Ep 385 Meet Felicity Lewis, national explainer editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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In Episode 385 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Felicity Lewis, national explainer editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and editor of ‘What's it like to be chased by a cassowary?' Discover short story competitions to enter in 2021 and how to take a good author photo. Plus, we have 3 copies of ‘The Four Winds' by Kristin Hannah to give away.

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Show Notes

Short story competitions to enter in 2021

6 tips for your author photo shoot

Writer in Residence

Felicity Lewis

Felicity Lewis is the national explainer editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. She has worked in diverse roles on titles from The Herald Sun to The Independent and has won several awards, including a Walkley.

She is the editor of the book What's it like to be chased by a cassowary? 

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo

So Felicity, congratulations on this book, What’s it Like to be Chased by a Cassowary? And the subtitle is: Fascinating answers to perplexing questions. Now, for readers… I just, as soon as I saw this book, I thought, we've got to have a chat to Felicity. Can you tell listeners what the book is about?

 

Felicity Lewis

Well, the book is an anthology, so it's about many things. It's an anthology of pieces that are to do with Australian culture, things that are happening overseas, all sorts of different things. But what they all have in common is that they are questions about the world. And they are explainers, which are a form of journalism that gives context to questions that come up in the news or questions about everyday life.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes, so this book has been edited by you. And each of the explainers or chapters have been written by other journalists. Now the thing is, you have had decades of experience in journalism, and you are now the National Explainer Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. But the word explainer, the concept of an explainer hasn't always been around, has it? When do you think it kind of came about?

 

Felicity Lewis

I think that there probably would have been pieces tagged from time to time as explainer, you know, over the years. You could argue that journalism is supposed to be explanatory, it's supposed to provide context. Yeah. But I think that since the Internet has come into its own, and people have been looking for their news online and on social media nowadays, as well, I think explainers have really become important because they help people join the dots when they're getting their news in quite a fragmented way. I mean, I think that companies like Vox started off, you know, several years ago, with their, that their sole mission being to explaining the news. And people might have seen their videos on Netflix now as well. But so just in the last, I'd say, six, seven years or so they've really taken off. And then the New York Times identified them as one of its trends that it thought was going to be important going forward in digital journalism. So it's really dovetailed with the way that people consume news and also a little bit of a shift too in the way that journalists might consider writing news as well for an online audience in a way that's a bit more direct and chatty than they once might have.

 

Valerie Khoo

So what were you doing before you were National Explainer Editor?

 

Felicity Lewis

I was a multimedia editor for The Age and, and The Herald. And that was that was a job where I was a special features person, I suppose you'd say I was managing special features online. And that was, that came about because of… Well, I'd been working on The Melbourne Magazine, which was a lifestyle magazine; there was a Sydney Magazine as well. Yeah. And then there was a kind of shift in online news, with the production of a piece called “Snowfall,” which is a New York Times piece that was about an avalanche, really tragic avalanche that happened. And but it was done in a way for online that was really, really detailed and in depth and clever and visual, and it had lots of side bits and different ways to navigate. And it proved to be a huge hit. So much so that there came to be used as a verb, you know, snowfall, to snowfall, in some newsrooms. So there was a kind of time when newsrooms started to double down on telling stories in a really innovative way online. And so it was my job to identify stories in the newsroom that we might want to tell in that way, and to try to generate some ideas, the stories that would lend themselves to being told that way.

 

Valerie Khoo

Okay, so then, now that you are National Explainer Editor, how do you decide what topics get explainers?

