Vol. 31

Getting vocal with Sheree Joseph

May 2018

Writer. Editor. Founder. Tiny Mogul.

Sheree Joseph has spent her relatively short, but prolific, career as an important figure in young Australian writing circles. Her adaptive style has seen her write everything from long-form think-pieces to 140 character tweets. With an understanding of marketing, social media strategy and journalism in the age of digital transformation, as well as an extensive resume which already includes Junkee and Fairfax Media among others, Sheree is now poised to use her experience to take on ‘fake-news’.

Her introduction into action-driving journalism was as the Managing Editor of Fairfax Media’s popular but short-lived ‘The Vocal’ and now, she prepares to take the concept further with Tiny Moguls; a project which was awarded a Walkley Media Incubator and Innovation Fund and is set to launch soon.

We sit down with her as she prepares to launch her solutions journalism platform—with which she hopes to empower another generation of young writers and readers—discussing her career thus far and what her hopes are for her latest writing adventure.

Sheree Joseph--- 3 February 2018

By Lorenzo Princi

What do you do?

So, I’m a writer first and foremost and then I’d say, I’d say I’m an editor second, then I’m also a social media manager but I’m currently a founder, so I’m looking at launching a product. So I’m sort of a product owner as well and using all those skills to basically launch this thing.

"People want to do something but they don’t want it to be really hard, complicated and difficult. They just want it to sort of make sense to their habits."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 31

You have had a fairly direct line into a writing career starting from your university days, what led you down the writing path?

So, when I was much younger I wanted to be an author. So, I wanted to like write books and my mum was basically like, “you know, that’s a great dream but you’ll probably need a second job, why don’t you pick something that’s similar to writing or, like, similar to that so you can at least, you know, earn money,” [laughs], being an author is, yeah, hard, so she said, “Why don’t you try journalism?”

So I kind of had it in my head that I would sort of, you know, be a journalist and that was kind of the aim in high school, I’m like “I’m going to be a journalist!” And then I-- when I actually ended up getting into—not my first choice—but into creative writing, which is funny, because it’s always what I wanted to do and kind of took it as a sign. And from there it was kind of like, just out of practicality-- this is the job thing where you earn money-- but out of practicality was a copywriter at Uni so I just did little odd jobs here and there and that kind of got me into more of the product and tech startup world.

It was just a way of writing constantly and then I was just experimenting with different types of other writing in my own projects at uni, so a bit of screenwriting, feature writing for magazines, a bit of journalism and then it just kind of progressed on its own. So, kept getting more-- kind of like full circle, back to fiction in a way. Like, I had this big journalism phase, I did a lot of that, a lot of essay writing on blogs which was really great because it was a great way to like, learn my voice and what kind of writing I wanted to do but somehow just ended up back at fiction, while also trying to write for this project. So, it’s an interesting trajectory but it somehow worked [laughs].

You did a lot of copywriting early in your career for companies such as GroupOn, how did you find that?

Actually, really loved it because it was fast-paced and I really work well under pressure-- deadlines. It was new and unique and the thing about GroupOn is-- it was kind of in the DNA that you would write in a creative, funny way. Like, it had its own style guide that was really odd and weird and that’s what it was known for so in a way it was, like, the perfect place to practice and, like, learn what I was doing. It was also very useful because even though I was just a copywriter to start with I was also doing social media, doing producing, fact-checking, like-- editing, pretty much every single role. So by the time I’d left there I was kind of like this sort of multitasking person and it just made it a lot easier in subsequent jobs to just kind of be, like, a comms manager, be, like a digital specialist, that kind of thing. But then that kind of takes up all your energy and time as well so you don’t end up writing!

Writing turned into comms, specifically in the social media and email for companies like Village. How did that progression come about?

Well, I liked it as well. I always liked it because it was-- the thing that I had in common with all that-- I was always doing something in some field that I loved. I loved film, entertainment, TV. So I was doing that for a while. It was always challenging, I was always learning new things but I always did have that pang of, “I want to get back into writing.” I knew that I was starting out in this weird digital space but then I was gradually more and more getting into marketing and my managers would always say to me, “you know, we know that you don’t want to be in marketing necessarily, you don’t-- you have another space that's more your thing.” But it was hard to place me there when it-- people are finding it harder and harder to fund creative roles.

So, that’s why I moved to Junkee because it was my way of trying to get-- still in a digital space but trying to get more in an editorial writing role. Ironically I didn’t do that though, I ended up in social media there [laughs] for like an agency role, so...

