Leigh Sales asks Mia Freedman 18 questions you want answered, including what makes a good leader.

The following is an excerpt from Storytellers: Questions, Answers and the Craft of Journalism by Leigh Sales. You can purchase the book here. 

Mia Freedman is one of Australia's leading digital entrepreneurs as co-founder of Mamamia Women's Media Company. It is the largest women's podcast network in the world, with a monthly audience of more than seven million women and more than fifty-five different programs. Prior to starting Mamamia, Mia was a magazine editor, newspaper columnist, radio presenter and TV host. She has written four books, hosts the interview podcast No Filter, and co-hosts the top current affairs podcast in Australia, Mamamia Out Loud. She is also a co-creator and Executive Producer of the TV series Strife, which was inspired by her memoir, Work Strife Balance.

Mia, what's your actual role at Mamamia?

"I guess you could say I'm the DNA of the business. I have to toggle between being the owner of a media company and being a creator. The part that I've managed to eliminate in the middle is where I'm a manager – I don't manage a single person, even my own EA does not report to me. I've spent so much of my career climbing the ladder, getting to the top, looking around, and then trying to find ways to climb back down, to be back at the coalface, because that's where I'm most comfortable.

That's the hoity-toity answer. But the actual answer is I make a lot of content, I'm behind the business. I identify new growth areas and I oversee how we present ourselves to the world. The thing I've learnt from a business point of view is that I'm most comfortable in start-up mode, getting my hands dirty. The more people between me and an audience, the more frustrating I find it."


Watch: Mia Freedman and Leigh Sales discuss the life lessons they gathered from school. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.


"I guess one answer could be that I'm a show-off. I like to perform. In many ways, there's a degree of ego in all forms of journalism. But I want to do, not teach. I want to impact women most greatly by making the thing, not managing the making of the thing. And I want to learn from the process of making it and the process of seeing how it's received. Then I learn and get better at what I do."

What do you learn from your audience?

"Well, when you're a newspaper columnist, or you edit a magazine, or you work at a TV network, so many things are out of your control. It can be very woolly when you're trying to learn what an audience responds to because there can be a hundred different things that affect it. You might have a great column in the newspaper, but the front page will be something that you had no control over, and that might prevent people from buying it and reading your column. Or you might do something fantastic on TV but the show that's leading in might be something, or daylight saving might be something. When you work on the internet, exclusively in digital media, you can't hide from the real-time feedback of your audience. Everything I make is intentional. I can see if you've opened a newsletter I've sent, I can see if you've read an article I've written, I can see if you've downloaded a podcast I've recorded. The numbers can't lie. People's behaviour can't lie. I really like that. I like the real-time feedback."


How similar is your role steering the creative side of a digital business to editing a print magazine, as you used to?

"Some things are similar. You've got a team of people and you have to work out how to get the best from them. They're all working under a branded masthead, and you have to stay true to that masthead while still encouraging people to shine in their individual ways. So some of it's similar, but it's the scale. It costs the same amount to produce a podcast that's listened to by a million people as it does to produce a podcast that’s listened to by ten people. Same with a written article, an Instagram video or a YouTube video. It's all the same output, whereas magazines, for example, are not scalable. If you want to sell fifty thousand magazines, you have to print eighty thousand magazines. It's a terrible business model, print. So in that way it’s [digital] much more liberating. You can have a much greater impact."

You mentioned all these disparate elements that come under a masthead. How precisely do you have in your mind the identity and core value of the Mamamia masthead?

"So for a long time, the first few years after I started Mamamia in the lounge room, my husband Jason would say, 'But what is Mamamia?' And what he was getting at is, 'What's your why? What's the core purpose of Mamamia?' I would get really impatient with that – like, 'It's just the vibe, it’s for women. It's about being good, supporting women.'

It wasn't until a lot of years later, as we started to scale the business, that he was insistent that we sit down and actually articulate our core purpose. Not just for our audience or our advertisers, but also for our staff, which was growing exponentially at that time. The only way to create a culture and a brand is to have core values and a core purpose. Core purpose is how you create a brand, core values are how you create a culture. And so we articulated that Mamamia is about making the world a better place for women and girls. And it's like, 'Okay, how do we do that?' That's our 'why'. That's why everyone in our company comes to work every day, and that is the filter through which every editorial and business decision we make goes.


I'll give you an example of a business decision. We decided early on that we would not support the paparazzi economy. We would not participate in it. So even though all our competitors in the women's space publish paparazzi photos of celebrities at the beach, celebrities with their kids – taken without women's knowledge and permission – we don't do that because we know it does not meet our core purpose. It is not making the world a better place for women and girls. It's predominantly women and their children who are stalked by paparazzi. Even though that costs us from a business point of view, cos that’s traffic we don't get and page views that we can't monetise, that is a business decision we've made."

