Episode 29: Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen is an author and founding editor of The Saturday Paper.

Penmanship podcast episode 29: Erik Jensen, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016At the age of 15, he fronted up to the office of a Sydney street press and became a music critic and journalist, then received a job offer from The Sydney Morning Herald after finishing high school. Since then, he has written a biography of Australian artist Adam Cullen and became the founding editor of The Saturday Paper, a Schwartz Media publication which recently celebrated its second birthday. Now 27, Erik has seen the business of journalism change from up close, and the weekly newspaper he edits has become an integral part of the Australian media landscape.

When he visited Brisbane in mid-June to host a panel at the Inspire Festival, Erik and I met for the first time at the hotel where he was staying. I have written a couple of stories for The Saturday Paper, so this episode marks the first time I’ve interviewed a current editor of mine on Penmanship. Our conversation touches on how Erik’s apprenticeship as a news journalist began with sitting nearby fearsome reporters such as David Marr and Kate McClymont; how launching The Saturday Paper drove him to the point of physical exhaustion in its first six months of existence; what happened when the producers of Australian Story attempted to film a television documentary about his life, and how learning to write in shorthand helped him immensely when he sat down to write his book Acute Misfortune following four years of reporting.

Erik Jensen is the founding editor of The Saturday Paper. Before that, he was a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald, where he won the Walkley Award for Young Print Journalist of the Year and the UNAA’s Media Peace Award. His first book, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, won the Nib Prize and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and the Walkley Book Award. He has written for various publications, and for the sitcom Please Like Me.

Erik Jensen on Twitter: @ErikOJensen

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2.30 The Saturday Paper launched in Brisbane in June 2015, a year sooner than the company expected to; its Brisbane readership is about 15,000, compared to around 65,000 in both Melbourne and Sydney

4.00 On Friday afternoon, Erik would usually be commissioning stories for the following week’s paper; it goes to press early on Friday morning, as it’s the most cost-effective time to do so

4.30 On the commissioning process: “News is about instincts […] I do think the architecture of news can be somewhat predictable, and if you look closely enough at news, you start to be able to predict where stories will end up”

6.00 Erik’s “apprenticeship” as a news journalist started at The Sydney Morning Herald, where he would hear his colleagues spending the first hour or two of each morning “complaining about that day’s paper, and how the news desk had it wrong”

7.30 “I beat myself up about the paper quite a long, and I think that’s a healthy and sensible thing to do; it took me at least ten issues before we had one that I thought was a good issue, one that I was willing to be proud of”

8.30 “The magic of a daily newspaper is that it grows up and dies in a day, and that allows you […] seven chances a week”

9.30 Erik has learned to accept that some weeks there aren’t necessarily enough things happening at the right time to make a perfect paper

10.00 He thinks of The Saturday Paper as a handful of experiments, and testing assumptions that exist in newsrooms, as such who is allowed to write the news

11.30 “I wanted to see if the news itself, in addition to being important, could also be pleasurable. One of the ways to get to that is to get people for whom the principle act is the writing itself, and asking those people to tell us the news”, such as Maxine Beneba Clarke

13.30 Maxine’s recent portrait of Hugh Jackman was one of the few times Erik has published a celebrity profile of Hugh Jackman, based on only fifteen minutes’ of access to him

14.30 Erik cites Kate Holden’s portrait of a female paramedic as “completely electric, a really exciting piece of writing; I remember crying when I read it because it was so visceral in what it had to say”

15.30 “It was about finding an accessible bit of the paper for fiction authors to practise their non-fiction in, and get them then to start writing in other parts of the paper”

16.00 In April, Erik wrote a portrait of his recently deceased grandfather, Bill Orme, named ‘Step By Step‘, based on conversations with his family shortly after his death

19.00 “Editing is a not terribly interesting thing; a lot of [my week] is spent at my desk, rewriting other peoples’ copy”

20.00 Erik is usually at his desk by 9am, and will be there until somewhere between 8pm and 1am, depending on the news cycle

21.00 Prior to becoming an editor, Erik thought he was a typically cynical journalist; he sat next to David Marr at The Sydney Morning Herald, which was “like a masterclass in cynicism”. However, since launching the paper, Erik has realised what a “terrible, terrible optimist” he is

22.00 The first six months were a “very steep, sleepless learning curve” wherein Erik collapsed from physical exhaustive a few times while walking home

23.00 Erik got his love of argument from his grandfather, but his love of words probably came more from his grandmother, a librarian who filled his world with books

24.00 At the age of 15, Erik decided he wanted to be a music critic. He went to the office of the local street press, Drum Media, and presented himself to the editor, announcing himself as a music critic; he pulled the same routine with Bernard Zuel at The Sydney Morning Herald

25.00 “Thankfully, I was able to get all of that out of my system quite quickly, because I couldn’t think of anything worse now than being a music critic”

26.30 At 18, Erik got a call from then-SMH editor Alan Oakley, asking if he’d be interested in joining the staff as a newswriter, as Alan wanted to experiment with someone “whose only expertise was no expertise at all”

30.00 “Editing is about divorcing yourself from the ego of being a writer”

30.30 “The great thing about journalism is it allows you to ask questions of other people, and never of yourself”

