Gary Nunn is Editor-at-Large of the Sydney Sentinel and a Freelance Journalist. Formerly BBC Australia’s Features Writer, he now writes op-eds, reviews, interviews, news features and human interest stories for outlets in the UK, the US and Australia. Most frequently, he writes for The Sydney Morning Herald, the ABC, the Guardian and the Australian Women’s Weekly. You can Tweet him at @GaryNunn1.
Congratulations on your new role as Editor-at-Large for The Sydney Sentinel. Can you describe what this role involves and what you’ll be writing about?
Thanks! The Sydney Sentinel is a new, progressive media voice for Sydney. As Editor-at-Large, I work closely with the Editor-in-Chief, Peter Hackney, to workshop story ideas, help with editorial direction and suggest potential interviewees for the Sentinel. I’ve also been helping to elevate the fantastic work done by other journalists for the masthead so far. For example, I got VERY excited when they nabbed an interview with Melanie C recently. I’m a big Spice Girls fan! In addition to that, the aim is to probe some of the varied political minds in and around Australia’s largest city and to tell some great local yarns, too. Especially ones you might not hear in the other legacy outlets.
I’ll be writing one op-ed and one feature for the Sentinel each month. It’s the kind of longer-form journalism you might not always find in the frenetic news cycle of the major outlets where word counts are shorter. This is more considered, stand back, broad view stuff. It’s the reason I wanted to become a journalist: to provoke thought as well as action. I’m also doing some arts reviews for The Sentinel, and have recently finished doing a round of reviews for the Sydney Festival.
Being a progressive media outlet means we actively want to elevate the voices of First Nations People, queer people, people of colour, the vegan community and those leading on social issues such as feminism and equality. That’s exciting because it offers a platform to people who might not always get heard amongst the noise.
You’re also a Freelance Journalist. Describe your typical work week.
I’ll get across the day’s news agenda early – ABC’s RN Breakfast is switched on the moment I wake up. I’ll have it on while I’m at the gym. Then I’ll usually buy a Sydney Morning Herald newspaper and scan the web and Twitter to see what the issues of the day are and what the big issues of the week are likely to be. That informs my pitching.
I’ll then use any relevant news hooks to pitch story/article ideas – that could be newsy features, longer-form features, evergreen stories with a looser/broader news hook, op-eds or interviews. I have a staple of 7 or 8 editors I work closely with, so if one outlet doesn’t bite, I can try to place the story with the next cab off the rank. I always look at what’s been covered on their news site first though; it’s unprofessional and lazy to pitch on stories or angles they already have covered. It means pitching takes a lot of time but it’s time well spent; everything is about maintaining good relationships with editors.
Then I’ll use the rest of the morning to do interviews. My preference is face-to-face but in a country as big as Australia, that’s not always possible. Very occasionally I’ll get statements or quotes by email, but the whole point of being a journalist is talking to people: you’ve got to get on the phone! I enjoy those phone chats.
Afternoons and some full days in the latter half of the week are spent writing up my pieces and everything that involves: transcribing, fact-checking, researching, editing, picture sourcing, expert or case study finding. The NSW State Library is my second home. I do most of my writing there. That’s where the magic happens!
On a sunny day, I might give myself some time to enjoy the beach or pool. Then I can do the duller admin stuff in the evening with the nightly news or Netflix on in the background. As a freelancer, you run your own business: you are payroll; you are HR; you are the PR department! That means sending off and tracking invoices, scheduling interviews and promoting your own work on social media so people read it is all down to you! It requires a lot of discipline and a strong warm soy flat white! Some days it just isn’t happening and I make those my impromptu annual leave days. The next day I’ll make up for it; the library is open till 8 pm most days so I’ll refuse to leave till the work is done! I adore the flexibility.
The evenings might require attendance at a theatre show to review or an event to inform my journalism. Then I try to switch off from the news with my Kindle.
Recently I’ve deviated from this schedule somewhat because I’ve been writing my debut book, The Psychic Tests. It comes out with Pantera Press in August. It has meant very long days in the library, and lots of visits to the world’s (allegedly) most uncanny psychics, mediums and clairvoyants – and those who swear by them. I can’t wait to share with the world the extraordinary things I’ve discovered!
You wrote a column about linguistics for The Guardian UK for 9 years. How do you think understanding linguistics affects your journalism?
That was a great grounding and springboard for me – once you’ve made words your master, it’s a pure delight to write. When I started out, people advised me to get a specialism so you could be known for something and make a bit of a name for yourself. It all sounds a bit wanky but it was good advice. I still get asked to write linguistics themed pieces today. And I’ve got great contacts with the country’s best linguists who I can interview because I’m not a linguist – I’m a language lover. Big difference!
It also gave me an excellent opportunity to develop a deeper relationship with the Guardian and to do what I now love to do most for them, which is to write longer-form human interest features.
I fell into both linguistics writing and features writing by accident rather than design really, but features are, I’ve realised, where my passion lies. I love telling other people’s stories. It’s a privilege to be trusted to do that.
What’s your favourite story you’ve ever worked on?
That’s easy, it’s the story of Monica Hingston. Remarkable woman.
Monica was a nun for 27 years then fell in love with another nun, Peg, in the convent and left to begin a relationship with her.
She’s also the cousin of Cardinal George Pell and she wrote an open letter challenging him on his opposition to same-sex relationships, by describing the passionate love and harmonious symbiosis in hers. It is the most poignant description of love I’d ever read. Once I read that letter and discovered she’d been chief of parade with her soulmate, Peg, at Mardi Gras, I just knew I had to tell this extraordinary woman’s story.
It took a while to find her and I, sadly, found Peg’s obituary first. After much trust-building, I persuaded her to talk to me and the Australian Women’s Weekly flew me to Victoria to spend two days with her. I ended up writing her life story; she came from the same church and the same family as Cardinal Pell but came out with a very different view on love and same-sex relationships.
That feature won Monica the Faith Award at the LGBTI Awards and I was shortlisted for Journalist of the Year at the same ceremony. Our table exploded and cried when Monica won! I just remember her gripping my hand and whispering in my ear, “Oh my God! Gary! I can’t win the Faith Award – I’m an atheist!” I was shortlisted for the Media Award at ACON’s Honour Awards that same year.
I still get goosebumps when I think about her.
How do you use press releases in your work as a Freelance Journalist?
They’re a great conversation starter. My favourite ones are topped with a bespoke pitch catering to the things I cover as a journalist. I prefer those, where the PR has done the work, rather than a blanket blast.