'Always answer a newsroom phone'

By Michelle Coffey, inaugural winner of the MPC’s Young Journalist of The Year award

As a wide-eyed, 17-year-old copykid on Melbourne’s Herald newspaper the most salient advice I ever received was from my gruff chief of staff about a week after I started:

“Coffey, if you wanna succeed at this gig, just remember two things: One: don’t get the coffee orders of the newsdesk and subs wrong. Two: never, ever let a newsroom phone ring out.”

So, on a dawn shift for the PM edition of the Herald Sun four years later, as a phone rang unanswered for the ninth time, I raced over to pick it up before it cut out, even though it wasn’t mine.

On the other end was a woman, Lisa Gent – a Melbourne mother, whose twins, Peter and Nicole Gent, were living in Waco, Texas with ‘a mad preacher’. Nicole, who had two young children to Koresh, had shut down all her bank accounts and called her mother to say goodbye because the ‘apocalypse was coming’.

Lisa was distraught. She was adamant her children and grandchildren were going to end their lives in a week’s time, along with dozens of other followers of this mad preacher, David Koresh. She had called US authorities and Victoria Police imploring them for help, to no avail. As a last resort, she called the newsroom, hoping that media attention might thwart Koresh’s plans.

The piece I wrote did make the front page. It quoted David Koresh, who droned on and on about the Seven Seals, and how he was the son of God. And, while I’m pretty sure it was coincidental, the April deadline of the doomsday event came and went without incident.

But a year to the day later, I got a phone call late at night from the newsdesk, asking me for all the contacts I had for anyone related to the Australian-born members of the Branch Davidians. The Waco compound was engulfed by flames with 61 adults – including eight Australians – and 21 children inside. It had been stormed by agents from the Bureaus of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). All bar nine perished, including Koresh.

A few months later, I was at a table with some colleagues at a Melbourne Press Club event. The series of stories I wrote after the Waco siege had been shortlisted for the Club’s inaugural Young Journalist of the Year Award.

The prize was almost as good as that elusive premiership cup. Concerned the Club was not appealing to anyone under 40, it dug deep into its scant resources and awarded $2000, a trophy worth $500 (donated by veteran journalist, raconteur, and PR maestro Noel Tennison), business class airfares to New York, attendance at the prestigious Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) national conference; a month’s work experience at Newsday in New York and billeted accommodation.

When Club president Jim Clarke announced the winner, all I remember is bursting into tears, overcome with absolute shock.

As a lifelong Collingwood supporter, I knew plenty about coming runner-up. Winning was an entirely unfamiliar feeling. Then 1990 happened. The premiership drought was broken. And in mid-1993, I had the honour of being named the first winner of the prestigious Young Journalist of the Year Award.

Thirty years on, the Club continues to encourage and inspire future generations of journalists through its ongoing commitment to young talent.

The Award serves as a testament to the importance of quality journalism and the crucial role that young journalists play in shaping the discourse of our times.

In today’s rapidly changing media landscape, they offer fresh perspectives and innovative approaches.

So while they may not pick up a random ringing newsroom phone any longer, cultivating a new generation of reporters committed to accuracy, diversity of thought, transparency and the truth helps promote a more informed citizenry.

Pictured: the first and most recent Young Journalists of the Year; Michelle Coffey and Sarah Booth

The Young Journalist Award has had a stellar recipients' list over the past three decades, and has reliably identified some of our best journalistic talents. The 2022 recipient was Sarah Booth, of the Herald Sun. The award is sponsored by the Wilnic Family Trust.

You can find Michelle Coffey these days at The Truth Agency.

Visit the MPC Young Journalist of the Year homepage

Apply to join the Melbourne Press Club

Membership is $100 for journalists, $150 for associate members and $40 for students.

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