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An outstretched hand that would change the course of my career

I missed a call from Caroline Jones and cursed the dodgy mobile service in the bush.

By Virginia Tapscott

I missed a call from Caroline Jones while driving through the Pilliga Forest in north-west NSW last year. She’s probably best known for being the first female reporter on This Day Tonight and the first woman to anchor Four Corners. She basically paved the way for women in media.

Anyway, people like Caroline Jones don’t call me very often (never) so I cursed the dodgy mobile service in the bush. It felt like an age before I had enough mobile reception to call her back. It took everything I had to keep the speedometer hovering at 110 clicks. The conversation that followed was a simple outstretched hand that would change the course of my career.

Caroline wanted to talk to me about my work. This in itself was a novel idea. The deeper I wade into motherhood the more unqualified I feel in the professional space. I socialise mostly with three people aged 4 and under. I wipe several different bums several times a day. I work alone, mostly at home, bouncing ideas off my husband, my mum, the dog if she’ll listen. I pester editors to publish my words and then pester them for payment and then I never really know if anyone cares or if it even matters.

So as I’m speaking to Caroline Jones about the portfolio of work I submitted for the Women in Media Young Journalist award, I’m extremely awkward. I’m worried I might slip into a discourse appropriate for a two year old. I’m keenly aware that Caroline Jones is sounding every inch the living legend on the scratchy phone line. I’m doing everything in my power to not sound stupid.

I later realised I needn’t have worried. Caroline gently ushered me into a quiet, little corner of the media landscape where female editors come in for a hug instead of a handshake. Where celebrated authors invite you over for lunch. Where you don’t have to act like a man to be successful. I’m sad to admit that this culture was a fairly new concept for me. A foreign land and I’m so glad I’ve found it.

The national conference had a sense of camaraderie. Photo: Photo: Monique Grisanti | Uneek Creative

Caroline tells me that my work reporting on issues in the bush is important and deserving of the award. She invites me to the Women in Media Conference on the Gold Coast and suddenly I’m in the same room as the greats. Jenny Brockie is telling us about her most harrowing interviews, Patricia Karvelas is telling us about her storytelling technique. I’m learning about creating stories in ways I hadn’t imagined. The editor of the Weekend Australian is handing me her business card. I always thought you had to be aggressive to make it, but I’m meeting all these successful women and all they’re trying to do is help me. They’re laughing and crying and being human.

I end up getting in touch with the then-editor of the Weekend Australian. I say “Sorry to bother you,” and Michelle Gunn tells me in no uncertain terms to stop apologising and then I end up writing a feature for her. It’s a cracker – the best thing I’ve ever written. I used the funds from the award to hire a nanny to look after the kids while I wrote. I used the courage instilled in me by all these women to pick up the phone and get to work. Women in Media operates on a very simple premise – sometimes all you need is someone to tell you that your work matters. My family tell me all the time but they have to say that. It’s different coming from the outside.

Virginia Tapscott on her visit to Canberra as part of the award.

The second part of the award program is a professional development week in Canberra. I was able to workshop ideas with actual journalists and editors as opposed to the dog and my four-year-old son. I also worked on articles and received training in the use of the media production kit I put together with the grant money. Occasionally I’d get caught in a Canberra revolving door and think ‘I’m just not cut out for this’. Then I’d remember the supportive network I was in, puff out my chest and keep trying to navigate the bowels of Parliament House.

Mid-week I was given the first question at the National Press Club address and I have to tell you this is not a platform I usually find myself on. While sweating profusely from the armpits on national television it occurred to me that stay-at-home mums from the bush don’t normally get this kind of air time. So when we do, it’s important to make the most of it. Women in Media helped me realise that my viewpoint is no less valid and that I have an important contribution to make to the public discourse surrounding a wide variety of issues.

The following day, as a result of a beautiful lunch among freelance writers organised by Ginger Gorman, I increased my pay rate by 400% with certain publishers. I got home, emailed a publisher and told them what they should pay me.

Virginia Tapscott visits the Triple J studio during her stint in Canberra.

Unexpectedly, but no less important, in the organisation I’ve also found a safe space for debriefing about sexual harassment and a wide range of experiences that would fall into the category of gendered crime. I still lean into this space every now and again.

This award has been the single most validating experience of my career. Caroline and the team of beautiful women at Women in Media have shown me the support I could never have dreamed of. It’s amazing what dropping an encouraging email in someone’s inbox can do.

Being a freelance journalist based in the bush is so rewarding and special, but it’s also a fairly lonely road and knowing that this group of women truly want me to succeed, has set me on a wonderful path.

I really want to encourage other young female journalists based in regional Australia to apply. I made connections I would have never thought possible through this award and I’ve used the grant to upgrade equipment I use to produce content remotely. Put it in your diary for 2020! The work of journalists based in regional areas will only become more important as land management, politics and climate issues escalate. We need you and this award is designed to help you continue working in the bush.

Virginia Tapscott is the recipient of The 2019 Caroline Jones Women in Media Young Journalist’s Award.

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