 

Felicity Lewis

Well, some of them, I mean, every morning in the newsroom, there's a morning conference where we talk about the news of the day. And sometimes, you know, if I've heard the same topic come up a few times, or I've read about it in the news, I might put it, put it to the group that this might be a good idea for an explainer. Normally, it's when something snags in my mind that I just, I've heard that, and I don't really understand it, but I'm kind of curious. So even on the level of, I haven't studied economics, but I kept hearing this term ‘quantitative easing'. And I was just really curious as to what it actually meant. And so you know, that's one of the pieces in this in this anthology, is about quantitative easing, which is interesting, even if you're not a kind of economics person, because it's a very unusual thing to have happen in the world, that we've gone into a phase of quantitative easing. So sometimes readers will suggest ideas. So there's another explainer that's in the anthology that was just a question that one of our readers emailed to me and said, I don't really understand where think tanks came from. Like, what are they? Who thought of them? We hear about them all the time, but no one's actually… They're kind of quoted in the news, but no one's gone behind them and said, you know, how they come about. So that, you know, that yielded a really interesting topic. So it's all sorts of things. And sometimes it's, I mean, it's like any editor with ideas, where do they come from? Or any writer with ideas, where do they come from? It's personal experience. It's questions that just surface in your mind. I think there's a certain way that you can go about your, how would I say, I would call it grazing, grazing on media and grazing on news stories and kind of looking out for stuff that piques your curiosity. So I do all that. I look at things that I already think, I always find interesting. You know, I listen to podcasts, I listen to radio shows or read magazines that I always find interesting, but then within them, there are things that pique my curiosity further.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes. So I can totally understand how somebody – and I'm looking at the contents page of the book – how many people would think, well, who actually runs Antarctica? Or how much does it cost to have cancer? Or of course, the thing we all wonder, how does Netflix know what we want to watch? But does anyone really wonder what’s it like to be chased by a cassowary?

 

Felicity Lewis

Okay, well, well, yeah. Fair enough. That was an explainer that came about because we were curious. That was when I had just come into doing the explainers a couple of years ago, and we were curious to know, what happens during certain human encounters with creatures, some creatures, you know. And so it turned out to be a very interesting story, and quite remarkable, what does happen when you get chased by a cassowary. And I suppose that sometimes we just, it's a nice curiosity peaking kind of device to get people to read further.

 

Valerie Khoo

Now, this is an anthology, as you've mentioned, so it's been written by a bunch of different people. Now, is there some kind of format or specific requirements that you require in an explainer?

 

Felicity Lewis

Yeah, well, I mean, there's nothing, you know, about explainers in general that, you know, there's no universal requirement other than I suppose they explain what they say they're going to. But the way that they've developed for me is that they have a certain format. They have a certain physical look, which is kind of important. So the way they appear, they have a header that's different to say a news story, and slightly different formatting. And that's, it's not formulaic, but it's very loose. But there's an introduction, and you really need to show… One of the things about the explainers, probably about writing with news, is show relevance. So why would a reader want to keep reading? Why does this matter to them? And you really want to show that very early on. And then you also have a central question that you're really trying to unpack. And it's helpful to have one central question that's kind of like the guts of the issue. And then from that, you get sub questions that come out of it. So the explainers are broken up into question, other questions that follow. And hopefully, they follow a bit like conversation. So it's supposed to be, you know, that you really want to be talking to someone who's in the know about something. And, of course, for smart, busy readers, you know, it's just that thing in the modern world, we are interested in things, but we can't be experts in everything. So, you know, assume you're talking to someone who is expert in their field, but they're just not across this particular topic.

 

Valerie Khoo

And so, do you write them, or do you, you know, do the explainer writers write them, as if the reader has zero knowledge? Or what level of knowledge are they assuming?

 

Felicity Lewis

They're written in a way that… I just say to the writers don't assume knowledge. So don't assume knowledge in a particular area. So that means that sometimes you have to take a few steps back. So I mean, you also, I mean, you could go back and back and back with things like that, couldn't you? You could keep someone had just landed on the planet kind of thing. So, yeah. So in a sensible way. We don't assume that people know what, who anybody is or what acronyms stand for, or anything like that, or basic concepts. So but that is really important.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes. And so are they written by… Because obviously, these have all appeared in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. Are they all of these written by staff writers, or are some of them written by freelancers?

