Interview - Yolanda Corduff

Interview: Yolunda Corduff, Journalist, by Greg Tingle 25th April 2003

How did you get your start?

I was reading one of the women's magazines I bought regularly and started to think about all the topics I wanted to know more about that were never covered in these magazines. I began to wonder why some topics didn't get coverage and whether I could market these ideas to the magazines I liked. At the time, I was studying journalism so I decided to take a punt and contact my favourite magazine. I was put through to the editor and I pitched a story idea to her. She liked it, commissioned it and I wrote and sold my first story. I followed that up with a few more story ideas and, although some were rejected, I found that most of my proposed articles were commissioned. I knew then that I could make a career for myself as a freelance journalist.

Why did you choose journalism, or did journalism choose you?

Back in the late-80s and early-90s, I was working in the HIV/AIDS Prevention Field doing health promotion. In that role, I was frequently required to give interviews to the press, often about difficult to discuss issues, like the specifics of safer sex and reasons why we needed to support marginalized groups in our society, like gay men, sex workers, etc. As any seasoned PR person will tell you, when you talk to the press, you will often be misquoted, find the spirit of what you've said has been changed and sometimes you'll even been completely misrepresented. I found these kinds of misunderstandings were commonplace and, of course, very frustrating. After one such event, I thought to myself that I'd be better off in the press, than being a spokesperson, because I was sure I could do a better job than the people I'd been dealing with. I felt that I could interview people, write stories and be more accurate because I knew what it was like to be on the other side of the microphone. I knew how it felt to be misrepresented and I cared about the people and subjects I'd write about. A few years later, I gave up my career in the HIV/AIDS field and retrained to be a journalist.

What do you like most about your chosen profession?

Being able to explore topics that interest me and finding out the story behind the headlines. Newspapers tend to only scratch the surface of most stories because that's the nature of the beast -- they provide news stories, in quick grabs, within a very short timeframe. There's certainly a place for news, be it TV, radio or print, however, to really understand an issue, sometimes you need more time, more research and the ability to write featured articles. That's what I like most about my job, that I get to do that extra research, go the extra mile, to find out and share information that's lost if it were not for the investigative feature journalist.

Greatest professional and personal achievements?

I don't really think in terms of 'greatest achievements'. For me, the story I'm working on right now is the one I'm most interested in. Certainly, I've had stories that were more popular, headlining features, some in bigger selling publications than others, and I could use these kinds of standards to assess my level of achievement. However, to me these are outside factors. Once I've written a story, who ever reads it and where it goes from there isn't something I can control. If it's a big hit, that's usually because the timing of the story's release makes it very topical, rather than it being a big hit because it was SO much better than other stories I've written. Sometimes the story I'm proudest of doesn't even make it to print, not because it isn't great but for some other reason, like being held over for a bigger, more topical news story. Consequently, I think it's a mistake to use commercial success to value your own worth as a journalist. It's a factor but not necessarily a sign of your level of achievement. As far as personal achievements go, I think living your life the best way that you can every day is my best personal achievement. It's about how you feel inside, who you are and how true to yourself you can remain -- those are the things that are important to me and those are my greatest achievements.

From a media perspective, what are the main differences between the United States and Australia?

The biggest difference is the size of the market. Making it in the US is making it big simply because it's such a big market. However, when I've worked for US publications or websites, I find that the editors are much more controlling than their counterparts in Australia. US editors tell you what they want, how long the article should be, what angle to take, what to say, etc. In the end, I often wonder why they don't just write it all themselves, if they're going to control so much of the creative process. Australian editors are much more laid back. They still give you a word length for the article and a few pointers but, for the most part, the way you write the story and approach the topic is very much up to you. I prefer that level of freedom but I prefer the level of pay you get when writing for US publications (yes, they do pay better). Of course, there are many other differences between our media and the US media, but mostly they differ in style, commercialism and what sells best in each marketplace.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of living and working in the Blue Mountains?

I love the Blue Mountains, with the views that go for miles, the nature, the village communities and the slower-paced lifestyle. I live here because I love to live here and that's the main advantage. The main disadvantage is that you're two hours from Sydney, so commuting is problematic, and sometimes you have to commute to meet certain engagements and/or to work. I've found, as a freelancer, it doesn't really make much difference where I live, as I'm the one contacting editors, proposing articles and doing all the leg work to stay 'employed'. However, I'm very aware that if I lived in the heart of Sydney, I could work directly for specific publications and that has certain advantages too. In the end, though, I don't want to work for any one publication or media outlet enough to relocate, at least not while I'm able to make a good living in the Blue Mountains.

Do you get onto much local news up in the mountains?

There's a local paper and I sometimes do articles for them. I've also sold work to the newspapers in Penrith, however, I'm not a 'news' journalist, I'm more of a feature writer so I don't really push working for the local news services much.

Tell me about your ups and downs in the business?

