Unpaid work experience: It pays

I worked for free, one day a week, almost every week, for just over a year in my late teens in a regional television newsroom. It eventually led me to casual paid work.

My path to television news was a little unconventional. I knocked on newsroom doors for months when I was in high school to let me do some unpaid work experience. They didn’t say yes immediately. I was already working for free on community radio and newspapers back home in Wollongong, so I guess after being quite persistent, 10, 9 and 7 in Sydney let me visit, as too did WIN News Wollongong.

Since it wasn’t part of a university placement, I had to organise and pay for my own insurance.

During those weeks, I was sitting around, reading newspapers, answering phones and observing how a newsroom operates. I’d follow journalists on their jobs, hold up their sun reflectors, and then watch how they would write and edit their stories.

When it came to university time, my marks weren’t high enough to study journalism at Charles Sturt University. So on some advice, I studied Commerce at the University of Wollongong, and decided to double down on my practical experience.

Given I was a Wollongong local, and already made a professional connection, I convinced the WIN News Chief of Staff to let me stay on doing unpaid work one day a week while studying Commerce, saying I’d be able to bring a business perspective if given a chance.

Again, just being there and offering to help meant that I absorbed so much practical experience.

It was difficult, studying full-time, working a paid casual job in sales at David Jones and offering my time at Win News Wollongong.

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. My parents were hard working blue collar migrants who also worked two jobs to get my brother and I through school. We inherited their work ethic.

One day, on an unpaid news shift, there was a rupture in a pipe along the Illawarra escaprment late in the afternoon. I was the only person free, and on station to cover the story. I was sent on the job with a camera operator. That was my break and the first time I was able to actually report on air.

If I hadn’t been observing how my fellow journalists were putting stories together for months, I may not have felt as confident doing it myself.

Since that gig, I was given stories as a regular reporter, unpaid one day a week.

This happened for a further six months.

But I loved it. I saw it as an investment in my future, and I must stress, there was never an expectation from WIN News that I’d turn up, nor was it a requirement of my business degree. I chose to do it. I turned up because I wanted. There were days when I called in saying I wasn’t coming.

WIN was happy to have me there because management saw my drive and if something came up to do, they would offer it to me, or I’d pitch it myself.

It eventually led to casual paid work as a reporter for WIN News while still studying at university.

Ultimately my plan to study business while getting practical knowledge as a journalist paid off when I graduated, because I immediately got a job as a finance video journalist and producer for David Koch’s Palamedia Group, working across Sky News, Seven News, 2GB and various newspapers.

I’m not saying everyone should work for free, and in many cases, it’s not legal. You need to understand your rights.

In this instance, I did it for me, and again, there was never an expectation from WIN News that I would turn up, nor was it a requirement of my degree.

To this day, I still feel lucky to be given a chance at WIN News. When you are trying to crack a competitive industry, you need do what you can to stand out and demonstrate ability, passion, talent and dedication.

The important role mentors play

When I was 17, Jessica Rowe, who presented Sydney’s Ten News at the time, called me on my Ericsson flip mobile offering advice about how to crack the journalism ­industry.

I had written to her, along with a few other journalists, asking for help. For years I worked on community radio and newspapers in Wollongong on the NSW south coast, participated in public speaking competitions, and even did some extra-curricular journalism studies, but despite persistent requests just couldn’t get my foot in the door at a network to gain some experience.

Jessica listened to my story, offered some advice, and kindly said she’d help organise some work experience at Ten News Sydney.

A few weeks later, I sorted out my own insurance, jumped into my green Suzuki Swift, and drove from Wollongong to Sydney.

At Ten, I sat behind the chief of staff’s newsdesk, watching the news-making process, and shadowed a number of reporters as they went out into the field collecting their stories. Thanks again, Jessica. That experience made me realise two things.

One: a small gesture by someone who you admire can have lasting effects. Two: developing a professional relationship with someone your senior is essential to building your career.

In the early 2000s I had a job working for finance journalist David Koch and was based at the Channel 7 newsroom in Epping, Sydney. The role encompassed a very broad range of responsibilities. One of them was to provide a telephone voice report for 2GB on the daily moves on the sharemarket. So, I’d pick up the phone, drop my voice to try to sound more authoritative, and deliver a forced-sounding presentation.

Seven News presenter Anne Fulwood was sitting nearby and overheard the report. She turned and said: “Ricardo (she used to call me Ricardo even though at the time I went by Richard), tell me about what happened on the sharemarket?” I remember looking at her all confused, saying: what do you mean?

