Written by Luisa Mitchell
Melissa Davey is the current Melbourne Bureau Chief of the Guardian, a digital news publication known for its independence, diversity of articles and opinions, and international news reporting. But Davey began her journalism career here, at Curtin University, and writing for our very own student-run publication, Grok Magazine.
In our effort to celebrate 50 years of Grok, we spoke to Davey about her time as the magazine’s editor in 2007, and her experience as an overall Grok contributor and Curtin student from 2003-2007, where she completed a double degree in Politics and Journalism.
What drew you to study Politics and Journalism?
I didn’t really know what I was doing. I started off doing Film and Television, and Performing Arts, and then I realised that I loved watching film and theatre, but I didn’t want to necessarily be in it, or on camera, or on stage. It was the stupidest degree for me to do, given that I have such stage fright. I then just switched into Politics and Journalism, and enjoyed it, but had crises all throughout it thinking I would never get a job; but that’s how I kind of came to it.
And look at you now, you’re at the Guardian!
Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey since then… I knew I loved to read, and read the news, and when I switched it, it just seemed like the most logical thing to do.
What’s your strongest memory that immediately comes to mind about Curtin University?
Probably working at Grok, that kind of got me through [laughs]. It was a good team and it was quite creative, and really pushed the boundaries at the time. Like we got away with a lot of shit at Grok; like just publishing stuff that I don’t even know how—did we even have lawyers? We would just publish anything and everything. It kind of exposed me to other writers, other ideas and I knew before I even began at Curtin that I wanted to edit Grok one day. That’s probably my strongest memory.
How big was Grok back then?
We had three staffers: there was an editor and two staff writers who were paid and on staff. And then just like a massive team of contributors, and we used to have these meetings with all the contributors and all the editors. I think we published like 8 times a year, and then at one point it dropped to six, maybe? [Grok’s] gone through so many changes since then, and I’m struggling to remember, but it was quite a big team of contributors. And we ran very independently of the Guild—the Guild had no say. I don’t think we even interacted with Guild staff or uni admin, or anyone. We were just completely our own independent entity and we did what we wanted. When I was editor I never had to consult with anyone, we just published what we wanted.
How do you think your degree has helped you achieve what you have in your position now, as the Melbourne Bureau Chief for the Guardian?
I actually wasn’t a very good student. I had to work a lot to make ends meet. I worked like four or five jobs throughout university, and Grok was one of them. I was a paid staffer before I became a paid editor. But I also worked at Coles, and at a bookstore, and I freelanced with various publications, and I worked in the meat department of a deli, and I worked at a liqueur store—I did all kinds of stuff. I had to pay for everything myself.
I just remember uni as being a time of having to work a lot; and having to run from work, to uni, to work, and I was always driven by a fear that I wouldn’t get a job. So, I was actually doing a lot of jobs in journalism, outside of uni. Everything I did outside of uni, and even Grok, helped me more in my career than the actual degree, or the grades I got, or what I studied, to be honest.
So, do you encourage students to join magazines like Grok and do extracurricular work?
Definitely. It exposed me to different ideas, to different opportunities, and different ways of thinking. Like I made so many mistakes editing Grok—like so many mistakes. In terms of editing, and even stories that I thought should run, and which pictures were good, and my own work... my own writing was appalling back then. Without the opportunity to make those mistakes in a relatively low risk, safe space, I don’t think I would’ve been as confident or as skilled when I left university.
You said in our correspondence that you “cringe” at the thought of what you wrote in Grok back in the day. Do you remember what stories you were covering then?
Anything and everything. I remember this story where I went to the supermarket and just bought a bunch of random ingredients and assigned two groups of writers to make something in a ready, steady cook kind of thing, and then we had to rate their food. I remember going to see bands, film previews; everything from writing political articles, to ridiculous things like, “let’s all taking a bunch of drugs and see what happens and draw stuff,” and then run the drawings [in the print].
There was an article on which on-campus cafeterias were the easiest to steal from [laughs]; that would be legally problematic now and we could get sued. I think it was because it was before the age of online… I think that was before my time but I heard about a story like that. So that was the range of stories we were commissioning and writing: everything from theatre and film reviews, to interview with bands, to the best places on campus to get away with X, Y and Z.
And any memories of the Student Guild?
No, we were so separate from them. They all had offices in cubicles and we had this rogue side office, and we had stacks of CDs and stacks of film passes, and I had a key to the office and I’d go in there. Going through the mail was amazing, ‘cause it would be full of tickets and things to review, and I’d send an email out to all the contributors saying, “here are all the goodies we have, come and collect them”. I don’t remember ever having to bypass any Guild staffer, we had our own little area.
How do you go from Grok to the Guardian anyway?
I just did any work experience I could outside of uni. I did stuff that didn’t contribute to my degree at all. I got an internship in Sydney. Long story short, before I had even got my results from my degree, I was on a plane to Sydney to work with a journalism union, called the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), and I hated that job—but I used living in Sydney and the exposure to journalists there to get jobs in the media. Then I moved to News Limited Community News, then to the Sydney Moring Herald, then to the Guardian, and then went from a journalist at the Guardian to Melbourne Bureau Chief of the Guardian. There was a lot of moving around for the opportunities along the way.
Do you cover a lot of student or youth issues now, and what do you think is the biggest challenge students and the youth of today are facing?
Affordability and cost of living is always going to be a huge challenge. In terms of journalism, I’m increasingly worried that journalism is becoming the domain of people with rich partners or rich parents, because the pay is so crap. I think ensuring we get young people out of uni into a diversity of roles and jobs is really important. In a field like journalism, how can you expect people to live off such a low income or move cities unless they’ve got financial support from either a partner or a parent? A lot of journalists, the income they get isn’t enough to live in a major city anymore. I think that’s probably true of a lot of professions.
I guess with the Guardian I cover mainly family violence and child sexual abuse, and big court cases, a bit of Victorian politics and any major issues that are nationally engaging. But sometimes it’s issues like homelessness and family violence that do affect young people as well.
Did you have anything else you wanted to say to Grok?
Thank you for letting me make mistakes and run amok—I hope I didn’t leave too many broken writers in my wake!