Behind the scenes at Betoota: meet the men bringing you the news you need

Clancy Overell and Errol Parker of Australia's oldest newspaper, The Betoota Advocate. Picture: Supplied
Clancy Overell and Errol Parker of Australia's oldest newspaper, The Betoota Advocate. Picture: Supplied

It seems only fitting that one of the last interviews the boys from The Betoota Advocate do in this shitshow of a year is with someone called Karen. I start to complain about what an annus horribilis it's been for Karens when they rudely interrupt me.

"So typical of a Karen to think that they're the only ones who have suffered this year," says Clancy Overell, editor of the esteemed newspaper, his dulcet tones perhaps more suited to the easy life of talkback radio than the hard slog of print journalism.

"2020 hasn't been about you ... think of all the shit that's happened.

"We've had state elections, federal elections, international elections, pandemics, bushfires, floods ... and that's just something that happened in Mildura one night."

I know, hardened journalist that I am, that it's not going to be easy interviewing Overell and his deputy Errol Parker. These are men at the coalface of our industry. To them, I'm just a lush, swanning about in the golden halls of Canberra.

The Betoota Advocate purports itself to be the oldest newspaper in the country, based in outback Queensland. Established in the mid-1800s, it epitomises what good regional journalism is all about - how big stories affect the everyman. The very antithesis of fake news.

In reality, The Betoota Advocate is a satirical media company, started in 2014 by journalists Archer Hamilton and Charles Single, working with publisher Piers Grove. It now has a readership many "mainstream" media outlets would envy with close to 660,000 followers on Instagram and 760,000 on Facebook, and countless hits on its website, betootaadvocate.com. It outdoes more-established satirical sites such as The Shovel and The Onion out of the United States. Sometimes real news organisations follow their leads.

Australia 2020: A collection of stories to tie a bow on this nightmare.

Australia 2020: A collection of stories to tie a bow on this nightmare.

According to some half-arsed internet research they'd be proud of, apparently both men are graduates of Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, Hamilton (Overell) did do a stint in radio and Single (Parker) has The Canberra Times on his bio (although this intrepid journalist who's been here for just about as long as The Betoota says its been publishing can only find record of a keen young intern called Single who was here for two weeks in 2012). The pair only do interviews and public appearances in character, saying it might hurt their chances in "real" journalism in the future.

So if there's any year to suspend belief, 2020 is it, and I'm back aboard for the ride. We're talking newscycles, the future of the print product and whether we feel sorry for "Hot Mess Gladys", the moniker they gave beleaguered NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian.

"Ah, the life and times of a chaotic Sydney single," says Parker.

"It's all part of the plan, everyone in NSW knows she's as guilty as sin and there was this sleight of hand magic act where all of a sudden people became more concerned about her private life."

When I admit I have some sympathy for Berijiklian, that I understand how hard the dating scene is for smart middle-aged women in some position of public duty, Parker won't have a bar of it.

"That's not the story here, Karen. I mean, good for her, bad luck for you, but look, look at what she's done."

Overell says it's sometimes hard, even after so long in the industry, to get to the crux of such a story.

"Well, we get distracted, as you've probably seen in our newspaper, we've obviously been more interested in Gladys and her developments post-breakup, spilling a berry smoothie inside the Suzuki Swift, she started going out with a Bra Boy for a little while there, she's had quite a time.

"And only of late have we really been focusing on alleged $250 million she spent on council grants before elections."

NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian has been popular with the Betoota boys this year. Picture: Getty Images

NSW Premier Gladys Berijiklian has been popular with the Betoota boys this year. Picture: Getty Images

Like many businesses in our industry, The Betoota Advocate has had to look for ways to diversify in this troubled year and they've published a book, Australia 2020: A collection of stories to tie a bow on this nightmare. There are chapters on the crucifixion of Scotty from Marketing, sports rorts, life in iso, global unrest, 11 pages on opposition leader Anthony Albanese and all the things he has done this year. They are blank.

Is is hard to keep on top of what's happening in government when you're based in rural Queensland? Has Betoota ever considered putting a staff member into the press gallery?

"We've tried," says Parker.

"The press gallery itself is a bit of an elitist institution, it's like a club, if you don't know anyone you won't be extended an invitation. But to be in the line at Aussies, waiting for a coffee, with such luminaries, that's the dream."

What advice would the Betoota team have for young journalists entering the profession in 2020?

"Keep your head down and whatever you do, don't be seduced by the dark side of the political staffer world or by advertising," says Overell.

"It might seem easier in your early to mid-20s, might seem a much easier path to end up running an Instagram page for a fashion label, but if you keep your head down, you might end up getting a job in a newsroom, the one in 10 that are still in operation."

So, in a year where the media landscape has been in a state of flux, particularly regional journalism, where does the future of Betoota stand?

"The horizon's not looking too bright for regional media right now and a lot of that rests with the government," says Parker.

"The bush needs a robust and strong media, the people of the bush deserve it, otherwise they're going to be treated by mushrooms and kept in the dark and fed shit for the rest of their lives."

The pandemic showed who we really were as a nation. Picture: Shutterstock

The pandemic showed who we really were as a nation. Picture: Shutterstock

Journalism is in both their blood. According to Australia 2020, Overell's father was a "lapsed Catholic newspaper baron" and his son's birth in 1945 was his family's last crack at a male heir - in an effort to protect four generations of blatant patriarchal media nepotism that had proven fruitful for them since the first barrel of ink. Luckily, Clancy showed no interest in law, medicine or Duntroon and reported for a cadetship. Parker worked as a copy boy at the South China Morning Post as a schoolboy before heading to England and the world of tabloid papers.

What drew them both to this revered profession?

"Journalism was a noble career when we all got involved, wasn't it Karen?" says Overell.

"I'm not sure how you came up, whether it was through a cadetship or through university, but there was a lot of big dreams held by a lot of the young kids running around at the time.

"And then gradually, whether you worked for Nine, newspapers, the ABC or The Betoota Advocate, you end up getting pitched as the enemy of the people, as out of touch elites sitting down there in the bush capital.

"I guess you just keep trudging forward, whatever it was that drew us to the media certainly isn't there at the moment.

"But we have a duty, don't we? Both The Canberra Times and The Betoota Advocate to continue reporting without fear or favour."

  • Australia 2020: A collection of stories to tie a bow on this nightmare, The Betoota Advocate, Macmillan Australia, $32.99.
This story Behind the scenes at Betoota: meet the men bringing you the news you need first appeared on The Canberra Times.