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Tim Wallace has been everywhere: he’s worked at The Canberra Times, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Australian Financial Review. He’s dabbled in magazines like The Diplomat and Cosmos, and written articles that span politics, science, the environment, religion, and more.

Where did he learn all these editing and writing skills? What was the spark that gave him the equipment to embark on an elastic, far-reaching career (or “careen”) in journalism? It all began while he working for Grok and at the Curtin Student Guild.

When were you at Curtin and what were you studying?

I started in 1991. I came for the journalism program. That meant I was in the School of Communication and Cultural Studies and graduated with a BA—English. Journalism and Politics were my majors.

How did you get involved with Grok, and do you remember what issues you were writing about?

I got involved in the student newspaper in the latter half of my first year. I decided I couldn’t just focus on being a good student. I started doing a fair bit of production work, which wasn’t something a lot people volunteered to do. So, I got to know the Grok crew and they got to know me. At the end of that year none of the seasoned hands were staying on or wanted the job of Editor, so I put my hand up. Knowing how to put the paper together helped, and so did the selection process.

At other West Australian student papers, the Editor was the Guild Executive’s choice. At many Eastern states’ papers, the editorial team was elected. That tended to politicise the paper. A great thing about Grok is that it transcended Guild politics. The Grok editor was appointed by a selection panel that included a member of the journalism faculty. I then got to fill the other four roles from the other applicants. It meant we got a team based on competence rather than political leanings. It was a major factor in the paper being high-quality. That, and the huge commitment of time [people made]. I am still confident that the year I was Editor I spent more time on campus than any other person. I saw the sunrise from the steps outside the Grok office many times.

[Laughs] I wonder if you spent that much time at the Student Guild … How were you involved in the Guild, and what’s your strongest memory of student politics back then?

Grok was my first love. Interest in the Guild came as a result. During my year as Editor I got to know people around the Guild, including the President Peter Ellis and Treasurer Simon Johnson, who, I must confess, I was deeply suspicious of at first because I misjudged him to be a Labor Party hack. But I came to admire his intelligence and integrity, and the way he dealt with our disagreements over shortcomings he perceived in how we reported on Guild affairs.

When Johnson was putting together his bid for President at the 1993 Guild elections he asked me to run on his team for the position of Media Director. That was the executive position with responsibility for Grok and the various elements of “Guild media”. Being aware of the hash some of the previous holders of that position had made—wasting money on pet projects—I agreed.

As Media Director, I looked after Grok and had oversight of other publications, along with Guild Radio—which was at the time that the Guild bought on 6NR [Radio], and Guild Films.

As a result of also being on the Guild executive, I ended up playing a large role in the Guild’s preparation for the loss of student fee revenue, due to voluntary student unionism laws. It was a difficult process, with a lot of hard decisions about what aspects of the Guild’s expenditure should be cut back, and where money could be best invested to ensure the Guild could continue to remain independent of the university administration and fulfil its statutory mission. The Guild copy and design centre was one of the fruits of our restructuring efforts.

I guess my strongest memory of student politics then is the intense arguments over how we should best respond to the prospect of voluntary student unionism. There was some bitter disagreement both within the Guild and without. Some student politicians at other WA guilds were quite contemptuous of the approach we took at Curtin. At Murdoch, for example, Adam Bandt was still in his Marxist revolutionary phase, and didn’t hold back on his ideological critique. By and large, though, I still think we did the right thing for the Guild and our successors.

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Cover of Grok 1993, Issue 10.

What made you want to improve student life on campus, and do you think you achieved this in any way?

As Editor of Grok I was very passionate about covering events surrounding higher education, the University administration, the Guild and student life on campus at Curtin. Grok also did a great job covering the Perth music and arts scene—a legacy of my predecessor Serene Conneeley—but my focus was on it being a newspaper doing serious independent reportage that informed students about what was happening in their own community.

I think that approach served the Guild well even though, quite often, one student politician or another didn’t like it. For one thing, it helped keep the Guild accountable, when without scrutiny it could have been more of a political plaything for ideologues. For another, it meant students were better informed, and an informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy—to quote Thomas Jefferson. The Guild is better when it is more democratically representative of its membership, and for that to happen its members need to feel they have a reason to vote for who runs it.

What one achieves in student life is always ephemeral. New people come in each year with different ideas. Things change. Sometimes they change things to a similar way things were done a few years before, until someone else decided that way was wrong and things needed be done another way. In that context, I think, the best thing you can hope to achieve is to act with honesty and integrity, so you don’t look back at what you did with shame or too much regret, and so other people don’t remember you as an incompetent dickhead.

Change is always constant, it’s true. What was life like in the early ‘90s and how has it changed since?

