BENTLEY loved the Chronicle, and he loved the people who worked there. He described his emotions for the place as such to his wife, who would say: ``How can you use the word `Love’ to describe a building of red-brick and cement, and hacks who spend the night with their eyes glued to a screen?’’ and Bentley would say the word ``Love’’ was appropriate, and they would both laugh.
The Chronicle building dominated one of the two main streets that not so much dissected Hobart but brought life to its centre, like oxygen-fuelled blood coursing through twin arteries. Local residents might complain about traffic congestion and the need for a bypass to skirt central Hobart but it was the through traffic that had an appeal for Don Bentley. The nature of this passing traffic confirmed that, despite its state capital status, Hobart was a country town after all. The smell of cattle and sheep as a farm truck sped by, spreading straw and dusty dung across the streets; it was the same smell of Guildford on a Thursday, cattle market day. The log trucks constantly passing the Chronicle building on their way to the chipping and sawmills spoke of the forest industry’s vital position in the Tasmanian economy and the procession of old cars well past a life-span that would apply on the mainland, some of them even dating to the 1960s, told the visitors to Hobart that this was Australia’s least prosperous state.
The Chronicle building threw out arms of welcome for Bentley when he first saw it from the window of a bus travelling down Davey St. Although the Chronicle building dated from the mid 1880s, in the 1930s an art deco facade had been plastered to its front. The Surrey Advertiser building in Guildford had the same 1930s appearance, only the Advertiser building was layered with a polished sandstone and not the white plaster of the Chronicle.
At the height of his career, Bentley would have cringed at the thought that one day he would end up in not only a backwater but also be employed as a sub-editor when all his life he had wanted to write. But life as a sub-editor on the Chronicle was not so bad after all. As he sat at his desk at night, the silence in the sub-editors’ corner of the newsroom broken only by the hourly chiming of the town clock and the tapping of keyboard keys, Don Bentley was reminded of an account of the sub-editor’s life by a favourite novelist, Graham Greene. The author, who had once worked as a sub-editor on The Times of London in the 1930s, had spoken warmly of the secure, cosy, tranquil world of Printing House Square in which the only intrusion was the swish of fountain pen on paper and the gentle sound of ash plopping into the ash pan under office coal fires.
The evening work on the Chronicle gave Bentley time to do the things he loved most during the day, walk the Hobart hills and beaches and indulge in a lifelong passion for birdwatching. In summer he could also watch cricket — sport was another passion — at Hobart’s Bellerive Oval, and winter afternoons could be spent in his extensive garden in a Hobart suburb that led to the lower slopes of Mount Wellington, pruning and planting a collection of native shrubs that Bentley had planted over the years, mainly to attract birds and other native wildlife.
Don Bentley’s nights were spent editing the copy and writing the headlines for news that was the colourful tapestry of a day in the life of Hobart. Much of it was local, from the courts and the Hobart council chamber, but Tasmanian news from other regions of the state was also given coverage, as were the proceedings of state parliament. The Chronicle maintained a careful balance between Tasmanian and national and world news, as it did a balance of what was pop and serious. The Chronicle lent towards the ultra-serious because the rival newspaper in town, the Star, was formulated along tabloid lines, something it did with flair and professionalism that forced The Chronicle to the top of the market.
The Chronicle could not have survived in any other Australian city. Not only was its broadsheet format outmoded, its style of presenting news saw stories run to considerable length and they were not cut excessively to fit a certain space, as with the tabloid press. The nature of the Chronicle’s format and style of reporting perhaps said something about the people of Hobart. Reader research for both the Chronicle and the Star had shown that Hobart’s population was the best educated in the country, a fact reflected in the broad coverage of the Hobart Star, which often resembled a tabloid in name only. Also in the Chronicle’s favour was the fact that the owners were a sixth-generation Tasmanian family, the Davidsons, who were committed to not only Tasmania but their newspaper. Other newspapers might have been extinguished in the rush to rationalise and merge in the late 1950s and early 1960s but the Chronicle had survived because of the determination of the family to maintain its ownership and the family’s status in Hobart, which the newspaper enhanced.
There were fears among the Chronicle staff, however, that all this might change when the older members of the family died and the young breed looked again at the bottom line. The Chronicle had survived not only because of the commitment of its owners, but the fact it paid its way. Gone were the days that the newspaper could have been sold for a vast profit, its title to be merged with its younger and more aggressive rival, the Chronicle readership worth something. Now media companies looked to buy whole groups of newspapers to merge with their own, not individual papers in far-flung places, or to invest in the new media, especially the internet.
Although the Chronicle newspaper in itself was not an asset to be purchased and exploited, the same could not be said for its extensive works, or more to the point the inner-city land the works occupied. The works spread over about a quarter of a city-centre block, running back from the newspaper’s frontage on the main Davey St. The works comprised of a collection of red-brick and timber buildings linked by dingy, cramped corridors. All these buildings housed the 170-year history of the Chronicle itself, as the archive in the basement contained the history of Hobart in bound volumes and yellow envelopes holding cuttings.
As if to acknowledge what had been, two linotype machines built in the 1950s had been placed by the Chronicle’s owners in a large window that shed light on the works from the street outside. Little boys would pause at the window, the younger ones tugging at the hands of impatient mothers who were eager to move on. The boys would study these strange beasts, wide-eyed and believing they might have come from a spaceship, or some kind of parallel world in which the past fuses with the present. The black-iron contraptions were a tangle of spoked wheels and cogs, with a seat facing an ungainly keyboard, with chunky individual keys.
