Pressing for change

When newspapers get behind an idea or a cause, people listen and lives can be altered. DECLAN GOOCH looks at what makes a good campaign.

Former Northern Daily Leader editor Daniel Johns: Campaigns require editors "to step out of our normal journalistic role and unashamedly advocate for something"

Former Northern Daily Leader editor Daniel Johns: Campaigns require editors “to step out of our normal journalistic role and unashamedly advocate for something”

In late March this year, the mother of happy, healthy 18-year-old Jackson Byrnes noticed her son had a slight limp.

Jackson was referred to Lismore Base Hospital in northern NSW by his local doctor in Casino for some MRI scans. From there, his condition rapidly deteriorated.

A stage four tumour – terminal, and almost impossible to operate on – had been growing on the young man’s brain. Doctors were only able to suggest chemotherapy or radiation treatment, because of the risk involved in surgery. Three weeks later, Jackson had no feeling in his hands or his legs.

The situation looked hopeless, and it seemed inevitable that Jackson’s life would be cut tragically short, before the family approached Sydney brain surgeon Dr Charlie Teo.

To operate would be highly risky, but Dr Teo was known for taking risks that no-one else would take. He was prepared to do his best to save Jackson’s life, it would cost $80,000. It was money the family just did not have.

Then, a family friend phoned The Northern Star as the deadline for the operation approached, to ask the Star to back a crowdfunding appeal the family had started.

The front page of The Northern Star on Friday, April 17 which urged readers to donate for Jackson's costly surgery.

The front page of The Northern Star on Friday, April 17 which urged readers to donate for Jackson’s costly surgery.

The paper threw everything it had at a campaign to raise that $80,000 from the small northern rivers community. After several front pages, with rolling updates as the money came in online, the Star raised enough money for the operation between the Friday the story was first published and the following Monday.

Jackson is now on the slow road to recovery.

It’s a stunning story of the impact and influence of the press, and highlights the deep bond between a local newspaper and its community of readers. But how do newspapers turn around such huge results so quickly? What goes on in the newsroom to drive such successful agitation for change?

“First and foremost, you need to know your audience and you need to know the issue,” said the former editor of Tamworth’s Fairfax paper The Northern Daily Leader, Daniel Johns. Mr Johns, now editor of The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga, pushed for the legalisation of medical marijuana for local man Dan Haslam, who was dying of terminal cancer.

“The fundamental message that we’re sending our readers is that this issue is such a no-brainer, that it’s so universally supported, that we’re going to step outside our normal journalistic role of being in the middle, and unashamedly advocate for something.”

Mr Johns took a risk. Tamworth is a conservative place. However, the story was extraordinary – Mr Haslam’s father was a former drug squad police officer and his mother’s political hero was John Howard, and they were buying marijuana from dealers on the street to lessen their son’s pain.

“The chief of police, for God’s sake, was one of the first people to come out and say we need more compassionate laws around medical marijuana,” Mr Johns said. Ultimately, the Leader’s campaign swayed state governments in NSW and Victoria, with medical trials on the cards, and even the NSW Country Women’s Association supports the idea.

The deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, Ben English, says editors need to know the issue is of “paramount importance” to the paper’s readers before they campaign for it. “It’s got to be something that is either infuriating our readers, or is in the public interest of our readers,” he said.

Daily Telegraph deputy editor Ben English: "You don't go into a campaign without a very defined outcome and an achievable outcome"

Daily Telegraph deputy editor Ben English: “You don’t go into a campaign without a very defined outcome and an achievable outcome”

“You don’t go into a campaign without a very defined outcome and an achievable outcome. So we don’t just have a thought bubble and say, let’s just throw a campaign, put a dinkus on the story and hey presto,” Mr English told The Bulletin.

“There has to be quite a disciplined, rigorous approach to say we’ve done the research, and we’ve got to somewhere at the end of the line where we can achieve our goals.”

Christina Ongley is APN News and Media’s group content and special projects editor. She oversees group-wide campaigns, and she is currently co-ordinating a domestic violence campaign running across all APN dailies, Terror At Home.

“I guess there are two kinds of campaigns that we as newspapers can do,” Ms Ongley said. “There are the uplifting popular ones that come in response to community sentiment,” like campaigning for a carpark, or a fundraiser for a local like Jackson Byrnes.

APN group content editor Christina Ongley: "There are two kinds of campaigns that we as newspapers can do"

APN group content editor Christina Ongley: “There are two kinds of campaigns that we as newspapers can do”

“Or, there are the ones where we feel we’ve got to fight for something important” as a group, Ms Ongley said, referring to the domestic violence campaign. “We wanted to draw it all together, because we thought collectively we might be able to have a little bit more impact than just one site could.”

The campaign focused on two out of 140 recommendations presented in a report by Queensland’s special domestic violence taskforce: introducing compulsory school education programs focusing on healthy relationships, and creating a system of domestic violence courts.

Individual reporters often handle long-running campaigns as a beat. The West Australian’s Pledge For Nate campaign against drink-driving was handled by assistant editor Ben Martin.

“He was given it as a project, if you like, and he basically ran it,” the paper’s editor Brett McCarthy said. “I left all the details of how that could be executed back to Ben and he just did it brilliantly.”

“There was a magazine piece that Ben wrote himself about the whole thing, there were lots of news stories, Nate Dunbar’s mum did a really powerful video, we created a micro site,” and the campaign ran across social media.

The West Australian editor Brett McCarthy

The West Australian editor Brett McCarthy

APN takes a more centralised approach, having eschewed newswire services like AAP to operate a company-wide newsdesk, which can also co-ordinate campaigns across every masthead. For the Terror At Home campaign, newsdesk journalist Sherele Moody was the lead reporter.

However, to encourage each masthead to take the story further, many papers had a ‘domestic violence champion’ to lead local coverage. “It was important to make sure we got buy-in from all our sites, in making sure they had their own local stories to contribute and got their own local spokespeople on board,” Ms Ongley said.

The APN newsdesk co-ordinated the multiplatform aspects of the Terror At Home push, including online artwork, infographics and social media posts. The campaign incorporated online petitions and letters that could be mailed to local MPs.

For the editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald, Darren Goodsir, it is the physicality of print that gives campaigns their impact and influence.

“There is a highly engaged, highly influential, highly political and highly powerful group of individuals, organisations and communities who resonate with print,” Mr Goodsir said. “It’s why I think for now, and for the foreseeable future, print still has that market cornered when it comes to campaigning and setting an agenda.”

Although the Herald is not known for the same highly- branded, conspicuous campaigning that papers like The Daily Telegraph embrace, it has its own pedigree of steady and sustained pressure along a wide range of policy issues that regularly see results.

“We have a very, very proud history here in terms of campaigning for public transport,” Mr Goodsir said. “The transport reporter’s job is one of the most coveted jobs on the floor because of the massive track record we’ve got in this area.”

Darren Goodsir, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald

Darren Goodsir, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald

The Herald’s anti-corruption reporting created seismic shifts in the NSW state government, and is an area “core to The Sydney Morning Herald’s DNA,” Mr Goodsir said.

The Daily Telegraph’s Ben English believes that while results for the readership are the primary consideration, “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to enhance your brand. And if that’s a happy by-product of our campaign, that’s great.

“It’s not the main game,” Mr English said.

Ultimately, throwing the might of a newspaper behind the concern of the day can be an obvious choice.

“Why wouldn’t we campaign?” Daniel Johns asks.

“If we know there’s a really clear injustice being done – and there are a lot of issues where the government is slower than the public to pick up – and you know that there’s a path to effect change, why wouldn’t you do it?”

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