They say timing is everything . . .and so it’s been for Anthony Piovesan.
A final year student of Parade’s Class of 2013, Anthony landed a job at the Whittlesea Leader late last year– just as tumultuous events began to unravel up the road at the City of Whittlesea.
Anthony’s dedication to duty was such that his series of articles relating to the toxic council culture earned him a Quill Award for Suburban Journalism, at the recently-held Quills for journalistic excellence in Victoria.
Anthony follows a long line of newspaper journalists ex-Parade – the likes of George Beeden, Jim Main, Rod Nicholson, Peter Wilson, Mick Reid, Brian Walsh, Damian Wilson and this correspondent.
Recently, Anthony caught up for a coffee within walking distance of his old College in Bundoora, and reflected on his own very personal journalistic journey (so far) in the following Q and A.
Anthony, where and when did your interest in writing first emerge?
It came from my love of reading books , coupled with the fact that I had a bit of a flair for writing as a kid. I was always reading into the wee hours late at night, whether fiction or non-fiction, I was always reading something. So I knew I wasn’t going to become a scientist that’s for sure. I knew I wanted to do something with words.
It wasn’t really until secondary school that I developed that sense of career and thought about what I wanted to do next. That’s when I tinkered with the idea of journalism, went to a couple of Open Days and realised “Yeah, I think this is what I want to do”. That was probably in Year 10, around that time of my life.
I obviously got through VCE then completed a three-year Bachelor of Journalism degree at RMIT in the city, but it wasn’t until the third year and final semester that I was actually in the workplace practising in the newsroom and realised that this was what I definitely wanted to do. At university there was a lot of theory with some practical aspects, but in the newsroom I felt a buzz and an adrenalin rush I’d never felt before and I wanted to experience it again . . . and here I am now.
Was there a teacher at the College who assisted you in this career pursuit?
If you look at writers you’ll often find that in looking back they pinpoint former teachers who helped them with their way with words and for me there were three who come to mind.
In Year 9 I was taught by Matthew Lilyst, who was able to provide a lot of world insight to books and literature. Then came Phil Canon, a really sensitive guy who I got along with well being a very sensitive person through our bond in literature. Finally, I was absolutely privileged to have been taught by Terri Crisafi, who taught me a lot about the passions behind the words on a page . . . and at the end of the day writing comes from the inside.
Where did you first work?
This was the progression. In final semester of my third year at RMIT I got work experience at SBS Radio World News, then the Herald Sun and after that The Courier in Ballarat. I made a bit of a sacrifice by going regional, but Alex Wake, a senior lecturer in journalism at RMIT, gave me that advice on the basis that they throw you into the deep end and you make great contacts, which is the best way to learn. So I did that.
I completed two weeks there, left my details, then returned to Melbourne. I was at the rear end of the semester when The Courier called to say that there was a position going at its sister paper the Stawell Times-News. So I took that job whilst I was still studying, working part-time in Stawell then commuting back to finish the course.
I eventually graduated then returned to Stawell to live there and work for the Times, a Fairfax paper, for 18 months. I then got a job at Leader Newspapers, and the beauty of Leader is that there’s something like 26 different newspapers in its stable, so you’re constantly reporting on different areas of Melbourne. Originally I was based in Southbank and was involved in five or six different eastern papers, and then I gradually shifted to the north, from Boroondara to Diamond Valley and the Nillumbik Council, and, since November last year, Whittlesea.
So you hadn’t been at Whittlesea long when the council crisis erupted?
Well it’d been bubbling away under the surface for a little while before.
And for the onlooker like me this was essentially in-fighting between the officiating councillors?
Yes. It really started about three years ago when they (council) appointed Simon Overland CEO. He is embroiled in the Lawyer X scandal at the moment and testified at the Lawyer X Royal Commission. A lot of the drama seemed to start when he was appointed. Some councillors didn’t agree, whereas others obviously did because they voted him in – and from then on there was tension.
Early on things seemed quite stable. There didn’t seem to be too many stories surfacing about in-house rifts or scandals going on - and when I got there it was purely coincidental that around about the same time the council conducted its Mayoral elections and the newly-appointed Mayor broke the Labor caucus in order to be elevated to the helm. Things then changed all of a sudden in terms of how the council operated – from ‘community first’ and prioritising the delivery of services to ratepayers, to a toxic environment driven by egos which caused great distress to staff.
I knew all this was happening, but obviously it takes time to chip away with stories like these. Then one afternoon I got a leaked email that Simon Overland had gone on leave citing health and safety issues. I broke that news straight away - and then a week later I fronted up to a council meeting where the Mayor suddenly declared that the meeting had to be closed to the public by 8pm to deal with an urgent confidential matter. Now I’d been reporting council matters for four years and this had never happened before. Thankfully I had a couple of sources inside who I texted and eventually brought to the line that council had agreed to terminate Simon Overland’s contract while he was on leave. So I broke that news the next morning – the second major breaking news story that generated national interest because of the characters involved.
That then paved the way for constant stories about workplace bullying and political scandal, and I just had to chip away at it – to sort fact from fiction, make sure the public knew about it, and really let ratepayers know that their local paper was there to hold this council in crisis to account.
On a personal level it was great to be a journalist - but it was also shocking to me that there could be a local authority in place which could completely bypass its community and only address its own needs and personal interests.
Have the events of Whittlesea given you a thick skin?
You know you’re not doing your job properly as a journalist when you’re pleasing everyone and over the past year or two, when I was placed in situations of conflict, I did develop a thick skin. That said, I was never really out to get anyone. I was just trying to sort fact from fiction. There is always going to be conflict, but at the end of the days the stories speak for themselves.
In retrospect, I think I was able to tell the stories effectively because I was able to meet my sources face to face and consistently. I attended council meetings so I subjected myself to the environment. I was out there and I guess I made my own luck. So the award was validation for old school journalism as well as modern-day tactics.
What does the Quill Award mean to you?
The award wasn’t’ just a validation for a series of stories that I’ve written. It was validation that people need journalists searching for the truth and letting them know about it. That was my job and I guess I can hold my head up and say that I did that to the best of my ability.
Is it worth getting killed for a byline?
Maybe not getting killed . . . but maybe dicing with death – and I always say that curiosity might bring me undone one day.
I think journalism has met my expectations. I got into it wanting to write and wanting to prompt change, and that’s what I’ve done. I’m writing every day, I'm provoking thought and if it leads to change then that’s great. Seeing the reactions of the ratepayers in Whittlesea made me come to appreciate the magnitude of the work that I was doing.
So what’s the grand plan in terms of your journalistic career Anthony?
I’m looking at it geographically, which is a weird way to look at it, but ever since I was young I thought I might be someone destined to move beyond the borders. I’d really love to go international, and whether that’s electronic media, newspapers or whatever I’m not really fussed. Whatever happens there’ll be a different community I’ll be reporting on and that will be my focus. As long as I’m practicing the art of journalism that will be fine.