Peter Fray is back where the fun began, almost three decades ago. Mugging for the camera in the building that once housed The Sydney Morning Herald, the journalist turned academic is on a roll. Ideas, opinions, anecdotes and jokes tumble out, much as they might once have done at morning news conferences.
Now, they’re mostly about journalism – what it is and what it might become – and why he’s one “really lucky bastard” to have ended up in this profession.
“There are lots of easier ways of making money, but not many I know of that are as much fun,” says Fray.
Recalling his start at the Herald in 1987, Fray says he was given a notebook and pencil and told “you’re the rural reporter, go and do your thing”.
He had a degree in rural journalism, which helped, and experience covering tropical fruits, sugar and beef cattle for a farming magazine. All were the result of a “kind of epiphany” he had one hot, dusty day in the West Australian wheat belt.
Recently arrived from England, he nursed a vague idea of becoming a farmer. “But here I was, this slightly plump, cherubic Pom and I had this realisation that I wasn’t going to be much of a farmer and what else could I do?”
Memories of his time as a 15-year-old newspaper copy kid in a “crazy hot-metal, swearing, smoking, drinking, seen-it-in-the-movies newsroom” set the fire.
By the time he left the Herald, in 2012, Fray was editor-in-chief and publisher. Along the way he covered politics, religion and gossip; he was foreign correspondent and features editor; and he edited sister papers The Canberra Times and The Sunday Age. In 2013, he launched the fact-checking website PolitiFact Australia, and later became deputy editor of The Australian.
Now the old Herald digs – refashioned into Building 10 – are his new workplace as UTS Professor of Journalism Practice and Head of Journalism.
Students starting their degrees under Fray’s stewardship must confront challenges that didn’t trouble him at the outset of his career.
“The internet changed every relationship in journalism,” says Fray.
“As well as blowing up distribution, and blowing up the revenue model, the net has blown up – or at least brought into sharper focus – the relationship between the journalist and the audience. And that’s a great thing.”
As the 2016 academic year begins, Fray is himself a student. As the first Australian accepted into the Tow-Knight fellowship program, he is partway through a four-month course in digital entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY).
“Jeff Jarvis, Director of the Tow-Knight Centre, argues that journalism needs to be redefined: yes, it is all the things we think it is but it is also a service industry … providing information that helps people make more informed decisions,” says Fray.
“If you give people information that can make a material difference to their lives, maybe they’ll want to pay for it.”
There’s one journalistic requirement the internet hasn’t affected: curiosity. “If you’re curious, if you want to ask questions and you want to know how things work and why things don’t work, you’re halfway to being a journalist,” says Fray.
Away from journalism, Fray is a sometime theatre producer – his wife is a playwright – an occasional painter; and proud Nippers and soccer dad.
He also studies the media habits of Generation Z – his daughter is 12 and his son 10. “They’re engaged with news through Instagram and the like, but they would never read a newspaper.”
And perhaps that sums up Fray’s challenge in making journalism at UTS exciting and relevant. “Journalism has a bright future – though it has changed considerably and is still changing – and it’s going to be in places like UTS where it will be found.”