Episode 39: Sarah Elks

Sarah Elks is Queensland political reporter at The Australian.

Penmanship podcast episode 39: Sarah Elks, interviewed by Andrew McMillen. Published in July 2017.During her decade of writing for the national newspaper, Sarah has reported on many of the biggest news stories that have taken place in Queensland. It takes tenacity and passion to be a daily news reporter, and Sarah clearly has an abundance of both of these qualities. After extensively covering the fall-out from the closure of the Queensland Nickel refinery in late 2015, Sarah was named Journalist of the Year at the Queensland Clarion Awards for her stories that uncovered Clive Palmer’s use of the alias ‘Terry Smith’ to manage his business while also holding office as a Member of Parliament. The judges for that award in 2016 noted that Sarah’s work is “a tremendous how-to for journalists young and old, and deserves recognition”.

I met with Sarah at her home in Brisbane’s inner-north in early July to record a conversation which touches on how she manages an unpredictable workload that can vary drastically from week to week; how she handled the paranoia of ‘correspondent syndrome’ while working as The Australian‘s sole reporter based in Far North Queensland; how her two years in that role took her to a remote island in the Torres Strait, where few people will ever have the privilege of setting foot; why she has a deep and abiding passion for court reporting, which is not shared by many other journalists, and how she increases her likelihood of getting Clive Palmer to respond to her text messages during the course of reporting on the man himself.

Sarah Elks is the Queensland political reporter for The Australian. She began her career working for the newspaper at its Sydney headquarters in 2007, before moving back to her home state of Queensland. After a two-year stint in Cairns as the paper’s north Queensland correspondent, Sarah returned to Brisbane to cover general news and legal affairs, including some of the state’s highest profile criminal trials. Now, as well as state politics, Sarah reports on the continuing fallout from the $300m corporate collapse of Clive Palmer’s Queensland Nickel. In what is surely a sign of love and respect for her ongoing work, Mr Palmer recently tweeted: “Is it true or did you read it in the Australian“. Sarah’s only useful skills are catching beach worms with her bare hands and arranging cheese platters.

Sarah Elks on Twitter: @SarahElks

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3.00 Sarah tends to start each workday with a clean slate: “Every day is a new day to fuck up, as one of my colleagues says”

5.30 Sarah might have to file two or three stories per day, so it’s a matter of juggling the reporting and writing them up

6.00 Sarah reported on the tragedy at Dreamworld in late 2016, where four people died, and she had been keeping an eye on the timeline of the investigation as to whether it was keeping to the intended timeline; this led to a follow-up story that was published in July 2017

7.30 The Weekend Australian has the biggest readership of the daily editions, so sometimes Sarah will aim to get a longer piece in the weekend paper, but it’s tricky because the edition is largely planned almost a week before the newspaper is printed

9.00 As Queensland political reporter, Sarah’s direct editor is is Michael McKenna, who overseas the Brisbane bureau; he’s the person that Sarah pitches ideas to each morning

10.30 When Sarah comes back from holidays, she finds that it takes her several days to remember how to be a journalist, but within a couple of weeks she is back to feeling as though there’s more stories than she can possibly cover

11.30 “It’s probably self-imposed, but I feel too guilty to just have a day where I’m not doing very much”

14.00 Sarah says the job of a daily news reporter is sometimes stressful: “Adrenaline keeps you going, and it’s sometimes difficult to switch off when you get home”

15.00 Sarah’s husband will text message her at a certain time in the evening to ask, “Do you think maybe you should leave work? Time to eat dinner!”

16.00 Sarah estimates that the job is approximately 60% reacting to news events, and 40% pursuing her own interests as a reporter

18.00 A recent story of Sarah’s, about the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s new chief of staff, David Barbagallo, came out of a phone tip from a reader, and required some patience on the source’s part as Sarah took a few weeks to pursue the tip

20.30 Sarah lists her email address in her Twitter bio, requesting reader tips, which sometimes yields good results. However, Sarah admits: “I’m very bad at email”, as she gets more than 100 per day and most of them are “complete rubbish”

22.30 “It’s the ‘real people’ that I feel the responsibility of having to respond to […] I make that distinction as opposed to say, politicians or political staffers, or people in the media – it’s sort of okay if you sit on an email from a media advisor trying to pitch you some silly thing”

24.00 Email wasn’t such a source of stress when Sarah started at The Australian in 2007, as smartphones weren’t in wide use at that point

