Quick chat with Jessica Mudditt
You’ve worked as a freelance journalist – both locally and overseas – for many years. How have you stuck to mainly journalism when so many journos have had to edge into copywriting and content?
I think through sheer enthusiasm and an awareness that I’m replaceable. Lots of other writers would love to take the brief. So I try really hard to deliver what an editor needs. I’m a naturally curious person and interested in just about everything that comes my way. That makes my work very enjoyable and I think my editors know that I’m an eager beaver.
Having read your amazing book, I know a few of your career highlights – but what are the ones you’ll always remember?
Taking photographs of US President Barack Obama during his speech at Yangon University in 2015 is a highlight. He was just a few metres away from me. I also wrote an article about his speech for my blog, and I almost fell off my chair when I realised a few months later that Obama had started followed me on Twitter. Nothing could be more exciting than that!
Another highlight was writing the front-page headline in the state-run newspaper on the day that Aung San Suu Kyi won the general election in Myanmar of 2015. It was historic – the elections ended half a century of military rule. Of course, now that Myanmar has returned to a military dictatorship following the coup of 2021, that memory is very bittersweet.
I think I’ve managed to stick to mainly working in journalism through sheer enthusiasm and an awareness that I’m replaceable. Lots of other writers would love to take the brief so I try really hard to deliver what an editor needs.
What are your favourite kinds of stories to work on? And what won’t you write about?
I love writing features that show how Australia is punching above its weight on the global stage – this could be in a creative sense, or through innovation and hard work. And to highlight where further change is needed to help a particular industry thrive.
For example, I recently wrote an article for Forbes Australia about the making of ‘Aussiewood.’ I looked into how Australia’s film making industry has flourished since the pandemic, when many Hollywood film crews relocated here. I asked industry experts what needs to happen for that momentum ton be maintained.
I also love writing profiles of people who have succeeded in their industry, and have often done so against the odds. For example, I recently interviewed Vasu Jakkal, who is the vice president of security at Microsoft. She was visiting Sydney from San Francisco and I got the assignment for Company Director. Vasu was born in Pune in India and she was the first female in her family to ever hold a job outside the home. And look at how high she has climbed in the male-dominated industry of tech and security!
I consider myself exceptionally lucky to get to interview such talented, intelligent people – many of whom I would purchase a ticket to hear them speak on a stage! This is even better, because I get to have a one-on-one conversation with them, and I’m allowed to ask them all these personal, probing questions in a bid to understand what drives them. I really love it.
I like interviewing people who are solving problems. I don’t like writing about mean-spirited people. I could have written an article for a big publication of my choice about a hardline, racist monk called Wirathu. I found him revolting and didn’t want to give him oxygen.
What skills do you think are the most important for freelancers to acquire?
I think we need to recognise how important it is to provide excellent customer service to everyone we deal with, and to do that consistently.
That might sound strange, so I’ll explain what I mean. When I lived in Myanmar and it was transitioning from being a dictatorship to a democracy, it attracted a lot of new overseas investment. This was fantastic for a country that is among the poorest in Asia. I often wrote about how Myanmar was moving up the global Ease of Doing Business rankings as a result of the positive changes it was making. In turn, and more and more investors were creating opportunities in Myanmar.
I think about this concept from my own professional perspective. How easy is it to do business with me? What would my net promoter score be?
A high score means filing clean copy to my editor on time, meeting the brief and responding quickly to any requests for edits. Being respectful to my sources and their PR teams is also vital – it’s possible that I’ll need to ask them for a second interview down the track. If I say that I will email a link to the article when it comes out in a couple of months’ time, I know that it’s important to keep my word.
Editors are trusting us to deliver a piece of content and if we don’t deliver, it’s a headache for them. They have a gap where our contribution is meant to be. I always remember that.
Why do you think the Summit is important for freelancers?
After attending a high-quality conference involving my industry, I walk away feeling energised and inspired to hit my professional goals. Freelancing is full of challenges and uncertainties and we don’t have colleagues to share them with. The Summit gives us the chance to discuss the issues our profession faces, such as AI, as well as the many fantastic opportunities. That is so important.
Freelancing is full of challenges and uncertainties and we don’t have colleagues to share them with. The Summit gives us the chance to discuss the issues our profession faces, such as AI, as well as the many fantastic opportunities. That is so important.
The conference theme is all about futureproofing your career. What steps are you taking to futureproof your own?
As an author, I need a back catalogue of books to build up my royalties. There is a saying that there’s nothing like a second book to sell your first.
So I am slowly but steadily completing my second manuscript. Once Around the Sun will come out in March 2024, and I have two more books mapped out in my head.
What are your thoughts on AI / ChatGPT?
Part of me finds ChatGPT profoundly depressing and another part of me is excited.
At this stage it is hard to know whether our fears are justified. There is often widespread worry when a major new form is technology is introduced – I remember my sociology lecturer talking about the ‘moral panic’ around the telephone – there was a fear that no one would ever bother calling on someone at their house again.
I think the media and some other players are guilty of over-egging some of the negative potential of AI. Doing so is not constructive and just makes us fearful and sad. But then again, what do I know?
I love the saying by Bernard Shaw: ‘The problem with journalists is that they don’t know the difference between a bicycle accident and the end of civilisation.’
Part of me finds ChatGPT profoundly depressing and another part of me is excited.
Do you think the future is exciting for freelancers, and if so, why?
I do, yes. I can see more people becoming freelancers, as paying per piece to me makes a lot of economic sense from the publication’s point of view, as opposed to having someone on the books during quiet periods.
There are so many upsides to freelancing (variety, autonomy, flexibility) but many people find the financial uncertainty stressful – if there was a way to support the ecosystem in some way, it could be a win-win. Perhaps more platforms supporting the gig economy will emerge.
What are you most looking forward to about the Summit?
When I began freelancing in Australia in 2017 after spending a decade overseas, I’d pore over Lindy Alexander’s income reports in her newsletter each month. I clung to them as hope that I could earn a decent income as a freelancer here, although sometimes I also felt despondent that I could ever succeed as she has. I did some mentoring sessions with her. She set the blueprint for achieving freelance success. I’m really excited that I’ll get to meet Lindy in person!
I’m also majorly excited about having drinks on the helipad. I have a visual in my mind about what it will be like: we’re there in our cocktail dresses and suits and the wind is whipping our hair and we have to raise our voices to be heard over the helicopter that arrives. Out jumps Daniel Craig in a tux. It’s going to be like that, right?!
Jessica is one of our panelists for ‘How to find work (with your finger in all the pies) on Day 1 of the Summit.