Listen: Channel 7's Mark Ferguson chats to Graeme Burrill
Graeme Burrill from Hope Nights had a fascinating behind-the-scenes chat with Channel 7’s nightly news anchor, Mark Ferguson. Mark reveals his most memorable career moments, the traits he had to overcome when he first started, as well as some tips for aspiring young journalists.
GB: Mark, how did you get your start in TV?
MF: When I was in Year 10 I had my heart set on being a country vet! I wanted to stay in Tamworth or somewhere like it, I loved farm life, loved animals, and that was my plan.
But going into Year 11 and 12 I chose physics, chemistry and 3 unit maths – and by the end of Year 11 – I was failing physics, chemistry and 3 unit maths.
Some wise teachers came my way and said: “Look, Mark, English and history are going very well – if you have to write it down, you’re pretty good; if you have to add it up, you’re pretty hopeless!” So I started thinking about journalism and a career in telling stories, and it went from there.
I started when I was 18 years of age, straight out of high school in my hometown of Tamworth (and I turned 54 this Saturday so it’s been quite some time; you do the maths!)
I was about to head off to university to do a communications course, and a job came up at the local TV station for a cadet journalist. I got my application in a little bit late – which was not a good start – but the guy they gave the job to decided he wanted to go to uni and study law. So he left and I was second choice. I started at the tender age of 17, just before my 18th birthday. Straight out of school, as cadet on the local TV station.
I then moved up to Queensland, lived overseas for a while, had a stint as a foreign correspondent, and the last 15 years or so I’ve been mostly in the studio, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve been a very lucky man.
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What training did you have to do?
My training was mostly on the job. But I was sent to Tamworth TAFE to learn how to touch-type, which was very helpful as the years unfolded. Also, when I first moved from the country to the city, my first job was Channel 7 in Brisbane – and I had a Tamworth country twang about me. So I had to get a few elocution lessons to try and soften the broad country accent. Other than that it’s been all on the job.
What does an average day look like as presenter of Channel 7’s nightly news?
Sunday to Thursday is my working week, because Sunday’s quite a big TV night and a big news day as well. I’m in here from about midday each day. A lot of the early part of the day is promotion, getting an idea of what we’re running that night, getting out onto radio and doing a few promos. I’m in the studio from about 2:30pm, 3 o’clock, starting to promote the news, and then as we lead up to 6 o’clock, it gets busier and busier. My role is to present the news as best I can, so I’m getting those intros in, putting them in a form that I’m comfortable with and making sure we’ve got all the stuff lined up in a row. And then, of course, the main part of my day starts at bang on 6 o’clock.
There’s a bit of outside work as well. We do some school visits, a bit of charity work. So there’s always something bubbling away on the side.
After the news finishes, we pre-record a couple of updates, and I’m probably out the door by about 7:30 each night, and home at the kitchen table by about 8. So it’s a slightly later start and a slightly later finish than most.
What do you love about the job?
It’s a job I’m very passionate about, it’s lovely to feel at times that you’re part and parcel of the Sydney community and you’re telling people what’s going on in their suburb, in their city and their state and beyond.
When a very big story breaks, when you’re in the middle of that, you haven’t got a lot of safety net, you’re going live to air and the pictures are unfolding right before your eyes.
Combining the role of a news presenter, and being dad to three boys, it’s been a wonderful mix. It’s allowed me to be at home most nights, help where I can, be there as they grow up, and it’s been a really nice way to have run my career.
I’ve loved the journey – from a country town, and to have had the chance to have travelled the world, to have met some very interesting people, to have been in the middle of some very big stories.
What are the biggest challenges of being a journalist?
One of the challenges I found early in my career was dealing with hardship and controversy, and going into situations that personally I wasn’t quite comfortable with. When you’re dealing with perhaps a fatality or a serious injury in the workplace, and going there and trying to collect the information and get the story, but at the same time being very mindful that there might be relatives, friends or workmates who really don’t want to see a news camera. As a pretty shy kid from Tamworth I found that pretty hard to deal with initially, and that’s something I had to learn as I went along.
“One of the challenges early in my career was dealing with hardship and controversy, a fatality or a serious injury… going there and trying to get the story… As a pretty shy kid from Tamworth I found that hard to deal with. That’s something I had to learn as I went along.”
Being a shy kid, meeting and greeting people as a young fella was something I had to work on as well.
