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In this Best of Series episode, we feature Senior Sports Writer, the late great Wayne Smith, on professional mastery, journalistic integrity and the future of Australian Rugby.
This episode is particularly close to my heart, given Wayne’s recent passing at the age of 69.
Wayne was an esteemed Australian sports journalist with a career spanning over 40 years. He was known for his unwavering integrity and profound knowledge of sport, particularly rugby union.
He started his journalistic career as a cadet at The Courier-Mail in Brisbane back in 1972, and three years later he ventured to Sydney to write for The Australian, where he provided comprehensive coverage of rugby union, cricket, and the Olympics and swimming. Wayne’s pieces also appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph.
Wayne’s legacy goes far beyond just his journalism as he played a pivotal role in advocating for Brisbane's successful bid for the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In 2021, Wayne semi-retired to the Sunshine Coast and I was privileged enough to interview him not long afterwards.
In this episode we talk about:
- Choosing the path of professional mastery over senior leadership positions
- Making decisions on whether to publish a story or not, or taking an angle that is at odds with your employer
- How a stroke a few years ago impacted his life and focusing on what’s important in life
- We go into some rugby chat, including what the future of Australian rugby holds and his thoughts on some of the potential star players at the next Rugby World Cup, which is being played in France in September and October this year.
Read Wayne Smith articles
Books and resources
“I think I have faith in journalism. I think that there are some outstanding individuals and goodness gracious. I don't go down to my Brisbane office very regularly, but when I walk in there, the talent around that room is staggering. It really is.”
On choosing the path of professional mastery over senior leadership positions
- If you love your job, then you're not really going to work every day. You're just doing something that you like doing and I've always loved my job, even in times when I've been struggling.
- Journalism is basically divided into two fields. There were the writers, and there were the sub-editors. Being a sub-editor was the path that you took to become an editor. And that's where the money was. I used to see these great writers who were pillars of the Courier-Mail or the Australian, and they probably weren't paid nearly what they should have been paid had they become a sub-editor. But I knew myself that it wasn't playing to my strengths. I knew myself well enough to know when you barely can organise yourself a little let alone organise anyone else! So I didn't go that way. And I'm really pleased that I didn't. I might've been more successful, who knows, but chances are, I would have been a complete flop because my heart wasn't in it.
- There's also a desire that you're wanting in your career to have an influence to make changes. And I thought to myself, that's the path where you can do that. So it wasn't entirely something that I just spurned straight from the word go. I actually gave it a lot of thought, but I do believe now that as a writer I can make changes well, I hope I can make changes for the better.
On choosing to publish or not to publish
- Look, you walk a very fine line as a journalist and your obligation is always the story and finding out the truth. But I don't believe in just for the sake of it, sensationalising something. So I'm sure there are times when other journalists look at my stories and think, “He's wimped out on this.” And perhaps it's a fair comment. I remember my editor in chief at the Australian, Chris Mitchell, he once said to me, “Smithy, your greatest strength as a journalist is that you see both sides of every argument. And your greatest weaknesses as a journalist is that you can see both sides of every argument.” So being able to see both sides of every argument is a strength and a weakness. And I know sometimes it works to my advantage and sometimes it doesn't.
- It wears you down. You can't keep fronting up day after day…and not be unaffected. But in the end, I just thought, you know what, this is what I believe, this is what I'm writing (about Israel Folau). I was in fact probably at odds with my own newspaper. And I spoke to my sports editor about it and he actually said that the editors were quite happy for me to run the line that I was running, because at least it gave the appearance of evenhandedness.
- I wrote a series of articles about drugs in sport and how they were permeating society. And I remember naming a doctor, and he sat across from me and said, “If I don't prescribe these steroids to these people, they will take them randomly, they'll take them stupidly. And I thought, yeah, but you're also giving drugs to cheats. Anyway I named that person. And long story short, if I'd had to do that story again, I'd run just about everything else, but I don't think I'd run that doctor's name. Because in retrospect, I think that was his honest assessment of the situation. How can I do most good or how can I do least harm, and he chose that way. I'm not sure that that's the way I would have chosen, but I don't know that as a journalist, I get to impose my morals on him.
On how a stroke in 2015 impacted his life
- So we are having a conversation and I'm using words like “olfactory nasal cells.” And then he said, “Okay, well, I'll see you later. You're looking good.” I went and sat down to do my exercises that the speech therapist was sending me and she said, “Where did that come from?” And I said, “What do you mean?” She says, “You were perfectly rational here,” for about five minutes. And I'd go back to the point where my wife wouldn't let me loose on the phone because God knows what I'd say or who I'd say it to. So for three months I was battling to find myself all over again.
- But physically no change. Except perhaps that I found it harder to read books which has always been the great solace of my life. So I'm only now rediscovering that. So I'm having to force myself to read books. But otherwise it just made me appreciate that, we're not here forever. And that's when we decided, we used to live down in Brisbane and I thought we've always talked about moving to the Sunshine Coast. Let's do it now. So we did.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- I have great faith in the next generation and maybe I'm dealing with kids who are the elite. But I see so many kids striving to do good things. And I see so many kids who are very much more aware of the environment of politics. Because they're young, they're not going to let that stop them from having a say and having an input. So I'm pretty gung-ho about the future.
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