In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with prominent ABC correspondent Stephen Dziedzic, about his career as a journalist and advice for young Australians following him in the field.
Stephen Dziedzic is the ABC’s Foreign Affairs Reporter for the Asia Pacific, based in the national broadcaster’s Parliament House bureau. His work focuses on Australia’s relationships with countries across the region. He’s also written for Australian Foreign Affairs, the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist.
Stephen spent five years covering federal politics before moving to his current role. He has also worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. Before starting at the ABC Stephen completed a Bachelor of Arts (Media and Communications) at Sydney University, with Honours in English.
To begin, was there an event or time you recall that drew you to a career in journalism, and in particular foreign correspondence? Did you have a ‘big break’ that made the difference or find your career progression came naturally?
It’s hard to identify a single moment when I landed on journalism as a career. I didn’t pursue it as single-mindedly or as doggedly as some of my colleagues did, and during university I was slightly unsure if it would be the right career path for me. But when I started interning at the ABC newsroom in Sydney during my communications degree my uncertainties faded away quite quickly. The rapid news cycle (even back in 2005 or so!) was intoxicating, the pace of events exhilarating, and the work was (usually) endlessly interesting and rewarding. Even after spending a few months on the very bottom rung of the ladder, I was convinced I wanted to try and make a career in the media industry.
My first big break was probably landing a cadetship with the ABC after I finished university in 2007. The selection process was quite competitive (I’m told it still is!) but the cadetship offered an opening within the national broadcaster. It’s certainly not the only way into the ABC, but it’s a good way to start. My second big break came about four years later when I landed a position in the Parliament House bureau in Canberra after knocking on the door for a couple of years. It pitched me headlong into the world of federal politics and completely overturned several of my (very complacent) assumptions about journalism. It was a supercharged and often demanding professional atmosphere, but I rapidly developed much sharper writing, reporting and networking skills. I very quickly became a much more focussed and capable journalist.
Journalists are generally curious, talented writers and self-starters. What attributes, skills and values make the best journalists, and do you have advice for young Australians looking to make their mark in foreign correspondence?
My main advice is to read voraciously about whatever interests you, and then begin writing and pitching stories straight away on those subjects. Don’t sit on your hands while applying for jobs, go out and meet people, make contacts and start to explore possible stories! You can easily start in your local city, but this advice also applies to those interested in becoming a correspondent in another country. Don’t feel that you have to necessarily start at the bottom of an Australian organisation and plug away for years in the hope that a job overseas will eventually open up for you. Some of the best Australian journalists (including at the ABC) moved overseas almost straight out of university, and then pitched stories to both local and international media from the ground. They enjoyed success which they could then parlay into jobs back with the ABC – both overseas and back in Australia.
That said, you want to pick your target carefully. Don’t just pick a country out at random – think carefully about what opportunities might present themselves and what you can bring to the job. Still, if there is a country in the region with relatively few overseas journalists or freelancers, or where you already have a family link/language ability/obsessive interest, then it might not be a bad bet to just move there and start writing! I contemplated doing this myself when I finished university but didn’t have quite enough courage to follow through. My career has worked out well anyway, but I still regret not taking the plunge.
Your work has even taken you abroad! What important learnings and insights have you gained during your time living and working abroad?
Too many to list. Working abroad is a huge privilege and responsibility and it offers you countless opportunities to expand your thinking and deepen your understanding of the world around you. I’ll pick out just one insight. Working abroad will often dissolve some of your most complacent and implacable certainties about the base assumptions underpinning global politics. This isn’t unique to Australia – everyone sees the world through the lens of the values imparted by their own upbringing, and the political culture in which we swim. But going overseas and meeting both elites and everyday people from countries with radically (or even slightly!) different cultures will open you up in profound ways to new ideas and perceptions. This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily abandon your core beliefs and assumptions, but it will allow you to interrogate and test them more effectively. It will also make you a more subtle, nuanced and thoughtful writer and reporter who is more capable of grappling with complex issues both at home and overseas.
Is there a growing specialisation or gap in journalism that young Australians should be looking at?
The Australian media industry has slowly come to the realisation that it’s not particularly representative, and just doesn’t really resemble broader contemporary Australian society. This means many outlets (not all!) remain pretty oblivious to large swathes of the country, and struggle to tell stories which resonate with many of Australia’s diverse communities. There can still be a bit of an anthropological/war correspondent tone to some (not all!) media coverage in places like Western Sydney. So, journalists who are able to speak to diverse communities in Australia – including those who come from those communities themselves or who have pre-existing language skills or cultural knowledge which allow them to tell compelling stories about the people within them – are increasingly valuable to major news organisations, including the ABC.
There is also a real demand for both investigative and analytic skills which exploit some of the open source tools which are now readily available to almost anyone. Journalists now have access to a vast realm of raw, unmediated material online posted to social media, sometimes in real time. But verifying that vision or information can be difficult and time-consuming. Journalists with the capacity to exploit tools to verify and cross check information – or even to launch their own investigations using these instruments – are already highly valued by newsrooms. I predict they will only become more sought after over time.
Journalism is said to be the first draft of history. Briefly, would you mind taking us through the journey of an article from conceptualisation to publishing with a major broadcaster like the ABC? What does a week in your life as a journalist look like?
The main shift I’ve seen in my career is the move to cross-platform reporting, particularly in the ABC Parliament House bureau. When I first started in the bureau around 2010 there were essentially three “pods” in the office: one dedicated to radio news, one dedicated to radio current affairs and one dedicated to television news.
That model has now utterly collapsed, and almost every reporter in the bureau is capable of (and expected to) file across multiple different platforms. There are now countless hungry mouths to feed within the ABC, which means that journalists sometimes have to file to radio news, radio current affairs, online and the television news channel as well as the major 7pm news bulletin. And that’s before you even get to local ABC radio stations and rapidly multiplying social media channels!
That means that when I have a story (and particularly if I break a story) I have to put an awful lot of time into planning and executing the roll out across multiple different mediums and programs. I have to be careful that I still reserve sufficient time for the grunt work of journalism: calling sources, making contacts, digging through documents. The more time you spend on endless live crosses, the less time you have for digging up new stories which are in the public interest and which need to be told!
But it’s not all doom and gloom. While the churn is both real and relentless, the fact we have all these great new outlets also offers us invaluable opportunities to contextualise and expand on stories for different audiences. In the days of two daily television news bulletins it was hard to get more than two and a half minutes to air for any single story. Now I can lay out far more detail in an online story and then follow that up with a lengthy 8-10 minute live cross for a specialist TV program (like the World on the news channel) where I can really explain the subtleties for a more informed and engaged audience. I can also use social media platforms like twitter to unspool long threads teasing out some of the complexities of the issue. These opportunities simply didn’t exist when I first entered the profession.
Finally, you’ve had an outstanding career reporting on Australian political and Asia Pacific affairs. What has been your most significant achievement or career highlight so far?
I hate reciting achievements or highlights because they sound so self-congratulatory! I’ll limit myself to saying that I’m proud to work in an organisation with an unshakeable commitment to high quality journalism, and that I’m very, very lucky to be given the opportunity to do so every day.