Even though you were a bit irritated by the conversation at the start, once you did identify and articulate your 'why' in one sentence, what effect did that have on the business?

"Massive. The most dangerous time for business is going from start-up to scale-up, because it is such a shift – from who you hire to what you create, to how you run anything. They say you should be able to walk up to anybody in the whole business at any time of the day and say, 'What's our core purpose?' And if they can't tell you, you're going to struggle with engagement, because they don't know why they're there. For us, it meant suddenly having a great filter for the editorial decisions we make, for the business decisions we make, for the staff we hire. Everybody's pulling in the same direction. It's been a game-changer."


I assume it also makes it very easy when you're commissioning work or new products and new podcasts to decide, 'Is this a Mamamia kind of story?'

"It absolutely does. And it also gives us a unique selling point from the very crowded market of much bigger media companies."

What do you think makes a good editorial leader?

"As a leader, it's your job to work out how to get the most out of your people and what motivates them. One of the things that we do when people start with us is say to them, 'What fills your cup?' and we give them a list of examples. Is it public praise? Time off? Being sent flowers? A shout out in the newsletter? Private praise? Some people love being called out in front of everybody, other people find that absolutely mortifying – it's much more meaningful to them if their boss comes and has a quiet word with them and says, 'Hey, I really liked that story that you wrote,' or, 'You did a great job editing that show.'

I think as a good leader; you need to be really self-aware. You need to understand your own biases and weaknesses. A big one for leaders is unconscious bias. As a leader, you tend to promote and surround yourself with people like you. They're the ones you gravitate to because they're the ones you understand the best. Obviously, when you've got a company full of men, that can be a really bad thing, because they'll hire lots of other men. For me, I'm very extroverted, very larger than life, very fast. And I'm attracted to people like that. And you can't have only people like that."


With any new hire, from a junior person to a senior person, are there any particular qualities that you highly seek?

"I would say curiosity, more than anything else. That's crucial to me. An evenness of temperament. We put everybody through a psychographic test. It basically shows someone's personality profile. If you've got someone working in the IT department versus sales versus a podcast producer, they're going to need different strengths. Some will need to be more sparkly, some will need to be better at working independently. We've got people in the business across all different kinds of profiles; it's about the strengths they bring to their particular job."

Do you think that the skills that make somebody a great journalist can be taught? Or do you have to arrive with certain attributes?

"I know they can be taught because no one starts as a good journo. I remember Deborah Thomas, my first boss, would sit me next to her and rewrite my copy while I watched. It was excruciating, but it was a gift. I mean, my god! Back in the day, it used to be great when you would print out your copy, give it to an editor, and they would write all over it with pen. Now, with digital media, a journalist will file their copy, an editor might make changes, someone will choose a headline, it'll go up, and there's no physical trail of what those changes are. I really miss marking up copy. I don't do it anymore much, but I really love working with words."

Listen to this episode of No Filter where Mia Freedman interviews Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar. Post continues below.

At Mamamia, do you talk to staff about what constitutes good writing?

"If you're a news journalist, it's going to be very different to a lifestyle journalist or the host of a pop culture podcast. It's genre-specific. But, you know, I do masterclasses with the team here, as does Holly [Wainwright], who's our Head of Content. She's got a masterclass on tone that she takes every new starter in our business through – even the people in the sales team, because they'll have to put together decks for clients, and tone is really, really important.


I do masterclasses on something called the 'T', which is something I learnt from the editor-in-chief of US Cosmo. We used to have these global conferences and all the editors – from sixty-five different countries – would go to somewhere like the Bahamas or Amsterdam or New York, and we'd have meetings and presentations for a few days. I remember the new editor of Cosmo gave a presentation, and she talked about the T. Apparently on a tennis court there's something called the T, where you've got the most control and ability to place the ball. Her husband's a kids' tennis coach and they start at the T, where they can hit all the shots. But then they'll start to drift and suddenly, they're not in the position of strength for their game. So he'll always be like, 'Go back to the T, go back to the T.' And she talked about us going back to the T as well.

I'll give you an example. The T is your 'why'. Your sweetest spot, the core of your brand, where it's at its strongest. Everyone will go off their T – because your staff can take you off your T, the news cycle can take you off your T. We've come off our T many times. For example, if you do one story on 7.30 about Kim Kardashian's new underwear, people will go, 'Well, that’s a little bit weird,' but it won't take you off your T, right? But if you do a story about Kim Kardashian's underwear, then a story about Kylie Jenner's pregnancy, then a story about Nadia Bartel snorting coke, suddenly you're off your T.


The T of Crikey is going to be different to the T of 7.30 is going to be different to the T of Mamamia. And there'll be aspects of Mamamia with different Ts. Mamamia Out Loud has one. With our podcast No Filter, we have the T in the intro each time: 'Conversations with people from all walks of life, who tell their stories very candidly and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable.' So that's the T, right?"

