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The Editors: The West Australian’s Anthony De Ceglie

The West Australian‘s Editor-in-Chief Anthony De Ceglie delivered the second lecture in JNI’s event series ‘The Editors’ at the Institute’s Chippendale headquarters on June 2.

He spoke of his core mission as editor of The West: to make the audience care.

“To feel our stories in their bones, and in their guts and in their hearts and in their minds,” as he described it.

“To care so much they talk about our scoops and investigations at the kitchen table every morning, on the train on the way to work, across cubicles in the office, on Facebook and Twitter and Reddit, at the pub, at the footy oval, at the dinner table, on the couch at night while they’re flicking through Netflix and even as they’re going to bed.”

“I want them to care so much about our stories they can’t sleep at night and instead they toss and turn because we have them so fired up they’re ready to explode.”

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Transcript

Good evening everyone.

Firstly, thank you to the Judith Neilson Institute for inviting me to speak tonight as part of “The Editors” series. It’s a real honour to be chosen alongside Christopher Dore, Lenore Taylor and Michael Stuchbury to give a lecture on my philosophy on editing and the news industry. I don’t for a moment imagine that I’m in the same league as those three, but I will do my best to hold my own tonight.

Before I go any further I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we’re meeting, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their elders past, present and, most crucially, those emerging. I do want to make a point of saying that I sincerely believe there is a debt owed among us in the mass media to do as much as we can to end racism in this country.

The West Australian received some praise last week for creating the first-ever dual-language Noongar/English front page to mark the start of Reconciliation Week. That cover was just the latest step in a journey that our newspaper has been on that includes having the only Indigenous drawn daily comic strip in the nation, a Noongar word of the day in our Letters section and our landmark commitment to design, edit and print a lift out promoting the work of the National Indigenous Times that is inserted every month in our newspaper. All these initiatives are great and we’re really proud of them, but we are self-aware enough to know that there is a lot more to do and that there is plenty more owed to those we’ve let down in the past.

I recently gave a speech in Perth that I was hoping would be a bit of a warm up to tonight. I started it by saying that editing is more often than not the most ridiculous job you could ever imagine.

To set the scene for the audience I gave them a window into how that very night was unfolding for me. It was 8pm and the Thursday before the federal election. I had held our deadline back because then Prime Minister Scott Morrison was due to land in WA to spend his final day of the campaign in Perth. The West Australian had been promised the only images of him arriving and I had kept a giant hole on Page One empty where the picture and the headline was going to slot in perfectly. Five minutes before I was due on stage and about 90-minutes-late the image finally arrived.

As in literally one image arrived.

Now I was imagining it would be Morrison descending down the aircraft stairs looking presidential for perhaps the last time. Instead, we got a wide shot of him putting his luggage into the back of a car. And, as I told the audience, the only thing that was going through my mind as I was texting a front page headline to my team while walking onto the stage was: “PM packs his bags”.

In the end, I went for “Flight of his life”. But, in hindsight, maybe I should have been a bit harsher after all.

As I was saying, that talk was two nights before an election in which WA was always fated to take centre-stage. So the truth is I was a bit more ad-lib than I would have liked. And as I did my best to appear somewhat composed on a range of different subjects it dawned on me mid-talk that what I really wanted to say was that my job as an editor is make the audience care. To feel our stories in their bones, and in their guts and in their hearts and in their minds.

To care so much they talk about our scoops and investigations at the kitchen table every morning, on the train on the way to work, across cubicles in the office, on Facebook and Twitter and Reddit, at the pub, at the footy oval, at the dinner table, on the couch at night while they’re flicking through Netflix and even as they’re going to bed. I want them to care so much about our stories they can’t sleep at night and instead they toss and turn because we have them so fired up they’re ready to explode.

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I have a whiteboard in my office that I scrawl a host of different things on. Mainly it’s a to-do list, but there’s also slogans and catch cries to keep me honest during the week

One of those is “turn it up 1,000” and another is “don’t sit still”.

On the bottom left I have stuck up a printout of an old cover of the satirical magazine National Lampoon. It’s from June 1973 and it’s the “Death Issue”. On the cover is a beautiful doe-eyed border collie. The kind of dog that would win first prize at the Royal Show. Next to it is a hand holding a pistol with the gun aimed straight at the canine’s temple. The headline reads, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog”. Now obviously that’s a joke. But in many ways it encapsulates how I feel about what traditional media must do to stay relevant.

