That's the Spirit: Melissa Irving, Audrey Weston and Ros Jackson - Warren NSW
They have an eclectic range of skills and a diverse background in life and business, but the three “faces” of the Warren Weekly – Melissa Irving, Audrey Weston and Ros Jackson – all share a love of their small town, a commitment to its future and a belief in the value of local media as the glue that helps hold regional communities together. JEN COWLEY turned the tables by interviewing the trio about their town and the role of the “local rag” in the community.
Jen: How long have you been working together as the Warren Weekly team?
Audrey: I started working with the previous editor in 2011 and Mel and Ros both came on board two years later; the three of us have been working as a team since September 2013.
Ros: None of us are trained journalists, however we all bring different skillsets to the role. It’s such a busy job and we need to be able to draw on our individual strengths and interests, things like report writing, photography, graphic design… This role needs people who are willing and able to actually do the job, keep up with deadlines and carry their share of the weight. They also need to be prepared to work for a wage that is not necessarily commensurate with their experience or skills. The three of us all pull together and I think it works well.
Jen: Where do you see the Warren Weekly fitting in terms of the community fabric?
Ros: As individuals we apply our own values to whatever we do. If you’re a person who has the values of doing your best, being a supportive colleague and having a sense of corporate and community responsibility, then you generally apply those values to your work. It’s not so much that we feel like we “must give back” – it’s more about personal values informing what we do.
We take the approach that we want to show people just how vibrant and varied our community really is.
Essentially we like to cover the story behind the story. You might get a flash of a story on social media, for instance, but what we’ll do is go and tell the story behind that. People are naturally curious so they enjoy knowing the background.
Melissa Irving, Audrey Weston and Ros Jackson, Warren NSW.
Audrey: The local rag is often the glue that binds the community together, and that’s what we feel is the case among our readers. We cover a bit of everything including local business, school news, sport, what’s going on at council. We also report on what’s happening in some of the smaller centres around the district including Nevertire, Collie and The Marra.
We’re aware that there’s a demographic that doesn’t read the local paper, but we’re also very conscious that not everyone has access to social media.
Jen: Why is a local print media outlet important in a small community?
Melissa: It’s a critical part of the social fabric – it gives people a connection and, in that way, helps to make a more cohesive community.
You get to see a snapshot every week of what’s happening in Warren across a variety of community sectors. And therefore, you’re not as isolated as you might otherwise be if you just stayed in your little patch of the community. The world is becoming more fragmented all the time, so if small communities lose their local papers, it makes people even more isolated from each other.
Ros: The story behind the story is a really important part of that, and it’s why the local paper still has such a place in the life of a small community, even in the face of social media. People will still sit down with a cup of tea or a beer and read the paper.
Audrey: The news, the coverage, the stories are all fleshed out more – it’s a bigger view of everything that’s going on in the community, and we tend to tell the stories that you won’t find on social media, at least not to the same depth. We also give a voice to organisations such as View Club, Men’s Shed, Vinnies, local churches and Warren Show Society.
Melissa: A young woman said to me the other day that she was reading through some of the old newspapers. She said, “I’ve just realised all the kinds of things and organisations this town was built on and it’s time for me to step up.”
Jen: In that way the local rag becomes an historical document – a record of history.
Ros: Exactly, and that’s why we still do eulogies and we don’t charge for them either – it’s a space we give to the community. And we do the “hatches and matches” as well, for the same reason – as a record.
Audrey: When we call people to ask if they’d like their loved one’s eulogy printed in the paper, we say that it’s because it then becomes a document for the town’s record of history. The historical society in Warren keeps them all, as does the library.
Ros: A colleague at another regional paper sent me some interesting research recently about news consumption, that shows local newspapers are used more than many of the other high-profile mainstream media sources in regional Australia.
Jen: When you hold the reins of a local newspaper, it puts you in a unique position – a helicopter view, if you like – of what’s going on across the whole town. Does that give you a sense of Warren’s future?
Ros: I do think it gives us the sense that Warren is still very much a vibrant community – and we like to draw that out. We three come to this job with a diverse set of skills and from different professional backgrounds and yet when we came together we slowly morphed into being the same person, working on different days! But what we do have that’s unique is our list of contacts and the different circles we move in, which comes down to friendship and life groups. This means that we get information and stories from all parts of the community, and then we bring those pieces together.
Melissa: We actively go looking for stories and find out what’s out there and happening so we can let the community know. We talk to people and ask questions and show interest and because we’re involved with things at a community level as well, people come to us and keep us in the loop.
Melissa Irving, Audrey Weston and Ros Jackson, Warren NSW.
