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Community: part three. Journalism and resilience

May 2021

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been exploring what “community” means to different people. Our aim is not to nail down a one-size-fits-all definition of community, but to understand the spectrum of how we connect with each other, and how we might do it better in the future.

For part three of our community series, Callan Rowe, Innovation Lead at Today, sat down with Tim Lesson, editor and co-founder at Gippslandia, to chat about publishing in regional Victoria, community resilience and encouraging people to think big through storytelling.

Callan: All right Tim, tell me a little about yourself and Gippslandia.

Tim: I'm Tim Leeson, I'm editor and co-founder of Gippslandia, a quarterly newspaper that comes out of Gippsland.

We're a free publication that is distributed right across Gippsland and into Melbourne. We are a community-focused not-for-profit. This year we’ve begun expanding by opening an online store, publishing podcasts, have upgraded our website, and, I guess, are trying to address the challenge that I guess lots of publications are facing, which is to have financial stability.

Callan: And what prompted you and the other co-founders to start Gippslandia?

Tim: So, unfortunately, the prevailing narrative in Gippsland hasn't been that positive for quite some time. Many years ago, Gippsland hit the national airwaves with things like the disappearance of Jayden Leskie. More recently we’ve had the mine fires and issues around whether we should be generating electricity using coal. There's also a lot of stories about the use of the drug ice in the region. And for us, a major story has been the announcement of the Hazelwood mine closure. We were seeing an overwhelmingly negative narrative pushed nationally, and we really wanted to do something to address that.

I am one of three co-founders along with Michael Duncan and John Calabro. John has an excellent design studio in Traralgon called The View From Here, and Michael is the general manager. I'd seen some of their design in the community and just approached them for some copywriting. And in those discussions, we were like, “What can we do? Well, this place is a heck of a lot better than what it's been portrayed. There's a lot of amazing stories. How do we get them out there?”

We felt a free street-press newspaper was our way to try and do it. And we really only had one edition in mind, and that was in 2016. Now we're working on edition 17. So yeah, it became a bigger beast than we were thinking, but a really enjoyable project to work on.

Callan: What reception did you get to that first edition?

Tim: It was madness. It came together in about two weeks, once we decided to pull the trigger on it. And we looked at what a just transition could be for the Latrobe Valley in particular, away from coal. I guess part of it was to educate ourselves and then just to convey what we'd learned to the public and see if they would be interested or receptive to it.

Gratefully, the reception was really positive and people started asking, “Well, what are you looking at for edition two?” And we thought, “Oh, I guess we'll have to do a second edition.” And yeah, people were quite keen to contribute and we had supporters who believed in the project right away who were willing to put their money out to support the vision that we saw for Gippsland. And a lot of those same people and brands have been with us to this day.

...this place is a heck of a lot better than what it's been portrayed. There's a lot of amazing stories. How do we get them out there?

Callan: So it was a reaction against the negative narrative that you were seeing in the media. Has that evolved at all? What drives you to keep publishing?

Tim: I guess we probably don't have the chip on our shoulder as much as we did at the start. I don't want to speak for all regional areas, but I think that, especially when Melbourne gets painted as the most liveable city and this amazing place, it's like, hang on, we've got a lot to offer out here as well.

I think part of it is because—as we were growing up—it was sort of seen that if you want to achieve something you need to move away, and that's not the case. You can create that dream career, achieve those goals that you wanted, and it can be very, very successful.

But as we've evolved, I think the publication feels maybe a bit more confident and I think Gippsland maybe feels a bit more confident too.

Callan: Tell me a little bit more about that shift. What has the change been in Gippsland over the years from when you were growing up?

Tim: You've seen a rise in more people interested in growing food and a different, newer generation looking at growing food. There's been an uptick of people returning to the region and that's probably made them a little bit more dynamic.

Gippsland's always been quite multicultural, I guess, for a regional area. Historically, the coal mines and mining have welcomed people from all around the world, especially if we look after World War Two. The vibrancy of Gippsland has been embraced a little bit more.

There’s also been a big effort to invest more in the arts and culture. We’ve had Latrobe Regional Gallery, Gippsland Art Gallery, East Gippsland Gallery pop up. I think things like this—and technology and social media—allow for the vibrancy to percolate more and reach further, which yeah, it just hasn't been here early on, it was more difficult.

I think that dynamic could be improved if transport links into the city were quicker. We still have a very slow rail network into Melbourne, especially compared to Ballarat or Bendigo.

New technologies that allow more people to work remotely, meaning you don't have to be in the office in the city five days a week, has allowed a different group of professionals to come in.

Callan: Gippsland obviously has a big heritage in coal and the coal industry. If that's the past and the present of Gippsland, where do you see the future going?

Tim: Good question. I think that energy will still have a huge role in the region, especially in the Latrobe Valley, but also into South Gippsland. I think we're looking at wind farms and carbon capture off the coast. I think that with the infrastructure that Gippsland has, it can be a huge force in the transition away from fossil fuel electricity generation.

The importance of food production keeps increasing. It's only early, but we're starting to hear with COVID, the amount of people that are looking at even smaller farms now and they're looking at being able to grow their own food. For instance, the Baw Baw Food Hub is—I feel—a shining light in what can be achieved by addressing our food networks.

The dynamic going forward can still be energy and it still can be some of the technical skills around energy, the engineering—such as the fitter and turners—and all those sort of technical guys. They're phenomenal and I think that as they get applied to new industries and future industries, it could have a very big influence. But then, how the food bowl of Gippsland is recognised and represented going forward, I think, will also have a major influence.

Callan: It strikes me that Gippslandia is a celebration of place, not just Gippsland as a region, but the idea of being connected and proud of where you live. Is that something that you think about?