The 'ups' are that I've been able to earn a living, consistently, while retaining my independence and being self-employed as a freelance journalist. Probably the biggest down in this business, generally, is dealing with work being rejected. However that doesn't bother me as much as selling articles that are later censored or never published. I have certainly had that happen on several occasions and it's always a big down. Some people don't think of it as much of a drawback because I'm still getting paid but it really leaves a bad taste in my mouth to write a really great piece, sell it and have it never be published. Some articles don't see the light of day because they are specifically censored, due to Australia's very strict (and increasing) censorship laws and practises, particularly since the removal of the proviso that certain information could be published for 'educational' purposes that might otherwise be censored. This one change has had a huge impact on a number of my articles because I often write 'cutting edge' material (which you really have to do to make it as a freelancer). But it's not just the censorship laws that control what gets published and what doesn't. NSW has the strictest libel and defamation laws in Australia (and possibly the world) where truth is no legal defence for libel. That's literally unheard of in most other Western countries and it means that anyone with a public reputation, such as politicians, entertainers and the wealthy, can sue publications for articles that are truthful but expose negative issues about the individual. It's also the reason why so much of the media focuses on small business people who are doing the wrong thing, like the mechanic who overcharges, rather than what big business does. One wonders whether huge corporate collapses, like HIH and the like, would occur at all if the press were able to do its job of providing unbiased news coverage without fear of being sued.

What have been the most emotional draining stories you have worked on?

Probably the most emotional draining stories are those that involve interviewing people with sad tales to tell. Two in particular spring to mind. One where I interviewed two women who were HIV-positive and sharing their stories to warn other young women of the very real dangers of unsafe sex. Having worked in the HIV/AIDS field, it was a story that was very close to my heart and I really felt for their situations. Another very hard story was one where I interviewed the mother of a drug user. She was very candid about the heartbreak she felt and it's hard to talk to people about things like that and not share their pain
What inspires you?

Joy and happiness inspires me and I can often find both in the world that surrounds me. All you have to do is look and be open to it.

What do you like to write about, and what is your best piece?

I like to write about issues that other people aren't covering, that I think the community should be aware of. For example, I've done a number of stories on how media violence affects developing minds, an issue most parents really need to know more about because when children are exposed to violence, it literally shapes their brains. Some really disturbing studies have come out showing that violence causes parts of the brain to become over stimulated and over-developed, at the expense of higher learning and the ability to control emotional responses. In fact, there are so many disturbing studies on how media violence affects all of us, you would think this issue would be front page news every week! Instead, because there are so many vested interests involved, it's a hard topic to even sell articles on, let alone get really good coverage. After all, this is a subject most TV programmers (and owners) don't want to discuss because violence has also been shown to increase ratings and, in a commercial media, ratings are everything. I even sold an article on this subject to Women's Weekly, which the editor was very keen on but was later pulled from their schedule and has never been published. It was probably one of my best pieces but I doubt anyone will ever read it.

You write about subjects others won't touch…When and why did you decide to write "outside the square"?

I basically started writing 'outside the square' because that's what makes you most successful as a freelancer. If you ring the papers and magazines with everyday story ideas, they rarely commission these because their in-house staff tends to write those kinds of stories. As a freelancer, the story ideas you propose have to really stand out to get the editors' attention so I look for stories the 'average' journalist might not think about.

What type of film scripts have you worked on?

I've worked on plays mostly, done a few commercials and worked on some TV series proposals. I've also written a script for a movie/documentary that almost got up but in the end didn't. I find the film/TV industry to be a bit of a closed shop and hard to break into. It's also harder if you're not based in Sydney because this kind of work tends to go to local newcomers, rather than those living 100 km from the CBD. Having said that, I'm keen to do more script work but not keen enough to move to Sydney.

How has the internet helped you?

The internet is a very useful tool when you're a freelancer because it gives you access to so many publications and information. I mostly use it to research my stories, though it's only good for preliminary research as you still have to do a certain amount of leg work and other research to really develop a story. In the end, nothing beats personal quotes and information from informed sources.

What is the best piece of advice you have been offered?

The best advice I've ever had is 'not to give up'! Whether you're a writer, an actor, a computer programmer, what ever occupation or dream you have, it's important to be tenacious, to keep working at it and not to give up. The minute you give up on something, anything, you lose. Perseverance may take a long time to work, in some cases, but giving up ensures you won't make it. That's not to say one should continue to bang their head against a brick wall - you may need to change your approach, think outside the square, even modify your goals. But only losers give up and giving up makes you a loser (which probably sounds much harsher than how I mean it to sound).

The biggest misconception about you?

Well, I'm not sure if this is a misconception about me or my website but it's the one thing that comes to mind. I have a detailed website, which includes a list of my published works and sample articles. I set it up originally so I could refer people who weren't familiar with my work to the website if they wanted to know more about me. It's easier than faxing through sample articles or resumes every time I'm approaching someone new. This has been very helpful when talking to editors and people I'm seeking interviews from, especially since I write for many different magazines, none of which employ me as a regular staff member. However, I get many requests and e-mails from other freelancers who all seem to think that my website brings in business. The assumption seems to be that editors spend their time surfing the net, seeking good freelancers then get in touch to offer them work. That is not the case at all! While I do refer people to my site and very, very occasionally get offered work because someone has seen the site, it's exceedingly rare that editors contact me through the site with assignments. In fact, the few times that I've been contacted by an overseas editor seeking an Australian journalist, they've usually got my name from someone else (like an Aussie editor), not from surfing the net.

As for misconceptions about me the person, I guess I just don't talk to people enough about their impressions of me to know what the misconceptions are. Probably the only one I can even think of is people, who don't know me, thinking I'm famous and hanging out with the 'stars' on my off time, which by the way isn't true. While I have met stars and people sometimes treat me like I'm a bit of a celebrity, the reality is I'm just an ordinary person making a living from home, without the glitter and glam that many people associate with the media. At least that's my take on it.


For more information visit Yolanda Corduff's website