How do you come up with story ideas or new podcast ideas?

"From our chats on WhatsApp."


I'm not even kidding. I have an insatiable appetite, and the best people in our team do, for consuming things. I am content-agnostic – I will look at YouTube videos, TikTok videos, I'll watch 7.30, I'll be alive to conversations happening in my group chats, I'll notice my own behaviour changing and what I'm thinking about things. And I've come to know over the years that I'm a basic b**ch, in that if I'm thinking about something or doing something or interested in something, a lot of other people are going to be very shortly as well. I'm fractionally ahead. So when I was into podcasts, I just followed my gut; because I'm like, well, 'If I'm listening to a lot of podcasts, that's going to be a thing soon.' I'm not a futurist who knows what's happening in five years, or even two years, but I'm probably about six months ahead of the pack. It's just being alive to the vibe."


You just said something that I think is absolutely key in journalism, whether you're Helen Garner writing literary nonfiction or the most tabloid journo. It was when you said, 'I notice what I think about things.' Noticing is possibly the skill in good journalism, other than curiosity, and they're related. It's noticing, 'Oh, that seems a bit weird. That's interesting.'

"Yes. For example, I was thinking the other day, 'Where's part two of Barack Obama's book?' I would love someone to go write that story. What's the story behind why Barack Obama's book has taken six years? That's a story I'd be interested to know cos I'm just nosy and curious."

And why is yuzu in so many restaurant desserts now?

"It's true. Like, why? They absolutely are stories. It's that thing of 'everything's copy'."

Trying new things comes with risk, and you can't embrace risk without being prepared to accept failure. How do you deal with that?

"I try to fail fast. I don't flog dead horses. That's an awful expression. But I don't beat myself up. If something's not working, I just want to keep going, move on and try the next thing. Maybe that means I give up too easily, but I'm willing to accept that something hasn't worked. There've been podcasts that we've started that just haven't kicked. And there've been ideas that we've had in the business that just haven't worked. Sometimes our timing's just been off, sometimes our execution's been off. And I've tried to learn from that and move on and make the next thing better."

What do you think is the most common misconception that legacy journalists have about digital media companies?

"Clickbait. I think this idea of clickbait is so reductive. Clickbait is when you manipulate people by having a misleading headline. Magazines do this all the time, which is why it's ironic that it's associated with digital journalism. It'll be like 'Fifi Box's Exciting Baby News', and then you'll look and it'll be her sister's had a baby, you know? A good headline should entice someone to want to know more, to want to read that story. It should never knowingly mislead, just encourage.

I think that the other misconception about digital journalism is that it's somehow lesser; that because it's so often written by young people, it's less worthy. I don't think any of that's true.


Also, from a women's media company point of view, this idea that anything a woman's interested in is obviously dumb and frivolous. Which is not a new thing. That was an aspersion that was cast over women's magazines, and women's magazine editors. That because it was interesting to women, it must be dumb. Nobody says that about sport."

Your business has an audience of more than six and a half million women every month. It clearly has been groundbreaking for digital media in Australia. And yet, I still occasionally see it described in newspapers as a 'mummy blog'. What do you think motivates that condescension?

"Oh, misogyny. The same thing that motivates people in the book world to call it chick lit instead of fiction written by women. It's that idea that if you have a uterus and an internet connection, you must be a mummy blogger. It's just really sad and reductive. It's the same reason businesswomen are often referred to as socialites or influencers, when in fact they're running businesses and they happen to have a social media account. It's just pure sexism."

This is the exact reason that I invited you to be in this section of the book. Undoubtedly, you are as powerful and influential as any male newspaper editor in the country, as any television executive producer, and it's mystifying to me that it gets overlooked or dismissed so readily. I guess the flip side of that is; it allows you to operate doing what you're doing and get on with what you like.

"It does. I think there's also the idea that because I put on my make-up on social media, or I'll do a post about a top that I've bought, it means that I can't also be serious. But that's why Mamamia's been able to be a success. We were the first ones to come along and say, 'Well, yeah, women are interested in fashion and cooking and make-up, but they're also interested in politics, current affairs, news, pop culture, sport.' A lot of legacy journalists still sometimes find that hard to understand and they'll call us a parenting site or a lifestyle site. But we've got as much news content as any other major media organisation, you know? It's about 360 degrees of content. We're content-agnostic, because guess what? People are content-agnostic. The things that people are interested in are both high- and low-brow."


Image: Simon and Schuster Publishing.

Storytellers: Questions, Answers and the Craft of Journalism by Leigh Sales is now available for purchase, here.

Feature Image: Penguin Books Australia/Mamamia.

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