written by Katie Spain

Country kids do it better

A farm-raised journo isn't afraid to join the flock for that perfect interview.

There’s something about country kids. You need only glance at Australia’s media landscape to spot a throng of rural-grown go-getters in the herd. Farm kids make great storytellers. It’s a thing. Particularly if they were raised in South Australia.

Full disclaimer: I pulled teats as a farm child in Meningie and Mount Gambier. The bias runs deep.

Farmers can be insular, shy, bovine, sheep, grain, and rain-obsessed but something about a country upbringing gives their offspring the gift of the pen (and the gab). At FULLER, a majority of the team comes from country stock, including our wine-savvy boss. There’s something in the air and it smells like rural spirit.

The Big Guns

Let’s throw the net wider. Political journalist and commentator Annabel Crabb grew up in South Australia’s Lower Light; media icon Jim McCarter was born in Kadina on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula; author, ABC journalist, and familiar Foreign Correspondent face Sally Sara grew up in Port Broughton; author, journalist and television presenter Indira Naidoo was born in South Africa and raised in Tasmania and Naracoorte; ABC reporter Leah MacLennan grew up in Mount Gambier, as did Nine News TV presenter and reporter Jessica Braithwaite.

Meanwhile, former television journalist Kellie Sloane was Barossa-raised; journalist, filmmaker and businesswoman Carmel Travers was a South Aussie rural lass; and former Australian Women’s Weekly editor Helen McCabe was, too.

The list goes on but what gives country folk an edge?

A Different Perspective 

In a 2014 SA Weekend Magazine interview, Helen McCabe, summed it up in a nutshell.

“There is something about country kids that is different and I see it when I sit here in newspaper newsrooms… the country kids have a different perspective,” she says.

“They are very comfortable meeting people of all shapes, sizes, colours and backgrounds and have a natural, innate sense of confidence. I think that is possibly what works for them as journalists.”

Rural folk also often have a common down-to-earth quality that makes them approachable. “It makes them very suited to talking to anybody.”

Feeding the calves at Donovan's Dairy, Mount Gambier.

Reality Bites

Helen grew up on a wheat and barley farm near South Australia’s Hamley Bridge. She is made of strong stock. Her rural upbringing demanded it. She and her three brothers know the hardships faced by country folk all too well. Their family was devastated when a bushfire destroyed their farmhouse and crops in 2015. The blaze took local farmers’ lives and shook the little community.

Helen has quite the international and local CV. She is currently digital content editor at Nine Entertainment Co. and previously worked for Channel 7, as News Limited’s European correspondent, night editor at The Australian, and deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph.

Her bold decision to put ultramarathon runner and burns survivor Turia Pitt on the cover of the Australian Women’s Weekly’s July 2014 issue caused waves across the globe. For some, Turia’s scarred body was tough to look at. For Helen, this was all the more reason to show the world. It was a risk but sales soared. Debate about body issues did, too. It was a brave moment for the media – and women nationwide.

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Leaving Home

One of the worst parts of growing up in the middle of nowhere is leaving.

Boarding school is a harsh reality for many country kids. Some can’t wait to head to the big smoke, others are tormented at the thought of leaving friends, family and the wide, open spaces. When a calf is separated from its mother and sent away on the back of a trailer, she gallops behind the vehicle until it disappears from sight. It is unbearable to watch.

Leaving the family home for boarding school also involves anxiety. It is heart wrenching but once the tears dry, a thin layer of internal strength develops. With each new friend made, conversation explored, and scenario tackled, the strength builds. Eventually, new horizons become addictive. Roles in the media often demand relocation. Previous ‘big move’ experience is priceless.

Strong Stock

There’s an inner strength and calm about rural folk. The media is an intense place. The bravado and raised voices in a high-pressure newsroom are terrifying – unless you’ve got the proverbial bollocks to hack it.

In some ways, it’s a bit like farm life. You hold your own, battle drought, haul wheat bags, grub the thistles, deal with mice infestations, tend to the sick herd’s mastitis, and occasionally shovel shit. It’s just the way it is.

The Deadline Dance

Country kids know the meaning of hard work. Farmers rise early (really early) to tend to cattle, crops, machinery and everyday farm tasks. Cows don’t milk themselves and an udder involves one of the most demanding deadlines out there. The morning herd is cantankerous, and the work is messy, wet, cold, smelly, and relentless.

Think your job is difficult? Try navigating 2500 rear ends at 4am. It’s an onslaught of projectile manure from above. Liken this to your average newsroom, especially when a major world event kicks off. In place of excrement is a frantic avalanche of social media updates, fact checking, interviews, word counts, photographs, and screams of, ‘Copy… now!’

 

Tending to feathered friends in Meningie.

Tenacity

When they leave their small community school, rural students are often forced to study harder to lift their game (there’s nothing like walking into a top public or private school to remind you you’re not quite the A-grade student you thought you were). Achieving is a hustle and requires effort. It’s a life lesson rural kids learn early and it tends to serve them well.

The Art of Listening 

 Insightful questions go far in an interview but unless you listen deeply to your interviewee, you’ve ultimately got nothing. The art of listening is highly undervalued. Ploughing through questions without listening to the response is like barrelling through a labyrinth and missing hidden doors leading to stories untold. There lies the real gold.

Absorbing another person’s life story requires patience and a genuine interest in the person sitting across from you. They could be a celebrity, a bereaved nana, a homeless man on the street, or our nation’s leader. At the core, we’re all human. For some reason, country folk understand this better than most.

Heart and Soul

We never forget our roots. Rural communities are special. You may not be able to see your neighbour’s house but they pretty much know everything about you. Got no sugar? Dear old Bev 20 kilometres down the road will help. Got an emergency and need someone to mind the kids for a moment? The local librarian will help. Flat tyre in the middle of the scrub? Mechanic Bob to the rescue.

These are the people to keep in mind when making content decisions. The salt of the earth community judges us not on our job title or the number of social media followers, but on the care and integrity we put into our work. Their feedback is as honest as it gets. It’s easy to get dazzled and distracted by bright city lights but a cracking story educates, challenges, and goes for the heart.

Imagination

Nothing stokes the imagination like the freedom of farm life. Skinning rabbits on the banks of the Coorong, racing motorbikes along dusty tracks, battling flies as thick as whipped cream, building forts in scrubland, and dashing through corn fields are perks of living out in the sticks. The joy of play dissipates when childhood passes us by but imagination is an important part of an innovative, entertaining media career. It is also at the core of a memorable yarn.

To the future stars of media, journalism, and communication… may the farm force be with you.

Katie with her farm tractor.

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