3 September, 2015. 14:03
ERROL PARKER | Editor-at-large | Contact
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ULTINATIONAL celebrity news publisher OK! Magazine shocked readers around the world by sending a correspondent to the war-torn Syrian capital Damascus – and it’s already starting to pay dividends. The tabloid rag could be the first of its kind to take out the most prestigious prize in journalism. It’s news that’s sending a shiver down the spine of every battle-hardened and war-weary reporter from Addis Ababa to Ulaanbaatar.
The US-based wing of the paper giant was nominated this morning but the young budding reporter OK! sent to Syria was a 22-year-old Australian fashion student, who cut her journalistic teeth working for a celebrity news and fashion blog while attending university part-time. Katherine Greenwheeler said she never expected to swap a sensational Sydney sunset selfie for a ducking and dodging Damascus danger shot but agrees that she did the right thing in the end.
“I had literally no war zone training,” she said. “Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I had insurance.”
OK! is the world’s biggest celebrity lifestyle magazine, with more than 30 million readers worldwide, appearing on newsstands in 20 countries. Yet nobody outside the company has been able to ascertain why they decided to send a reporter to cover the Syrian Civil War, let alone someone so inexperienced.
Katherine said she was offered the overseas posting after a huge night at the assistant editor’s home, where she was pressured into doing cocaine with a the lead photo editor. A bond was forged in that tiny bathroom in Ultimo, says Greenwheeler.
“Haha. He just kinda grabbed me and said ‘come try my Bilbo Baggins’ and then we went and did coke [sic] together,” she said. “Then in typical New York-style, he dropped down on one knee and said ‘Will you please go to Syria to cover the humanitarian crisis’ and I said YES!”
And that, as they say, was that.
On the following Monday, Greenwheeler left Sydney en route to Damascus. Armed with nothing except for an iPhone and 47kg of assorted female luggage items, she began exploring the ancient city.
“Well. I guess it was scary. People said ISIS would be keen to get their hands on me, being a journalist and all but I really wasn’t too afraid of doing my job!” she said. “The Syrian people are beautiful, it’s such a shame they live in a shithole.”
The young Hemingway protege spent the better part of a month living and working in the Syrian capital, which is still accessible by road from parts of Lebanon. However, she made the painstaking decision to leave after the Islamic State circled the capital and began ritualistically beheading humans, animals and numerous plants varieties – all live on national television.
“I saw them catch a stray cat, which they later beheaded. Right in front of me,” she said. “Then they hanged a transgender homosexual disabled bus driver in the middle of town, next to an old department store. That was also horrible.”
Greenwheeler said she felt empowered by being privy to this foresaken region, which only spurred her on and inspired to tell the stories of war. OK! published the first three parts of her nine-part journey last week, with the whole story available on their website.
An official from the Pulitzer Prize agrees that Greenwheeler’s groundbreaking piece of journalism is something special.
“What Katherine’s writing breaks down the world of international news,” he said. “Firstly, people who read OK! magazine are usually self-absorbed Kardashian lovers that need to be thrown in a swollen river.”
“Her piece has introduced a whole other audience to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Whether they care or not is another thing.”
Katherine’s story is available here and the rest of the piece will be published in the next two editions of OK!.