a conversation with elle hunt
how are they not news?
Elle Hunt is one of New Zealand’s top young journalists, currently working in Sydney for the Guardian.
Her career began in student media as an editor and feature writer for Victoria University’s Salient magazine, followed by a reporting role at the Dominion Post and co-founding Radio New Zealand’s The Wireless website. She is an occasional contributor to The Spinoff and Metro, and specialises in online audience engagement.
Do you remember your first published article? Where was it, and how did it come about?
It was in New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, and it was about choosing the best pet for your child. I submitted it on spec when I was about 12 – I don’t think the editor knew I was a child myself. I got paid a few hundred dollars and I had to set up my first bank account. My mum wrote freelance feature articles so it didn’t seem a big deal to give it a go myself. And to her credit Mum never thought of stopping me from sending unsolicited material and self-addressed stamped envelopes to all these professional editors.
Were there particular journalists (or other writers) who inspired and influenced you when you were first beginning to write?
I read a lot as a child and as a teenager, probably far more than I do nowadays, but I can’t remember the work of any specific journalists standing out until I got to university and started writing ‘professionally’ myself. I really loved Diana Wichtel’s television reviews and Jane Clifton on politics in The Listener. I was particularly interested in features and Metro seemed to be publishing the best in New Zealand, often by Duncan Greive and Donna Chisholm and Simon Wilson and of course Steve Braunias.
Outside of New Zealand, the Guardian – particularly its columnists and music coverage – showed me that it was OK to take frivolous things seriously and write news with humour.
Before then I actually think reading a lot of online writing was more formative for me – I was super ‘online’ as a teenager, like on MSN Messenger all the time and taking Bebo Luv really seriously, which is to say, a very cool person. But all that reading I did of random people’s blogs made me feel comfortable writing in the first person and wearing my interests on my sleeve.
What drew you to journalism rather than another form of creative writing? Was there a particular moment as a young writer where you knew this was what you wanted to do?
I think it was purely pragmatic. Journalism seemed to be the only actual stable career path that involved writing, like the closest thing there was to getting a job in ‘English’. I think I was a bit naive about the realities of the profession until I got involved in student media at university and started actually doing (an approximation of) it. It wasn’t until about my second year, in 2010, that I learned it was not as stable a career path – or as well-paid – as I had assumed. But by then I was in too deep with my BA/was out of other ideas.
How did your writing develop during the time you were involved in student media, and what were the highs and lows of being in charge of Salient?
I started writing for Salient in my first year at university. I began with music reviews, basically all of which are deeply embarrassing to look back at now, and then as a paid feature writer. The experience was absolutely more pertinent than my degree, which was in Media Studies and English Lit and quite academic. Useful in a different way though, obviously.
I was very lucky to write features under Sarah Robson, who was Salient editor in 2010 and is now a press gallery reporter for NZ Newswire. She took student media far more professionally than most (including my friend Uther Dean and me, who succeeded her in 2011) – working with her was a good crash course.
Being ‘in charge’ with Uther was incredibly fun but at times incredibly stressful, though that was basically my fault for biting off more than I could chew by studying and working another job at the same time. I would advise others not to do that. I think I would’ve made far more of the opportunity – and certainly been a better co-editor – if I’d attempted less. But generally speaking, student media was the most valuable experience I got from university and I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants to go into writing or journalism. I made many of my best friends through Salient, as well as the professional relationships that led me to my first job out of uni.
You went on to be one of the co-founders of The Wireless, which focuses on journalism by and for young New Zealanders. Can you tell us what led to The Wireless’ creation, and what goals you had for the site when it began? What are your thoughts on it now, three years after its establishment?
Working on The Wireless was incredibly exciting. We were a small, new team in a respected, somewhat traditional organisation rooted in ‘old media’, basically given free rein to do what we thought was best for an audience that was often neglected. It was a bold move on Radio New Zealand’s part, to say it would carve out a space just for that 18- to 35-year-old demographic (though of course there was something on there for all ages) and I think it paid off. Certainly The Wireless continues to give a platform to many deserving voices that may not be heard elsewhere. And the moves that RNZ has made in digital media since – like the new cross-platform approach to Checkpoint – are so exciting and so vital in a small media industry that (with the possible Fairfax-NZME merger) could soon become even smaller.
Your job title at the Guardian is Reporter/Deputy Audience Editor. What is an audience editor and what does a typical work-day for you look like (if such a thing exists)?
I moved over to Sydney in January 2015 to join Guardian Australia as deputy audience editor, which involves maintaining the site’s social media presences, reporting back on traffic, that sort of thing – basically, tracking how users find and engage with the stories. At the end of last year, I was moved to a reporting role with a focus on breaking news and social news. My workdays now involve some audience duties and writing whatever news stories need doing, as well as mid-term projects we all usually have on the go. We’re a fairly small team in Sydney so there are a lot of opportunities to chip in to different parts of the organisation. If I am particularly fired up about something stupid on the internet I may pitch a comment piece, or if there’s breaking news on the other side of the world, I may end up working on a news story about that from Australia.
Part of your work at the Guardian currently is writing about the upcoming Australian election. How do you approach writing these daily updates on the back-and-forth of election politics?
Since May I’ve been writing a daily email updating readers on the campaign day that was. It’s entirely informed by the work of Guardian Australia’s press gallery team, which is the best in the business – I’m just the idiot in Sydney trying to make sense of it in an every(wo)man sort of way. I’ve also been given a lot of freedom to make fun of the ridiculousness that often crops up on the campaign trail that doesn’t fit neatly into other coverage. My editors are very good about letting me keep my funnier jokes in.
You also write a lot about pop music, including being one of the most prominent Guardian reporters on the One Direction (and post-One Direction) beat. How did you land that role? And is there an easy, quick answer to the various readers who are concerned that covering Harry Styles et al is not real news?
Well, firstly I must absolutely challenge the assertion that I am one of the ‘most prominent Guardian reporters’ on One Direction – there are plenty of us who’ve written about them at some point, admittedly with varying degrees of enthusiasm. When I’ve written about One Direction it’s usually because I’ve pitched a story and they’ve told me to go for it. My editors are very good about letting people play to their strengths and interests. I’m just lucky that – in the Sydney office at least – I think there’s no one else on staff who is interested in pop music, particularly that marketed at tweens, so I’ve been free to carve that out as a niche for myself.
Commenters who post ‘That’s not news’ or something along those lines used to really annoy me but I’ve recently tried to embrace the evangelist mindset, where I try to win them over. Quite often the stories they comment on aren’t news – they’re a review, or a feature, or an opinion piece – which can be frustrating, but then again you can’t necessarily expect every reader to know or care about those different contexts. I think pop culture is endlessly fascinating because it shapes and is shaped by the masses – One Direction’s a social phenomenon as any other. When they have such an impact on so many people (disproportionately young, female people, yes – but if that’s your chief complaint, you might want to reexamine the basis for your criticism), how are they not news?
As an online writer you are privy to instant engagement with your writing – on social media, in the comments sections, and through the instant metrics of clicks and page view data. What are the positives and negatives of this instant response to your writing?
The comments can be disheartening sometimes – I know many of my colleagues choose not to read them. I pick and choose my battles. But Twitter isn’t necessarily much better, and you’ve kind of got to be on there for #visibility and #breaking. I don’t know if people are aware of how easily journalists can monitor what’s being said about their work. Maybe they are and don’t care, which, I mean, fair play to them, it’s not their job to mind random journalists’ egos. But sometimes you do wonder what they get out of pointlessly rallying against some piece of online content that they didn’t enjoy.
The tools we have for measuring the response to a piece are generally of enormous benefit, though. We have a very smart in-house system at the Guardian called Ophan, which can tell you anything you need to know about how someone’s found your writing and whether they liked it enough to read it to the end or click through to something else, so it provides more nuanced metrics than simply the number of page views. It’s good to have numbers to show when something’s been a success, whether that’s by reach (how many people have seen it) or engagement (how many people have read to the end, or shared it, or commented ‘That’s not news,’ etc). Those figures inform my decision about what stories to pitch and how to treat them quite a bit.
