Chapter 9. The Push for Membership

IN 1991 ­– 20 years after the founding of the club – membership was still hovering under 200 and it was reasonable to question whether this was sufficient for a viable organisation. Certainly, this number was a very small proportion of the eligible membership in the dynamic media-rich city of Melbourne.

Through the concerted efforts of Neil Mitchell, Mike Smith and others, membership grew over the subsequent decade to 330 but the leadership knew there was more growth to be tapped, more involvement by journalists. Initiatives aimed especially at the recruitment of young journalists included subsidised social functions at city hotels, fun nights, forums and debates. In October 2001, the club organised a journalism conference with a re-enactment of the first Press Club gathering when three editors gazed into a crystal ball to try to predict the future of the industry. The panel on this latter-day occasion comprised Peter Blunden, editor in chief of The Herald & Weekly Times, Michael Gawenda, editor of The Age, and Bob Kearsley, news editor of Channel 9. Two overseas speakers contributed to the discussion that ranged across such issues as How to get a cadetship, What’s right and wrong with journalism schools, Investigative reporting, Cash for comment and Trends in defamation and contempt.

At this time, Neil Mitchell was supported by a very strong committee that underpinned the success of the club at that time and continues to do so.

ABC TV news anchor Ian Henderson – later to become president of the club – and prominent media lawyer Peter Bartlett of law firm Minter Ellison, were vice-presidents, and Bartlett remains in that position today. Rod Wiedermann of The Age was treasurer. Other committee members were Adrian Anderson (Corrs Chambers Westgarth), Gayle Austen (Channel 7), Marco Bass (ABC), Eileen Berry (The Age), Mary Gearin (ABC), Belinda Hawkins (SBS), Bob Kearsley (Nine Network), Keith Moor (Herald Sun), Corrie Perkin (The Age), David Poulton (Minter Ellison), John Rees (RACV), Richard Leder (Corrs Chambers Westgarth), Andrew Rule (The Age), Mike Smith (Weber Shandwick), John Trevorrow (Herald Sun) and Geoff Wilkinson (Herald Sun).

Mary Cotter was secretary and Raffaela Santilli her assistant.

Neil Mitchell noted at that time that in looking to the future the club still had much to achieve to establish itself as the organisation it deserved to be.

This was a prescient observation and it may well have galvanised the committee to redouble its efforts to become a greater force for the advancement of journalism in Melbourne. Mitchell said he believed the club was integral to the status of Melbourne as the centre of journalistic integrity and excellence in Australia.

Over the subsequent decade, Mitchell’s words have been borne out not only by the rising membership of the club but also by its growing credibility and influence in the media landscape.

Watch Neil Mitchell reflect on his time as Melbourne Press Club president and discuss how the club has evolved under successive presidents.

On every performance indicator – the hard numbers like membership and finances and the less tangible measure of credibility – the period 2001-2010 has been a time of outstanding success for the Melbourne Press Club. During this time the club achieved critical mass and put behind it the fear of failure that had stalked its fledgling years.

Midway through the decade, the club could boast that for the first time it enjoyed the support of every major media enterprise in Melbourne, across all platforms. Membership continued to grow, a new major sponsor had been attracted in the form of Monash University, and prime ministers and premiers were joining captains of industry and international figures to address the club’s increasingly popular luncheons.

It is no coincidence that throughout this period the club’s progress continued to benefit from the leadership of high-profile journalists in the role of president. Steve Harris had breathed new life into the club through his presidency in 1995-97 while he was editor in chief of The Herald & Weekly Times. The Age’s Mike Richards took over for 1997-99; Neil Mitchell was president in 1999-2003, followed by Ian Henderson (2003-2006), John Trevorrow (2006-2009) and Michael Venus (2009-).

Each of these men, working at the highest levels of print and electronic media in Melbourne, brought enormous credibility to the Melbourne Press Club in their terms as president. Each of them had also showed strong commitment to the club at committee level, serving in some cases for many years.

In his President’s Report for the year ended December 31 2008, John Trevorrow paid special tribute to ABC TV’s Ian Henderson “who is stepping down after 15 years of great service to the club committee including three years as president. Ian’s wise presence on the club committee has helped drive some of the club’s key developments,” Trevorrow wrote. At that time, the Herald Sun’s Insight editor, Keith Moor, also retired from the committee after nine years of hard work.

Earlier, in his President’s Report for 2006, Trevorrow noted that for the first time in the club’s history “we have all of Victoria’s major news organizations as sponsors. Channel Ten came on board during the year so we now have all three commercial TV networks, both Melbourne daily papers, the top-rating commercial radio station and the biggest community newspaper group as partners. The ABC, which is not allowed to provide sponsorship, continues to give generous in-kind support.”

The year 2007 was a very auspicious one in the club’s strategy of broadening its appeal to its membership and seeking to sign new members. The purpose of introducing a regular Members Only luncheon was to attract working journalists and a very affordable low-key event in the form of informal sessions with industry figures.

The first two such lunches, offered at a modest $18 a head, billed Christian Kerr of Crikey and Bruce Guthrie, at that time editor in chief of the Herald Sun.