The absolute unvarnished truth is that we are in the fight of our lives. It is a daily war to stay relevant. And we’re not just competing against other media outlets anymore. We’re competing against Instagram and TikTok and Disney+ and Amazon, and we’re competing against time. People have never been more time poor. If we want them to take notice, if we want them to listen, if we want them to care about our journalism then we need to do everything we can, and we need to do it every single day.

Most of my conversation tonight will be about that, but I will break it up into a few different parts to help tell my story and share my insights.

Firstly, I will tell you a little bit about who I am and how I got to this moment. I promise it won’t be a long walk down memory lane as it’s mainly a chance for me to highlight some of the mentors who helped along the way, particularly the editors I have worked for and to pass on the knowledge they so graciously gave me.

The second part will focus on the main challenges facing editors today, how I go about my Editing and why I think what we’re doing at The West Australian is working. I will try not to bore you with figures, but West Australian Newspapers is currently the fastest-growing cross-platform news brand in the country with a year-on-year growth of about 20 per cent. No one comes close to that. And we’ve held the title now for a long time too. I’ll explain later why I believe we’re just getting started.

Finally, I will speak about the industry’s future — the incredible positives and some of the challenges. I will end by telling you what inspires me daily across the business, because — and I really mean this —  if there’s one thing you take out of tonight please let it be this: we are in the best job you could ever dream of. So much so that I feel guilty when people ask me what I do for a living because journalism is simply too much fun, too exciting and too much of an adrenalin rush every day to be a real job.

Anthony De Ceglie delivered the second lecture in JNI’s ‘The Editors’ series.

My first role straight out of university was at the Collie Mail in a small mining town in the south-west of WA with a population of less than 10,000 people.

Within a few weeks of being a journalist I found myself in the middle of a national story when two 16-year-old Collie girls killed their 15-year-old best friend Eliza Davis for fun. We didn’t really know it at the time, but it was the first real glimpse of what the methamphetamine epidemic would do to this country. Needless to say it was a baptism of fire for me.

I was in Collie for 10 months, then at a slightly bigger newspaper for 10 months before I was headhunted to join New Corp’s The Sunday Times in Perth.

I always tell budding journalists that I can spot the reporters in any newsroom who have done time in regional areas. And I encourage university graduates to seek out these opportunities. There’s something about going to a local court and reporting on a drink-driving amateur footy star and then having to cross paths with them in the local bakery or, God forbid, having a pensioner ring you up and abuse you because you’ve written down the lawn bowls results wrong.

What these moments teach you is that every story matters to someone and that every subject matters to someone — no matter how seemingly small they may seem to you.

My first major metro newspaper editor at The Sunday Times was Sam Weir.

Of course, Sam has since been the editor at The Adelaide Advertiser, The Courier Mail and is now running the Herald Sun. More than anything he taught me that the harder you work, the luckier you get. The difference in getting a scoop is almost always about the willingness to make an extra phone call or knock on an extra door or read an extra 100 pages of court listings.

Sam also led by example. And he backed his reporters, which is crucial to the DNA of any decent editor. I remember stumbling upon a great bureaucratic bungle yarn and the Premier’s office did that insanely stupid thing where they went over my head and sent a response to my questions directly to the editor all while trying to talk down my yarn. I was still pretty young so wasn’t sure if I was in trouble or not. Then I’ll never forget Sam writing back without a beat, “brilliant! Sounds like Anthony has tomorrow’s front page.”  Meanwhile, my first chief-of-staff was the Walkley Award-winning reporter John Flint. He taught me one of my all-time favourite sayings about journalism: that’s it’s not a job, it’s a vocation.

At the age of 26, I won the West Australian Journalist of the Year. In particular, the award recognised an investigation I did into a spate of suicides among patients at a mental health clinic. In one of those cases a young man desperately seeking help was turned away from the emergency department only to literally walk across the road and take his own life in a nearby primary school.

His lifeless body was found by young kids. My stories lead to a landmark report that saw major changes to State legislation. I only bring this up because I vividly remember a crusty old reporter telling me when I started that series of stories that mental health patients don’t buy newspapers. Since then, I’ve dedicated a large part of my career to raising awareness of mental health.

