When I was a small boy, I lived in a place that was populous enough to have a weekly newspaper, delivered for free, which brought us news of local events and celebrations, subsidised, of course, by the business and trades people of the town, who placed modest ads in the paper to pay for its production costs. It was an unpretentious, four-page publication, printed on proper newsprint, which would expand to twelve or more pages for special occasions. During the bi-centenary of our town, a bumper thirty two page edition was produced, with as much local history and as many reminiscences as could be gleaned from local, living, folk memory. It was a largely oral history. In the earliest days of the settlement, nobody had ever bothered or had the resources to record the history of the place and its people in anything like a systematic way. Hence, there was no archive of local history – no journal of record. At least this was such an attempt. But to say that the Charlestown Post was a “quaint” newspaper would be to aggrandise the term.
Not everybody liked receiving the paper for free. Many people treated it with utter contempt and classed it as just another piece of junk mail, inflicted upon them, against their will. I was a paper boy for that paper, as a teenager (by which time it was regularly a twelve page weekly affair). I knew all the dogs on my delivery route – both the friendly and the aggressive and threatening ones. I haven’t felt quite the same about dogs (and their owners, more accurately) since that time. The lovely ones are just gorgeous, but the attack dogs…well, they speak volumes about the people that own them. No community is a perfectly harmonious and well-meaning place.
Very few people gave a moment’s thought for how it was that a newspaper was produced, like clockwork, every week. I guess they assumed that there was some large factory, somewhere, turning these things out in volume, replacing only the ads and the mast head. Did anybody pay any attention to the genial, old-fashioned, avuncular, almost indulgent prose crafted by the editor of the paper and his wife; announcing all manner of world-shattering events, from the winners of the raffle at the local infants school fete, to the clearance of entire city blocks of residential properties, in order to construct what has grown into one of the largest shopping malls in the area? I still remember how sensitively and delicately the story about some of my contemporaries, two young children, had had to come to terms with the loss of both parents in a light aircraft accident, was written. These were local people, dealing with unparalleled tragedy, in our local area. But for the grace of God, so the saying goes…
Unlike most of my peers, I happened to know a lot about how the paper appeared every week. My mother took a part time job, when we were children, to shore up the family finances and make a contribution to buying all those little extras we just couldn’t buy on my father’s salary alone. My father worked hard, working shifts at the nearby steel mill, but the money just wouldn’t stretch to house and feed a family of three growing boys, without some sacrifice of fripperies. My mother, determined that we should not go wanting of the odd book to read or colouring pencil set, took a job at the local paper, as an offset typesetter.
In those days, offset printing required typing out columns of print, which had to be both left and right justified, so as to appear like traditional newspaper typesetting, using an electric typewriter on good quality paper. Mum had to rehearse each line of text and then figure out where to put the extra spaces and half spaces, how to kern characters together without losing legibility or where to insert word breaks, to achieve this neatly aligned column effect. (Aside: she learned the valuable lesson that typing, “The happy couple left Charlestown to live in Sin- <turn over page to next column> -gapore.”, was not a good place to insert a word break).
She typed everything twice, line by painstaking line: once to figure it out and once to commit it to the finished, pre-production artwork. This finished copy would be cut out and glued to a stiff card, using heated beeswax and was the very print that was eventually photographed to make the aluminium offset printing plates. If mum made a typing mistake, she would have to start the entire column of text afresh. She became a very, very accurate typist.
The offices of the Charlestown Post were located in a concrete-walled basement, where the rent was affordable, lit only by fluorescent lighting and with no natural light or ventilation. Bill Irvine’s shoe repair business was next door, so there was an overwhelming smell of freshly worked leather that permeated the corridors. The only counter to this sometimes overpowering smell was the sweeter smell of the beeswax used in page compositing, heated as it was by an electric light bulb mounted inside an old metal ice cream tin (ice cream came in tins, back in those days). The lid of the tin had a circle cut out in it, large enough to hold an upturned coffee jar lid (also tin), which would act as the beeswax reservoir, where the wax would remain molten while the lamp was on.
The business was owned and run by Arnold and Rhoda Delaney. Lovely people. They worked so hard. My mother was, for many years, their only employee, I think. In producing the paper, they acted as business managers, photographers, journalists, advertising sales executives, creative designers, type-setters, compositors, printers and distribution people. They did it all. Every week, starting with nothing but blank sheets of paper, they would gather the news, sell the advertisements, write the editorial copy and take the photographs, then create what looked like pages of a newspaper on cardboard mount boards, dot screening the grey tones of the photographs so that the printing plates could render the images using little dots of black ink. Utilising an ingenious, home-built, production, rostrum camera, Arnold would produce photographic negatives the actual size of a page of print, which he would develop in his own home-built dark room. I can still remember the slightly vinegar smell of the fixer and developer fluids. Once he had the negatives, he could then prepare the aluminium printing plates with emulsion and expose them, developing those, too, like some sort of giant, metal photographs.