In the same year, the Press Club welcomed Monash University as its new major sponsor when Tattersall’s stepped aside after 12 years of great support for the club when it listed on the ASX. In fact, 2007 was a bumper year for the signing of significant new sponsors, with Crown becoming a premium sponsor and RMIT joining Monash as a university sponsor. With both Monash and RMIT on board, the club strengthened its policy of maintaining close relationships with university courses in journalism.

The club made another very significant advance in 2009 when it took over from The Age the administration of the prestigious Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award in a deal negotiated by vice president Peter Bartlett and committee member Mike Smith. As president Michael Venus wrote in his report for that year, “the agreement between the club and The Age will enhance the credibility of the award….as well as opening it up to broadcast and online journalists.”

The Age continues to provide the $20,000 prize.

Allied to that move was the appointment of three of Australia’s most prominent journalists – Les Carlyon, Jana Wendt and Paul Kelly –as judges of the award. In the coming years, winners of the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award will know their work has been honoured at the highest levels of the profession.

For much of the club’s recent history, and certainly since the mid-90s, a major contribution to its affairs has been made by leading members of Melbourne’s media law fraternity, notably Peter Bartlett, Richard Leder, Justin Quill and David Poulton. Steve Harris, whose CV boasts the top editorial posts at The Age and HWT, was instrumental in recognising that media lawyers could add value to the Press Club, not least because of their intimate professional knowledge of challenges and threats to freedom of the press.

Peter Bartlett also credits Harris with using his senior editorial roles to add “colossal credibility” to the club – a credibility that saw prime ministers and premiers eager to use Melbourne Press Club luncheons as a preferred platform for major addresses.

“At one time,” recalls Bartlett, “we had to accommodate John Brumby (then Victorian premier) and Kevin Rudd (then Australian prime minister) in the same week. You couldn’t say ‘no’ to either of them. Ten years ago we would have been on hands and knees to get a prime minister to speak at a Melbourne Press Club luncheon.

“Along with Steve Harris, Neil Mitchell and Ian Henderson also used their credibility and influence to secure top speakers for club events.”

The list of speakers over recent years bears testimony to the club’s “pulling power.”

The Dalai Lama has joined Nelson Mandela as one of the truly great international figures to accept a Melbourne Press Club invitation. Tibet’s spiritual leader addressed the club in May 2002 when it co-hosted a lunch with the United Nations Association of Australia. Mike Smith had a connection with the association as a judge of its Media Peace Awards and readily agreed when his contacts asked for the support of the Press Club to ensure the success of the luncheon.

It was the first time, he recalls, when a Press Club lunch featured long robes, polite questions and no alcohol. The Dalai Lama made a return appearance at a club lunch in 2011 when a friend of Mike approached the club after being engaged to Tibetan leader’s final tour to Australia.

Watch the Dalai Lama reflect on the story of the refugee

Other speakers over recent years are straight from the pages of Who’s Who, among them Ted Baillieu, Steve Bracks, Peter Costello, Julia Gillard, John Howard, Bob Brown and Paul Keating. Speakers from outside the world of politics have included Andrew Demetriou (AFL chief executive), Sir Rod Eddington (chairman of the Melbourne Major Events Company), Phillip Knightly (author), Sir Gustav Nossal (former Australian of the Year), Simon Overland (Victoria Police chief commissioner), Chris Patten (last governor of Hong Kong), Geoffrey Robertson (human rights lawyer) Bob Woodward (Washington Post), Alan Joyce (Qantas CEO), John B. Fairfax, Lindsay Fox and Harold Mitchell.

Peter Bartlett also pays tribute to Mike Smith as “another who deserves recognition for his efforts in building the club to the level it enjoys today. While he now heads his own PR firm he was editor of The Age at a strong point in the paper’s history, and he has put a vast amount of time and energy into strengthening the club in a variety of ways, including attracting quality sponsors.”

Mike Smith had drawn on his experience in business to introduce to the club at the start of the 21st century that rarest of beasts in the journalism community: a business plan.

The disciplines and objectives enshrined in the plan were of no small significance in enabling the club two years later to report that it had entered 2003 in the strongest position in its 32-year history.

Membership had reached a record 500. Sponsorship had also reached record levels, having almost trebled in the previous three years. Importantly, there was a healthy cash balance in the accounts.

The Mandela lunch had proved to be a valuable platform for the healthy membership level, as scores of people joined to take advantage of the huge discount on tickets to listen to one of the world’s most remarkable figures.....and stayed on board.

A major step forward for the club at this time was the expansion of its permanent secretariat; by the end of 2002 the club boasted both a general manager and an assistant general manager, each working four days a week in premises at Minter Ellison as part of the firm’s sponsorship. This arrangement continues to the present day, with Sue Henderson taking over in March 2003 as general manager following the departure to Sydney of Mary Cotter and Kate Edwards later joining as her assistant.

The MPC meets the Dalai Lama. Club president Mark Baker, Assistant Manager Kate Edwards, the Dalai Lama, General Manager Sue Henderson and committee member Mike Smith.
The MPC meets the Dalai Lama. Club president Mark Baker, Assistant Manager Kate Edwards, the Dalai Lama, General Manager Sue Henderson and committee member Mike Smith.

