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Much-loved journalist shares tips for audience building

Newspaper stack

By Nadine McGrath

One of my favourite journalists of all time doesn’t work for a major news organisation.  He was not an award chaser but developed a loyal base of followers for more than half a century. My dad’s best childhood mate Gary (Gus) Underwood was the editor of Kyabram Free Press, in rural Victoria.  Gus inspired me to be a journalist with his witty, opinionated columns and ability to build up a paper, treasured among the locals.

In rural communities, local news outlets are deeply valued but sadly on the decline.   As a journalist, if you write a good story people will buy you a beer in the pub and give you leads on another. On the contrary, if you produce a misleading or offensive story, even one which is grammatically incorrect you will feel their wrath and have to work hard to build up trust again.

Speaking of trust, did you notice the errors in the title of this post? Content may be ‘king’, but correct and spelling grammar is still one of the most powerful tools a communicator can use to connect with their audiences.

Building a loyal following through content marketing is much like being a journalist on a country newspaper so while Gus doesn’t have a blog he still tells a great story and offers sound advice.

Tales and advice from a country editor

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Firstly, I would like to make it clear I’m from the old School. To be more precise the old, old school.  I got a job as a cadet reporter at Kyabram Free Press in northern Victoria when I was 17-years-old in 1961. Some 55 years later and at the age of 72 I’m still providing articles for the same paper and its parent company, Shepparton Newspapers.

I got my start in journalism because my uncle was a good mate of the then editor of the Kyabram Free Press, Paul Easton. Producing some sporting articles for the paper on outstanding feats of some of my schoolmates while attending Kyabram High School in the 1950s, probably helped in securing the position.

Apart from a hidden passion of always wanting to get into journalism that was about it for me as far as credentials to the do the job were concerned. I’ll also admit I didn’t dare mention in my job interview that I had failed English Grammar in my Intermediate Certificate school year.

Reflecting back on some of my earlier efforts as a cadet journalist, Mr Easton would have got the message very early I wasn’t a super speller. He was very diplomatic whenever this happened. He would tell me people with the ability to write and capture an audience in those writings are not always grammatically savvy or a spelling wizard.  Mr Easton also made a point that would-be journalists who were faultless spellers may have no idea about producing a story to capture an audience. In other words, some good journalists can’t spell and often those who can spell can’t write to inform or entertain. Personally, I interpreted this as Mr Easton seeing some talent in me as a journalist. I have worked hard on building up my word power and spelling over the years.

When I became editor of the Free Press, a position I held for 24 years, there was a lot more pressure to spell correctly and be grammatically correct because the buck stopped with me if errors made it to print.  Anyone in the newspaper game will tell you that you get nasty and uncomplimentary feedback more often when you get it wrong than complimentary if you get it right.

When I first started in this game mistakes which got to print were extremely rare. A professional proof reader,  sub-editor, then the editor would read every bit of copy before it went to the press.

Unfortunately, in today’s digital age with increasing on-line competition manpower associated with producing many newspapers and publications has been reduced to try and remain economically viable. Many newspapers, particularly the country ‘local rags’ often go to print verbatim without adequate subbing.

Mr Easton also stressed to execute my writings in a manner in readers didn’t need to have a dictionary at the ready to check what some of the words I was employing meant. He said this was a sure way of turning off your readers. He also stressed all articles or stories needed to connect with people from age six to 106.

‘‘You are not writing exclusively for academics but for everyone who can read,” was his sound advice so many years ago.

“People who can understand exactly what you are writing about will continue to read it if it’s interesting enough.”  

 I’m sure his advice still rings true today.

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