Michael Short – Editor at The Zone & Editorial Writer at The Age Newspaper

Michael Short created The Zone in April 2010. Published in The Age and across Fairfax Media’s digital platforms, The Zone is an interview-based, multimedia package that examines ideas and the people behind them. He launched The Zone after spending four years on the newspaper’s editorial board and after a year as editor of new media, as well as overseeing production and pictorial. Michael rejoined The Age as executive editor – business, in March 2005, having worked at the newspaper in various roles in the 1980s and early 1990s. Since late 2002, when he returned from 10 years in Paris, he had been in charge of the Melbourne operations of The Australian Financial Review.

In 2002, Michael was invited to write and deliver a post-graduate course on journalism and media at the Political Sciences Institute in Paris, one of France’s most prestigious universities. From 1999 until 2001, he was founding European chief executive of NewsAlert, a company that created real-time information channels of news and applications for websites. From 1997, he was multimedia director for Bloomberg News in Paris, as well as doing live daily television analyses and studio interviews. Prior to that, he was founding editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Television, France. During his 25-year career, he has worked in print, radio and television in Australia, the USA and Europe, including a scholarship with the Paris-based Journalists in Europe Foundation. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with majors in economics, philosophy and commercial law.

Describe yourself in 3 words: Engaged, Bemused, Caring. 

What is your life motto? I’m not all that big on mottos because they tend to oversimplify what is a mysterious, miraculous and complex existence. However, I would try to encapsulate a number of ideas with this thought: Be kind, have fun and take risks. 

When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? I don’t see myself necessarily as successful. I’m not trying to be unduly self-deprecating, but I often feel a fear of mediocrity and failure. I didn’t really start a career with ambition or plan or drive, I fell into journalism and discovered I loved it. I went into journalism because I was offered a job by The Age after I finished an undergraduate degree and to some extent I started in journalism because I was I was escaping the horror of doing an honors degree in economics.

How much time and effort did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? That kind of depends upon where you are at a given time. There have been roles that I’ve had and times in my career where there has been what would be an unsustainable (over longer term) commitment required. For example launching a TV station in Paris from a standing start in three months. I was working 18 hours a day.

When I did the Chief Executive role during the dot com; dot coma around the turn of the century or millennium, I was working between Paris and London – I had an office in both setting up an operation and that again was 18 hours a day, six days a week.

Other times, less intensive activity is required and I think one of the most interesting changes in the work place in the time that I’ve been professionally involved is the idea of ‘results only work environment’.

I think that people make a mistake by only concentrating on the number of hours or the distribution of those hours; it should be a focus rather on what is produced in the time that you dedicate to producing it. Depending on what you do, that time can really vary, and often the best results are in short bursts of creativity from somebody that has balance in their life and the energy to do that. So I don’t think there is any sort of rule across the board; it all depends on the individual.

What are the challenges in your line of work? Organisations can become sclerotic and bureaucratic, so there can be a mismatch between the rhetoric of agility and the ability to actually get things done; and that can lead to frustrations and political tension. So how you deal with those personally and professionally can be kind of challenging because other things like politics and bureaucracy can swamp the creative ideas.

What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? I probably have many. I think probably the most valuable lesson I learned was not as a journalist but as a Chief Executive – and that is that no matter how carefully constructed a business plan might be, no matter how good and creative your business idea might be, unless you actually execute something you’ll never know and you’ll be certain to fail. So to actually get something started and get everything right before you start prevents execution of the idea – often that’s the big risk. The lesson I learnt is to get something going, fix it as you go along and build it up rather than trying to get it perfect from the word go. Be prepared to give it a go if it works and be prepared to kill it if it doesn’t. 

What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? I think the best advice is to be persistent, resilient and to keep going with an honest effort – and that no matter what happens, do not compromise your core beliefs and values. Keep going and understand that everybody fails from time to time. Value what you’ve got and where you’re going. 

In your mind, is formal training essential? No, I don’t think so. I think that formal training is very important; in certain professions it is essential. I would not like to have surgery performed by somebody who hasn’t had formal training. In the area I work, formal training is not the most important thing. I think that attitude and support and raw talent and energy are probably more important. 

Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? Mentoring is widely recognised as very important. I think it’s part of generational equity, it’s the responsibility of those who have gone before to pay it back a bit and I would look at mentoring as more broadly the idea of support that you need in a career professionally and personally.

How do you go about getting it? Ask if there is a program – I mentor, for example, under a program at Melbourne University. A mentoring program has been introduced at Fairfax Media, which has been very popular. But if there is not a program available, go and ask somebody that you admire for some mentoring or support. Go and ask some specific questions; most people will generally be very happy to do that. People like to engage with people with ideas, with people, with places and issues. It’s one of the things that give existence meaning I think, and mentoring is a great way of being kind. 

What are some steps those starting out can take to start/further their career? The barriers to entry to media are down. I think social media is an inadequate description of with what is going on; it should be called open media. I would urge people, particularly young people seeking to get into journalism, to use open media. Write; take photographs, whatever it is you want to do in the media, as there is no barrier to you getting it out there. But it’s very hard for you to get momentum, so I would at the same time be contacting (and doing so regularly) the media organisations you want to work for. I would be getting on to blogs and LinkedIn groups and following discussions and being active. I would be prepared to be working in bars at night and writing during the day or vice versa. It’s a very exciting time, but it’s not easy and writers know that sitting in front of a blank screen trying to create something of quality, interest, importance, something that isn’t hackneyed, is really, really difficult. So the more you work at it, the better the portfolio you will have to show when the time comes – and the time will come, so keep pushing. Be resilient, be persistent, be creative and keep having a go. It gives you the best chance you’ve got.

What kept you going when you weren’t at your best? The humbling confidence that others had in me. It helps you rebuild your self-esteem, your energy and you get back into it. Taking risks (and you need to take the right risks; calibrated and rational risks) but taking risks means that you’re going to have some difficulties. The only thing worse than taking risks would be not taking them, because then you’re not really living. The support that other people show you when you’ve had a go and it hasn’t worked tends to put things into perspective and is a really beautiful and inspiring thing that happens. The other thing is pure necessity. I have 3 kids; I can’t fall in a self-defeated heap whenever I have a go but it doesn’t work and then say to my children, ‘sorry there’s no more income for the household.’ Having a family is something that can really keep you focused. Everybody has ups and downs.

Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? I think you can identify turning points in your life, and sometimes those turning points involve luck and being in the right place at the right time. Obviously there is an enchanting and serendipitous element to life, but I think that also you can recognise that some of those turning points you only recognise with hindsight. There are some that are a function of taking a risk or making a decision – and that’s not to do with luck. So try to identify turning points before or as they happen, which can be a very difficult but good thing to do. Also to know when to take which risk. There may be luck involved whether that risk pays off, but taking the risk, making the decision, having a go, is not really a function of luck. It’s a function of energy and attitude and courage.

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