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Entertainment

I Asked Sandra Sully What it's Like Being Sandra Sully

I'm not worthy of interviewing Sandra Sully, but somehow I did. We talked about the supposed death of TV, balancing news with entertainment, and how it feels being Australian royalty.
July 20, 2016, 12:00am

I am not worthy of interviewing Sandra Sully. She's a living legend. Australia's answer to Katie Couric, if you will. A household name even in households that don't own televisions anymore.

Sandra Sully has been a Channel Ten staple for decades. She's sat at the Ten Late News desk for almost 20 years, during which time she became the first Australian television journalist to cover news the September 11 terrorist attacks. She's also an ambassador for MS Australia, last month wrote a passionate op-ed about Eddie McGuire and misogyny in the media, and—fun fact—even has her own successful email newsletter.

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So as a young female journalist, it's pretty exciting to get Sandra Sully on the phone as she eats breakfast in a Sydney cafe. The news never stops, but Sandra Sully is happy to take the time to chat to me. Me!

VICE: Hi Sandra Sully, what's it like walking around as Sandra Sully, one of Australia's most beloved television presenters?
Sandra Sully: Look, right off the bat, I'm uncomfortable to hear myself called that. But I'm very lucky, I feel very lucky.

Working as a TV news anchor must be a very different experience now to when you first started out in the early 1990s.
News when I started was pretty rigid and conservative. These days, the parameters have expanded massively. One of the key things I've learned is that change is one of the only constants.

Sully presenting on Late Night Eyewitness News in the early 1990s. Screenshot via

I guess, on that note, is TV news as we know it coming to an end?
You keep hearing about the death of television. But if you look at market share, it still dominates. It's not to say subscription TV services aren't a force—things like Netflix, binge watching—it's all changing dramatically. But the reality is that there are only limited hours in the day, and as people get older they'll have children, slow down, change lifestyles. At some point you'll have to pick them your kids up from school and prepare a meal, and that's when the news is on. As much as life is rapidly transforming, there are essentials that remain.

But a whole generation now is relying on the internet as a news source.
It's true. The internet is very overwhelming though, and if you can watch someone you trust break things down for you then I think that's valuable. But it's true that 18- to 28-year-olds might not be at home watching television. So we have to be on the platforms they are at. We're now delivering our news in story bites on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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What do you say to people who criticise Channel Ten news for not being hard hitting enough?
You do need light and shade in a news bulletin. You need entertainment and you need serious stories. Mixing news and entertainment, making news palatable for a mass audience—I used to really wrestle with that premise. But you can't be all things to all people.

The Daily Telegraph has an audience, the Herald Sun has an audience. And they don't pretend to be the ABC or The Australian. In news you need a clear and concise idea of who your audience is. We don't choose to compete with the ABC and SBS, although we get criticised for not treating stories like they do.

Where do you get your news from?
To get the news I download and read four papers a day, and I also love Twitter. I listen to radio all day and go to bed listening to the BBC. I love podcasts too: Radiolab, Serial, Freakonomics, Slate, The New Yorker. There's one I'm really enjoying at the moment called Stuff You Should Know.

One of the dilemmas of TV news, I think, is not only to be informed and present information impeccably, but also look perfect too. Do you feel that pressure?
There are plenty of people who don't like my appearance. I've learnt to accept you can't please everybody. People don't like my hair, don't like my voice. I've also learnt to accept the visual medium, people see you before they hear you. You're in people's lounge rooms, it's about offending less and appealing to more.

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How much longer do you spend sitting in the makeup chair compared to your male colleagues?
Much longer, it takes an hour every day for hair and makeup. The guys take about what, 10 minutes? There's an expectation. But as long as I can, I'll just enjoy getting my makeup done every day. Many women journalists don't like it, it's true. Losing an hour every day, being judged differently, it's unfair. But I love getting my makeup done because they do a way better job than I ever could. Someone plays with my hair for half an hour every day? Great. It's fun!

You've presented some pretty serious stories over the course of your career. The night of September 11 comes to mind—do you still think about that experience a lot?
I try not to think about it. Obviously close to the anniversary and milestones, my thoughts instantly go back to that night. It didn't just change the world for me, it did for everybody. That was the significance of it, we all became global citizens. Even little old Australia. That day, the world changed.

You presented photography and video footage on the night that was censored the next day because it was so horrific. It's bizarre to think about.
If you were with me that night, you lived the terror, the trauma, the drama. If you woke to the news on September 12, you accepted the facts. I always think there were two lots of people: those that were with me that night—who were gobsmacked, fretful, and traumatised—and those who woke to it who were in shock and played catch up but never saw the images we saw.

And yet, if you re-watch some of that footage, you maintain this incredible sense of calm. How did you do that?
I don't really know. I think I just went into a headspace where the gravity and the weight and the importance of the story locked me down into my seat, and kind of killed any emotion. I felt like I had to get the tone right. And make sure that people understood that was going on. I couldn't process it any more than anyone else could at the time. The gravity of it was enormous and I honestly thought we were watching the beginning of World War III. I shut down on a couple of levels, certainly an emotional level. I felt the importance of getting it right. But I wasn't worried about my job, the story was much bigger than anyone's career. I just felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility.

Do you still get nervous about presenting the news, getting the story right?
Oh, I still look back at bulletins a couple of nights a week. One of the things that's always been important to me is knowing that you can always improve. People who want to get into the industry should look at the people they admire and analyse why they're good. You can learn from them.

Sandra Sully is appearing at Storyology, 10–13 August 2016 at Chauvel Cinema, Sydney. Tickets are on sale now.