Jason Whittaker is editor of Crikey, where he was previously deputy editor. He has worked on business publications, and was managing editor of Trader Business Media, a division of ACP Magazines. Jason has been a journalist of sorts since the age of ten - and can’t imagine doing anything else.
We spoke to him about his self-published The Whittaker Post (aged ten), dealing with contentious copy and complaints (as editor of Crikey) and why ‘the most frustrating (and rewarding) thing about writing is to communicate exactly what is in your head, nothing more or less’.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
Does self-published count? There was my short-lived family newspaper, The Whittaker Post, banged out on a typewriter at the age of ten or so. I charged 50 cents a copy, but given the extraordinary production work involved (including illustrations from my sister) I could only produce one and had to steal it back to resell it. At the age of 15 or 16, I decided people needed to know what I thought about sport, so I put together an email newsletter about rugby league and sent it out to any email address I could get my hands on (the concept of ‘spam’ hadn’t really been invented so nobody seemed to mind; I collected hundreds of addresses).
Eventually my love of rugby league faded and my burgeoning passion for motor racing turned into Track Torque – a weekly email (footy fans were presumably confused when the content switched) that eventually became a website after I met a developer online. I managed to gain enough of a reputation to be sounded out to write for professional media – I think my first printed piece was a race preview in the Illawarra Mercury.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Dealing with contentious copy and complaints, which is inevitable no matter how ethical our journalism might be. I don’t enjoy confrontation at the best of times, and while I don’t allow myself to be bullied, there’s always a mild nausea that sets in when an aggrieved party sounds off and seeks recompense. Especially when lawyers get involved and you’re forced into making gut decisions on when to stand firm and how much risk exposure the business can deal with. They’re difficult decisions, you’re bound to get some of them wrong, and the consequences can be pretty significant. Perhaps not as a reporter, but I reckon to be totally fearless is to be reckless as an editor.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and journalism career so far?
Becoming editor of Crikey, certainly. It brought with it a level of responsibility and accountability – and a strange kind of internet fame – that I probably wasn’t ready for. More than 12 months on, I’m still learning how to do the job well.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
My high school English teacher Mrs Collinson, at a pretty tough state school outside of Brisbane, gave me a card on graduating with a quote from C.S. Lewis. It said:
To say the thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.
It has always stayed with me, and to this day remains the best advice I’ve ever seen on writing. People write too many words or too few; the most frustrating (and rewarding) thing about writing is to communicate exactly what is in your head, nothing more or less. It’s an impossible goal but striving for it makes your copy better.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I’ve been labelled all sorts of things in various places, and there’s certain perceptions of Crikey out there that are, frustratingly, just not accurate or even fair. That’s part of the job, we have to expect it back if we are going to criticise others, and having a readership this engaged and often very loyal means you’re going to cop it from time to time. If we can keep surprising people – covering stories they don’t expect, having views they wouldn’t have suspected – I think that’s the best antidote.
If you weren’t a writer and editor, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I honestly have no idea. This is the only thing I know how to do; it’s the only thing I ever wanted to be since I knew what careers were. I can’t even imagine doing anything outside of the media sphere. It’s perverse, really.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I don’t think you can teach someone to be a writer from scratch; there’s a love of language and a desire for expression that seems innate to me. But you can certainly teach someone to be a better writer.
I worked in business media for a number of years and quickly learned, in hiring new staff, that it was easier to teach the journalist about a specific industry than to teach an industry person about reporting. There’s a mindset to journalism, a critical analysis, that non-journalists generally don’t possess.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?
Read and write. It may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many students, who seek jobs in journalism particularly, aren’t doing it. You should be reading the sort of material you want to write, voraciously – it’s a considerably better way to learn than any class you’ll take. And write every day, in any form. When everyone has the ability to self publish, there’s really no excuse not to be writing and being read.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
Both. If I’m seeking out a particular book it’s generally easier to download it. I’ve stopped reading newspapers entirely now; I’m on the websites or reading digital versions each morning.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Any Aaron Sorkin character, perhaps C.J. Cregg from The West Wing. We’d have to eat on the run, obviously; striding up and down corridors firing off rhythmic witticisms. It would be exhausting, finding solutions to the world’s problems. But the impossible humanism, the righteous idealism, of his characters is a fantasy I can believe in.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
I could point to films, TV series and theatre that changed my life (at least momentarily). My crime is I read very little fiction. For me, it was discovering the really good broadsheet papers as a kid – the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, the Australian, papers that gave space to deeper reporting and great writing – that convinced me it was what I wanted to do. I’d pore over the (formerly) chunky Saturday editions, cross-legged on my bed, for hours.
Jason Whittaker is editor of Crikey.