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#FlashbackFridays: Sue Stephenson

Hatch reporter Tom Livingstone profiles the industry professionals teaching at Macleay College, for a new series – #FlashbackFridays

Macleay College is paving the way for future journalists with innovative, practical and, most importantly, fun teaching methods. The staff are exceptional, giving students the best education and sculpting them into elite professional communicators.

What shapes these amazing people and what journey have they been on to get to where they are today?

This week, our #FlashbackFridays series proudly brings you Sue Stephenson’s profile. Sue joined Macleay College only this year, but already the multi-subject lecturer and newsroom editor is proving to be a true asset to the journalism faculty. 

Image above: Sue being all high-tech in the early days of her newspaper cadetship at The Manning River Times, circa 1985) 

What job did you first start out with in the industry?

I used to hang out all the time at the Quirindi Advocate (north-west NSW) when I was growing up, and ended up having my first front page story when I was just 14. Not too hard I guess in a town of only 2500! After school I moved to the Taree area (mid-north coast NSW) where I fronted up to The Manning River Times every couple of weeks, trying to convince the editor to give me a job. He eventually caved in and gave me a cadetship to “stop me annoying him”. I ended up sitting at the same desk that Liz Hayes (60 Minutes) once occupied and was constantly reminded of it. But I was surrounded by the most wonderful mentors, who also encouraged me to aspire to her success. I caught the broadcast bug and from there moved on to Prime Television Taree and Port Macquarie, then Channel 7 Sydney and then the ABC. Now I’m teaching and researching journalism, with the occasional news production shift at Channel 9 thrown in.

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What did you love about those early days?

Regional news is the best way to start out. You meet genuine, hard-working characters who love a chat. You’re always first on the scene and right in the middle of it when there are floods, fires and rescues, and you get to tell stories that matter – even if they result in something as small as a road being fixed or a community hero being recognised. Back then the police called on us to document crime and accident scenes, so I’ve seen my fair share of murder victims and other terrible tragedies too.

Image: Journalism lecturer @susanstevo (Image: Macleay College).

What did you hate about them?

Wedding reports and obituaries! They were the bane of a cadet’s life. But that sort of mundane stuff also taught me to dig deep and ask lots of questions – and it usually paid off. One day I was writing up a nursing home report (yes, it was a thing…) and I saw something about a resident who used to work for Fox Movietone News. It turned out he was Eric W. Bierre, the war cinematographer who worked alongside Damien Parer. He was also the cameraman who shot the laughing kookaburras at the start of the old Cinesound newsreels (the laughing kookaburra is the symbol of the National Film and Sound Archive). I ended up earning lots of brownie points for the stories I did on Eric and he became a bit of a local celebrity. So one of the things I hated most ended up leading to my first exclusive.

Sue-Stephenson-Logie.jpgWhat is a career highlight you have (or are there a few)?

More than a few! I’ve been caught in a bushfire with my cameramen after screaming at local students to get to safety. We managed to get out okay, just in time to lead that night’s National News bulletin. I’ve also spent three days and nights on a beach covering what still is Australia’s most successful mass whale rescue. It was pre-social media but there were hundreds of people who came from all over Australia to help. I was the first reporter on the scene and my stories and news documentary ended up winning lots of awards, including a Logie and an all-expenses paid trip to Europe. When I turned to producing, I discovered the adrenalin rush of breaking news. The biggest game-changer of course was 9/11, 2001. The Twin Towers were hit just as Natalie Barr (Sunrise) and I were about to go on-air with the Late News. We didn’t stop rolling until another team took over seven hours later. There was no social media to draw on, even then, so Nat had to trust that the shocking things I was telling her in her earpiece were true. Nat was nine months pregnant and I was seven months pregnant, so we were pretty emotional anyway. I’ve since produced hundreds of hours of live breaking news. A recent career highlight, of course, is being part of the team that launched ABC News 24 (now the ABC News Channel). I was the start-up channel’s founding executive producer and it was a thrill to design bulletins and programs and train our mostly young team in the art of rolling news. And they haven’t stopped rolling since.

Image: Sue on stage, accepting the Logie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Regional Television (she still has the dress), 1993.

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What do you enjoy about teaching at Macleay?

Everyone puts up with my stories! I sincerely love sharing the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over 32 years of same-day news and I never grow tired of workshopping new storytelling and production techniques. I never quite got news management – it was such a departure from the joy of news-making. So in a way I’ve got the students of Macleay to thank for helping me re-discover my mojo. Besides, where else would I get to see guest speakers as amazing as Peter Greste!

What would you be doing if you weren’t a journalism superstar?

I reckon I’d make a good public prosecutor. I like a good debate and it’d be good to go from exposing the bad guys to putting them away.

Image: Sue on stage accepting an MEAA journalist of the year award.

Something quirky, most people don’t know about you.

I spent years in amateur theatre and was even paid for a couple of theatre restaurant shows (I was the bawdy serving wench).
I’ve also been rescued from a whirlpool on the White Nile and an animal pit on the Maasai Mara, but that’s another story….

A quote or belief that personally motivates you each day.

What’s Plan B?

Originally featured on Hatch, Macleay College's student run news site. 

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