Tim: Yeah, for sure. I think the pride for the region was solidified for us really early. We were always aware that it was sort of bubbling here, but there was a campaign that we did early on with a leadership group that was T-shirts with Proud Gippslandian emblazoned across the front and we were a little bit surprised with how successful it was and just how much that energy permeates throughout the region.

Callan: On your website you talk about Gippslandia being an ever-optimistic take on news and issues. Why do you think that optimistic stories are important at the moment?

Tim: It was quite deliberate at the start. We definitely thought it was a way that we can separate ourselves from a lot of other media sources out there. And I think we're all a bit tired of negativity in the media.

But also a lot of the publications that we enjoy, they don't have such a scathing or negative tone. They are looking at challenges as opportunities and so, it felt quite natural to also have that voice. Our background as designers in a design studio and even business-minded people; is that we're looking for solutions. And I guess that if we took a more critical stance, it just wouldn't really fit us and the personality and the mindset of the team that works on it.

But also this is part of the reason why it's free. We wanted these ideas and this optimism to be as widely spread and as widely read as possible. In a lot of our articles, we look at similar situations around the world that are having to transition away from coal mining or from mining in general. There are a lot of examples that we thought, well why can't that be applied here? Such as in Wales, they've turned some of their old quarries into theme parks with huge zip lines and really flipped that paradigm. In Gippsland people are already thinking about how we might use these old mine sites once they're rehabilitated into community green space.

In Gippsland people are already thinking about how we might use these old mine sites once they're rehabilitated into community green space.

Callan: In my role, I do trends forecasting and looking at possible futures. Something that I've noticed is that utopian visions are so much less frequent nowadays. We're so much more about the dystopia. And I wonder if you have any idea on why that is, and maybe what we can do to be more hopeful about the future?

Tim: I think that we need to create these goals—these utopias—and strive for them. I mean, why not? People need hope if you want to cause change. You can't just completely pummel them with negativity and then expect them to bounce back. And in saying that—like resilience—the resilience of Gippsland has been a huge conversation through the life of the paper.

When we started out, we had a lot of unemployment that was going to be announced with the closure of Hazelwood mine. We also have a long-running drought in East Gippsland, not to mention the massive fires in 2020, and now we go into COVID. And so, in our conversations, the resilience of the community has been a really integral thing.

I think we look for a more positive path out of it and plant a flag. And maybe there hasn't been enough leadership that has planted that flag, especially on a federal level in the last few years.

Callan: How might being involved at a local level ladder up to something bigger? And what is the interplay between those different levels, in your opinion?

Tim: So Gippslandia isn't political at all. We've tried to remove ourselves and keep barriers between that. But we are fortunate that a lot of local members are people that we're familiar with and could have good conversations with. They work so hard and they really have the community's best interest in mind and things like that. And for many Gippslanders, there's been things that have happened on the political stage—the national political stage—they're quite proud of. Russell Broadbent and his speech on refugees is one that stands out.

The whole growth of peri-urban areas is a huge discussion. How much of an influence do our local governments or the local people have and how much are the directives coming from higher up the political chain? The dialogue between these levels probably has to be improved. And I think that instead of servicing the city, by just giving up our land, that maybe that relationship between these bodies needs to be a bit more nuanced between the metropolitan and our regional areas.

It's been discussed for years and years and years about what a game-changer it would be to have another hub between Melbourne and Sydney and if that was in Gippsland, maybe even if that was a port in between the area and if there was just another node on the East coast, how that would change the country. So yeah, I just think there needs to be another layer of these discussions instead of just fueling growth in metropolitan areas and have our state and national leaders spend more time in the regions.

Callan: On a personal level, what does community mean to you and why is it important?

Tim: For me, the essence of it is this: say I’m going away, I know my neighbours will keep an eye on the place. That thing where you know the people close to you support you and have your back. I think that act encapsulates it for me. Initially when that happens, say your neighbour heads away, you do it without expecting something immediately in return, but it just evens out, the support that you give to them will come back in different ways.

And these ties come together as we go through different events and things as a collective. I think it's really powerful. It's hard because I feel that Gippsland has quite a dynamic and supportive community, but it's really hard for me to encapsulate that in singular terms.

Callan: Why are stories important to us as a community?

Tim: So there's a lot in this one and I've learned a lot as we've worked on Gippslandia into the importance of this. It's harder to be something, or someone, unless you see it in the community.

For example, we did an edition that was themed around young women in business and featured some of the younger women that have been growing their businesses really successfully. They found it quite hard when they first went to the different business meetings and when it was just older white men there. And so, to then see the change in the dynamic, and see more people similar to them doing that, it opens their eyes to the possibility.

In another issue, we've got a really cool piece on a fashion brand, Slime Streetwear, that has its roots in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp before coming across to Gippsland. And for them to see more people like them that are doing these sort of projects is huge. Like it takes away maybe some of the stigma, or it takes down some of the hurdles that may not be real, but may be perceived. And that's been huge in trying to get as many stories as we can from as diverse storytellers as possible, that this is actually a more of a tangible goal now. I think that we have to seek out these different voices more and continue to strive towards that.

After the bushfires in late 2019, early 2020, in East Gippsland, we dove into a fair bit of research about the resilience of bushfire areas and recoveries. There's been quite a number of studies done on the power of storytelling to heal and to help people to share their trauma. The ability for people to voice that and to move past it is pretty incredible, so it's an aspect of that as well. They're two of the main things for us and are both things that Gippslandia can have a pretty important role in sharing.

There's been quite a number of studies done on the power of storytelling to heal and to help people to share their trauma.

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