I was made chief-of staff-shortly after this and was then lucky enough to get a spot on the International Development Program with News Corp. This saw me go to New York on secondment.

I got to sit next to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who were the most passionate, but also the most humble of professionals. I remember I joked with one of them once about how nobody seemed to have an ego and that they were bigger heads in the Perth media scene than Manhattan. Their reply was really fascinating and it stuck with me. They said that even the most successful people in New York were acutely aware of how replaceable they could be. Sure, you might be an award-winning and gun reporter with a few trophies in your bag, but you should always remember there’s hundreds of thousands of others out there desperate to do what you’re doing and they’re probably just as good – and willing to do it for half the price.

“When I took on the job editing The West I made it personal from the get go,” says Anthony De Ceglie.

When I came back to Perth I was made the deputy editor of The Sunday Times. I was working for Rod Savage, another mentor of mine. Rod, who is now the king of digital in South Australia, taught me perhaps the most important lesson in my career, which is to remain human and think of your family. You can be a good journalist and a good person. And, at the end of the day, if you’re a great journalist but you’re a terrible human, then what’s the point? I know my brilliant wife Sarah and my four-year-old Levi and one-year-old Esme thank Rod for teaching me that.

It wasn’t too long after this I joined The Daily Telegraph in Sydney where I became the deputy editor to Chris Dore, who is now obviously the Editor-in-Chief at The Australian.

I will come back to Dorey a few times as I go along tonight because there’s no doubt that he’s left the biggest mark on my career. He taught me about pushing boundaries and the lengths you have to go to produce something truly great. I remember I once went into his office about midnight after another spectacularly drawn out deadline. It was one of those nights where Dorey had ripped up everything the team had tried to do and made us redo it about five times to get it right while giving us some not so polite words of encouragement. I was slumped in a chair exhausted and I remember saying to him that, “surely every day isn’t meant to be this hard”. He looked at me and said “it HAS to be that hard because that’s the only way you know you’re putting out a great paper”.

The Tele is a strange and at times unwieldy beast, but for the three years I worked there alongside Dorey the paper won about nine Walkleys and was nominated for 12.

I got to learn from some of the best in the business and there’s way too many to name them all, from Buzz to Matty Q to JMo to Cliffy to Gail Barnsley to Nic Gibson to JFY to Moz. And then there’s the ones who would go on to join me in The West: James Schwier, Ben McClellan and Tony Vermeer.

Maybe most importantly though, I got to learn from the legendary editor Jeni O’Dowd, who I probably owe more to then she even knows. Jeni, who of course edited The Sunday Telegraph when it was selling so many papers that Lachlan Murdoch had to buy her a Porsche, was so generous in teaching me the absolutely crucial craft of putting a newspaper together and being mindful of the flow and light and shade. Again, she was a perfectionist. Mostly she taught me to back my vision and then let it ride.

I remember I was quite new to the Sydney newsroom (some blow in from Perth essentially) when the Nice terror attacks happened. Dorey was out and I was in the chair. I had devised a concept for page one that was a running list descending downwards from the top of the page of all the dead from recent attacks starting in 120 point and slowly coming down to 15 point where the final line rested on a fresh body bag.

Lots of people in the newsroom saw that cover and — truth be told — tried to talk me out of it. It was the usual stuff before people became used to what I was trying to do. It didn’t have a proper headline. There wasn’t a kicker. I didn’t have other pointers on page one to Sport or something fluffy in Confidential. It looked like a movie poster, not a newspaper.

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Jeni didn’t try to talk me out of it. It was a front page that was unique, it hadn’t been done before, and it made the reader care. It went viral. For the next 24 hours every news station in the world was showing it and talking about.

In many ways that front page and its reaction really changed how I looked at what a newspaper cover could be. How when every element of a page comes together you can achieve something monumental that lifts the journalism and the brand and the readership. It can also lift the newsroom. There’s nothing that hungry journalists like more than seeing a front page or a 4-5 spread or a page 11 headline as epic as the scoop they’ve worked so hard to get. 