On the financial front, turnover had reached $370,000; general sponsorship income was $170,000 with a further $35,000 sponsorship for the Quills and $35,000 for a journalism conference.

Many things happened in 2002, not least a rare if not unprecedented burst of controversy at the AGM. Like so many organisations of its kind, the annual general meetings of the Melbourne Press Club are usually sedate and timid affairs, attended only by committee members already familiar with details in the annual report and financial statements. Hardly ever – indeed, if ever – has there been an excess of candidates over committee positions. Never has there been a contested election for president.

That comfortable history exploded into controversy in 2002 when gadfly journalist and shareholder activist Stephen Mayne stood for election to the committee with running mate Hamish Fitzsimmons. Mayne had campaigned against Adrian Anderson (then a Corrs media lawyer who had acted for a number of litigants against media companies) and Mike Smith (for being a PR man). He had also taken pot shots at president Neil Mitchell and Herald Sun journalists John Trevorrow and Keith Moor.

Mayne’s campaign sparked a modest proxy war. There were some vigorous exchanges as he and committee members swapped views. Mayne was walloped in the ballot, adding the Press Club to his long list of election defeats at corporate AGMs. Never two to bear a grudge, both he and the Press Club remain on the best of terms.

Shrugging off the minor Mayne event, the club worked hard in 2002 to lay the groundwork for the next stage of its development. It undertook wide-ranging research on a variety of issues including a survey of committee members, analysis of attendance and functions, membership analysis by profession, a small survey of non-member journalists and discussions with students.

The committee member survey identified the club’s major strengths as being its big events, including the Quills and the 2001 conference and the prestige they brought......”our strong reputation and leadership, our networking/fraternity base and the opportunities we provided for education and professional development. Other strengths mentioned included strong sponsorship, financial security and sound administration.”

Major weaknesses were seen as the lack of working journalists, especially young journalists, among the membership (of its 511 members at the end of 2002, journalists comprised 45 per cent, other communications professionals, including PR people, made up 18 per cent, students 11 per cent and lawyers 8 per cent), the absence of a “home” or base, perceptions of elitism and dominance by legal and PR people and the “patchy, unpredictable input from committee members.”

Some of these issues continue to nag the club today, not least the relative lack of growth in membership from 511 in 2002 to about 550 almost 10 years later. This is in spite of an extremely modest membership fee of $66 per annum.

Says president Michael Venus: “For $66 a year we give journalists and people in related professions the opportunity to engage with each other, come to our functions and’s all about fraternity. Once we get people there for the first time we’ve got them. Membership of the Press Club should be a ‘must’ for any journalist who is serious about participating in the vibrant media scene that is Melbourne. On another level, the club is a very healthy environment where journalism can continue to prosper.”

Mindful of its responsibilities in this regard, the club has widened its awards activity to include arts journalism and student journalism. In 2008 it introduced an annual MPC Trawalla Arts Scholarship for outstanding arts journalism. The award was set up in partnership with the Trawalla Foundation headed by well-known businesswoman and philanthropist Carol Schwarz, a member of the Besen family.

The scholarship carried a cash prize of $7500 to enable the winner to attend an overseas arts event, museum or exhibition. The inaugural winner was Gabriella Coslovich of The Age. Subsequent winners were the ABC’s Quentin McDermott and Katrina Strickland and Pamela Williams of the Australian Financial Review.

The club also runs the MPC/Siemens Award for Student Journalism.

Nick McKenzie of The Age is a fine example of a young journalist whose Press Club membership has proved to be professionally rewarding. With colleague Richard Baker, McKenzie was joint Gold Quill winner in 2008 for their reports on controversial Alfred Hospital surgeon Thomas Kossman. While at the ABC he was named Young Journalist of the Year in 2004, and he is the recipient of several other Quill awards including the highly regarded Grant Hattam award for investigative journalism.

“One thing missing in our profession – a profession dogged by jealousy and back-biting – is solidarity,” says Nick. “The Press Club provides an environment where journalists can come together for the common cause of promoting good journalism in Melbourne.

“It is an organisation, unlike any other in Australia, that provides peer support, and also peer recognition through the Quills. Sometimes the Quills have been fairly accused of giving out too many awards, but the good thing about a Quills night is that the Melbourne media comes together.....just once a year....and recognises that what we do day-to-day is important.”

This is an excerpt from Informed Sources, written in 1991 by former Club president and legendary columnist Keith Dunstan
The online version has been updated by Rick Swinard, a former corporate affairs manager of the Herald & Weekly Times, chief of staff of The Herald in Melbourne and Managing Editor of the Christchurch Star.


Chapter 1: The search for a well
Chapter 2: Lunch at $5 a head
Chapter 3. A remarkable editor
Chapter 4. A Woman President
Chapter 5. The club in crisis
Chapter 6. Lazarus rises
Chapter 7. A shovel for a Premier
Chapter 8. The power of Mandela
Chapter 10. A media circus

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