You pivoted into media/journalism with Junkee and later Fairfax, how did you find those experiences?

I think-- because it wasn’t straight into journalism, it wasn’t straight into editorial. It was like-- I was dipping my toes in and I knew that I had that ability but I was very-- I think Junkee was a real shock to my system because it was the first time—just by working there—I was suddenly kind of, suddenly a little bit more in the like media/Twitter eye.

Like I was suddenly-- people were like, “oh!” They noticed me, where like, “oh, what are you doing?” Sort of became a bit of an expert in my field but I felt completely like a fraud and I was like, “this is all new” and yeah it was funny because I didn’t like it at first. I didn’t like, firstly being so in the public-- starting to be in the public eye and then straddling these two worlds of digital/social media/agency almost like an account manager at one point and then also doing all this editorial.

I felt really strongly that I wanted to just go straight into editorial but it just wasn’t happening and so it was a bit of a struggle, kind of juggling these things. I loved the place, the environment I was in. I loved the people, what I learned there, I learnt so much in a short time but I definitely knew that at some point I was going to get to like, “I’m in too much of like a marketing, social space. I need to get back into editorial. I need to find my way.” I just felt compelled to get back into it.

You don’t seem to have a fear of change, in such a short career, you’ve built a wealth of experience, this concept of many employers is becoming more and more the norm, how do you find it?

Yeah, I mean, I always felt like I was the one person in any department, in any company that was doing what I was doing so I was quite used to that. But, you know that was more out of stubborness, I was like, “no one else knows how to do this, I’ll just do it.” Or, “I’ll just learn how to do it” and then I think I started to need more of a team environment, I needed sort of that support but I never in my whole career, never really had it, expect at GroupOn where I was in a team of copywriters. I was always just on my own.

But now it does make a lot of sense, I know how much you can do with a small team and I think it would surprise a lot of people. I think the danger in it is that you can burn out quite quickly and you don’t have, just that kind of, like, support system. Someone to go, “you know, I actually don’t think you should do this because-- have you thought about doing it this way?” Or just, like you know, brainstorming, coming up with ideas, solving problems. Like, these are the things that you do need that space for, that I think you can just more effectively use people and just find ways around it, find solutions and you can get better at it and it’s definitely a strange space to be in.

At Fairfax you soon become the editor of The Vocal, which aimed to encourage readers to take action once they'd read the stories. How did that idea come about and evolve?

Yeah, so, with Junkee I actually left Junkee to pursue a writing career, freelance write and write a novel. That didn’t happen because as I was leaving, I was working out my four weeks notice and as that was happening I got approached by someone at Fairfax, Taufiq Khan, who was a project manager in my-- in that team and he had been tasked with running this experiment and he was looking for someone-- they called it ‘digital content specialist’ but apparently it was just because they couldn’t call it ‘editor’ but it was essentially an editor role, you know and they explained it all to me and I was very clear that they’d already sort of decided, “we’re doing this thing, we want it to have a bit of a solutions focus, we want it to be-- target young people, we want it to have, like action and this quirk around it but aside from that, we don’t know what it’s going to be, what it’s going to sound like, that's up to you and Taufiq.”

So, I worked with Taufiq for the first, I think it was like seven to eight months, maybe less and my role was really clear which was, really helped get it off the ground, which was, writing content, running the social media to grow, so, growth-hacking techniques. So, experimenting with that, finding contributors, building a contributor network and coming up with ideas of how to build it, how to trial and experiment things. So the main thing was, they wanted to build an audience outside of the mastheads and they wanted to do it without using their existing assets. They wanted to see if they could do it and how that would look like. They knew it would be social media focused and that was kind of a time when it should have been easier with social media but it was just starting to be-- the algorithms were going down, it was about time but what we found, because we built something quite unique and that didn’t exist anywhere else, which was action focused with this weird style that we had; that attracted people organically. It was word-of-mouth, it was like, “have you heard about this?” It had a bit of clout.

That really helped us massively and then you know, just from word-of-mouth in the company people are like, “oh, we need to promote this!” Daily Life got involved and various other people just wanted sort of see what would happen if they-- basically if they worked more with young writers because it was mostly young writers that worked for us. So it was a fascinating time and I was, for the first eight months in this bubble of just doing things. I was writing like a maniac and then, then-- so basically Taufiq left and then it was “okay, you’re on your own.” So I was the managing editor and I had to basically keep it going and try to grow it, try to just keep my head above water and that’s where I learnt what it’s like to just sort of be on your own and the yeah, “off you go,” [Laughs]. “Do your best” sort of thing…

"I was writing like a maniac."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 31

How do you find social media as a means for companies to talk to customers, how should and shouldn’t it be used to engage customers and build relationships?

