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Stephen Cannings edited Grok for a year and a half when he was at Curtin in the early 1990s. He has since worked in content design and development for various brands and agencies in Sydney, which has given him various skills in video storytelling, writing, editing, and producing content for government and broadcast media.
I sat down and chatted with him more about Perth in the ‘90s, being a passionate Grok editor, and how his creative youthful exuberance then is still influencing his life and career today.
What were you majoring in while you were at Curtin?
Communications, with a major in Film and TV.
What’s your strongest memory of your time at uni?
Creative fun to be honest, and a chance to meet like-minded people, take risks and learn new skills.
What were you like as a young man, and what were you getting up to then?
I don’t think I was spending too much time planning for the future. I lived more in the moment and enjoyed trying new things. After a stifling schooling experience, I found Curtin to be a creative outlet. I tried acting, writing, film and journalism, and found my coursework stimulating—mostly.
Do you remember what you wrote about in Grok?
Barely [laughs]. [They were] student issues, or things I thought students would be interested in.
The most controversial issue we produced was about harm minimisation and drugs—the so-called drugs issue. Today, this topic is still important. Even more so as young people are dying at festivals.
At the time when we published [that story], a current affairs TV show came out to interview me. The TV reporter began with something like, “This student newspaper tells students what drugs are available and how to take them, but stops short of telling you where to buy them.” Even though it was a bit of beat up, the messages from Professor Saunders, who was our expert, shone through: know the risks.
There are still some authorities that think no information is best. Just in the news this week I read of one victim who took nine pills at a festival. In my day, the rule of thumb was take a half and see it if agrees with you.
An article by Stephen Cannings on Artrage, the not-for-profit that produced Perth’s Fringe Festival. Grok 1993, Issue 10.
What was your proudest moment working for Grok, and what was your worst?
I made it a priority to encourage students to get involved, just as I was encouraged when I first rang up to do a film review. We wanted new voices and new ideas. The door was always open.
I’m proud that we built the paper up and raised its profile. It was the biggest student paper in the country in terms of print run and advertising revenue. We started to see it on locations around town, and some issues disappeared quickly.
The worst, well; a few editorial judgements went astray that upset some people. It was about the approach rather than the issue at hand. Our thinking was better to be sensational than safe.
Grok’s been around for 50 years now, and has covered a lot of significant historical events and moments in Australian politics and culture. What were the moments you were capturing in the early ‘90s?
Perth was really vibrant in the ‘90s. The arts and music culture was in full swing. The city seemed to be having its own renaissance.
Student life was also changing. Universities were transitioning from a free-education period—yes, where students studied for free—to a fee-paying and international student fees business model.
The government of the day were pushing for Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU). It was a threat to student services—including Grok. We felt it was a critical period in student life.
Do you have any memories of the Student Guild at uni? And do you think it played and continues to play a necessary role in student life?
In the ‘90s the push for [VSU] was a way for conservative politics to stifle young and future leaders from getting experience, or realising their power as a collective. Cutting this small student fee also challenged the role of student bodies to work on behalf of students.
The Curtin Student Guild helped organise rallies at Parliament House. It was there you could see the state’s machinery of power rise up; you wanted to preserve student services, but were met with lines of cops. It was ideological back then, and the Liberals still do it today—now it’s called the “culture wars”.
Where have you been working since Grok? Do you think editing a student newspaper has helped form your current career in any way?
Working on a student newspaper is like being a seedling in a hothouse—you grow quickly when nourished well.
But we also had to build the plane while flying it. As Editor of Grok I worked with some great people and many [of them] are still my friends today. We picked up a lot of skills and had to work hard to meet deadlines—sometimes all night.
Doing it gave me the confidence to work in the media here and overseas and I became fascinated by this dynamic industry. I’ve had the opportunity to work for a lot of large media organisations, and seen how the sausage is made.
At that time, the internet was still becoming a thing, so digital [journalism] became important to me and my future work. Though we were ostensibly a print product at the time—doing manual layouts of printed paper and using photos developed in the dark room.
Do you think the future for students in Australia looks bright, and why or why not?
There is a slow squeeze on education funding. If you have high fees, some students may think twice about following their heartfelt passions. That could be a loss. Ultimately, each generation of students faces their own challenges.
But I think the most important thing for students to know is that they co-inherit the future. They should question the status quo now if they don’t support it. They should sow their own seeds of change, in themselves and for their community. No-one else will do it for them.
In finishing, how would you summarise Grok?
Grok is a mirror, a telegraph, a gazette, a journal, and a guardian. Basically, it’s media, and media shouldn’t just be a tool for the Murdoch’s—and their ilk.