31.30 “A little while ago, I was being followed around for [ABC TV show] Australian Story; they ultimately decided that I was too boring to be a subject of Australian Story. It’s a confronting thing to be told”

32.00 “The reason people cry on Australian Story is that some of those interviews go for like eight hours. It’s like waterboarding. By the end, you’ll be talking about what you had for breakfast, and you’ll burst into tears, and want to give them the nuclear codes”

34.00 “Everyone thinks I’m an only child, which I think is them saying I’m an arsehole. But I have a lovely older sister, who’s a high school teacher; people refer to her as ‘the good Jensen'”

35.00 As a teenager, Erik admired “a lot of the cliches” in music writing, like Nick Kent, Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson, then ‘new journalism‘ writers such as Gay Talese and Joseph Mitchell

37.00 Erik thinks Joseph Mitchell’s “great gift to journalism was his listening; he allowed ordinary people to speak with a great dignity of length, and that was the stuff that was in my head when I started working on that Adam Cullen book: I wanted to be small in the story, and that I wanted to allow someone to speak on every page”

38.00 In 2008, Erik wrote a profile of the Australian artist Adam Cullen for The Sydney Morning Herald; a few weeks later, Cullen called to say he had a book contract for a biography, and asked 19 year-old Erik to stay in his spare room and write it

39.30 “If I were to sit down and invent a character, he wouldn’t be as large or as interesting as Adam was”

40.00 “Being a young journalist is always about trying to project a kind of talent and authority you probably don’t have”

41.30 After Adam died in 2012, Erik was able to go to his crates of shorthand-filled notebooks from his four years of interviews to find a way to tell Adam’s story; he also “forbade the introduction of anything I didn’t have”

43.00 When Erik started at the SMH, one of the only things that cadet reporters had to prove is that they could write 120 words per minute in shorthand; Erik’s teacher was Penny Schofield, “who was incredibly fierce and incredibly brilliant, and taught shorthand to two or three generations of journalists”

45.00 “What I love about shorthand is the way it builds almost an immediate intimacy […] When you take shorthand, you’re involved in a kind of physical act with someone, and you’re negotiating a truth with them, almost”

46.00 Erik thinks that, when performing a ‘death knock’, using shorthand “shows a kind of unexpected, old-fashioned respect” for the bereaved, who often have never interacted with a journalist until that moment

47.30 While working as a general reporter at the Herald, Erik sat near investigative journalist Kate McClymont, who he describes as “an incredible interviewer”; he would watch her and be amazed as she would “somehow express the snoopiness of her face” through the phone

50.30 “As a journalist, there is no shame in sharing emotion with your subject”

52.30 Erik isn’t sure why he kept returning to speak with Adam Cullen, even after being shot and thrown off a motorcycle: “There were a handful of things I would not now accept in life”

53.30 Erik chose not to tell anyone that he did not actually have a book contract to write Adam Cullen’s biography: “The worst thing you can do in journalism is find yourself trapped by someone else’s lie”

55.30 “It takes a lot in journalism to confess that you were lied to, but it’s necessary […] This is why it’s easier just to be objective, because if you never get really close to a story, you’re never likely to find yourself accidentally lying for someone”

56.30 Acute Misfortune was published about 18 months after Adam Cullen’s death in 2012; Erik wrote it quickly, and “quite easily”

57.30 In 2012, Erik met Morry Schwartz, publisher of Schwartz Media (The Monthly, Quarterly Essay and Black Inc Books), over lunch beside Luna Park; he went in with no agenda, and “we spoke non-stop for six hours”

59.30 “We both agreed, for reasons unclear to me now, that it was important for us to keep things secret”; he didn’t tell his parents of their plans, either

60.00 The Saturday Paper has made money or broken even every issue since launch

61.30 After resigning from the Herald, Erik moved to East Melbourne the following week to start work at Schwartz Media

62.30 “No-one in media gets paid what they’re worth; the reason they’re in media is because what we do is important, and we enjoy doing it”

63.00 In May 2013, Erik wrote a cover story for The Monthly about Kevin Rudd, who was angling to become Prime Minister again after being deposed by Julia Gillard

64.30 In Canberra in 2007, Erik briefly met Kevin Rudd when he was opposition leader; he remembers “being truly terrified, and wondering why it was that everyone was so excited”

67.30 Erik knows that Rudd “did not like that piece; his horsemen did not like that piece; readers really liked that piece, and I think that’s the only important part of that story”

72.30 In the 18 months before The Saturday Paper launched, Erik spent a lot of time thinking about its audience, and why young people weren’t connecting with newspapers

73.00 The paper has three staff writers, which Erik hired “in a fairly haphazard way”, including chief correspondent Martin McKenzie-Murray, who he met in a bar two weeks before the paper launched without having read his writing before

74.30 “Martin is a person who has a great capacity for empathy, and in a chief correspondent, I didn’t necessarily want politics or news; I wanted someone who was capable of telling other peoples’ stories”

77.30 “The Saturday Paper takes a particular joy in silly headlines, partly because most of them are written quite close to deadline, and some of them are written a little bit tipsy. Some issues, I can be breathalysed simply by reading the issue the following morning”

78.00 In its first year, the paper was nominated in the short news and feature writing categories at the Walkley Awards for excellence in journalism; the latter story was ‘Life As A Crystal Meth Addict‘ by previous Penmanship guest Luke Williams


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