Well there isn’t one uniform way of using it, which is good to know. The way that we used it when we first started—when no one knew what to do—was to try and sound human and to try and tell stories and to be interesting and engaging and not just telling people what they have to know as a brand or as a company or government. I think that’s still the case, it sort of had a period where it was just a bit, “we don’t care, we’re just going to put our message out there, wherever we can” and a lot of people who don’t understand it were, “just put it on social media, put it on Facebook.” That’s the thing you hear all the time, it’s really frustrating [laughs]. But now, what I think it’s coming back to is you have more people who work in the industry, there is an industry now of social media. What’s happening is people are starting to go, “you know what! We don’t have a choice but to get this right because it’s not going to work, it’s not going to get any-- it’s not going to get seen.”

So what it’s come back to is that original idea of not just being a human but thinking really deeply and analytically about what your audience-- who they are and what they want and you're really making sure you tailor everything for them and it’s-- so you really have to understand who they are, what they like, what works and you just have to find the thing for that audience and that works for the brand and the company. But most people don’t even think about it that deeply. They’re just like, “anything will do, put it up” and that’s where a lot of people go wrong. I think it’s like-- it’s a much deeper look into the audience and the community that has ever been. Because it just won’t work otherwise.

Lorenzo: It’s not AND social media anymore...

Sheree: It’s its own thing, even though it overlays and touches every department and every type of-- you know, graphic designers will be involved, you know, the sales, marketing, everyone-- customer service-- everyone’s going to be in some way connected but ultimately the people that run it, they’re kind of juggling a lot of things but ultimately they’re still storytellers, they’re still constantly plugged in and having to think about, “what is the best thing I can possibly--” and “how can I do it” because there are so many ways to do it now. So, you know, Instagram stories and SnapChat and-- it’s this full approach that takes a lot of time and energy and you have to really assess, “is this the right way?”

Lorenzo: Is it the right channel? Is it the right way to use the channel? You just pointed to Instagram stories, that’s a mechanism that is a very specific way to push a narrative out there, you can’t just grab the image you were going to put on the feed and stick it there for a minute...

Sheree: Yeah, you have to be super agile in how you do it. Like, for example, I’m always constantly surprised by-- when there’s a brand I’m following in my stories and I don’t care that they’re in my stories because they’re doing such interesting stuff. Like recently I saw one brand Glossier, that had their little brush, their powder brush, and it was next to a bunny and it was like, “oh it’s made from-- it’s soft like a bunny” I don’t know, “I’ll buy anything you are selling me because that totally worked!” And that’s half the battle, just don’t annoy them [laughs].

You have put effort into learning to code and advocate continuous learning outside of the main thread of journalism, why do you think that is important?

Yeah, so, that was when I was kind of still at Fairfax and The Vocal and really, because I’d have to work with a creative director who did a bit of coding and I’d have to ask him for things and I’d often just have no idea-- I knew a little bit, I knew enough to get by but there was so much I didn’t know about what we could do. And I was really eager to actually do all these things and I was just frustrated. I was like, “I just need-- I need to be able to talk about this and know what it is, know how hard it is, know what I’m up against” and then, The Walkleys, they had Rose Powell was amazing. She was working there and she sort of took me under her wing a little and she was like, “you know, these are things you should apply for, the innovation grant,” there’s like a hackathon that they got me involved in and then finally, there was this coding scholarship which I was one of the recipients of.

And I did that for like eight weeks, it was really more of a starter course, really getting you across it and learning the basics. And I was really shocked that it was so hard. I mean, I knew it was hard but I kind of expected after eight weeks to be a bit more of a, “okay, I’m a coding pro.” Definitely didn’t happen and I kind of felt like, “Am I missing something?” But I think what it is, is you’re really becoming familiar with something; what it is, what it all means, how to talk to people and how you can use it better for your problem. But I think it’s something you have to build on, you have to constantly do little workshops and exercises and read about it and be absorbed in it.

It’s something I want to go back to just because I feel like it gives you freedom to sort of do something, you don’t need to rely on other people, just build something simple. I think it’s really useful but I can see why a lot of people wouldn’t want to be across it, because it’s a whole other skillset, it’s a whole other part of your brain. It’s really hard to become an expert in it, so it’s not for everyone but I think journalists and media in that space, it’s really good to dabble in it… learn enough to be able to talk to people. Learn enough to see the importance of it; why does it matter? How can we do new things?