Just after Dorey got promoted to The Australian, I got a call out of the blue to meet Kerry Stokes (who at the time I had never spoken to). He asked me if I wanted to take over as editor-in-chief of West Australian Newspapers. It was a role that includes The West, The Sunday Times, the popular PerthNow website, 19 regional newspapers and 12 community newspapers. It was quite simply an opportunity too good to pass up. 

Campbell Reid gave me two bits of advice when I took the job on that I will never forget: 

  • One – act fast: because otherwise six months will go by, and you’ll realise you haven’t changed a damn thing. 
  • And, two – trust your first impressions: you’ll meet people and get an instinct about them almost immediately. You’ll be amazed at how often that first impression is right. 

I certainly tried to act fast when I joined The West Australian, I let about 65 people go in the first 12 months. But that needs to be put into context. 

When I arrived, our now very successful website thewest.com.au didn’t even have a paywall. 

It must have been the only major newspaper in the western world that wasn’t charging people for online news. When I asked Ryan Stokes why there was no paywall, he told me the company didn’t think the content was good enough. 

Ryan, who’s definitely among the smartest and most determined people I have ever met, has a values chart he calls the “Owner’s Mindset” … it lists 10 principles on how to run a successful organisation. That’s also up on my whiteboard. 

 One of the principles is to “value pace”. It’s a mantra that says choose “action over analysis paralysis”. The ninth principle is that “risk is for the taking”. And then, finally, number 10 is that “it’s personal”. I like that last one a lot. 

Another unvarnished truth is that I entered journalism at a time when it felt like every six months there would be a company-wide email calling for voluntary redundancies. 

 I would watch older reporters sit back and laugh about how they were just hanging around waiting for what they referred to as their lotto payout. Some of these people had already been made redundant before.  They didn’t care about the future of a young reporter like myself. They had long since stopped caring about the brand. Hell, they didn’t care if an entire newsroom was sleepwalking off a cliff. 

I would questions about why we were doing some time-consuming tasks that seemed entirely out-of-date and I would get the worst answer you can ever hear in any business: “Because we’ve always done it that way”. 

When I took on the job editing The West I made it personal from the get go.  

That’s why I want my front pages to be so interesting and so timeless that even if you see it for the first time at 2pm and morning radio has long since stolen the exclusive and it’s been on social media and Sunrise and there’s been chitchat in the office … you still stop and gawk because it’s so provocative. 

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When Mark McGowan broke every West Australian’s heart earlier this year and extended the hard border and we mocked him by making him an old man finally saying WA was open in 25 years’ time, our front page went so viral across the country it had 13 million views on The West Australian’s Facebook page alone. 

I do things like turn Clive Palmer into a cane toad, or a chicken, or a cockroach, or Dr Evil on page one because I want the cover to be talked about – good or bad. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. 

But it’s not always about being funny (or trying to be). Like the Nice terror attack front page I mentioned earlier, and as I keep saying tonight, it’s about making people care. 

During the most-watched presidential campaign in America’s history, two of our Donald Trump front pages took centre-stage in the US. On the very day that people went to the polls, the immensely popular Drudge Report was using The West Australian’s cover art of the Statue of Liberty with her hands covering up to her face and peeking out her fingers and the headline “GULP!” as their main display image. And when the Capitol Riots dominated international headlines it was our Roman Empire inspired front page of the Last Days of Trump that took pride of place on CNN’s Instagram page, exposing our masthead from Perth to its 17.5 million followers.  

Making people care is also about standing for something. There’s that great line in Hamilton: if you stand for nothing then what do you fall for? 

I think a lot of our audience growth success at West Australian Newspapers is because my team has successful moved the brand from what was traditionally a very conservative newspaper into what I call the “mainstream middle”. 

“Making people care is also about standing for something.”

I was recently asked two questions about our election coverage. One was how do you know if you’re doing a good job? And the other what was the most defining moment of our reporting? 

The answer to the first question is quite easy; I always say that you know you’re doing your job if by the end of the campaign neither of the major parties is happy with you. The answer to the second question about The West’s most defining moment is a bit more complex. 

We had some great scoops, some great headlines and there was also the Seven West Media TV debate that we were all proud of. But, for my team as a whole, it was an editorial we wrote that drew a line in the sand for our readers for what was at that point threatening to somehow become a significant election issue that defined our coverage the most. 