 

Felicity Lewis

Ah, there are a couple written by contributors. There's one on wine, which was written by Max Allen, who is a fantastic, hilarious wine writer, I think. That made me laugh a lot, that piece. And he loves language as well. So it's, I mean, the explainer is actually what do wine tasting notes really mean? And he goes through the way that language is used to describe wine. And he looks at trendy terms and, you know, what's behind them and recommends a couple of trendy terms to use. So that's one of them. And the only other one was David Astle who wrote about cryptic crosswords. Because he is the man.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes. Of words. And so you wrote, “Who runs Antarctica?” So let's take that one as an example. Maybe just take us through how that idea came about? And then when you decided, “Oh, I'll write it” where did you start?

 

Felicity Lewis

Okay, so well, I'll give you the medium long answer. So I studied law at uni. So I have an abiding kind of interest in international law. So that kind of pegged me a bit as a potential candidate to write this piece. Because, you know, there are some areas of law, you know, anything in the world that doesn't fall into neat reporting rounds, you know, what I mean? So, it's not like we have a polar reporter, or, you know, an Antarctica reporter. So I have written, with my colleague, Chris Zappone, we'd done one the before on outer space, so how does the law in outer space work? So kind of interested in those far flung places where humans are a bit, maybe a bit vulnerable, and they have to cooperate and the normal national rules don't apply. So these special regimes of law have to be brought into existence. And it was 60 years since a treaty had been signed on Antarctica. So it seemed a good time to examine how that was all working out. Yeah. So I just… How do I do it? That's a good question. I guess I step it out in my own mind and think what would I want to know? You know, what arises from this? And I've gotten quite proficient at it now that I can kind of rap out some bullet points, I guess. And then… But the thing is that I also, I also really make sure that I've covered off covered things off and don't leave questions unanswered as I go. So yeah, so you know… And of course you speak to, this is not just a googling exercise, so it's a reporting. And so I spoke to experts. And that's the same as any news or feature story that as you go, you realize what the questions are a bit as well.

 

Valerie Khoo

But experts in what? Experts in Antarctica? Or experts in international law? Or experts in what?

 

Felicity Lewis

Oh, one of them had been the head of the Antarctic Division. Yeah. So and yeah experts in Antarctica really. There are… And in Polar law. But the Arctic is a different story. Another fascinating story as well. A story for another time. But yeah, there are people who really, who are really, really specialist in these things.

 

Valerie Khoo

Can you think of an explainer you've written that you just really found ultra-fascinating or that you really enjoyed researching for some reason?

 

Felicity Lewis

I found it really interesting to do the one which is in the anthology, called “What can dreams tell us about society?” That was about, that came about partly… I mean, most of these things have a, they have something of zeitgeisty thing about them, or they have a trigger, you know, that gives you a reason to be writing about them. And I suppose during COVID, and with what everyone had been going through, people were talking a lot about dreams. And there was some, you know, on social media, people were talking about what they'd been dreaming, and there were Twitter, hashtags and things of COVID dreams and that kind of thing. I also, around the same time, learnt about a kind of practice of collecting dreams, if you like, that came out of the discipline of organizational dynamics. So this, this is the kind of thing that like executives study. You know, this is the kind of thing that people who sign up to learn about organizational dynamics might find themselves talking about dreams as well, you know. So it wasn't, it wasn't kind of woo woo territory. But basically, it's the idea that we're social beings. So we're social beings when we're asleep, as well as when we're awake. So it wasn't, it wasn't an explainer about what do your dreams mean; it was an explainer about a different way of looking at what we dream, and that what we dream might in a group sense, we might dream in certain themes. So when humans are going through a time, like COVID, or it happened during Brexit, these experts in this field kind of study what people are dreaming. And everyone shares what they're dreaming. I went to a thing called a dream matrix. So this was my kind of my research. I went to a very, you know, straight down the line, fascinating, matter of fact thing called a dream matrix where everyone just gets – because it was COVID, it was international, it was on zoom – but everyone said what they dreamed the night before. People said what they associated with those dreams, and someone was taking notes. And then this went on for a couple of months, you know, every so often. And then you when you look at all of this, at the time, and as the experts say, at the time, it just seems like this is just a very kind of curious jumble of things, but patterns start to emerge over time. So yeah, it was… One of the experts called it this kind of subterranean in the mud sort of stuff that, you know, the kind of stuff that's just below the surface of our consciousness.