"They want it to sort of be part of their social media platforms and they want to have discussions online and not for it to devolve into a nightmare of trolls."
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I usually end with ‘what’s next’ but you are just kicking off Tiny Moguls, in which you’re looking to arm young audiences with news that matters. How did it start and how is it going?

Yeah, so basically. I’ve done The Vocal and it was really great, because in a way it-- it succeeded but it also there was a point where it kind of didn’t. We didn’t know what else to do and it sort of failed and that chapter closing was a real moment for me because even though it was ended, I felt very much like I was just beginning and there was all these things I wanted to do. I had all these ideas and when it came time for this innovation grant I had to think, “okay, well what would I do differently this time?” And basically Tiny Moguls came about more as a concept around-- there are a lot of young people who don’t know what to do, don’t know where to go, if they want to do something, if they want to get involved, take action, if they want to become writers. No one really knows where to go and so you’ll see people online constantly looking for spaces that will help them. Give them advice, make it easier. Create some kind of space or community.

So basically Tiny Moguls came about because I wanted to create more of a community model rather than just this straight media model where we’re talking directly to you, “here’s an article, read it! And if you want to do something about it, you can but you don’t have to.”

Instead I was like, “so how do we solve this problem of; people want to do something but they don’t want it to be really hard, complicated and difficult. They just want it to sort of make sense to their habits. They want it to sort of be part of their social media platforms and they want to have discussions online and not for it to devolve into a nightmare of trolls.” You know, they don’t have that currently and it’s-- they notice it’s lacking. It’s this concept of this fatigue of hating Twitter, of hating Facebook, of hating the online spaces that’s not a safe space.

So Tiny Moguls is really that hybrid model of; we want to tell stories still but we also want to change the technology and the mechanisms so that it's an easier place to do it. It makes sense, it’s all in line with what the user wants and how they are operating. I want to build this fairly big community but you know, still keep it a bit niche and targeted to a very particular audience. So that’s kind of the idea behind it.

And what I’m currently doing is, basically trying to grow the audience, in the most-- simplest way possible that I can. So really, “is there an appetite for this?” Giving the smallest amount and seeing who’s interested in this, can we build on this and then a bigger project in the background that I’m hoping to fund and work on is more that mechanics around discussions, almost like that forum hub with lots of content, make it easy to find but also make it easy to discuss things so that you can take action and do it together.

So you have this community model-- you’re not on your own and even though you feel small, you know tiny… you’re actually the big mogul! You can do this and this is how we’re going to help you. So it’s very community focused and really all about the user, it’s not about the media-- you know, the big media company that’s telling you what to do, “We want to hear what you want, what stories do you want? At every touch point you’re involved and we want to make it easier for you to get paid!”

So a model-- we’ll experiment with different models but we want it to be like, “of course you’ll get paid, you’ll get paid by us but you’ll get paid by your peers if they like it” so you know, it’s just kind of-- that’s sort of the idea.

"It is hard to find people; good people to do the work and for you to also know what you need them to do."
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How has it been leading a product team?

I’m really-- it’s a real struggle. I think I thought it would be easier because I have done it before and I discounted how much support I actually did have - in having a team at Fairfax, having access to resources and that support and that name behind you. This is a lot harder, in that it is hard to find people, good people to do the work and for you to also know what you need them to do - be really clear, to set time aside to work on it, to you know. It’s not your full-time job, you don’t have a lot of funding. So there’s-- it’s a real challenge to try and strip it back and do the easiest thing while still trying to build this brand, get that awareness out there, it’s hard to talk about as well because it is complicated, so you-- how do you let people know what it is. Yeah, it’s-- I do love it! It’s just not this clap your hands and it’s done and you're own your own and it’s all working-- it’s a slow process, you need that support, you need-- I think a lot of places rely on volunteers and free labour. I don’t want to do that so-- very much-- if people offer to help I won’t go near them until I know that I do need them and how I can pay them and give them an actual role or something I can do that makes sense. But it is-- yeah, it’s really challenging... and it doesn’t make it easier that you’ve got that funding and recognition because it is in some ways that extra pressure. So you’re a little bit like, “I’ve got to do this thing now! It’s got to be great! It’s got to be the best!” Yeah, it’s not always, doesn’t always work out straight away, you just have to work and chip away, yeah...

Follow Sheree on Twitter (@tinyfleu) and Instagram (@tinyfleur).
Follow Tiny Moguls on Twitter (@TheTinyMoguls).

Proofreading by Luke Yates.