In that editorial wrote how we consider ourselves an “economically conservative, but socially progressive” newspaper. And we think that this has served our readers and the state (Western Australian) well over the past three and a half years. As such, we felt we simply had to call out the “desperate” politicians trying to create a wedge over transgender girls and women playing competitive sport. Our crucial weekday Fact Checker column by my former chief of staff John Flint revealed that not a single sporting body in WA had even raised the issue that was suddenly dominating airwaves. Meanwhile, trans kids are 15 times more likely to self-harm. We wrote how the schoolyard can be an awfully hard, awfully confusing, nasty and lonely place for some. And faux outrage being allowed to be whipped up across the nation would only make trans children more alone, more confused, and more scared. 

The mainstream middle means we’re a newspaper that reflects common sense, but also stays true to the belief that journalism is about giving a voice to the voiceless. And, for the record, the forgotten people of this nation who need a voice aren’t those living comfortably in the outer suburbs despite what political leaders try to tell us. 

Shifting a newspaper to the mainstream middle can’t be done without the right people around you.

Leaders like our Business Editor Sarah-Jane Tasker, who is in the room tonight, or my Chief Executive Maryna Fewster. Good editing means surrounding yourself with excellent people who will challenge and push you and aren’t afraid to tell you that you’re about to do something you’ll regret or doesn’t reflect the new standards you’re trying to create. 

So is all this working? Well, the truth is I probably wouldn’t still be in the job if it wasn’t. 

 As I said earlier, we’re by far-and-away the fastest growing cross-platform brand in the country. And we have been for a while. 

The Latest Roy Morgan figures show West Australian Newspapers now has a bigger total audience at 4.6 million readers across print and online every month, more than The Daily Telegraph. 

We’re literally less than one per cent (0.85 per cent to be exact) away from being bigger than the Herald Sun too. To put that into context, Perth’s population is less than half those two cities. 

But, I know we can’t be complacent. 

Going back to Ryan Stokes’ 10 principles again … another one I like says that innovation must be an eternal quest. 

I have made so many changes at The West Australian that it can be dizzying to list them all. From introducing a flexible paywall that uses real-time analytics to help guide producers into choosing what to lock and what to make free at any given moment, to launching a morning radio show The West List that has significantly eaten into the Perth talkback audience, to launching a fully-fledged video department under the brilliant leadership of former Today Tonight Executive Producer Natalie Bonjolo that produces Netflix-style multipart documentaries as well as our Up Late with Ben Harvey show that is watched by about 50,000 people every night. 

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 And we are seriously only just getting started. 

In recent days, we launched a new six-member food and wine review team. It includes a state-wide search for a citizen reviewer that includes a reality contest where they have to send in a two-minute video to convince us they should get the job. I’m secretly hoping for a nonna from Fremantle or a self-confessed FIFO-bogan who loves a good chicken parmi. 

In recent weeks, we launched a brand-new site for streaming amateur and junior sport called Streamer.com.au that I honestly believe could be a genuine disrupter to the social media giants. 

In recent months, I signed off on new AI technology for my digital producers that uses complex algorithms way beyond the human brain to ensure my team is putting the right stories in the right spots. 

And I can’t forget my special passion project – launching the richest short story prize in the world. We have had 4700 entries from across the country for our Best Australian Yarn competition. A few days ago I had an email from a prisons officer asking if he could enter on behalf on an inmate who only had intermittent internet access. My ambition is to create an annual prize for short story writing akin to the Archibald. 

I think The West’s future is very bright. But I think all of our futures can be bright. 

In particular, I don’t think newspapers are given enough credit for being the main disrupters in traditional media. I always use the brilliant Teacher’s Pet podcast by Hedley Thomas for The Australian as the example. It was a newspaper that produced a podcast that won a Gold Walkley. Not a radio station. 

I see a future where thewest.com.au is your everything when it comes to news for West Australians. From breaking stories and app alerts, to multi-dimensional features to TV bulletins, live-streaming and even round-the-clock radio. 

So if that’s the good news, then what are the challenges? You’ll be glad to know my bugbear is, I think, relatively easy to fix. 

