2019 Walkley Award-winner for Best Commentary, Analysis, Opinion & Critique
Journalist and TV presenter Jan Fran won the 2019 Walkley Award for Best Commentary (etc.) for her very funny and very smart dissection of social and political news, The Frant. Devised as an internet-first series while Fran was hosting SBS VICELAND’s millennial and Gen Z focused news show The Feed, The Frant frequently went viral and episodes have been viewed over 20 million times. We spoke with Fran about the challenges of writing and shooting a one-person segment, why video journalists are heroes, the tenor of conversation on social media and idolising Jana Wendt.
How did The Frant come about as part of The Feed, and what were the particular challenges of writing and shooting a weekly opinion take that’s both funny and factual? How much time and research would you put into creating each clip?
A lot of the clips were actually done on the day, so from pitch to publish it would be about nine hours, which is an intense pressure cooker of a day to be involved with. They came about basically because working on The Feed, you’re tasked with trying to get 16- to 35-year-olds to watch the secondary network of Australia’s second favourite public broadcaster at a particular time, and 16- to 35-year-olds don’t watch anything at a particular time. So, it became very obvious to us that actually where our audience was, was online and principally on social media. And that’s because that’s where we were. The Feed was, when I was working there, and presumably still is, a very young team of people.
And so we just realised actually that the internet is where we needed to be and that social media was where we needed to be in particular. I had always been drawn to opinion and analysis, and it just so happened that the internet was so such kind of fertile ground for that to travel. We pitched it as part of the show, and it would sort of be this hybrid thing that would be principally online but also kind of live within the television show as well.
“I had always been drawn to opinion and analysis, and it just so happened that the internet was so such kind of fertile ground for that to travel.”
And then over, really just maybe a year, 2018 was really the big year for The Frant, 2018 and 2019, it just kind of took on a life of its own really and ended up being an online thing, but it’s not an easy thing to do. I think you have to have a body of knowledge behind you that you can draw on very quickly because, as I said, there is a lot of time pressure for you to find what story it is you’re going to comment on, find the take, do the research, write the piece, shoot the piece, go in and edit the piece, send the stuff that you need to send to the graphics guys. It’s this team effort, and you have to move very quickly.
So, fortunately I’d had many years of being a journalist prior, and I was just kind of able to draw on stories that I’d already reported on in the past.
Is there a particular Frant that stands out for you?
There was a Frant that I did that compared the way in which African-Australians were being reported on in Melbourne versus the way Lebanese-Australians were reported on in Sydney 20 years earlier. It was really striking to see a lot of the commonalities in the reporting around ethnic gangs and gang crime and cities being unsafe because of African criminals or Lebanese criminals as it was 20 years ago in Sydney.
The reporting around Lebanese gangs is really… I think has been a very key driver in my life, and so to be able to report on that and to be able to do a comparison between that and what’s happening in Melbourne with African gangs at the moment, was just so striking to me how Australian history tends to just repeat itself and how this language is just trolleyed out whenever there’s a spike in crime in particular cities.
“To be able to do a comparison between [reporting on Lebanese gangs in the late ’90s] and what’s happening in Melbourne with African gangs at the moment, it was just so striking to me how Australian history tends to just repeat itself”
The internet can be a both nasty and supportive place to express strong ideas. What’s your take on reading the comments and mentions?
This year I’ve developed a very block hard, block fast system. I look at it like this. There are people who you give your time to, who you invest in, and you get so much in return. You learn so much from them. You maybe even grow as a person. You have fun. You’re entertained. If you invest in those people, you’re going to get so much back. Trolls on the internet are not those people. I invest zero of my time in them. Girl, if I don’t have time to call my mum, I don’t have time to respond to you on the internet.
The other thing is I… I’m the one who decides this, basically. I decide whether you’re acting in good faith or bad faith. If I think you’re acting in good faith, I’m happy to engage, even if you’re making a statement that’s critical of my work or you don’t agree with me, that’s fine. If you come in good faith, that’s not trolling to me. That’s engaging with someone online. If you come in bad faith, and I’ve had a lot of people who agree with me who I think are coming in bad faith, I have no time for you.
When you started out in journalism with the cadetship at SBS, did you imagine a career working in serious news or did you have an inkling that facts are better served with wit?
