Ten Questions: Julia Baird

JULIA Baird is a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist who became deputy editor at Newsweek in New York. She has just landed a deal to write a biography of Queen Victoria for Random House

What was your first job in media?

I got a cadetship at The Sydney Morning Herald in 1998. I fell in love with journalism the moment I walked into the buzzing, electric newsroom and saw a bunch of eccentric newshounds shouting at each other: “Ah, my people!”

What is your current job?

Deputy editor of Newsweek in New York. I have been writing a weekly column — but I am leaving to write a book full time. I have signed a book deal with Random House in New York.

Why did you move to New York?

I lived there when I was a kid and vowed to return. I went to Harvard on a Kennedy School fellowship in 2005 and met Newsweek’s editor at large, Evan Thomas, who told me to go to New York and meet his colleague Jon Meacham. We talked history for almost three hours. When Meacham became editor a year later, he called me and convinced me to uproot my family and move.

How differently do you live compared to how you’d live in Australia?

Manhattan is glorious, but it can also be oppressive. We just moved to Philadelphia after 3 1/2 years and the light and space is lovely; the community is very strong, it has much more of a small-town feel. For our kids, Australia is a paradise packed with cousins, beaches and jelly snakes, which is why I think we will return before too long.

What happened to Newsweek? How optimistic are you about the future of journalism?

Our readership has always been robust, but in recent years we have been hit by an ugly trifecta: an industry-wide decline in print advertising, a structural shift to an online audience and a deep recession.

The Washington Post Company put us up for sale this year, and stereo magnate Sidney Harman has just purchased us. He is 92, energetic, driven and dedicated to making Newsweek a commercial success.

I am confident about the future of journalism as a profession. It’s an essential pillar of democracy. But it’s pretty obvious the old business model is dead. We are in a difficult transition phase, largely because our work has been provided online for free for so long, but the energy and scope of much of the emerging new journalism is staggering.

You did your doctoral thesis on women in politics. Did you think you’d live to see an Australian woman prime minister?

I certainly hoped so, but it was always hard to imagine it. But many women, like Julia Gillard, put their heads down and learned to play the game. Now we are back to asking the same question: do women have to change to play that game? But it is refreshing to see a prime minister who happens to be a woman.

It is sometimes said that women are their own worst enemies. Do you believe that?

Women aren’t automatically “on side”, just because they are women. Some women can be vicious, just like some men. But there are a lot of women who will stick up for other women, especially if they think they are being picked on or discriminated against (ask Hillary Clinton.) There’s nothing like a loyal woman friend. I miss my mad, funny, feisty Australian girls every day.

You have worked hard for the ordination of women. Will you live to see that?

There are women priests everywhere in the US. Last Sunday a kindly one served a children’s communion at our local church. About halfway through I whispered to my husband: “Do you think she might be responsible for the downfall of the church?”

(By contrast) the Sydney diocese should really be in the Museum of Natural History — in the Paleolithic section.

Your family has a proud history of public service (Bruce Baird is your father; Michael Baird is your brother). Do you imagine a role for yourself in public life?

It’s not something I think about. I enjoy what I’m doing now. Everyone in my family contributes to the world in some way — my younger brother Steve volunteers with the homeless, and my mother Judy has spent many years running workshops in prisons. They all amaze me.

Your new project: please tell us about it and how it came about.

I just signed a contract to write a biography of Queen Victoria. I have spent many years thinking about how and why we struggle to imagine women exercising authority and power. I spent several months holed up in the New York Society library thumbing through old biographies for my proposal. I am off to London later this month to hit the archives.

There is a lot of work to do: too much. Victoria reigned for 64 years, and bossed about 10 prime ministers.

But that’s what I love about working in New York — anything seems possible here.

Unlike some of my colleagues, though, I refuse to try to write a large biography in a year between dinner and bed.

Is it true that you get a better table if you reserve under Dr?

I wish.