Sophie Benjamin is a multimedia journalist, zinester and musician based in Rockhampton. Sophie Mack caught up with her to talk about her career, the Queensland floods and not letting your idols off the hook when it comes to tough questions.
Sophie Mack: How did you get started in journalism? Who were some of your inspirations and how did you get your foot in the door?
Sophie Benjamin: I finished high school with the grand plan of being a musician. I’d been playing in bands and singing Missy Higgins covers for cash in pubs since I was fifteen, and figured song writing was my best creative skill and outlet. I was accepted into an audition-only music course at Brisbane’s QUT and absolutely loathed it. Fortunately getting into uni allowed me to do an introductory journalism subject as an elective. I enjoyed it so much that I switched degrees as soon as I could. My aunt was a journalist and my uncle still is one, so I’d always had a little bit of an interest in it.
In the first lecture of that journalism subject, the lecturer came straight out and told the class that you can’t do a Bachelor of Journalism and just expect to walk into a job. Her tip was to pass all your subjects and do as much work experience as humanly possible. It was excellent advice, although my uni degree was really practical. I really can’t say enough good things about the staff at QUT’s journalism school. They have excellent ties to all major media organisations and will bend over backwards to help you out.
I was determined not to end up a jobless bum at the end of my degree. I’d been staring down that prospect while studying music. That said, I didn’t want to work somewhere I hated just to say I had a job in journalism. I decided I wasn’t keen on working in TV (the idea of doing a piece to camera makes me ill with anxiety) but would give everything else a go. This is also why I decided to learn how to take photos properly – having a bit of photography under my belt has been a good move.
I paid my rent with Youth Allowance, funded the rest of my lifestyle by working in hospitality and volunteered everywhere that would have me. I volunteered in the 4ZZZFM news room (Brisbane community radio), did work experience at the local paper in my home town and wrote for free for FasterLouder.com.au. I also started writing for the music blog whothehell.net simply because I wanted to improve my writing. It was co-founded by Dom Alessio who now works for Triple J, and when he got the Triple J job the blog got a lot of ‘attention’ from the music industry, which I thought was pretty funny.
I also did work experience at ABC Radio in Rockhampton, where I’d gone to boarding school. I must’ve impressed them, because after two weeks of unpaid work-experience they offered me two months fill-in work as a programs producer!
I then started writing for Rave Magazine (Brisbane street press), which was the first place that ever paid me for my writing. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I suppose it was the gesture. Since then I’ve been able to earn enough money from radio, writing and the internet to pay my bills and feed my face.
I really saw journalism as an excuse for me to go places, do things, learn things and then tell other people about them for money… or maybe not. Once I started studying journalism, I found plenty of people to admire. I’ve worked with plenty of people who inspire me, but I’m too embarrassed to name them. They’d probably be weird about it.
SM: Of the interviews you’ve done, who was the most memorable to speak to?
SB: I’ve interviewed Prime Ministers, premiers, rock stars and police, but these two stick out for me:
Tori Amos. To say I was obsessed with her music in high school would be a gross understatement. I interviewed her for 4ZZZ and I was so glad it was a phone interview – it stopped me from being a total tragic fangirl. Anyway, it was excellent. She was lovely and answered my tougher questions with good grace. Even my teen idol doesn’t get off the hook when it comes to tough questions!
Bruce Morcombe. I spoke to him the day after his son Daniel’s remains were found – eight years after he went missing as a 13-year-old. I was terrified of stuffing up the interview, particularly with the very sensitive subject matter. Bruce and Daniel’s mother Denise are incredibly strong people. I felt honoured to speak with them.
SM: Has there been a moment in your career which made you say to yourself ‘I am doing something great’?
SB: I can’t say I ever felt like that… but I can say that covering the 2011 Queensland floods was a really humbling and valuable experience. I was working as a cross media reporter, which means I was required to interview people in order to write articles, as well as shooting photos and video.
Every day I’d pull on my steel capped boots and travel into flood zones with my co-worker. We’d get in the work four-wheel drive every morning feeling like absolute vultures and get out of the car in the afternoon blown away by the generosity of the people in the Lockyer Valley.
They’d had what they call an ‘inland tsunami’ tear through their towns. Some had seen entire houses washed off their foundations, with their neighbours trapped inside those houses screaming for help. These towns were so small, so everyone had a close friend or a relative who’d drowned.
My colleague and I fully expected the survivors to throw sticks at us and tell us to fuck off, but most people had the opposite reaction. I got to know one family really well and did follow up stories on them as the recovery progressed. People invited us into their ruined homes, because they knew getting media coverage was one of the only ways to get the government to help them and provide aid. I felt that I owed it to them to do the best job I could… for that reason if nothing else.
SM: What kind of advice would you offer young writers and journalists?
SB: Do as much work experience with as many different places as you can. Read lots – fiction and non-fiction. In fact, consume media voraciously. Don’t be princessy or scared about working in rural or regional Australia – if there’s a job offered to you in a country town, go for it. Reconcile yourself that your first few dozen attempts at anything will probably suck. If you enjoy what you’re doing, it’ll give you more motivation to keep practicing… which means you’ll improve.
Sophie Benjamin is a writer in residence for the festival’s Words in Winter at the Future Bookshop. You can find her zine I Am Very Busy and Important at all good zine distros, shops and online at iamverybusyandimportant.net/
This article is part of Signal Express at EWF, a daily magazine at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Grab a free copy at any EWF event.