Anne simply wanted to engage in a conversation about the moves on the sharemarket. At the end of our chat, I remember her saying: “See the way you just told me about the sharemarket in a conversational manner? That’s the way you should read your report.”

I’ve never forgotten that. We built a lovely professional relationship and caught up for a casual coffee now and then when she’d check in on my career development and offer some ongoing advice. Absolutely invaluable as a 20-something journalist at the start of his career.

There have been plenty of other news professionals who’ve had an impact on my career, and I don’t want to mention them all, but boy did they have an influence.

“Don’t write anything you don’t understand, even if you think it sounds important.”

“Don’t wear black shirts on air.”


“Continue to report from the field even though you’re a presenter now.”

It’s important to continue developing your skills and your network no matter the stage in your career.

To this day, there are some senior professionals with whom I catch up from time to time, just to chat about where I am and where I want to be. They’re from different fields of the corporate world, but gaining their perspective is important too.

These days it’s becoming more common that I’m the one being asked for advice, which I’m happy to offer. But I would say this: show me what you’re doing to build your career. What are the steps you’re taking to get to where you want to be? Show some initiative, and I’ll be more than happy to help, but I won’t be handing anything over on a silver platter.

I was born and grew up in suburban Wollongong. My family were migrants. Portuguese was my first language.

Sure, at times I felt like it would be too hard to develop a career in television news, but that was never an excuse and I did everything I could to develop skills.

And that trait, probably, is what my mentors and senior colleagues saw in me, and why they were happy to offer some advice.

The last time I crossed paths with Jessica Rowe was at the Logies a few years ago. I hadn’t seen her for years but thanked her once again for giving me my first real chance at experiencing the world of television news.

The many paths to success

Take a look back at how Ricardo started his career in this article originally published in 2011.

THIS time 14 years ago I received my HSC result. I was devastated. My UAI was 80.10. More than 15 points below the minimum entry requirement to study journalism at Charles Sturt University. Despite the endless television news work experience I had done during high school, community radio and newspaper work, I was turned away from CSU.

But for the past 14 years, I’ve been working as a television journalist, and now I read a national television news bulletin.

My point, is that there’s many paths to the career of your dreams.

I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. In 1993, I worked at a community newspaper in Port Kembla called “The ConneXion” after school. A few years later, I contributed to a current affairs program on community radio station 2VoxFM interviewing local politicians about issues impacting Wollongong. I was also very heavily involved in extra circular school activities like the debating team and Toastmasters.

In year 11, I wrote and called every television station in Wollongong and Sydney to let me do work experience. They said no. Three months later, I called and wrote again. They said no, mainly because I wasn’t doing it as part of a school or university program. I tried again, and once again they said no.

So I wrote to numerous journalists around the country asking for their advice, journalists like Chris Bath, Paul Barry, Ray Martin, Kim Watkins, Mike Munro, Sandra Sully, Joanna Rouse, Tara Brown even Bert Newton, just to name a few. I just wanted to know how they got into the business. I told them about all the community work I was doing and wanted advice. To their credit, every single one of the journalists I wrote to, replied (To this day I still have their letters, many of them handwritten).

Many of them said the Bachelor of Journalism course at CSU Bathurst was the way to go. So I booked myself a viewing at the university, and by sheer coincidence, Jessica Rowe, a CSU graduate herself, and Ten newsreader at the time called me on my mobile while I was taking a look at the university. She told me her story, and how she started and offered to help me if I needed it. So, I asked if she could help me get some work experience at Ten Sydney.

Four weeks later, I organised my own work cover insurance, and I was sitting at the CoS desk with Allan Croft watching the television news process come to life. I went out on stories with other journalists, held equipment for them and ran errands. Seven and Nine Sydney also allowed me to watch how they put their news together, followed by WIN News Wollongong. Once you do one network, it’s easier to do work at the others.

So, even before I finished high school, I had competed copious amounts of work experience in the industry. I was absolutely certain I’d be given a place at CSU. As a back up, I chose the Bachelor of Commerce degree at Wollongong University. Paul Barry, a financial journalist presenting the Channel 7 program ‘Witness’ at the time, wrote to me, that getting a specialisation like business, wasn’t a bad idea because there was a shortage of good financial journalists in the industry. I always had a keen interest in business so it was a valid backup.