Study-wise I’m reasonably confident we spent a lot more money on photocopying. Studying was a different story before the internet. You had to go to the library and find actual books and journal articles. In other ways, I think, it was easier. I get the sense that campus life is now much more fragmented, and also more work-oriented.

But a university education is more than course work. The best lessons I learnt at Curtin came from being involved in Grok and the Guild.

Grok was reportedly pretty controversial back in the day; apparently it was banned on ECU’s campus twice, first in 1994 for publishing a photograph of a woman’s breasts—in an article on breast cancer)—and again in 1995 when it covered their Guild’s General Manager’s resignation. Do you have any memories of these instances?

I recall the “Page Three Girl” saga pretty well, because I wrote an article about the Guild restructuring that got published on the same page. I can even recall the headline that accompanied the photograph: “Why is Penelope pouting?” I think the Editors’ rationale was to arouse men’s interest in the issue of breast cancer. I guess it was one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” moments. I’m still good friends with several of the Groksters from that year and occasionally we have laughed about the extreme response it evoked from the ECU Guild.

The back story is that from my year as Media Director and through the Guild restructuring process, we really invested in trying to reduce Grok’s operating deficit by increasing its advertising revenue. When I inherited the paper as Editor, if I recall correctly, it had a budget in the vicinity of $100,000 and a distribution of about 7,000 magazines.

I, and others, were deeply concerned about Grok being gutted when VSU kicked in, so we decided to try to lift its advertising revenue. To do that we employed an advertising manager who had previously worked at X-Press Magazine. He convinced us we needed a bigger circulation, that we needed to give Grok a profile alongside X-Press—essentially making Grok Perth’s second biggest street press.

So, we lifted the print run to about 15,000 and started distributing Grok on other campuses. Some people in those guilds didn’t like that. Maybe because they didn’t like the fact Grok was better than their publication. Or maybe they liked controlling the information students on their campuses got, and Grok was editorially independent. Probably both, with big egos thrown into the mix. I think there was a faction within the ECU Guild itching for an excuse to ban Grok. Just banning it would have looked more ridiculously Stalinistic.

Sounds like Grok was years ahead of other student papers. You seemed particularly interested in the technical side of things with Grok; how advanced was the technology to produce the paper back then?

The technical aspects of production consumed a huge amount of time. Reproducing photos, for instance, was hugely labour-intensive. It was dark-room work. Even supplied photos had to go through a process. The pride of the media office, apart from our two beloved Mac Ilxc machines, was an AGFA Repromaster, used to create half-tone images that could be printed. It cost a previous Guild administration a motzer, I believe.

There weren’t any real changes in the technology in my years, apart from us eventually getting an A3 printer to replace the A4 one we used. But I do remember Adam Connors raving about this thing called the web and his plan to put Grok on it. I think that might have been in 1994. I remember thinking it seemed like a lot of work to do something that only computer science students and hard-core tech geeks would see.

It seems like publishing was a lot more time consuming than it is now. Do you think editors of student magazines now could learn a thing or two from the way former editors such as yourself were doing things?

Technology-wise, no. Editorially, perhaps. I still think the prime function of a campus publication is to serve the student body, not who runs the Guild in any particular year. Which is to say I believe in the journalistic mission, and I dislike propaganda and PR-puffery.

We were lucky to have a situation where the Guild powers that were appreciated that the quality of Grok was connected to its editorial independence and the commitment that came from those who worked on it. With that latitude, of course, you need to show some discipline and to know you have duty of care. That’s true of all journalism. With freedom comes responsibility. You may make mistakes, of course. I know I did. But so long as you own up to your mistakes, and learn from them, you’ll be a better person for it.

You’re still working in journalism and editing now. What are you up to at the moment in your career?

I’m not sure I would describe my working life in journalism as a career. It has been a career more in the other sense of the word—a careen.

I now work as an editor for The Conversation. My job is working with academic authors to translate their expertise into articles written in journalese, so their knowledge is accessible to a broad audience. It’s a novel model for public-interest journalism pioneered in Australia. It’s the most ethically uncompromising and intellectually engaging gig I’ve had in a long while. Only my Grok experience really trumps it.

That’s a high compliment! What did working at Grok teach you about work and life?

First, don’t judge people, or choose your friends, based on politics. Character trumps ideology. You can, and should, have friends with different opinions. If you can’t abide the fact that not everyone thinks the same way as you do then you’re going to have a very frustrating time of it. Learning this lesson relatively early on resulted in some long and valued friendships. It’s also a lesson that now saves me from wasting time having arguments with people I don’t know on social media.

Second, I remain extremely grateful for the experiences that Grok and the Guild gave me. You’re unlikely to get opportunities like these that give you such freedom to take risks once you get a job.