 My biggest concern about the industry is primarily a lack of literacy in the craft. Too many journalists are too inwardly facing. They simply don’t read or watch or listen enough to their colleagues. Which, I think, is crazy because there’s so much great journalism around us. There’s so many things that inspire me on a daily basis. I’ve actually started compiling a reading list of sorts that I share with young reporters, which I figured would be a nice way to end tonight’s conversation. 

I tell my team: 

  • Bookend your week with the media columns. If you’re not interested in reading about the industry you’re in then you might as well give up now. Start your week with The Australian’s Media section on a Monday and end it with Amanda Meade’s Weekly Beast for the Guardian on a Friday. 
  • Read the Rear Window column every day. Look, it’s hardcore and provocative – but it’s also brilliant.
  • Third, and staying with the AFR, read anything Phillip Corey writes. No one writes as expertly and calmly about federal politics as he does. He started a column recently by saying that “political discourse has pretty much arrived at a point where nothing means anything any more”. I’m not sure I have read a better sentence in years.
  • Number four, check out the Saturday and Sunday Courier-Mail newspapers. They’re edited by Kelvin Healey. His attention to detail on every page is breath-taking. Sometimes I look at his page one covers and I’m genuinely intimidated by how much work he puts into them and how great they are. 
  • Number five, take The Daily Mail seriously. I know we all love to moan about how they lift content, but the truth is we all do it. And the thing about The Daily Mail is that it sells stories so darn well. Sometimes I pull my digital producers aside and ask them, “How would The Daily Mail sell this story?” … and then I tell them to go do that. 
  • Number six, read anything by Wenlei Ma at news.com.au … I tried to hire her years ago when I was at The Daily Tele because no one in Australia writes about pop culture or movies and TV shows as cleverly and as on point as she does. 
  • Take note of Laura Murphy Oates and what she does at The Guardian under the Full Story umbrella. 
  • Read Buzz’ sports column in The Tele. Nothing comes close to it. 
  • For that matter, read J-Mo (or I should say Jonathan Moran) in The Tele too. No one breaks celebs stories like he does. 
  • I had to update this one on the run up to tonight because she just got promoted, but I was going to say check out a small News Corp regional newspaper called the Sunshine Coast Daily edited by Nadja Fleet. Honestly, some of the coolest and boldest designs I have seen in a long time. Nadja, I found out yesterday, has just been made the editor of the Geelong Advertiser, which has a really proud history of awesome editors. 
  • Now, I’m a bit bias, but … read the Walkley Award winning investigation by The West Australian’s Caitlyn Rintoul into sexual assaults in the mining industry. Under the guidance of Sarah-Jane, and in her 20s, Caitlyn’s reporting literally shook up the most powerful industry in this country to point where Rio Tinto had to hold a global stop work safety meeting. Think about that for a second …. Rio Tinto stopped mining across the entire world because of her journalism. 
  • And finally, and again I’m bias because she works for me, but follow anything Annabel Hennessy does … Age-for-age she must be the best reporter in the country. In recent years she’s won awards for freeing an Indigenous domestic violence victim from prison who was wrongfully incarcerated for killing her husband in self-defence, revealed how an 11-year-old girl took her own life when her accused rapist was given bail and most recently blew open widespread racism in the WA Communities Department. An alleged Indigenous whistleblower in that series had her home raided by 10 police officers and was arrested in front of her child. Thankfully, the Director of Public Prosecutions did the right thing and no charges were laid.

Now that’s obviously not a be-all-and-all list of things to read or watch or listen to. And it doesn’t include some of the obvious ones like a Sam Maiden or a Sharri Markson or a Sarah Blake or a Kate McClymont because their scoops are going to dominate your news feed anyhow. But my final point is that there’s really amazing and inspiring journalism all around us … go out and find it, share it and most importantly learn from it.

Thank you so much for listening. 

More from The Editors

The Australian‘s editor-in-chief Christopher Dore delivered the first lecture in The Editors series, on March 24, in Sydney.

You watch and listen to Mr Dore’s address or read the full transcript.

Guardian Australia Editor Lenore Taylor and The Australian Financial Review Editor-in-Chief Michael Stutchbury will deliver speeches at JNI later this year.

You can stay up to date with news and ticket information about The Editors by subscribing to JNI’s newsletters.

The Australian’s Editor-in-Chief Christopher Dore delivered the first lecture in The Editors series.