It was the Mormons who got me my start at The Post.
I’d been in Phnom Penh for six months and had done a couple of little yarns for free to try to get a toe in the door.
My feature on Mormon preachers – complete with Asian Jesus, American teenagers speaking fluent Khmer and the dubious laying on of hands to “cure” a sick kid – seemed to impress Michael Hayes. I still remember him singing to the tune of “Amore”, “When a white guy goes by in a white shirt and tie, thaaaat’s a Mormon”.
I’d just run out of money and was thinking of returning to Australia, when Hayes offered me a job. Back then I was the sole foreign reporter, working alongside Vong Sokheng, Sam Rith, Cheang Sokha and whichever visiting journalism students could be rustled up.
The newsroom was classic – mismatched furniture and computers, piles of yellowing NGO reports, chugging fans. Smoking in the office had only recently been outlawed. Reference books had “do not steal” handwritten in marker pen on the sides, Hayes’ typically mirthful attempt to maintain some order amongst his rag-tag troops.
It was also the glorious days of the fortnightly deadline, a timeframe that probably encouraged insightful journalism and misbehaviour in equal measures.
The stories were cracking.
Within days I was standing beside a pool of Chea Vichea’s blood, my heart pounding from the sprint over to Wat Langka and the magnitude of a political assassination. For a cub journalist, The Post was an ideal training ground. No story was off limits, provided you could back it up with two sources.
Michael’s green pen on the proof of your story became something you aspired to avoid. Deadlines were always a huge effort and everyone pitched in, staying as long as it took to put the paper to bed.
At the start of 2005, the managing editor decided to leave, after a mixed run at the helm. Michael evidently looked at the limited options in his newsroom and decided I was the least-worst bet.
I was – like The Post this week – 25 years old.
Of course, I had absolutely no idea how to run a newsroom. But the team was great, with a particularly fun and talented bunch of interns and students contributing, and we gave it our best shot.
The first deadline was rough. I don’t think we put the paper to bed until around 3am. I snapped a photo of the newsroom, showing two Kiwi journalism students asleep under desks and others cradling their heads in their arms on the big table in the middle of the room.
The second edition was a bit better, but still a 2am finish. Hayes pulled me aside and said something like, “You gotta find a way to finish earlier. This is too late, man.” He didn’t tell me how to fix the problem but gave me the goal and the deadline, which was a bit of a life lesson.
Issue by issue we got better at the mechanics of putting out a newspaper. The long lead-time allowed dirt bike trips to the provinces to collect stories and tales of adventure. A good story could run two or three thousand words long.
It was heaven.
Much has changed at The Post, most notably the deadline and the staff numbers. But the aspiration to be Cambodia’s journal of record has remained.
Now, sitting in the newsroom that is now Michael’s loungeroom, there are many reminders of the old days. Photos of UNTAC missions, manila folders of clippings, faded batik curtains billowing and the same sense of time slowing just a fraction. Like so many young journalists over the last quarter century, I got my start at The Phnom Penh Post and had mad fun.
I owe a huge debt to the paper and its publisher, and look forward to many more years of quality reporting.
Liam Cochrane is currently the Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.