Doing ‘something dangerous’: The birth of Eternity

John Sandeman is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Eternity News. He’s also husband to Bronwen, a woman he says “far eclipses me as a determined Christian worker.” He’s also father to two adult kids – “both a joy” – Hannah and Hilary.

A long-time newsman, John got his start in journalism in the “grim, grey fortress” of Fairfax in Sydney, where he worked for almost three decades.

But when the opportunity to launch a national Christian newspaper presented itself, John grasped it with both hands and Eternity was born.

This interview, conducted for the 100th edition of Eternity newspaper, gives an insight into the man behind Christian news in Australia, in his own words.

I come from a family that was assembled. Four adopted boys, one natural daughter. I’m the youngest and we’re all very different. So I’m half-Japanese, half-American, brought up by British parents and I live in Australia. So I have somewhat of a migrant experience, an adoption experience, growing up in a very conservative, almost fundamentalist church.

It shaped me to cope with contradictions. I learned to be a person who can accept contradictory thoughts in my head at the same time.

I was an incredibly shy child, the sort of child who found it hard to make friends at school, would go home and just read books. We had a house with a huge garden and I spent lots of time in there, playing with the neighbourhood kids, but never had a big circle of friends at school until I got to high school. Then things changed somewhat.

I ended up being the sort of person who was at church on Sunday and during the week might be out in the Vietnam Moratorium march. I had lots of different shapes of life all crashing into each other. I think that made me a person who is always curious, always happy to explore, very secure in my faith but at the same time wanting to engage with all the currents of society.

I think I first really trusted Jesus when I was about 12. There was a movement called Christian Endeavour encouraging kids to explore their own faith. That worked for me in the very comfortable environment of what was then called Burnside Christian Church in Adelaide.

Later on, having to decide “Can I be a Christian even though the world is changing and there’s lots of social causes to be involved in?,” I decided “Yes, faith was worth doing,” and I was baptised.

I studied architecture in Adelaide. I was involved in the EU, the Evangelical Union, which was a really wonderful experience. I was also in a very student political phase, so at the same time when I was in EU, I was involved in the Australian Union of Students (AUS). And unlike other Christians – most famously people like Tony Abbott and Peter Costello – I was pro-union. I thought unions were good things, not things to be rejected (although I thought there were some very crazy things the students’ unions were doing).

I ended up becoming the editor of National Student, which was the national paper put out by the AUS. That was after I edited On Dit, the Adelaide University [newspaper], succeeding one Nick Xenophon – who become a senator. And there was a young activist on campus at the time called Julia Gillard. So there were lots of people who went on to political careers.

I didn’t. I entered journalism. My conviction has been that if you’re involved in the media, you shouldn’t be involved [in politics] – at least at the party-political level. My twin was active politically and in fact, he became a staffer for a cabinet minister, but I stuck to the media.

I ended up working for Fairfax for nigh on three decades. That’s a huge chunk of my life working inside the grim, grey fortress that was Fairfax in Broadway and a couple of other places as it hopped around Sydney.

I started as a writer then I became Art Director for the Sydney papers, looking after the designers. In fact, I was part of inventing the idea of newspaper design and later information graphics. I ran those teams for a long, long time, working on designing the papers, hiring, firing – quite a big staff, actually. Exhausting job. Lasted for a long time, though.

Some people thought I was fearsome [as a boss], and some people thought I was lovely. The fearsome bit came about because I was put in charge of a giant department and then they said “You need to get rid of a third of the people.” It was a very early baptism of fire.

That made room to hire a whole new generation of illustrators. I was very lucky to be able to hire some people who became very significant. Bill Leak was somebody we found. Most of the people whose names you know as cartoonists or illustrators somehow came through the Fairfax art department at that stage.

I got involved in a group called Christians in the Media. I propped the door open at Fairfax for Dominic Steele, who set up that ministry. We had active Bible studies going on – somebody had to be foolish enough to put their name to booking the rooms, and because I was fairly senior, I decided that’s what I would do.

In common with literally thousands of other people, Fairfax decided they didn’t need my services. I ended up with no mortgage and I could pre-pay my second child’s school fees. So there I am, mid-50s, able to have a new beginning. The then Bishop of South Sydney, Robert Forsyth, said to me “You’ve got the ability to do something dangerous.”

And I thought, “Yes, I’m going to do something totally ridiculous. I’m gonna start a national Christian newspaper.” It’s a bit of a dream I’d had before when I was working on the board of the Anglican newspaper in Sydney – Southern Cross – and I could never convince them to send it national. I thought “Well, I don’t need their permission. I can start my own.”

I could do everything on the paper. I could write, I could design it, I could lay it out and get it ready for print … except sell ads. But along came David Maegraith – a newspaper ad salesman – and we joined together. That made it possible to not only do Eternity, but actually pay for the thing.

It started on my dining table here at my house. It was a home-grown effort. David sourced the ads, I basically did everything else, and we very cheekily distributed it to churches right around Australia.

It was about a year and a half we were working that way and then along comes Bible Society and says “Hey, we’ll actually pay you to do this work,” and it’s been a great friend to Eternity ever since.

It was going to be called Australian Christian and somebody said to me “Well, there used to be a paper by that name …” so I had an afternoon to come up with a different name.

“Eternity” is inspired by two things: Arthur Stace and his years of chalking “Eternity” on the streets, obviously. Also a great magazine called Eternity published by Christian students in the US. I had to persuade a few people, but it’s grown on us and almost seems an inevitable name.

It was an initial success. The shocking thing about Eternity is that nobody had really done it before! There were people who said “Well, it’s not possible.”  There’d been some attempts, but the secret formula to Eternity is scale. All we did was do what other people have done, but we gave it a target circulation of 100,000 and sent it out to lots of churches.

Eternity can’t claim necessarily to be the best newspaper or website, to have more insight, or have the Holy Spirit more than other Christians. But what we did was treat it like real media – ’cause Christianity deserves, in media terms, to be treated just as seriously as everything else. In fact, because it’s true, it deserves to be treated more seriously.

Eternity is now a web-first product. Like everybody else, we’ve had to learn how to work with the internet. These days quite a bit of a content goes up on the web before it goes into the paper. The immediacy of the web is really capturing our attention and enables us to be newsier … and we love being newsy.

Compared to other Christian media, Eternity is privileged to be broad. I don’t think God works just in certain churches. If you think that, then maybe Eternity isn’t quite your cup of tea. But if you think God is working across many of the churches in Australia, then Eternity is for you.

It’s robust enough not to need me. That’s a fantastic indicator of success in journalism, I think. Every time we do an audience survey, it comes back that Eternity is loved.

People sometimes will be in churches that are going through difficult things and Eternity is able to say “Look! People are becoming Christians. People are growing in Christ. People are going out and founding new churches.”

I mean, there’s so much church planting going on in this country! People are still going overseas to help the spread of the gospel. There’s so much positive stuff going on, and I hope that Eternity’s main impact is this “Look! How wonderful that God is using Aussies.”

One day there’ll be a real eternity, but in the meanwhile, telling the story of what God is doing in this country – and around the world even – is important because it is a part of Christians meeting together. People are doing exciting things like translating the Bible or doing works of mercy in the name of Christ, or evangelising. All those good things! We need to hear about them.

Eternity is very lucky that we can tell people about them, but we don’t invent this news – this news is a reflection of what’s really happening. That’s why I believe Christianity and journalism work so well together. We don’t need PR, God doesn’t need PR, but telling the story of what he is doing is a fantastic privilege.