24.30 When Sarah was an intern at The Australian in Sydney, she was assigned a doorstop with Sophia Loren in the western suburbs of Sydney, and called her mother in the taxi on the way there to ask her to Google the Italian actress and dictate some of her biographical details, so that she wasn’t completely clueless on arrival

27.30 Sarah decided that she wanted to be a journalist at the age of 15, and she had her eye on the editor’s job at Rolling Stone magazine

28.30 Sarah had her first taste of being in a newsroom as part of her journalism studies, when she interned at the Queensland Times

29.30 Sarah remembers being excited by the vibe of that newsroom, and loving the commute from Brisbane to Ipswich, listening to the news on the radio on her way to work. “From that moment – just the news, thanks! I just want to write in newspapers!”

30.30 Sarah still finds that it’s scary and unnerving to approach people out of the blue, in person or on the phone, even though she might do it 20 times per day

33.00 “I just assume that nobody wants to talk to the media – and in a lot of cases, why would you?”

34.30 Each year, around Federal Budget time, The Australian‘s reporters are tasked with finding a series of intimate case studies to fit a particular budget story, to be published alongside a photograph

36.30 One year, Sarah was tasked with finding a middle income family with a child in child-care, and potentially a baby on the way – while living in a marginal electorate. She ended up finding a woman who worked in the AgForce office, who she interviewed and was photographed on a Sunday. “I took up three hours of their Sunday morning […] and [the story] never ran”

39.30 Sarah sent them flowers to say thank you, and sorry that the story didn’t run in the newspaper, because the editorial decision was not hers to make

41.30 Sarah studied journalism and arts at the University of Queensland, majoring in political science and Spanish; as well as the Queensland Times internship, she also interned for a week at The Courier-Mail‘s sports section

43.00 Sarah was told at university it was really hard to get a job as a journalist; you’ve got to really want it, and you’ve got to put yourself out there by working for free and getting stories published wherever possible

43.30 Sarah doesn’t think that her journalism studies equipped her for the job, but she’s not sure that any degree could prepare you for what it’s like to work in a newsroom

46.00 Sarah moved to Sydney because her then boyfriend (now husband) was working there, and thought that there would be more journalism opportunities in Sydney

47.00 Sarah got an interview for a six-week unpaid internship at The Australian, and then “basically begged for a cadetship, and thankfully, begging worked; it was right before the GFC, and after they put me and a few other people on, there was a hiring freeze”

47.30 Growing up, Sarah’s parents had three newspapers delivered every day, and she had always viewed The Australian as a “really good paper, particularly around its indigenous affairs reporting; I was prepared to go anywhere, and work in any newspaper, so to get my first job at The Australian… I was thrilled and terrified”

50.30 After a few months as a general reporter, working a lot of night shifts, The Australian‘s then editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell offered her a spot at the paper’s Queensland bureau, based in Brisbane

53.00 Sarah worked as North Queensland correspondent at The Australian from 2010 to 2012, while based in Cairns; she was the newspaper’s sole writer in that area, and her “patch” was considered to be from Gladstone in the south, out to the Northern Territory border in the west, and up to Papua New Guinea

54.00 News Corp hired office space for Sarah above a Nandos store in the main street of Cairns: “I used to smell chips all day, every day; chips are a real problem for me”

55.00 “It’s incredibly lonely and paranoia-inducing to be a correspondent; the distance was so great, and because you only talk to your bureau chief on the phone, it can be really lonely.” Before she left for Cairns, Sarah was warned about ‘correspondent syndrome’, which is when you might go several days or a week without getting a story in the paper, and being filled with self-doubt about your abilities as a reporter

56.00 “The start of that really shook my confidence a lot. I went from feeling like I knew what I was doing in Brisbane, to thinking that I had no idea what I was doing in Cairns. It took me a little while to find my feet”

57.00 Sarah found that strong picture stories had a good chance of making it into the paper, as tropical scenes played particularly well among the cold southern winter months in Sydney and Melbourne

58.30 For picture stories, Sarah would sometimes use a photographer from the Cairns Post, but also relied heavily on a freelance photographer named Brian Cassey

59.30 Sarah recalls working on a story about the wettest place in Australia, and the person who reads the rain gauge at that location; she travelled to the top of the second highest mountain in Queensland, Mount Bellenden Ker, which is only accessible via cable car

61.30 During her time as North Queensland correspondent, Sarah particularly enjoyed reporting a series of stories about the Torres Strait secession campaign, which involved travelling to Erub Island and meeting local elder George Mye