Jen: If you had a national platform, how would you “sell” Warren to those who are unfamiliar with the community?
Ros: I’d promote the fact that there are many different pockets of people in Warren – from diverse backgrounds and professions – but there’s an enmeshment because it’s a small community. The person on council is also a business owner who may also have children at the school and so on. It’s an intricate network because it’s small and because it’s small, you have people who are connected who otherwise might not be. And you wouldn’t see that all these people are connected if you didn’t have a local paper.
I know from having spent most of my life in Sydney – I’ve only been in Warren for just over ten years – it’s a very different lifestyle on the coast and very often you wouldn’t even know who your neighbours are.
Melissa: In a small community, the opportunities to be involved are there – the opportunity to be less isolated and more connected – but you have to want to do that. You have to actually come out and be involved, and you can be as involved as little or as much as you want to.
Ros: There’s an impetus that almost asks, if you’re not involved, then why not? It’s not a judgement, it’s more of a case of (asking), “Why wouldn’t you get involved, because this is your town too?”
I will say though, amidst all the doom and gloom of drought and other adversity, I think people don’t truly understand just how resilient we are, and that we’re really doing well to just hang in there.
Audrey: That’s such a big role of the paper (to show) examples of that endurance and what is available in the town. I might feel a bit down because things are bad in the drought, and then I’ll pick up the paper and see that, oh look, that person still has their business going, there’s a skate park being built in town, or there’s a committee I could join, or an event I could go to. The paper shows that there’s still life going on beyond my little bubble.
Ros: It shows there’s still life in the old girl yet! We hear other people (from elsewhere) say, “Oh, the drought’s been terrible because everyone has left the town and all the shops are shut”. Other towns have unfortunately suffered that fate – they’ve lost key businesses and services – but generally speaking, we have managed to retain many of ours. Sure, there are people who have had to leave town in search of work in the mines or whatever, but their families are still here. The town is still hanging in there, although it’s obviously tougher these days in terms of opportunities for young people.
Melissa: We feel we have an important role here at the paper, and a responsibility, I think, to keep looking for those pockets of vibrancy and activity. To help lift and maintain community spirits. We started a section called “Thumbs Up” to help remind ourselves of all the good things in Warren every week, and so that people would consciously start looking for those good news snippets and be conscious of the good things instead of focussing on the doom and gloom.
Audrey: Not only are we reporting on what’s happened in terms of activities around the town, but we also help promote upcoming events, to keep looking forward.
Jen: What’s the thing you love most about Warren?
Melissa: The friendliness of the people – that’s really important, particularly during hard times. You need to be able to get out of your house and walk down the street and be greeted by friendly people – you get that in a small community but not in the city in my experience.
Audrey: I grew up here and then I was away for a long time, but coming back to that sense of community was wonderful. As frustrating as it can sometimes be in a small town, where everyone knows your business and you know theirs – and you don’t necessarily want to know! – it’s usually inclusive and supportive. I talk to city friends about it and they say we’re very lucky to have that.
There was a funeral of a young fellow we all knew – this was quite a few years ago – and it was absolutely huge. A friend of mine from Sydney was here and couldn’t believe how the entire community turned out for this boy’s funeral, and how many people brought food. I hadn’t really thought about it until she pointed it out, and I just said, “Well, that’s what we do. We support each other. We’re a community.”
Ros: The wide-open spaces, the lack of traffic, being able to breathe – apart from during a dust storm – to me, that’s the advantage of rural life. It’s the space, the room to move, and the absence of that frenetic pace with people around everywhere, but ignoring each other. Coming from Sydney, there was quite a period of adjustment when I first moved here. People who live on the coast imagine what it’s going to be like out in the country. They have a romantic view in terms of the space and peace… and it actually is as you imagine!
The township of Warren is generally a lovely green, pretty place – the drought has made it a bit brown, but usually you see beautiful parks and lawns and it’s very picturesque and peaceful.
You walk down the street and you get, “good morning, good morning, good morning”; you don’t necessarily know them, they’re just being friendly.
There’s an epidemic of loneliness in the world’s cities now – it’s recognised as a mental health condition – but you just don’t get it to the same degree in small communities like ours.
Melissa: You do have to make an effort though, even in a small community, because even in a town like Warren you can be lonely if you don’t take the opportunities that are on offer.
Ros: The simple act of smiling and nodding at someone, even a stranger, and saying “good morning” is good for your own mental health – it makes you feel good.
Audrey: You get a nod and a hello not because you’re friends necessarily, but because you live in Warren – that goes to the sense of shared community.
*This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Melissa Irving, Audrey Weston and Ros Jackson, Warren NSW.