Walkley Foundation Young Australian Journalist of the Year Award winner Ella Rubeli shares the highlights of her eye-opening prize.
Standing in the bustling interior hall of the CNN Centre, with newsrooms and giant flashing television screens towering above, one cannot help but feel giddy. This is enhanced by the fact that the building retains several structural traits of its first life as an indoor amusement park, which has more in common with the quick-thrills approach of contemporary news journalism than I dare to dwell upon.
CNN headquarters in Atlanta was the first stop on my trip sponsored by Twitter and CNN International for winning the Walkley Foundation’s Young Australian Journalist of the Year Award in 2014.
The tour took me on a journey into mazes of pulsing newsrooms, TV studios and production rooms, where for two days I had rapid-fire conversation sessions with a line-up of news executives, editors and producers.
The institution was thrumming with the whirrs and clicks of ongoing reinvention. Old CNN radio studio signs hung in a room populated by flatscreens and digital video producers. Under one roof work thousands of people, a whole spectrum of journalists, from BuzzFeed-style video curators to television presenters to documentary producers and web coders.
However, peek into the window of a TV studio and it is just about empty of humans, occupied only by the presenter being recorded. As a producer explained to me, now everything is controlled externally. The video cameras are robotic.
The digital newsrooms were crowded with reporters voraciously flicking through emails and CNNwire, the interior news distribution system. Correspondents aside, the romantic ideal of newsgathering, like going out into the fields with a wicker basket in search of mushrooms, is well dead.
But much of the rigour of reporting is stronger than ever. In my first few conversations, I heard mutterings of this thing called “The Row”. Was it a place? A machine? And then I met Ram Ramgopal, executive producer of The Row, the team who wield the CNN fine-toothed comb. The quality controllers have the job of reading stories and scripts and checking for clarity, storytelling, balance, CNN style compliance and any legal requirements.
My second pit stop was to Twitter in Washington, DC. Equipped with colourful bird-themed meeting rooms, “thinking pods” and enthusiastic young people wearing Twitter T-shirts, the Twitter offices fulfilled the tech stereotype. I was hosted by the Twitter @gov team who are a dedicated group of consultants who flitter around the Capitol teaching people of Congress to use Twitter as a campaigning tool. They also work with journalists, assisting us to use Twitter more effectively as a reporting tool.
Twitter had me staying in possibly the nicest hotel in town and the gregarious team took me out to lunch and on a tour to see the White House – where we saw an impressive eight-car motorcade, which was the First Lady’s escort to the gym – and then to the Capitol. As we walked through the halls of America’s political history, the team of Congress enthusiasts bickered over historical micro-details (was Abe Lincoln’s desk in this corner, or that corner?). I was particularly enthralled by the bloodstains on the staircase in the East Wing, where in 1890 the representative of Kentucky was shot – by a journalist, of course.
And I cannot go past a mention of the aptly named “Newseum”. On the famous Pennsylvania Avenue, most familiar as the place where crowds fill during presidential inaugurations, the Newseum is a journalism history museum that houses outstanding examples of American journalism. I spent hours watching archival footage of the biggest stories of America’s modern history. What affected me most while there was a particular exhibit in the 9/11 memorial museum – the final photographs and the charred remains of the camera of New York photojournalist William Biggart, the only journalist who died covering the 9/11 attacks.
America has always been an enigma to me. But after spending a little time in two big powerhouses of the country – CNN headquarters and the Capitol – the splendid mirage became slightly more lucid. I left feeling in awe of the adaptability of contemporary media houses, as well as humbled by the legacy that we are all attempting to maintain.
Thank you to the Walkley Foundation for making it possible.
Ella Rubeli is a photojournalist. She was the winner of the 2014 Walkley Young Journalist of the Year Award.