The storyteller’s tale: a conversation with David Leser

The internationally renowned journalist shares his thoughts on fake news, the death of print, and the future of his profession

Pauline Hanson, Xena the Warrior Princess, Alan Jones, Germaine Greer, and Tenzin Gyatso — the 14th Dalai Lama — make for a diverse list of personalities. If I hadn’t just spent hours researching this article, I would have no clue as to what they could all have in common. They certainly don’t share similar views in regards to politics; one member isn’t even a real person.

What connects these personalities to each other are not their stories, but who has told them. A storyteller who travelled to Greer’s quaint English cottage and had his gift of French jam sneered at. A storyteller who, in a bamboozling turn of events, dined at Hanson’s home with her family. A storyteller whose name probably still makes Alan Jones’ face turn plum.

This storyteller’s name is David Leser — one of Australia’s most famous profile journalists.

David Leser was born with big shoes to fill. His father, Bernard Leser, was the founder of Australian Vogue, former managing director of Conde Nast, and former President of Conde Nast International. He was a publishing juggernaut, so influential to the Australian media sector that Rupert Murdoch is perhaps the only equivalent in Bernard’s profession to surpass his renown.

It was, in fact, through these two juggernauts that Leser managed to snag his first job as a journalist. Upon graduating from Macquarie University he landed a cadetship at the Daily Telegraph, which occurred, in his words, “through shameless nepotism.” Murdoch owed his father a favour: his eldest daughter, Prudence, was given a job at British Vogue by Leser’s father.

“I had a lot to live up to, and a lot to live down because of how I got the job,” he tells me over the phone. He is speaking to me from Perth, where a three hour time difference and an all day workshop separate us.

He is modest about his achievements, and it’s hard to fault him for taking a helping hand in an industry built on connections. He has worked tirelessly to prove himself, and travelled half the world in search of moving stories to tell.

I ask him how many different publications he has worked at.

The Daily Telegraph, The Time Picayun in New Orleans, The Springfield Daily News in Massachusetts, The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, The Australian, HQ Magazine, The Bulletin, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Australian Woman’s Weekly, News Week, European Vanity Fair … I’ve never done this count before,” he laughs. “How many is that?”

As impressive as this list is, Leser has also served as a Jerusalem correspondent and a correspondent to Washington D.C, is a four times Walkley Award finalist and one time winner for his 1998 profile of Alan Jones.

I’m particularly interested in this piece. It was famously savage. Jones had always been a very powerful and very private man. For a long time during the development of the story, he was also very uncooperative, refusing to be interviewed until he realised the piece would run to print regardless of his participation, or lack thereof. Leser describes his interview with Jones as a “bracing five hours”. Fair.

“But you know, I did get tea and scones so that was quite nice,” he adds.

Journalism has fundamentally shifted since Leser’s early years.

Although he cites the move of journalist resources from archives with librarians, and the impact of the 24 hour news cycle on the relevance of print newspapers as major changes, for Leser it is the intangible and ideological power of the Internet that has proved the most shocking.

“We were more or less all relating to the same conversation, and that’s completely gone now. There are millions of different conversations taking place, and that kind of refers to the whole fake news argument because we’ve entered this stage now where you can call, as the President of the United States does, august newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times peddlers of fake news,” he says in disbelief. “I mean that is the most dramatic change that I have seen.”

With his background in US journalism, it’s easy to see how astounding this must be for Leser. He’s worked extensively in Louisiana and Massachusetts, as well as Washington, D.C.

“Of course papers have got it wrong in the past and were perhaps too arrogant, or missed stories. But this idea that they would deliberately go out and peddle fake news is just a preposterous idea, and it’s just something so new in the world of journalism that every journalist now has to grapple with,” says Leser.

“It’s this complete disbelief that kicks over into animosity and hatred, in the case of Trump’s base support, for the media.”

Much of the difficulty for journalists working in today’s interactive media involves dealing with trolls and doxxing, which is becoming an increasingly serious threat to the physical and mental well being of writers. One only needs to skim the facebook profiles of Clementine Ford or Waleed Aly to see evidence of the abuse high profile journalists receive on a regular basis.

“To me, journalism was one of the last fun industries. At its best you got to meet extraordinary people, write about extraordinary things, go to extraordinary places. And … this is becoming less possible, even if you have a job,” Leser tells me.

He’s right — I look at contemporary depictions of journalists in films such as Spotlight and I see a fantasy.

“What is the toughest challenge facing young journalists today?” I ask.

He replies almost instantly, as if the answer is pure instinct by this point.

“Getting a job. Getting paid.”

Having been in that position myself, it’s reassuring to hear that acknowledgment. Prancing from unpaid internship to unpaid internship doesn’t pay rent, no matter how impressive the ABC, Vogue, or the Sydney Morning Herald may look on a CV. Experience doesn’t put food in your mouth and validation feels (literally) cheap without reimbursement.

The journalism industry is in dire need of change. The current cuts at Fairfax and resulting strike are part of a wake up call that is desperately needed.

“The collective memory of Fairfax is basically gone,” he says.

Leser feels pity even for young journalists who do find jobs.

“When I was a young reporter … we’d have to write three or four stories a day, and that was demanding enough writing to deadline. Now you’ve got to write the story, post on facebook, tweet, put a video up, upload an updated version later in the day … you are never off! It’s this 24/7 hyperconnectivity. And all these cuts have made it exhausting for journalists to do their jobs.”

I have one final question:

“Is print dead?” I ask.

He pauses briefly before replying. “In twenty years time there will be virtually no newspapers left in the world. There might be a couple, some lovely quaint heritage ones that some rich benefactor may decide to run at a loss.”

However, he isn’t as negative about journalism.

“I think stories will never die. The need for stories will never ever die.”

And he’s right. Whether it’s in print, online, spoken through a podcast, or streamed via YouTube, there will always be stories to tell — and storytellers to tell them.