I probably imagined a career in serious news because I think that that was really the only sort of career available. The internet wasn’t a thing really when I graduated in 2008. This just shows you how much journalism has changed in just one decade. But I’ve always had a bit of ah, I don’t know, chutzpah, I guess. Maybe that’s the wrong word, but I’ve always been drawn to humour and to comedy. But also quite drawn to serious issues as well.
It’s like I sit perfectly in that Venn diagram of serious stuff, but also a bit funny. It’s a very lonely place, that little circle in the Venn diagram because you have to like both of those things equally and sort of be good at both of those things equally, which may mean that you’re actually good at neither of those things. I don’t know. But, yeah, it was definitely, “I want to be a serious journalist. I want to be a foreign correspondent.” And now it’s just like, “No, I just want to stay in Australia and make videos about the internet in Australia about Australia.” But that’s what’s supposed to happen in a career, right? You shift and you move.
What made you want to become a journalist or presenter in your childhood?
You know what, really the only journalist that was visible when I was growing up was Jana Wendt. She was like, “Ooh.” She was the journalist that everybody kind of wanted to be. She was out there in the field. She always looked very kind of glamorous. I just sort of wanted to be a journalist. I’m just very interested in the world. I’m very interested in the world. I’m very interested in how we come to understand the world.
I was always drawn to the media because it was this kind of… It is the Fourth Estate, and it was this kind of powerful entity that shapes people’s lives in ways that it doesn’t know it shapes people’s lives. And I guess a lot of that came down to me growing up Lebanese and really, really being affected by the media coverage of the community in the ’90s and 2000s. I’m still not over it, can you tell? So, I think wanting to get into the media was almost as a bit of a correction to that.
“If you ever have to work as a video journalist, like you are a hero among men. Video journalists have to develop skillsets that are close to impossible”
In your early career in TV and current affairs you shot your own freelance stories in countries like Uganda and Bangladesh; what are some of the core skills you honed that have helped you to this day?
Ah, man. Let me tell you, if you ever have to work as a VJ, like you are a hero among men. Video journalists have to develop skillsets that are almost impossible. I would say close to impossible. This is one of the reasons I don’t VJ anymore.
You’re doing the job of three people. You’re doing the job of a presenter, you’re doing the job of a producer, and you’re doing the job of a shooter. These jobs are jobs in and of themselves. So [you have] to be able to juggle the three different roles, and usually in a pressure cooker of a situation. You have maybe half an hour with this person or you have an hour with this person. You have to set up, and you have to make sure that the sun doesn’t move because it’s going to ruin your shot and you’ll have to reset from the beginning. I think it’s helped me develop a real clarity around what I want for sure. And it’s helped me become very clear around deadlines and how to meet them. It’s really kind of sharpened my writing skills. Yeah, they would be among the key things I’ve learned.
The ABC radio bio used to describe you as a Walkley Award-losing journalist. What’s been the most satisfying part about being able to strike out the losing part?
You know what, I still think that Walkley Award-losing journalist is actually funnier than Walkley Award-winning journalist, but Walkley Award-winning journalist is definitely better than Walkley Award-losing journalist. Yeah, no, that was really fun. I think a few people actually got in touch with me, and they said, “No, now you have to change your bio. You can’t have Walkley Award-losing journalist up there anymore.”
Yeah, I changed it eventually. My Walkley Award sort of sits in my office. It’s there. It’s visible, but not too visible. It’s just visible enough that when somebody walks in there I’m like, “Ooh, and, ah, has your eye been drawn to this here Walkley Award? What a coincidence.” Yeah, it’s on a shelf in my office, like any reasonable person. But since winning the Walkley I’m now touting myself as having an award-winning opinion. So, that’s helped a lot in domestic disputes with my husband because he’ll say something, and I’ll say, “Well, sorry. I have an award-winning opinion. Do you?” And it transpires that he actually doesn’t have an award-winning opinion. So, he has to stack the dishwasher. There you go.
“[The Walkley Award has] helped a lot in domestic disputes with my husband because he’ll say something, and I’ll say, “Well, sorry. I have an award-winning opinion. Do you?” And it transpires that he actually doesn’t”
Over the last 10 years you’ve worked in TV, online and current affairs commentary, what are some of the changes you’ve seen in the turn of conversation in Australian media?
