Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar on making The Newsreader Podcast, career highs and lows, and 30 years of friendship

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As the ABC’s popular and award-winning drama The Newsreader returns for a second season, two of its biggest fans, Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar, are presenting a weekly companion podcast, featuring interviews with the stars, a debrief on each episode and reflections on their own careers.

They’ve been colleagues and close friends for nearly 30 years.

Composite image of faces of two women in TV studios.

Lisa Millar and Leigh Sales early in their careers.(ABC NEWS)

Both started in journalism at a time when TV news looked a lot like the big-hair, big-shoulder pad, big-personality newsroom depicted in the show and have covered some of the biggest news events of the past three decades, as national reporters, foreign correspondents, and presenters of ABC News’s signature programs – Sales now with Australian Story after 12 years hosting 7.30 and federal election broadcasts, and Millar as co-host of News Breakfast.

Two women with arms around each other smiling at camera.

Sales with Anna Torv who stars as The Newsreader’s highly strung news presenter, Helen Norville.(Supplied)

The podcast marks the first time they’ve worked together since they were correspondents in the ABC Washington bureau two decades ago and they told ABC Backstory it seemed like the perfect project to collaborate on.

LEIGH: I love companion podcasts to TV shows of which I’m a fan (I especially loved the ones for The Americans and Succession).

I also thought it would be great to work again with Lisa and the subject matter of The Newsreader positioned us uniquely to host the related podcast.

Woman sitting at desk with old fashioned computer and map of USA and clocks on wall.

Lisa Millar was the ABC’s North America correspondent, based in Washington, in 2001.(Supplied)

LISA: Podcast recaps of shows have been around for a while, but the ones lately have been so good that the minute you finish watching the show you want to immediately download the podcast.

I’m thinking of Succession companion podcast, which I also loved. It seems like a no-brainer now that the ABC would do something similar, but this is actually the first companion podcast for an ABC drama series.

Salesy and I feel like we’re made for this — we both loved the series because it is such carefully crafted television. The acting is incredible, the scripts are so good I wondered what it must have been like sitting in the writers’ room with them, and the music and props take us back down memory lane.

We both started out as journos not long after The Newsreader is set (1986–1988). I started in journalism in 1988 at the Gympie Times and my first job in television was with WIN TV in Townsville in 1992, then I joined the ABC in 1993 as North Queensland reporter based in Townsville.

Woman sitting at old fashioned computer with tapes on a shelves behind her.

Watching The Newsreader and young researcher Noelene reminded Sales, pictured here around 1996, of the anxiety of being the newsroom junior.(Supplied)

Were newsrooms really like The Newsreader when you started in journalism?

LISA: I saw someone, unnamed, throw a hairbrush across the newsroom once in anger and it nearly pierced the door of the edit suite. I think there was a moment of silence and then everyone kept working. There was a lot more yelling and noise.

Woman with permed hair holding an old fashioned microphone while sitting on a chair.

Reporting in the era of big hair and big shoulder pads, Lisa Millar records a radio story.(Supplied)

There are so many parts of the new series that resonate but I can’t give you any spoilers. The first series really delivered the stress of a newsroom, of never wanting to screw up, especially as a junior burger.

The way cameramen (and they were mostly men back then) would joke and josh around was very familiar to me.

LEIGH: It really is quite accurate. My first job was at Channel Nine in Brisbane in 1993, in a very similar role to the Noelene character in The Newsreader – just that junior person who has to do everything from run scripts in to the presenter, to answer the call to viewers, to line up interviews and so on.

When I watch Noelene, who’s really brilliantly played by Michelle Lim Davidson, it completely puts me back into that nervousness and fear you have when you’re the most junior journalist or producer in a newsroom, that you’re going to miss something or mess something up or get yelled at.

The show features coverage of some of the major news events of the 80s — the Challenger disaster, the Russell Street bombing, the AIDS crisis — what’s it like covering big stories like those?

LISA: I was a viewer during those 80s events and remember looking up to those reporters and presenters I was watching each night. And it was still the TV news that you switched on each night to get your news. When I was much younger I used to pretend to interview members of my family and use a very deep voice because at the time it was mainly men who had those prime-time presenting jobs.

I related to seeing The Newsreader team leaping onto a big breaking story the minute their (landline) phones rang or pagers went off. I felt like I lived like that for quite a few years. It took me months after coming back from overseas not to answer the phone with an abrupt “What’s happening?”

Woman with long, red hair standing in Washington street with Capitol Building in the background.

Sales reporting from Washington in 2002.(Supplied)

LEIGH: The episode in the new series that felt awfully familiar to me is when the anchors are hosting the federal election coverage. When the election broadcast theme music started, and the floor manager began counting, “10,9,8 …” I actually got a physical feeling of dread and anxiety, like I would when I was the person sitting in the driver’s seat!

There’s an episode in this season where they’re covering the Hoddle Street massacre which was before my time, but it did remind me of being anchor of 7.30 when the Lindt Café Siege happened. I remember walking into the executive producer’s office when it started and seeing the live feed coming in from Channel Seven and feeling physically sick, thinking oh my God, that is actually happening right now to those poor people, only a kilometre away.

Woman wearing white jacket sitting at desk in studio with cameraman in background filming TV screen results.

Leigh Sales hosts the 2019 federal election coverage.(ABC News: Rodney Reed)

The Newsreader highlights scoops and stuff-ups — what have been the scoops you’re proud of and the stuff-ups you’d rather forget?

LEIGH: It’s not so much a scoop, but the thing I’ve done in my career that I’m most proud of is my 2018 book, Any Ordinary Day, because still not a week passes that somebody doesn’t contact me to tell me that it helped them understand or survive a terrible time. That’s incredibly gratifying, to feel that that work has been so useful.

The stuff-ups – I would say mostly they’ve been failures of empathy, especially when I was a junior reporter. I remember in 1994 at Channel Nine doing a story where I didn’t take sufficient care to de-identify a young girl in a story about kids who have trouble making friends. Her father rang to complain, and I said to him, “But you couldn’t see her face” and he said, “But she has long blonde hair, and you could see her hair. She really does have trouble making friends and now every kid at her school knows you’ve identified her that way.” It was a real lesson.

Millar holding microphone and notebook standing in front of floral tributes on street.

Millar reporting from near the Bataclan theatre in Paris after the 2015 terror attack.(ABC News)

LISA: I don’t like calling them “scoops” but I always felt relieved when people agreed to talk to me when they had just gone through really difficult moments in their lives, if they’d been involved in traumatic experiences.

I have had countless stuff-ups. Forgetting key pieces of equipment and only discovering it when you’ve driven for hours. Or my biggest stuff-up – heading to cover the 2015 massacre in Paris and forgetting my passport and getting all the way to the French border before I realised.

What is it about journalism and news that appealed to you initially as a career and continues to interest you?

LISA: I was always curious about the world, and still am. And I enjoyed the sense of being let in on something big, before anyone else knew about it, and knowing the significance of then being the person to share it with an audience, whether it was a decision at a council meeting in Kilkivan or the death of the Queen.

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