64.00 “It was a spectacular privilege to go to a place that most people will never go to, and I got to go. Obviously it was work, because I had to write a story, but I got to talk to this incredibly interesting man and his wife, and wander around this absolute paradise of an island, and I got paid to do it”

65.00 Sarah left that role in June 2012: “I loved it; I’d probably still be in Cairns if it would work in my personal life, because I made some of the best friends of my life up there, and the stories were so great. But it worked professionally and personally to come back to Brisbane”

66.30 Sarah has a deep and abiding passion for court reporting, which is not shared by many journalists, as during 2014 she was in court almost every day that year while following the Daniel Morcombe and Allison Baden-Clay murder trials

67.00 “It’s almost like theatre, because you sit in the public gallery of a courtroom, and you watch the theater of the legal system unfold in front of your eyes. Sometimes you can be sitting there for a whole day of evidence, and potentially, only five minutes in the heart of it sums up the whole day, or is the crucial part”

68.00 Sarah says there is great camaraderie among court reporters, and there’s also the challenge of sitting beside your competitors and challenging yourself to write the most beautifully written, perfectly accurate account of what happened in court the day before

69.00 The other challenge of court reporting is being able to dig through information that other people may not know about, and find exclusive stories that other reporters haven’t gotten to yet

69.30 Sarah says that some of her court reporting colleagues will do crosswords while waiting, or look at social media, but the job is “often an endurance test of your attention span, because if you miss the key moment, there’s no getting it back. You can’t go, ‘Sorry, Your Honour, what just happened there?'”

72.00 “There’s few things more terrifying than having your story discussed in court in a not-very-favourable way”

72.30 Since being appointed Queensland political reporter in September 2015, Sarah has written extensively about businessman and former politician Clive Palmer, whose company Queensland Nickel started to run into financial troubles toward the end of 2015

74.00 “He loves being in the media, and for a long time, journalists loved reporting on his antics. But things took a more serious turn when, in January 2016, the refinery company was put into voluntary administration, and a whole heap of employees were made redundant”

74.30 Sarah says that one good thing about working over the Christmas period is that there are few other reporters in the office, so she had more time to investigate what was going on with Queensland Nickel

76.00 With a colleague named Jessica Grewal, Sarah was interviewing some of the company’s ex-workers, and one of them “I bet Terry Smith signed off on that” in an offhand manner. Sarah then started to ask everyone she knew at Queensland Nickel about Terry Smith, and it emerged that this name was Clive Palmer’s alias

77.30 Clive Palmer initially denied that he used an alias, then later admitted on the record that he is Terry Smith. “Clive is a very genial character; he doesn’t answer my phone calls anymore. I mostly text him. A fellow journalist said that the key to get him to answer your texts is to put emojis in them”

79.00 “I don’t think he likes what’s being reported about him because he likes to be loved, but it’s an important story to do. His overriding feeling is that he likes being in the news; you’ve seen what he puts on Twitter, and he loves being the centre of attention”

79.30 Sarah thinks that the strange turn Clive Palmer’s social media presence has taken – “the weird poetry and the memes” – is to rehabilitate his image to be a figure of fun again. “It’s sort of a distraction to make people stop thinking about the fact that Queensland Nickel owing $300 million in debts; 800 people lost their jobs; you and I, as federal taxpayers, spent $70 million covering the redunancy entitlements of his workers […] that his company didn’t pay”

80.30 In 2016, Sarah was awarded Queensland Journalist of the Year at the Queensland Clarion Awards for excellence in the media; she did not receive a message of congratulations from Clive Palmer

82.30 In late 2016, Sarah conducted an investigation into the Queensland agriculture minister, Leanne Donaldson, with a colleague named Sarah Vogler. They received a tip that the minister wasn’t good with her finances, and might have some unpaid council rates and an undeclared mortgage; this turned out to be true, and resulted in Leanne Donaldson tendering her resignation shortly after the story was reported in The Australian

87.30 Sarah enjoys that search-and-discovery process of careful investigation. “It can be fruitless sometimes; most of the time, it’s fruitless, but when you do find something it is quite satisfying, because often it’s something that a person in a position of power or in the public eye doesn’t want you to know about”

88.30 “I think governments try to get you to do as much reactive reporting as possible; they try to do as many shiny announcements […] But often the more important story is what people don’t want you to know. The challenge for me, and other journalists in this day and age, is to try and carve out a little bit of time in our busy schedules to see if you can dig around and find out things that people don’t want you to know”

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