I’ve seen… Oh, man, this is a whole article in and of itself. I think the biggest change is the speed with which things happen and also now the multitasking that journalists need to do that they didn’t need to do 10 years ago. I think the internet, it can be a very shrill place, and I think we’re always encouraged to have conversations. We’re always encouraged to have nuanced conversations, but we’re having them through these mediums that don’t actually allow for nuance. I think part of the problem is the mediums through which we have these conversations – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram – to a certain extent, as well.
I’m always a bit weary about saying, “Oh, the conversation has become more shrill,” because I think, in many ways, the conversation… In many ways, the internet has given rise to minority voices that would have otherwise been buried, and I think that that’s really important. I’m very glad that that’s happened. In other ways, I think the conversation has become, I’ll use the word “intense,” a little bit more intense. I kind of liken it to being my worst self when I’m on the internet. It’s like the worst of me trying to talk to the worst of you, where the best of me is in a pub with a beer, with a free Sunday afternoon. That’s the best of me. That’s where I’d like to see all political conversations happen. But yeah, definitely the speed and the workload on journalists has been a really big change.
What are your favourite go-to sources for commentary on news and current affairs?
Okay, I’m just going to go straight to ContraPoints, who is a YouTuber who I love. If you have a spare hour to two hours, go and get yourself a nice cup of tea, sit in your room with the laptop, and watch ContraPoints. She’s this amazing commentator who is so visual and so kind of fun, funny, but just so smart and really cuts through on a number of issues in just this really delightful way. I can’t explain her to people, and you have to see her. You have to see the videos for yourself. So ContraPoints, YouTube, my favourite person for commentary right now.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
It’s so important. It really is. Here’s the thing. Journalists tend to overinflate their value. I know this is a magazine for journalists, and I apologise in advance. Sometimes they do. And I think sometimes the public gets jack of that a little bit.
There is something to be said for the national conversation being driven by what is on Twitter, when what is on Twitter is journalists. It’s not really the general public. Only a small minority of Australians are even on Twitter let alone use it on a regular basis. So I understand why some people would be cranky about journalism and the state of journalism and some journalists, but every single story that has ever mattered, the stories that change things, the stories that change laws for the better, the stories that uncover corruption, the stories that tell you when someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, these are quality stories that don’t just happen out of the blue.
“Every single story that has ever mattered, the stories that change things, the stories that change laws for the better… [they] don’t just happen out of the blue. They happen because people support them”
They happen because people support them. They happen because there is money and there is time put behind them for the journalists to be able to work on them and to be able to really dig deep and investigate. If you don’t have quality journalism, you get taken for a ride, man. That’s just the simplest answer. I think ultimately journalism is there to hold truth to power. It is, and I know we’ve got so much periphery stuff happening around journalism and the internet and it’s, “Oh, journalism is degrading,” and all of this kind of pearl clutching around journalism.
It needs the support of audiences because if there’s cuts from the government or if advertisers pull out, for example… If you want good journalism, pay for it. It’s a service. It’s doing you a service, and I think that there does need to be a slightly more reciprocal relationship with audiences. 10 years ago, 20 years ago, audiences had five free-to-air networks to choose from. Now they’ve got a hundred from all over the world. And so you as an audience member, you are more discerning because you have more choice about what it is that you want to watch and consume. So use that discernment critically to decide which outlets you want to support, as well, because it’s so important that quality journalism continues.
Lastly, any wisdom or advice you’ve gleaned for young journalists starting out?
Yeah, make shit. That has been my advice from day one. Get out there and make something. Write something. Film something. Record something. Create something. Build something. And I’ll tell you what, it’s going to be shit ‘cause you’ve never done it before. Odds are, it’ll be terrible, but that’s okay. The next time you do it, it’ll be better. And the time that you do it after that, it’ll be even better.
And when you go to get a job and when you go to apply for the various jobs that you want, your prospective employers are going to look at that, and they’re going to go, “You know what? That person got out there and they made something, and they put some effort in, and they are passionate about what it is that they want to do, they have invested their own time, and sometimes their own money, into developing this thing.” So get out there and make shit. Ain’t no one going to hand anything to you on a silver platter. Voilà.
Jan Fran is a Walkley-award winning journalist, TV presenter, podcaster and internet commentator. She can be heard on the ABC podcast The Pineapple Project and seen on The Project on Network Ten. Prior to that, she was host of The Feed on SBSVICELAND. Jan is also the creator, writer and presenter of the online opinion segment, The Frant, which has been viewed more than 20 million times and which earned Jan a 2019 Walkley award for Best Commentary, Analysis, Opinion and Critique.