Book review: Storytellers, Leigh Sales

Over 30 Australian journalists offer a behind-the-scenes look at how the news is made.

Early on in her introduction, Leigh Sales makes it clear that she considers journalism a trade and one ‘an apprentice learns either directly, through the instruction of experienced craftspeople, or indirectly through observation and imitation’.

Sales is a veteran journalist herself of several decades standing, and best known for fronting the ABC’s current affairs program 7.30. Hence Storytellers consists of over 30 interviews she has conducted with various media professionals. There are many well-known names corralled into the making of this book, among them Laurie Oakes, Stan Grant, Tracy Grimshaw, Waleed Aly, Annabel Crabb and Indira Naidoo.

It’s divided into 10 sections, ranging from News Reporting and Foreign Correspondence, to Live Broadcasting and TV Anchoring. Its remit is to explore the craft of journalism – its practicalities, such as interviewing techniques, structuring video stories and compiling many hundreds of words research into a feature story. As Sales explains, ‘What it offers is many subjective opinions on becoming a great storyteller.’

The book is structured simply in a Q&A format, with the interviewees responding to a series of queries from Sales about their respective media jobs. So, for instance, Seven Network’s Chris Reason is asked about what constitutes good writing for television news, Kate McClymont, at The Sydney Morning Herald, is queried on whether an investigative reporter needs different personality traits and skills to a general news reporter, Richard Fidler from the ABC’s Conversations is interrogated about techniques to build rapport with his interviewees and Kumi Taguchi from SBS’s Insight explains how she manages to read naturally from an autocue.

For newbie newshounds, political pundits and indeed for anyone who wants to know the intricacies of what happens behind-the-scenes of information gathering and dispersal, Sales’ collection of voices is fascinating and illuminating.

Readers are taken back to some of the more (in)famous and contentious moments in history, like the Thredbo landslide, the Beaconsfield mine disaster, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and Brittany Higgins’ sexual assault allegations. Indeed, as Reason points out, ‘There’s no job that gives you the passport to get to the sorts of places, incidents, moments in our community and our history that journalism provides.’

However, there are some pointed omissions that detract from the overall quality of the book.

Disappointingly, under the ‘Features and Books’ section, the only three names interviewed are Trent Dalton, Pamela Williams and Benjamin Law. While the trio intersect with books and all have published several titles, none are actually literary journalists. In fact, there are no specialised arts journalists at all in the mix, which is a missed opportunity, and perhaps further evidence that the arts is often underrepresented and sidelined in favour of “hard” news reportage when it comes to any discussion about journalism. Such an omission simply perpetuates the belief that quality arts coverage is not valued in Australia, which may explain the recent attrition and redundancies in the sector.

This is particularly reprehensible given that the title, Storytellers, lends itself to talk, not only of novels but all the narratives innate in live performance, for instance.

There are also, strangely enough, no dedicated sports journalists given airplay either. Granted that sports across all codes is a religion followed by the mass majority of the population here it feels like an odd oversight.

Read: How can we cover the arts without arts journalists?

Though it’s a pity that Sales did not extend her reach to cover arts and sports reporting in any detail – both disciplines that require their own particular skill set and challenges that are as tricky as any faced by a political writer – Storytellers is worth a read for the weighty professional wisdom it contains canvassing Australian journalism across television, radio, print and online.  

Storytellers: Questions, Answers and the Craft of Journalism, Leigh Sales
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781761106965
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320pp
Release Date: 30 August 2023
RRP: $36.99

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy