Becoming specialist generalist

University of New England

For Andrew Norris, his years studying Rural Science at UNE were an exploration of the possibilities in agriculture that produced an entirely unexpected result.

With a freshly minted Rural Science degree under his belt and dipping his toe in the employment market while working out a chosen career path, he would stumble across something unexpected – an advertisement for a role on the markets desk at NSW’s big rural weekly newspaper, The Land.

Having completed his degree about 18 months prior, he decided this might be an interesting adventure, and so in mid-2005, unbeknownst to him, his life took on a whole new direction.

It turned out that agricultural journalism is the perfect profession for someone deeply interested in and broadly curious about agriculture.

When sitting in lecture halls like the Wright Theatre, it’s sometimes unclear what in your degree may be relevant for your future, but he now says that with the benefit of hindsight, one experience in particular stands out.

That was a guest speaker who attended a lecture in his final year who was himself a Rural Science graduate. His career had taken him, among other things, to be one of the many advisors to the development of China’s Three Gorges Dam – the construction of which began in 2003. He explained that a key thing he took from the degree was how it taught him to question, as well as how it allowed him to “specialise in being a generalist” due to the nexus of topic areas and disciplines in the degree.

This resounded with Andrew, and even more so now that in the newsroom he’s jumping across a range of agripolitical issues and news, commodities and events, while also managing a state-wide team and dealing with readers and advertisers – all across print and digital platforms with multiple deadlines.

So just like that, he landed in a career. With stints in a few different positions, based at different locations in NSW, he would, by late 2013, be appointed the 16th editor of the 112-year-old masthead.

And his time at Armidale played no small part in getting him there.

He arrived at UNE from the small, mixed family farm near Gunnedah, which ran mainly sheep, cattle and some cropping. Unsure when he left school what he wanted to do, other than an underlying interest in agriculture, he was perhaps subtly guided into the degree by his father, himself a former agricultural economics student of the old Wright College.

UNE’s Rural Science degree was famous for the breadth of its enquiry, introducing students to not only classic agriculture and science subjects, but also demanding a familiarity with environment, economics and extension.

Andrew’s cohort was also the first to be given the option of using time that might otherwise be dedicated to studying for Honours in a specialist field to instead continuing studies across a range of subjects. He took the new alternative, roaming across livestock, cropping and soils.

But Andrew reflects that an equally important result of his time at university, given his subsequent career, was the people he met.

“A lot of us still bump into each other through work or occasionally catch up socially,” he says.

“And because a lot of these people have specific professions within agriculture, it’s often been helpful to me to reach out to a former UNE contemporary.”

Looking back, Andrew recognises that when he joined The Land, he arrived in a world that was only dimly aware of the impending and significant change that would reshape an entire industry.

Digital technologies were already quietly transforming publishing, but in 2007, at the time of Apple’s release of the first iPhone and the arrival of ubiquitous personal computing, the murmur quickly grew to a roar.

The Land carried a complement of staff whose skills were staples for the 100 or so preceding years. There were typesetters – by then working at computers – a cast of sub-editors, another layer of editors for special publications, dedicated photographers and a manager for the photo archives.

By the time Andrew assumed the editor’s chair in late 2013, most of these positions had vanished, made irrelevant by the march of technology that not only changed how news was produced, but also forever changed the once reliable stream of advertising.

For thousands of print publications, the arrival of digital technologies was a mass extinction event. The Land survived, in part thanks to the inherent conservatism of its rural audience (and their challenges in getting reliable data services), but largely because for its intended audience, there is nothing quite like The Land.

Once he had steered his masthead through the turbulence of change, Andrew found new opportunities.

“Digital has opened us up to a potentially much bigger audience,” he observes. “It’s a different audience because it’s not only our traditional readership.

“It’s different because it wants new material daily. As a purely print publication, we worked to a weekly deadline. With digital, we have to be pumping stories through every day.

“Because the print publication has remained extremely successful, and our digital presence is increasingly successful, it means we have to work at two speeds.”

The other factor in The Land’s ongoing success is, Andrew believes, its refusal to engage in the taking of sides that has, arguably, contributed to the destruction of trust in media worldwide.

“Trustworthy information has become rare. To be trustworthy, you have to present all the facts, even the facts that your audience might angrily disagree with, and let people make up their own minds.

“I think people are sick of being told how to react to an issue, or what to be angry about. In the digital world, our approach is to go back to old-school principles. In short, that means sticking to the facts.”

/Public Release. View in full here.