Having produced the plates, he would race back to his garage, some sixteen miles away and fire up his printing press. There, late into the night, he would print each sheet of paper, as pairs of pages, turning the paper over and printing the other side when the ink was dry enough. He would fold and collate the editions into finished newspapers, by hand and bundle them for distribution and delivery by the paper boys. A typical print run was a couple or so thousand copies. The town had nearly ten thousand souls and every household was to receive a copy. This was not just hard labour. This was a labour of love. There was a pride in the product that can’t be imagined in today’s laser print and internet culture. Here was living, breathing, history, recorded in proper newsprint, weekly, in an ephemeral and disposable format.
That little paper eventually grew as the town grew. It became a commercial hub of some importance, as the developers moved in and created massive retail spaces. It actually outgrew the Delaneys, who were not getting any younger. They had grown children of their own to think about. The family also had more than its fair share of health challenges. None of this daunted them, but the unbreakable, increasingly demanding production schedule did eventually wear them down.
Through a series of commercial deals, the Charlestown Post eventually became a property of the Newcastle Herald, owned by the mighty Fairfax Group. It was at that time that my mother transferred into Newcastle city centre for her daily work and became a classified ad telesales agent. Back then, newspapers relied heavily on classified advertising for their revenues. Rivers of local gold would wash past, bringing adverts for property sales, cars, household goods and notices of births, deaths and marriages, all charged at a per-word rate. Classified advertising was the revenue life blood of newspapers in major conurbations, such as Newcastle, NSW.
As a consequence of my mother’s employment, I met lots of people that worked for the Newcastle Herald. I knew proof readers. I knew the people that operated and maintained their IT systems (back when IT was quite a rare discipline in any business). I can tell you that each and every person came to work each day with a purpose. Their purpose was not, first and foremost, to make money for their board and shareholders. They all went there to serve their community, to keep it informed and entertained and to report the happenings, however minor or catastrophic. I still have the Newcastle Herald edition that reported on the earthquakes that affected the town and its surrounding areas, in which several people were killed. Graphic pictures. On-the-spot reporting. Important information about who was ok, what to do for the best and sadly, who had perished. Even though the Herald was a larger commercial entity, it was produced with love for the community. It had heart. Every person, making their individual contribution to the daily production of this marvel of pre-information age communications, did their work with dedication, diligence, quality and soul.
The internet and mobile communication devices changed everything. The classified advertisers eventually found searchable web sites that would list their advertising for a fraction of the rate of the newspapers. People stopped reading newspapers. The purpose of a newspaper changed. Running a newspaper business became more challenging and even though still profitable, no doubt in large part to the extremely hard work put in by an ever-shrinking headcount at the paper, Fairfax recently announced that they would no longer have a newspaper office in the town of Newcastle. The paper would still be produced, but by New Zealanders, several thousand miles away, where wages are cheaper.
I find I am conflicted by this announcement. While I accept that the pattern of news and information consumption has changed irrevocably, reducing the role and significance of printed news, the Newcastle Herald still represents the heart of the community and its collective spirit. I think it is inevitable that this spirit and community cohesion will be utterly lost by farming out the production of the paper to off shore concerns. For one thing, how will they possibly report on the important issues, the potential corruptions*, the sudden major events, in anything like a timely manner? How will people in New Zealand find out anything of importance at all about the town, let alone report on it with any balance, canny insight and integrity? Why would they even care, when their own families and friends are not affected? They’re being set an impossible task. The paper will be reduced to reporting bland, insubstantial, out-of-date hearsay. Worthless.
That said, how is a community to maintain its connectedness, in the internet age? Who will fund the reporters? Who will be able to dig under the covers and expose the wrong doings? How will people find this information, in an age of information overload? Maybe the next generation of community reportage belongs to the selfless. Maybe a new family, like the Delaneys, will put recording the events that matter to the local community and its history onto the web; thanklessly, tirelessly and for very little financial reward. I just don’t know. All I do know is that all art comes from the heart and when that heart is broken, something precious and irreplaceable is lost.
Can the good people of Newcastle not imagine a new way to retain what was important about their local newspaper, without requiring that an archaic means of delivering information be preserved in aspic? The Fairfax board is killing their own paper, at a now faster rate than technology was. It’s more or less already gone. I seldom mourn decisions characterised by monumental corporate stupidity. They get what they deserve. But where will the voices be heard, the stories be told and the events of significance be noted? How will all those young writers, with an opinion and local photographers gather their works into a cohesive narrative and story of the town? Where will future historians find out the real complexion and texture of people’s everyday traumas and triumphs? From facebook or twitter? Maybe, but I doubt they are substantial, complete or entirely honest records. There needs to be a journal of record for every community, even if that thing is online and even if the only way to create and maintain it is through volunteers. Ideally, it should provide the curators a living wage.
So I think my home town is about to lose something that they will greatly regret losing, but it’s not the delivery of dead trees to a dwindling audience. It’s something less tangible, but far more important. It’s the glue that binds the community. And the board doesn’t care.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
*While the local people were gathered in Civic Park to protest against the announcement about the closure of the Newcastle Herald, the City Council, of dubious repute and mandate, according to some local accounts, took the opportunity to cut down some grand old fig trees in Gregson Park. They have form and alleged conflicts of interest, where the felling of centenarian fig trees is concerned and this was a shameful way of avoiding local dissent. Who will report such abuses and contempt of the local people in future? From New Zealand?