My unbelievable year as a regional news reporter

Tom Shanahan in his Katanning office. Photo:Kenith Png.

An unenviable situation. It’s a miserable Saturday night and I’m parked out of the rain in the forecourt of a closed and isolated country service station. Hunched over my dying laptop only minutes from deadline, I try one last time to upload the photo needed for the front page of tomorrow’s Sunday Times

Responding to the news of a fatal plane crash deep in the Great Southern region, I am the only journalist in the state who can reach the tragic scene in time for print.

Only a couple of weeks into my first job as a journalist with Seven West Media, I am completely on my own but in these trying moments there is no time for self-doubt. After driving through the night in search of a single bar of data connection, I am making a desperate attempt to meet deadline.

More than 100 kilometres east of my one-person newsroom, drenched in my rain-soaked work gear, with a dying phone and a computer on its last legs – it was the perfect storm.

My sole purpose at this moment was to upload a single, clear photograph of the plane that I’d taken while lying on the roof of my vehicle in the rain. Yet all I could think to myself was ‘How did I get myself into this mess?’

Moving to the heart of the Great Southern region shortly after graduating from Curtin University with a BA in journalism, I was the classic 21-year-old graduate reporter, a volatile cocktail of newbie enthusiasm and over-confidence.

Nothing short of an average student, I found myself as the only journalist at the 120-year-old newspaper the Great Southern Herald based in Katanning, an agricultural town of around 4,000 people situated on the old Albany to Perth railway line.

I was responsible for producing the content of the 20-page newspaper each week, as well as regaining the trust of the community after the paper had been produced externally for the previous five years.

While the task was daunting, I had limitless freedom on the type of news I could cover, an invaluable learning experience, but one with immense responsibility.

Covering everything from courts to education to COVID to politics, my rounds spanned all corners of news.

Establishing close ties to the region’s emergency services, political representatives, sporting heroes and community stalwarts, I went from being an outsider from the city to a welcomed member of the close-knit community.

This helped me make a name for myself as the face of the newspaper, but I quickly learnt the harsh reality this lack of invisibility had for me as a reporter and a community member.

Nearly every edition of the paper we would publish, an article I wrote would impact the community or a person I came to know personally in some way, shape or form.

This meant each story was real, not only editorially, but from an individual and inter-personal perspective – creating an unexpected and unique social situation that differed drastically from my brief experience as a metro reporter. 

This was most notable in my experience at the local football club, the Katanning Wanderers. I joined the club, playing in their reserves team, alongside my role as being the A-grade side’s season photographer and reporter.

I saw first-hand how important sport is to the fabric of a regional community like Katanning, as I followed The Wanderers meteoric rise from wooden spoon holders to league champions.

But when games heated up as they inevitably did, I found myself treading water in murky seas between my role as a journalist and my role as a member of a community sporting club – especially when my team-mates’ wellbeing was put on the line.

While this time within a regional sporting club was an eye-opening experience, I would go on to find that the topic of health to be the most inspiring. 

A few months into my time at the paper, I stumbled upon the heartbreaking story of a local family who lost their newborn baby to a rare genetic condition, spinal muscular atrophy.

Interviewing the baby’s mother, I followed the family’s story across several feature pieces, giving voice to their call to expand newborn screening to mandate SMA testing.

The initial story I broke indirectly helped kick-off state-wide headlines, and the family was eventually successful in persuading the state government to add SMA to the newborn screening test.

Now back in Perth, stories like this, alongside the significance of the 200 plus articles I wrote in my time at the paper, still resonate with me.

And yes, I also hold onto the photo that I eventually was able to upload of the fatal plane crash in time for publication, which went on to make the front page of The Sunday Times!

Tom Shanahan’s plane crash story. Courtesy Seven West Media.

***Special thanks to Seven West Media for permission to use these images.