyone does if they don’t love it. You could probably make a whole lot more money in a bunch of other sectors but if you do this it’s because you love it, it’s exciting, and it’s a wonderful gig,” he said.
“Over a period of time, you meet these people who both inspire you and keep you on the right track,” said Eryk.
The important thing, Eryk says, is just to keep pitching. “I had to intern for a year and a half before I got my first paid gig. If you really want to do it, you just need to get that foot in the door. Once you’re inside any organisation, then you can move. All of a sudden, opportunities pop up where you least expect them,” he said.
“Come up with your own stories, and say ‘I really want to follow this’. Most of the time they’ll give you a chance. There are no bad ideas, just make sure you’ve got a list that you’re constantly updating. It’s about being curious about everything.”
The winners of the 2017 Coca‑Cola Journalist and Young Journalist of the Year will be announced at the 6th Annual Kennedy Awards for Excellence in Journalism at Royal Randwick on August 11.
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