All through high school, I was a straight A student and in my final year took challenging subjects like 3 unit English (I’ll never forget that damn ‘Utopias and anti-Utopias module) I was the captain of my school, Edmund Rice College. So I held high hopes for what I’d do after school. You can imagine my extreme disappointment, when my UAI came in at 80.10. From memory, the minimum requirement at CSU was above 96. I called the university executive. I pleaded with them and explained all the experience I had already gained hoping my enthusiasm alone would make up for the lack of marks. But it didn’t work.

I didn’t let that deter me, although part of me did think I’d become a boring accountant (I now know not all accountants are boring). In the end, I went to Wollongong University and chose subjects which I believed would add value as a journalist. I majored in Marketing and Economics.

But the key here, is that I continued with my unpaid work in the industry. Firstly, I did supplementary journalism courses while I was at uni; a radio intensive workshop at UTS over the summer, a multi-media workshop through SCEGGS Darlinghurst and a television presenting course in Pymble. I should also note, that I had to fund these activities myself. I come from a very hard working, blue collar family. Mum and Dad gave up what they could for our education. Still, I worked as a sales assistant at David Jones Wollongong to fund my extra curricular activities, mostly to pay for these extra courses I wanted to do, and the expensive insurance to cover me to do work experience at the networks.

While at uni, I continued to do work experience at WIN News Wollongong, one day a week, for free, for two years. Yep, two years, for free. I started by following journalists, carrying tripods, held up sun reflectors/shades for the other journalists to do their pieces to camera and answered phones. Eventually, Paul Scott and Stella Lauri, the newsroom bosses at WIN News, believed in me, to be able to do my own stories, and I voiced a school rock eisteddfod story that went to air when I was 18.

My real break came when a pipeline burst on the Illawarra escarpment. No other journalists were around, so off I went with a cameraman, hard hat in hand, in the rain, shooting my piece to camera in the mud for the story. My Doc Martins were ruined.

The WIN team also noted my business studies, so I was often given business related stories like the GST introduction into the Illawarra and most stories relating to BHP Billiton, which at the time owned the Port Kembla Steelworks. Eventually, WIN put me on the casual payroll after two years. It was an unfortunate time for me because rival Prime News had just shut down its newsroom, so many of those journalists came across to WIN, meaning a fulltime position for me wasn’t available.

I even did a few days of work experience at WIN Orange to see if something would come out of that. Even so, I felt a sense of accomplishment, so in 1999, I set up a website allowing other high school students to contact me if they wanted advice about study techniques and different ways to enter their career of their dreams. Producers at Channel 7′s ‘Today Tonight’ saw it, and before I knew it, they asked me to help them with a couple of HSC related news stories for their program. I voiced them, did pieces to camera for them, and Stan Grant presented it in 1999.

As I was approaching graduation at university, the pressure was mounting to find a full time reporting gig. I sent my showreel of work to all many networks, and received some good and some not so good feedback. Peter Meakin (Channel 9 news boss at the time) , who now runs Seven’s news department, replied in a letter something along the lines of “Based on the tape that you have sent me, I don’t see that you have a future in television”. Mum still has that letter somewhere in the garage back in Wollongong. Granted, maybe the showreel wasn’t the best in the world, and I was overly ambitious. But it was another knock. But you’ve got to take them in this industry. For the record, SBS turned me down to be a cadet too. Countless knock backs. In fact, a folder full.

But just as I was about to graduate, lady luck played her hand. I saw a three line, twenty word advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald classifieds. It said something along the lines of “Finance Journalist wanted to work for a well know broadcast finance team”. I applied, received a phone call, drove myself up from Wollongong to Chatswood, and had a meeting with the team behind David Koch. At the time, he provided content for Seven News, Sky News and numerous radio and print outlets.

Kylie Merritt, for whom I had so much respect for, ran the news department in Kochie’s business, and offered me my first paid gig in metro television at the age of 21. The gig? I was based at Channel 7 Sydney, well, Epping, sourcing vision for finance stories to be played on Sky News. My role evolved and developed to, producer, video journalist, presenter. It took a further four years before I was reporting for National Nine News Melbourne, six years before I was presenting national bulletins on Sky News, and nine years before my role on SBS.

And the challenges, and sacrifices made during that time were great, I haven’t even gotten to my favourite interviews, exclusives and what journalism is all about, getting the news to the public. You’ve got to get your foot in the door before you can do the good stuff.

I’ll leave that experience for another time… or a book… there’s a lot to tell