 

Valerie Khoo

So there's lots of different topics like, “Why is Jakarta sinking?” “Why is there a boom in dinosaur fossils?” “Why do we have leap years?” But I just want to come back to the thing that piqued your interest. You said you kept hearing the term quantitative easing. And so you've got one in here called, “What is quantitative easing?” And so to a journalist, like yourself, so this was Shane Wright who wrote it, but obviously, you've edited it. And you know, like, if you were approaching what is quantitative easing, where would you start with that? Because a lot of people, a lot of the feedback I get when people think of a topic is: I just don't even know where to start. It seems really second nature to you as a journalist, but if you could just break it down, if you were told today, write a story on what is quantitative easing, what would you do?

 

Felicity Lewis

Well, part of the thing is why is it unusual, why is it different? So, there was something about it that got enough conversation happening about it that meant that it was – they use the term ‘unconventional' – it's unconventional monetary policy. So part of it was why we… Like, firstly, what does it mean? That's always the best place to start. What does this word mean? Doesn't matter what, you know, once you've singled something out, why do cicadas sing at dusk, well, let's just get down for the record what's a cicada?

 

Valerie Khoo

Oh yeah.

 

Felicity Lewis

Same with quantitative easing, just what the term means. But then also where it's come from. And then where it fits in the scheme of things. So it kind of has to be, you know, what would normally happen in the world when people are running economies, what would normally happen and banks are doing what they do? And then what's different about this? And then you just have to go behind it a bit. Why? You know, it's the why. Why are banks doing this now? And why is this happening now? And well, in any ways, does it work? So in a way, I mean, it really is kind of like a conversation, even if you're having a conversation with yourself, but if you were sitting around having a conversation with friends, I reckon, and you had a topic I reckon, you know, you'd inadvertently come up with a bunch of really good subheads for an explainer.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes, yes. So have you, has that happened to you, where you've been at the pub, or at a dinner party where the conversation has made you go ding! I think that's gonna be a good explainer.

 

Felicity Lewis

Look, it happens, it happens quite a bit. And sometimes, you know, you can be on high alert, and things go, ding, and you go away and think, meh, I don't know. But other times – I'm just trying to think of an example, though. I mean, the classic, the classic one for me was, from a personal experience, where I had been present when a relative had died. So this was not the pub. So this is not like a light social scene. But it did, it was kind of a moment that came right out of personal experience, where then I went away from that experience, and I just… Things happened and I just didn't really understand, I didn't really understand what I had witnessed, I suppose, in some ways. And so I commissioned a fantastic writer, Sophie Aubrey, to just set out what happens as we die. And from the point of view of… And she wrote it from the point of view that it's – and as the expert said – that, you know, it's not a medical problem to die. It's something that happens, even though it can… So that's how that one came about. And then it's obviously not the kind of thing that everyone sits up and says, you know, gee… I don't know. It had a mixed… It had, like, we weren't sure how it would go. But the upshot was that it's one of our most read pieces of all time, that piece.

 

Valerie Khoo

Wow.

 

Felicity Lewis

Yeah, it was hugely popular. We got a huge response. And I guess it was because the question came up, and there really wasn't, there weren't, there weren't too many answers to be found about it. You know, they weren't… It was, it was partly the way that, you know, the way that Sophie did it, where, you know, she talks about how also how to be with someone who's, who's dying. So it's kind of helpful. And that's important, too, that you're writing things that are, you know, helpful in some way.

 

Valerie Khoo

What's the most challenging thing or the hardest thing about writing an explainer? A good explainer?

 

Felicity Lewis

Well, I mean, you know, in a, in a busy newsroom, I guess, you know, it's finding the time for really, really busy reporters to actually be able to… Because it does take a bit of time to just set it all out and follow up on all the detail. But when I think about it, I was thinking about this the other day, I think, in some ways, it's probably just checking that you're actually, that you are actually explaining.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yeah.