Often at night, tired of table tennis, or telling journalist stories from one of the great armchairs in the messroom, too lazy to walk to the pub, Don Bentley would walk the corridors and passages of the old works, following the tram tracks embedded in the rough concrete floors along which lead was once ferried on trollies to be used in the hot-metal printing process. Down in the dingy building, Bentley considered himself a kind of archaeologist looking for evidence of what had been. As he walked, his keen eyes would pick out a hook once used for hanging galley proofs, or a wooden printer’s tray that once held type. Hidden away, and covered in years of dust, dirt and grime he would spot a metal flat form, like a vice, that once held entire pages made of thousands of lines of lead, and their picture blocks, from which an impression was taken to make the cylinders to fit onto the press.
The giant rotary press was still there, of course. Each night it rumbled and roared into action at about midnight for the first edition of the Chronicle. Its rumble could be heard from the newsroom, and when it started up Don Bentley would get butterflies in his stomach. Some evenings when his shift had finished he would linger if the press had not started running. He would catch up with sections of the previous day’s paper he had not had time to read, or make small talk, until that distant rumble started vibrating through the building, and Bentley knew that all was secure and well in the world of newspapers as another edition, warm and smelling of fresh newsprint and ink, was about to hit the streets.
About once a month, sometimes more, Bentley would go to the press and take one of the newspapers from the early print run, although it was always badly printed, impregnated with oil and ink and unreadable until the presses had reached the sufficient speed for the print to register. It was limp and warm in his hands, like a newborn baby. He never took a newspaper home, preferring to read the one that was delivered in the morning, which had the Hobart news and not items from the southern Tasmanian country districts which he and his wife would not be interested in. The newspaper delivered was the one his Hobart neighbours would get, hopefully free of imperfections and early spelling and factual mistakes spotted and corrected between runs.
Don Bentley was a perfectionist when it came to words, as printers had been with their craft. He was not one for exaggeration to sell a story, and hard facts and truth were not commodities to be consigned to the scrap heap like printer’s lead.
A well produced, factual newspaper was the journalist’s banner, his flag, his shield against propaganda and those who wanted to hijack the truth.
What a newspaper is and should be was something Don Bentley often thought about, more so in recent years, and something he thought about most when he tramped the print factory at night, following those rail tracks on his archeological dig without trowel and spade. A newspaper, even in the electronic age, could still be vital and relevant and people who said the newspaper industry’s days were numbered might not be right after all.
An impression of printing history and tradition had been left in the works, like an inky handprint on a wall, and Don Bentley knew it would all vanish eventually whatever the future of the Chronicle because this space was just not productive any more, in the way that many in Tasmania said an old-growth rainforest was not productive, it had to turn a dollar. A vacant space whose only currency was history had no place in the forward-looking timeframe of the economic rationalist. For the meantime, Bentley would wallow in it, and remember newsrooms and print works of old, and all their smells and sounds.
The corridors of the Chronicle’s works still held the smell of lead, the red-brick walls soaking it up for more than a century and now slowly releasing it into the atmosphere for those who knew its soft, sweet odour. It mixed with another odour, the smell of ink from the presses, a sharper smell that arrested the senses and made them sit up. It was not a metal or chemical smell, more like tannin on a leather pelt waiting to be made into shoes or a coat, a natural smell but unusual all the same. Don Bentley would take a deep breath when he ventured into the works. The smells were still there but gone was the heat that rose from the linotype machines that forged the lines of type for the newspaper print.
The Chronicle would once have employed hundreds of printers, electronic editing making all of these redundant, along with the proof readers who corrected any mistakes the linotype operators might have made in their setting of the type. Down in the works was the changing room and lavatories of the printers which gave a clue to just how labour intensive the industry had been. Five lines of lockers and wooden benches stretched a good 10 metres to showers and lavatories. Now only a handful were in use by the rotary press operators. Bentley on his travels would use the printers’ lavatory at the back of the changing rooms. The pictures of footy teams had been torn down long ago, stripped ready for a repainting of white-wash that never came. On the top of a row of lockers was an old Blunstone boot, steel capped.
What remained of the canteen, now closed at night, also gave a clue to a lost empire of activity, like an ancient biblical city revealed in a dig. The cavernous canteen, called the First Edition, was tucked away between the works and the front of the building that contained the advertising offices and the newsroom. The gothic windows edged with red-brick that fronted onto the alleyway running down the side of the building betrayed the canteen’s Victorian provenance, something modern suede couches and a rack for glossy magazines could not disguise. An ancient tea urn, pushing a coffee-bean grinder into a lesser space, also gave a hint of what had been.
All newspaper works and their canteens had been like this once, from the Cape to Cairo, from Tierra del Fuego to New York, from Perth to Sydney. Don Bentley in his travels as a foreign correspondent had seen a few that had survived to the end of the 20th century and he wondered if they were still there in forgotten corners of an electronic world. Down in South Africa in the 1970s he had seen linotype machines in Grahamstown, walking in Camden Town, London, in the 1990s he had heard the clanking and thudding of such a contraption, printing a Greek Cypriot community newspaper, and wasn’t that a linotype machine he had seen in the north Queensland country town of Charters Towers just a few years previously, where the doors of a newspaper works had been flung open because of the heat?
The printing process in the days of hot metal had been a complex one and it was understood by everyone in the newspaper industry that it would have to pass into history eventually. It involved reporters writing their copy on pads of paper made from the ends of newspaper reels, that were passed to sub-editors for correcting and rewriting. The sub-editors also marked the type size and face for the printers and these stories were then set by the linotype operators, their machines producing rows of type in column width. These in turn were passed to the compositors who assembled type and matching headlines, picture captions and column rules into lead pages, on metal tables called ``the stone’’ from the days when the benches had been made of polished granite. These metal pages, squeezed into the form, were then sent to the works proper to have the impression taken for the moulding of the half-cylindrical plates, representing a page, to be fixed to the press.
Next week: 170 years of news …
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
The second in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … Knowler’s musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler.