Episode 19: Baz McAlister

Baz McAlister is editor of Qweekend.

Penmanship podcast episode 19: Baz McAlister, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016When we meet at the News Queensland offices in late February, he is only a couple of months into his new job in charge of The Courier-Mail‘s weekly colour magazine. I had not met the man prior to this interview, but I had observed his Irish charm and wit from a packed auditorium during the 2015 Clarions, the annual Queensland media awards that Baz co-hosted and wrote the script for. Thanks to his background as a stand-up comic and snappy newspaper headline writer, his clever, media-centric jokes were a clear hit with the crowd of journalists, and the scene was topped off by the handsome kilt he wore on the night.

Our conversation touches on Baz’s upbringing in Northern Ireland and how his early interest in language was earned through reading fantasy and science fiction; how working at a Borders bookshop in the middle of Glasgow changed his reading habits; why he decided to leave the UK in search of a new life and career in Australia; how he began writing film reviews for the Brisbane street press, and later became a national arts editor; how his sub-editing and headline writing skills helped with his stand-up comedy debut, and how he learned to cope with bearing witness to terrible things such as watching footage of beheadings while working on the “backbench” of production staff at The Courier-Mail.

Baz McAlister is originally from the rugged County Antrim coast of Northern Ireland and has worked in print media in Australia for 12 years. Based in Brisbane, he is currently the editor of News Corp Australia’s Qweekend magazine, The Courier-Mail‘s Saturday insert. Baz is a multi-award-winning senior journalist who has been a feature writer, columnist and night editor for News and spent six years as national arts editor for Time Off and The Music, covering the entertainment scene in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Baz is also a screenwriter who recently reached the quarterfinals of the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriting with a horror-drama feature. He has several television and film projects in various stages of development as writer. He also writes and performs stand-up comedy.

Baz McAlister on Twitter: @BazMcAlister

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2.00 When we meet on a Wednesday morning, Baz explains that Qweekend is currently in the middle of its production schedule, ahead of its weekly deadline of 5.00pm each Friday

3.00 Prior to becoming editor of Qweekend, Baz has worked on The Courier-Mail for about six years, beginning as a “downtable subeditor”. After he few years he moved to the “backbench” of the newspaper, which is a group of senior production staff who write headlines and manage page layouts

4.00 “I do miss the atmosphere of that, because it felt like a Special Forces unit in the Marine Corps”

5.00 How Baz and the team workshopped headlines, which he describes as “an interesting art”

6.00 Baz doesn’t believe that headline writing can be taught: “I think it’d be very hard; it’d be the same as teaching writing. I firmly believe that you’ve either got it or you don’t”

6.30 “As a kid, I lost myself in books. I wasn’t very sporty; wasn’t terribly outgoing for a long time, as well, and just read an awful lot”

8.30 Baz grew up in Northern Ireland, and spent his early years in the small town of Bushmills, known for being home to the world’s oldest whiskey distillery

10.00 His father was into true crime novels; his mother liked inspirational stories, though “neither would touch the stuff I was into” – namely, fantasy and science fiction

11.00 Seeing the first Star Wars film at age four was one of Baz’s first memories, and it became his “obsession”

12.30 As a child, Baz veered more toward fantasy fiction like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, which led him to writers like Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan

14.00 Baz dreamed of a career in writing, but it didn’t seem like a realistic option at the time. He later decided to study English at Glasgow University in 1991

16.30 “It took a long time to learn how to live in Glasgow. It’s a lovely city, but kind of complicated; you needed to know where you can and can’t walk at night”

18.30 After completing his degree, Baz got a job at a Virgin Megastore, then moved onto working at a Borders bookshop in the middle of Glasgow

20.00 “I was surrounded by books, but eventually frustrated by the fact that I wasn’t having anything to do with them in any other way. They were just products”

21.00 Baz’s reading habits changed while working at Borders, thanks largely to its book-loan program, which allowed him to find some of his favourite authors such as Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Marshall Smith, particularly the 1994 debut novel Only Forward by the latter writer

22.00 “I consider [Michael Marshall Smith’s] writing voice the closest to the one that I naturally started to develop, when I started writing”

23.00 Michael Marshall Smith appeared at an author event at the Glasgow Borders, but Baz didn’t tell the author how much he meant to him, as he thought it “a little bit gauche” to do that while on the clock

24.00 Baz also saw the late fantasy author David Gemmell at the Borders store; Legend is another of Baz’s favourite book, which Gemmell wrote while recovering from cancer treatment

25.00 Working at Borders offered Baz the first chance to see writers in the flesh, which was inspiring; he also tried his hand at writing fantasy fiction, but “it wasn’t very good”

26.00 Outside of working in retail, Baz was a fan of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, which he played up to four nights a week with a group of friends

30.30 Baz’s eventual move to Australia was compelled by an “ill-advised relationship” that saw him move to England for a while, then move home to his parents’ place

31.30 “I thought I may as well study abroad, because I’d never done that, so I applied to a few places and the University of Queensland took me”

32.30 “I thought, with journalism, you get a job at a newspaper, you’re guaranteed a paycheck; you know you’ll be writing, and you’ll always be getting better at it”

33.00 It was under lecturers such as John Cokley and Bruce Grundy that Baz learned “an awful lot” while studying a Masters degree in journalism at UQ and working on the student newspaper

34.00 Baz got into journalism because he wanted to do entertaining writing, primarily film reviews; he introduced himself and submitted a sample review of The Aviator to Matt Connors, then editor of weekly street press Time Off, after about six weeks of living in Brisbane

36.00 His first paid assignment was $50 for a review of the 2004 film Enduring Love

38.00 Baz wrote a 2,000 word feature on the film Murderball, which he submitted to The Independent Monthly, the UQ School of Journalism’s newspaper; his lecturer Bruce Grundy entered that story into the student journalist of the year competition, which won Baz $500 and a trip to Canberra to meet press gallery journalists

39.00 He became the assistant editor/arts editor of Time Off about a year into his study; for the last six months of his degree, he was working full-time while completing the qualification

40.00 He was at Time Off for about seven years; he eventually became national arts editor for Street Press Australia, while based in Brisbane, and also commissioned a writer who would later become his wife

41.00 Eventually Matt Connors moved to The Courier-Mail, and later convinced Baz to move across, too, largely for monetary reasons in 2009

43.00 “It was a culture where you’d get pitched something, and if it was good, you’d take it and assign a writer to it. You weren’t getting an awful lot of pitches from writers, because that’s just not how street press worked at the time”

45.00 He found that sub-editing was a welcome change from editing, as the team could invest more time in refining their headlines and the copy itself

47.30 “It was a nice thing to take pride in, and I think that’s got to be central to everything you do as a writer. You can’t give sloppy work in”

49.00 Because Baz started at The Courier-Mail as a casual, he also had the chance to freelance for the paper, writing travel stories and occasional features, including a 2011 Qweekend story about local comedians’ worst gigs of all time, named Sound Of No Hands Clapping

49.30 He became interested in trying his hand at stand-up comedy after being pitched a story about national competition RAW Comedy while working at Time Off

51.00 His interest in comedy was piqued while interviewing comedians for Time Off, and turning the conversation toward the craft of writing comedy, and how their brains work

51.30 “I thought maybe I’ve learned enough from this process that I could give this a crack as well, so I put together a five-minute set for RAW, put my name in, and that first year, I made the state final”

53.30 Baz had never performed on stage until that point, at the age of 32; he credits role-playing games for bringing him out of his shell as a performer, as well as working as a corporate trainer for Borders

55.30 He wasn’t precious about asking that his friends and family didn’t watch his early stand-up shows

56.30 “I was doing it a couple of times a week at the height, and then I was starting to feel like maybe I could do a bit more off-the-cuff stuff and crowd work, and didn’t feel as attached [to scripted jokes]”

57.30 Baz felt there was an easy parallel between sub-editing, headline writing and stand-up comedy: “It’s the same kind of double-think”

59.30 In the last few years, Baz was approached by the MEAA [media and arts union] to write the script for the annual Clarions awards for excellence in Queensland journalism

61.00 “When I was working on the backbench [at The Courier-Mail], there was a lot of gallows humour to get us through the night; we’d often have to bear witness to a lot of dark things happening all around the world”

62.00 The gallows humour in that role was a defence mechanism against seeing footage of beheadings, explosions, plane crashes and knifings

63.00 “It can wear you down a little bit, but we formed a really good support network between each other”

64.00 Baz has done a lot of research into the McAlister family history for a TV series screenwriting project he’s working on at the moment

68.00 “The weird thing is, the story is all there; the characters are kind of all there. You go back into history, and you get a sense of who some of these people were, that were shaping the events”

70.00 Baz’s task as the fourth editor of Qweekend in 10 years is to make it “much more of a news feature magazine; [new Courier-Mail editor Lachlan Heywood] wants to put things in the magazine that can set the agenda for the state, that can lead the front page of the Saturday paper. So it’s my task to go after those stories”


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