 

Felicity Lewis

That you are really explaining it. I had it with this… Well, yeah, I did an explainer on reverse swing, which is to do with cricket. And cricket is not my… I kind of like tennis, but cricket's not my usual, it's not my area of expertise. And so reverse swing is a thing that bowlers do and it and it creates a very surprising effect where the ball does something that it's not meant to do. And it's one of those things that people who love cricket kind of know about. But I asked a couple of friends and said, you know, “do you know, do you know how reverse swing works?” And they're like, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” And this is a classic explainer thing, they go, “Oh, yeah, well, it's that, you know, it's where you… Oh, ah…” And then you know, it all, it all falls apart really quickly. And they say, “I'll just look it up on Wikipedia.” So I ended up helping cricket writer, Greg Baum, with a bit of research into the fluid mechanics side of this. I mean, Greg Baum's, you know, a brilliant writer and an expert in his field. But I was just doing a little bit of help on the fluid mechanics side of things. Because this is something that scientists look at, you know, how does a cricket ball fly through the air in a way that seems like it should go one way, but then it goes the other way. And so yeah, I spent… And I said to, I said to my boss, at one stage, you know, this is really, this is really complex stuff. You know, this is, you know, it was kind of like a cry for help or something. I said, “we've been through two sessions now on the whiteboard I'm trying to get your head around.” And he just said, “Look, nuclear fusion is complex, but it can be explained.” So, I just keep going.

 

Valerie Khoo

Is it why they had sandpaper gate? I know nothing about cricket.

 

Felicity Lewis

It's related to that. Yeah, it's related to the ball being rough on one side and smooth on the other side.

 

Valerie Khoo

Which is why they keep rubbing it on their pants.

 

Felicity Lewis

That's, that's right. Yeah. Yeah.

 

Valerie Khoo

All right. Maybe we'll… See, I just explained it. There you go. Alright, so in terms of, what do you enjoy most about being National Explainer Editor?

 

Felicity Lewis

I think it's a… Well, there's a couple of things. It's the freedom to range across subjects. So I can work with reporters in all sorts of different areas of the newsroom, which is just…

 

Valerie Khoo

You must be great to bring to pub trivia.

 

Felicity Lewis

Yeah, well, yeah. I'm a bit more of a, I think I'm a bit more of a question asker than one of those people who, who knows all the answers. I'm actually not that great at Trivial Pursuit. I don't know. That's the paradox. But um, yes. So. Yes. So I think that…

 

Valerie Khoo

What you enjoy about… Or what do you enjoy about being National Explainer Editor?

 

Felicity Lewis

Yes, sorry. So I think that it's also because I like reading things in depth, really. And I like getting to the bottom of things. So I don't like jargon, and I don't like reading things and coming away with that kind of static in the back of my mind. And it's just really satisfying to read a nice in depth read about something. It doesn't have to be a PhD. I don't want to, you know, I don't want it to be, to go on forever and ever. But I just I guess I enjoy the opportunity for storytelling as well.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes. And that's the key. That's the keyword isn't it? Is that you do feel, when you've read something that is fully fleshed out and you really do feel satisfied. You feel completely… That's the word for it. And it's such a great feeling when you've read something like that. So I'm going to end with a very, with the most important question of all, of course, which is what is it like to be chased by a cassowary?

 

Felicity Lewis

Oh, look, it's not much fun, I think. I think we spoke to someone who said that the sound is the first thing you hear. It's a very strange prehistoric-y rumbling sound. And then the bird fluffs up its feathers and… And this is all, of course, not a random thing. This is because you've done something, inadvertently or not. So I just want to put that out there. This is this is not an anti-cassowary piece by any measure. It's more a: don't get into this situation. But anyway, um, yeah, the birds will protect their chicks, you know, and they – fiercely. And so it will come after you and they can't fly but they run really, really fast. So, you know, if there's nothing between you and the bird, you've really got to leg it. And this guy, he does describe an Indiana Jones kind of maneuver that he does to make it back to his car.

 

Valerie Khoo

Oh my god. Hopefully no one is going to be in that situation. So of course the answer to that and many other really interesting questions are in this book edited by Felicity Lewis, What’s it Like to be Chased by a Cassowary? Fascinating answers to perplexing questions. Thank you so much for your time today, Felicity.

 

Felicity Lewis

Pleasure.

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