What are the possibilities that the internet has opened up for journalism?
Literally too endless to state, and too important to be glossed over. I guess the most obvious one is the round-the-clock publishing cycle. My first job was as a reporter for the Dominion Post when deadlines were still largely governed by when first edition went to print. In online media you can publish whenever the story’s ready, which can be both a blessing and a curse. For the same reason you also have to be smart about what you cover because you can’t cover everything, particularly in a small team. We’re lucky in that we get to benefit from the work being done by the Guardian in the US and UK, but there’s still a lot of stuff that the Australian office makes the executive decision to let slide, simply because we don’t have the resources.
What have been some of your favourite or most rewarding stories you’ve covered so far for the Guardian? How about the most challenging and why?
I don’t often have to do it, but I find live-blogging probably the most challenging part of reporting, as you’re working on a developing story and have fewer checks, or none at all, before publishing. I started out terrified of making a mistake on the Guardian – but what’s really terrifying is how comfortable you quickly get while writing for this incredibly important, respected, global news organisation. You have to be onto-it even on the days you don’t feel onto-it – I’m trying to work on that all the time.
In terms of my favourite stories, when I first started at the Guardian, I carved out a round of ‘quirky New Zealand news’ as it was the only subject I knew more about than my colleagues did. I know that, for New Zealanders, the flag debate was very tedious and sort of internationally embarrassing, but the rest of the world seemed to find it fascinating. Our coverage is still among the best-read stuff I’ve written in my time here. And I’m very proud I was able to prove the people who questioned my ability to live-blog the announcement of a referendum result wrong.
Oh, and I can’t forget ‘Bieber Island’ – an ‘intimate’ performance Justin gave on an island in the middle of Sydney harbour to fans and media. That was a lightning rod for ‘How is this news?’!
You’re both a prolific user of Twitter and frequently report on what other people are writing about on social media. What has been your favourite Twitter moment?
Twitter is a flaming tyre fire a lot of the time and I sort of regret how much time I spend on there. I have had an account for about eight years, and though I know that it’s not like ‘if I hadn’t been on Twitter, I would’ve have written a book!!’, I definitely waste time endlessly scrolling. That said it’s still the best place for finding and following breaking news and occasionally it brings the goods in terms of politics jokes, memes, dog pics, etc. My favourite Twitter moment in recent memory was Good Morning America referring to the Kermit the frog meme as ‘#tealizard’. Tea lizard! Compelling evidence – like those headlines referencing ‘Netflix and chill’ for straightforward stories about streaming television on-demand – that not just anyone can write about the internet. But that’s only my favourite tweet in recent memory because I apparently have no recollection of anything else happening on Twitter, ever, just an abstract feeling of anxiety.
Tell us about sharks.
I am very interested in marine life because I spent a chunk of my childhood living on a boat with my family (we lived on a yacht from 2000-2004 and sailed from England to New Zealand), and I am completely fascinated by sharks. There are fairly frequently shark attacks in Australia and as such people by and large have a much more respectful relationship with them. There was a recent study of Perth residents that showed they overwhelmingly prefer non-lethal responses to shark attacks, which is pretty amazing given that it was conducted only days after two attacks in the area, one of which was fatal. Seventy-five percent of those polled said they wanted money to be spent on education and research rather than catching the shark. I think that shows a great deal of self-awareness and maturity of perspective.
Do you have any aspirations to delve into other forms of creative non-fiction? What do you still want to achieve – where do you see yourself heading? And can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
At the moment I’m just grateful to take the opportunities that come my way. I’d like to branch out into other forms of writing eventually – probably always non-fiction (or thinly-veiled fiction), because I don’t think any story of my own devision could be as interesting as those that are, you know, true. But I am not very good at writing in my own time, or working on my own projects outside of work. I’ve never kept a diary, I’m not working on my debut novel or screenplay outside of business hours – I don’t really write at all unless I have deadlines to meet or an editor expecting me to file. For that incredibly banal reason, any ‘branching out’ from my day-to-day will probably have to be forced upon me. Fortunately in the meantime, my day-to-day is endlessly interesting, challenging and satisfying.