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Q&A: Paola Totaro, gun for hire

Paola Totaro (@p_totaro) is an Australian freelance journalist living in London. She writes for numerous media organisations including Fairfax, News Corp, The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC and Tina Brown’s Women in the World in the New York Times. One of Paola’s powerful stories this year reveals the exploitation of immigrants working in the lucrative tomato industry in Italy, the world’s third-largest exporter of tinned tomatoes. She also broke the story of alleged safety and security breaches resulting from cost-cutting at the Australian embassy in Iraq, featured in a series of front-page stories in The Australian.

Paola has been nominated for a prestigious Walkley Award twice, and has just finished two years as president of the London-based Foreign Press Association. She spoke with JASMINE SUTHERLAND (@JazMamone)

What is your role in the media industry?

I am currently a freelance foreign correspondent, living and working in London. I arrived in the British capital in 2008 as Europe Correspondent for the SMH and The Age and when I was asked to return to head office, chose to remain in the UK to freelance. I now work for anyone, a kind of gun for hire, and am in the unusual position of working for both Fairfax and Murdoch (The Aus etc.) as well as The Guardian, BBC, NYT and other publications (or whoever will take my story pitches!) A sample of my work is on my journalism page at www.paolatotaro.com

What tasks are you given in this role?
I primarily pitch my own stories although increasingly, I am asked to conduct interviews and cover stories in the UK and Europe when the staff correspondents are busy or in the field, I interview, profile, cover breaking news – pretty much anything needed and often at a moment’s notice.

What experiences have you had working as a journalist?
I have 25 years working as a journalist and editor under my belt. I’ve interviewed Prime Ministers, covered elections in places as far away as East Timor and Italy, travelled on a plane with the Pope, been the only Australian journalist in Westminster Abbey when William and Kate married. It’s been a blast. And continues to be! Yesterday, I went to dinner at Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court that from medieval days trained barristers before they were called to the bar. I met a good number of the British High Court judges and when they are having a drink and relaxing it’s great fun! I also now that some of my most rewarding work has been telling the stories of those who are less fortunate, in refugee camps, in prisons, the homeless, victims of crime and more. Journalism allows you to be comfortable talking to anyone – and finding stories in every human being.

How did you become a journalist, and how old were you when you started?
It was a fluke. I was studying arts at Sydney Uni and decided to defer in my third year (I was also doing law and I hated it). I worked for a small media company and wrote a little piece about cliques at uni. My boss liked it and unbeknown to me, sent it to the SMH. I was called in for an interview and offered a three year cadetship. I never, ever looked back. (And finished my degree aged 41!). Two years ago, I went and did a Master’s with my redundancy money from the SMH! I started at the age of 21 at the SMH.

Is there any advice you would give to a future journalist who is looking to pursue the same career?
Write. Write. Don’t talk about writing. Write. And don’t fear asking questions. Be uninhibited, ballsy, and write some more.

Paola filing a story from St Peter’s Square in Rome. Photo courtesy Paola Totaro

Featured image: Paola in Italy with Antoine, who migrated from the Ivory Coast. Photo: Ella Pellegrini (see more of Ella’s work here).

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