These days, it’s making sure we’ve got the stories right, making sure the facts and figures add up, making sure we’re covering what Sydneysiders really want to see each night, is a big challenge on a daily basis. There’s always something to keep you on your toes.
Is it hard to switch off from the news cycle when you go home?
Yes, I guess you never really do switch off from the news cycle. Certainly in these more modern times, it’s much, much harder to switch off. I’m a bit old-fashioned, I still read four newspapers every single day. I’m always reading newspapers, always checking websites, plenty of news on the TV. So yes, it is hard to switch off. But I don’t mind that. I really enjoy what I do, so it never feels like it’s constant work. I’ve been very lucky to fall into a career that I’ve been passionate about.
I have a farm, and I love getting down to my property, which is about three hours south of Sydney, I run merino sheep down there. Getting down to the farm is nice; rounding up some sheep and a few tough days on the tools certainly puts a lot of things into perspective.
How has your job changed from the late 80s to now?
It’s changed so much, it’s hard to comprehend at times. Gone are the days where you used to pull up to the Telstra phone booth and put your 20c in the slot and make a call back to the office to see what was happening or to chase a lead.
I can remember being out on the road as a young journo in Sydney and seeing a competitor with the first mobile phone I’d ever seen, it was a huge box on a strap hung over her shoulder. I thought “how lucky is she!” So the world has certainly changed! Even just getting pictures back from stories: when I worked as a foreign correspondent overseas we’d often have to drive for half a day in somewhere like Africa to get to a feed point to get your pictures back. These days it can be done through a laptop and the push of a button. So it’s all changed so much.
Mostly for the better: not all for the better. Sometimes facts and figures get thrown out with the race to be first, so for something like Seven News it’s very important that we get our facts and figures and perhaps hit the pause button at times. With social media, and all those sorts of mediums, there is the challenge to make sure that we’ve got the story right the first time.
You’ve reported on a lot of big stories – the Boxing Day Tsunami, the death of Princess Diana and many more. What stories have stuck with you?
The tragic death of Diana all those years ago, that was one that really struck home, and as the years wind on, that story doesn’t seem to lessen to any extent. I’d been working overseas for about three or four years in London, covered a lot of royal stories at the time, and a lot to do with Diana. So for her to die in such tragic and sudden circumstances, that was a major story at the time. We were (working) flat strap for a number of days. When I look back I think that really was a very sad moment, but a moment in history.
“I remember a trip to Somalia at the height of a civil war and famine. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. It was a real eye-opener; very, very disturbing. It stayed with me for many, many months.”
I also remember a trip to Somalia at the height of a civil war and famine. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. To go into the heart of that sort of territory was a real eye-opener; very, very disturbing, it stayed with me for many, many months. In fact, I felt quite guilty at times when I first came back to Sydney after that trip, thinking, just how good we had it back here, and how others on the other side of the world were doing it so very tough.
And then there have been some real highlights. I’m a mad sports fan so one of the real highlights for me was covering an entire Ashes tour back in 1997. I felt like I was part of the team halfway through that. That’s one highlight I’ll always remember.
Who are some of the significant people you’ve met in your career?
I’ve met most of the Prime Ministers we’ve had; I’ve met a few members of the royal family; I’ve met a few Hollywood stars – Michael Caine is one that really stands out. Sometimes we get up close and personal with some of your heroes that can be a little disappointing at times – but he was one of the standouts who was a wonderful, wonderful warm guy.
And to have mixed with a few of the big sports stars, especially the cricketers, that’s been a real highlight as well.
Do you have any tips for young people wanting to get into TV journalism? What skills or qualities should they work on?
I would just say sheer enthusiasm, and the love of the craft, and never giving up. It’s a very competitive industry and it can be at times hard to break into.
We’ve a number of people come through our doors on work experience or on internships, and you can just usually tell in the first couple of minutes if they have that drive and passion.
There are many jobs where you know exactly what you’re going to do that week, and journalism is certainly not one of those. You’re never quite sure how your day’s going to start, and you’re certainly not sure how it’s going to finish up. So you need passion.
If you’re still at school, a love of English, a love of history, a love of geography and the ability to write – work on that skill. Also, having the ability to mix with all sorts of people, to be able to go up, shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye, have a conversation, all those things are very important in those first few years when you’re trying to break in. I’d say sheer enthusiasm is your number one objective.