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Currently the music and feature editor at The West Australian newspaper, Simon Collins has interviewed Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Ray Charles. Nowadays, he can often be found at concerts. but back in the ‘90s, Simon’s first big journalistic gig was becoming the editor at Grok Magazine.
Grok spoke to Simon about his time with the publication, the big stories around Curtin campus at the time, and his first band interviews—including TISM and Custard!
By Daryna Zadvirna
How did you come about Grok?
I studied at UWA, I did a Bachelor of Arts from ‘92 to ‘95 and then I did a graduate diploma in journalism from the University of Southern Queensland—and that was why I was working at Grok. I had a mate who was at Curtin, he was the Curtin Guild president at the time, Justin Cole, and he sort of said, “well, we need more people writing for Grok,” so I started off just working as one of the Grok staff writers.
So, I suppose even though you didn't study at Curtin you would've spent a lot of time on the campus?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm not sure what it's like now, but back then the Grok Editor was also the publications coordinator. So, when I became the Grok Editor I put together the student diary that the Guild also put together. Plus, I did various other publications for the Guild, but doing, like, the eight editions of Grok was the main sort of focus. So yeah, I spent lots of time on campus. It was pretty much as a full-time job really. We had had an office, quite a decent size, where our writers could come and use the computers and we’d listen to music—we had compact discs back then. So, there would be people reviewing those, writers picking up movie tickets to review films, competition winners would pop in there. But then when it came to actually putting together the paper, we'd go into the print shop—they had a heap of computers in there that we would work on. I think we actually eventually spent more and more time in there because the computers were faster use. And so, you'd be there all hours of the week and the weekend, it was probably a 60-hour week to get it all done. But that was fun! Often there'd be some pretty interesting stories written at the last minute—the people that I'm still in touch with now, we still laugh about those. One of them, and I don't know if it would be fit for publication now, but it was “69 Reasons to Smoke Crack” [laughs].
Wow, yeah perhaps we probably wouldn't run that one today! [laughs]
Were there any other interesting topics and issues that you covered back then?
Uh, well there was drug use and abuse and the crime and punishment issues around that, issues of censorship. Trainspotting was a big topic at that time, like, the people called for that movie to be banned because apparently it glorified heroin use, but what's so glorifying about that? Someone diving into Scotland's worst toilet? But there were also stories about the Vice Chancellor and all the administration looking at building a hotel for international guests’ campus. So, we ran a cover story about “Hotel Curtin” or “Rancho-relaxo”—can’t remember what we called it.
So, we kind of did on-campus, big issue stories. The first half of Grok was more sort of serious stories, either education, on campus news, feature stories about social issues or political issues or you know, things that mattered to our readership. And then the back half would be your pop culture, particularly interviews with bands, movie reviews, book reviews, concert reviews, and then we'd have ‘pop cycle’—which I actually just revived in The West Australian. So, for the pop cycle we'd talk about any kind of pop cultural things—for an example, we did an article on our favourite music videos.
What are your memories of the Guild and what they were doing at the time? Did you liaise with them much when you were an editor?
So because Grok was a Guild publication, obviously. And that meant they often, depending on the Guild president, expected to exert a certain amount of influence over it, as any publisher does. So there'd always be a space that the Guild President would address, so there'd maybe be a bit of a Guild news page. I mean it was part of our job, our service was to report on what was happening in the Guild. But we'd never just gloss over anything, so that was interesting at times.
But actually, at the time, I remember the Guild was just really pushing against some of the stuff the University was doing to turn an educational institution into a big business. I mean education is a big business in WA, but it shouldn't just put making money first. And we—and the Guild—felt at times Curtin was doing that, like the Rancho-relaxo. So, there were some protests about that.
Including yourself, there has been a string of really successful Grok editors including Diana Ward, who's now a documentary music video producer, Melissa Davey, who went on to work at the MEAA, and Adam Connor's, who is the Network Producer for regional and local ABC News in Brisbane. Do you think Grok has had a part in their/your success?
Yeah absolutely. I think we learned a lot from the other journos and the other Grok writers. It definitely laid the foundations for me in terms of covering a wide range of things. You know, you'd be writing a story about a political issue one day, and the next you'd be interviewing TISM, or Custard, or some other nineties band. And then you'd be reviewing a book, a movie or a concert—you covered a wide range of things. There was obviously a lot of writing and so you really honed your writing skills, but also on the editing side of things, you had to proof read and edit and make sure everything was all good. Yeah you just did every aspect of the newspaper, I guess.
We were proud of what we did, we were doing proper journalism—I mean I know some of it was not amazing, but we all got better with time.
Do you have any advice for the current Grokians who are aspiring to be journalists and writers?
Well I used to go talk to journalism students and say come write for Grok. We published as many as 45,000 copies and it was pretty much as wide as Express Mag at the time—and, you know, the whole point of journalism is getting your work published! I guess writing for publication pushes you to a certain standard because you know people are going to read it. So, I feel like Grok is a great start or starting point if you want to be a journalist because once you’ve done all that, you’re well on your way. Obviously, journalism is a tough game—especially at the moment—so really, you just gotta want it!