What news had rolled from the presses over 170 years? The building of empire, the building of state, of nation, the human conflicts that everyone said would be the end of conflict, the discovery of space, advances in medicine. It was all there in the Chronicle’s archives, electronic or otherwise, as was social, economic and environmental changes that had occurred in Tasmania from the time of the founding of Van Diemen’s Land. It was the Chronicle that had reported the death of the last Tasmanian tiger in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo, probably the last in existence, in the 1930s, the collapse of the whaling industry, the great bush fires that had spread down from the hills and claimed a human toll. The Chronicle had reported the coming of the industrial age to Hobart with zinc smelters and factories rising from marsh and bush, of the great apple industry in the Huon Valley that for years supplied the British market in the northern winter until its collapse after Britain joined the European common market, the dawn of tourism that put Tasmania on backpacker’s maps.
In recent years the news in the Chronicle had been dominated by environmental issues, disproportionately Bentley thought, although he himself took a great interest in the lakes and beaches and marshes and forests that were home to his beloved birds. In the latter part of the 20th century the news in Tasmania had been dominated by dams, the conflict between those who wanted to build them and those fighting to save valleys and rivers that would be lost to what the proponents called progress. Now it was forestry, the conversion of native public forest to plantation and plans for a pulp mill so Tasmania could process this raw material itself instead of exporting woodchips, for only a cheap return, overseas. Bentley tired of the forest debate and wished sometimes it would just fade away and free the news pages and the letters page for other issues. Certainly, forestry was never discussed among the sub-editors of the Chronicle as they sat around the table tennis table at night, or quaffed ale at the Hope and Anchor. Bentley presumed most of the sub-editors were opposed to what appeared to him a relentless destruction of old-growth forests, but none ever said.
The discussion in the mess room late at night was not so much about the subject of the news, more how it was being presented in the newspaper.
“Good splash,’’ the sub-editors would say of the front-page lead story, without commenting on the story itself. Or, “Great head on the toddler story’‘, without a clue to who the toddler might be or how they came to be subject of the human interest story that ran along the bottom of page three. If the sub-editors were not discussing the presentation of the night’s news, it was of stories of old, or the characters that were a vital part of that mosaic of black and white print and pictures, of spot red and blue, and the long abandoned space called the fudge where stop-press late items of news had been printed. Don Bentley would think of these things, watching the table tennis ball bounce back and forth on the table in the old library. Once, after too many beers before starting his shift, it occurred to him that a ping-pong ball was not unlike a newspaper - tough and resilient and vibrant but easily crushed all the same.
The crew who gathered around the table tennis table and later at the pub were representative of the “hacks’’ Bentley had known all his working life. There was Colin Clerk the union representative and the amateur lawyer. There was Thomas Butler who had once trained for the Anglican clergy and had run a Christian youth magazine in Britain for 16 years. Journalism of old had always attracted men of God, even if they were defrocked priests or curates, not so much disillusioned with God’s work but the restrictions religious institutions placed on having fun.
Every newsroom of old also had its former teachers, and again the Chronicle was no different. There was David Harding, who studied English literature as part of his Bachelor of Arts degree, and then Victorian poetry at post-graduate level. He spent the hours when he was not engaged in sub-editing, reading the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy. Why did journalism always attract teachers, especially to sub-editing, Bentley would ask himself? Was it something about the three Rs and being good at English; was sub-editing not so very different from marking essays? And what made journalists try the teaching profession. Don Bentley knew of at least one or two on every newspapers he had ever worked on who had gone into teaching. And they always came back.
The newsrooms of old, Don Bentley would note, had an ethnic quality, ethnic in the sense there were always people from the British Isles. At one time, when Bentley entered the newspaper profession, it had been possible to stick a pin in a map of the world, and find an English-language newspaper where they had a job for, if not a reporter, a sub-editor. In his early career Don Bentley had known sub-editors packing their bags with enthusiasm for far-flung places: The Cleveland Plain Dealer and Philadelphia Inquirer in the United States, the East African Standard in Nairobi, the Bulawayo Chronicle in Rhodesia, a newspaper in Papua New Guinea whose name he could never remember and an English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires in Argentina. The slow death of newspapers, and restrictions on immigration, ended that. In Australia, though, it was still possible to find English recruits, as Don Bentley had been even though this was growing rarer.
Don Bentley had once known a Scottish journalist in Rhodesia who spoke with pride of the great Scottish Diaspora and what it had meant for the industrial world. Coming from the ship-building port of Glasgow, the Scot had pointed out one drunken night there was not a ship in the world that did not have a Scottish engineer hidden somewhere in its bowels. Don Bentley had thought at the time it also applied to journalism. Every newspaper had its Scot, and here on the Chronicle was Alex McLeish, round and rotund and always wearing a Glasgow Rangers tie. Alex, like most of the sub-editors, was one for the table tennis table, not so much because he liked ping-pong, but he enjoyed the stories from past and present, gossip and observations about other newspapers that bounced about like the ping-pong ball itself.
If Don Bentley had any regrets about his career in journalism it was that he had not concentrated on quality journalism earlier, and he had spent too much time in the popular press. When Bentley had started out in journalism in the mid-1960s, the gulf between quality and popular journalism was far greater. Most journalists of his generation - who had learned the craft from the bottom rung and had not gone to university - had been heavily influenced by mass circulation newspapers and would have probably felt a little out of their depth working on broadsheet newspapers that placed legal affairs and politics above stories about film stars. Certainly Don Bentley would have felt that at the time.
It has to be said, Don Bentley would often argue, that what constituted the popular press of the 1950s and 1960s was nothing like the tone and content of the mass circulation newspapers in the latter part of the century and into the 21st. As a young man Don Bentley would joke that Britain’s only tabloid newspaper, the Mirror (one that he once joined for the high salary it paid) would not so much give you the news, but shout it at you. Now all popular newspapers in England and Australia had adopted the tabloid format and the tabloid style of journalism where actual facts had a lesser voice that the presentation of the news. How often had Bentley been required to write a story when he worked on the Mirror around a catchy headline instead of the other way, as he had been trained to do.
Quality newspapers had actually moved away from their staid presentation of news and had embraced the modern influences that television brought to everyday lives — or at least acknowledged it — and Bentley liked what they had become, including the Chronicle. Unfortunately, these surviving broadsheets were few and far between.
Along with his regret about not spending more time in quality newspapers, Bentley also regretted not paying more attention to journalism itself, and its role in society. It seemed to Bentley, on the nights he would sit in one of the big armchairs in the messroom and look back at his journalistic life, he had spent an unequal time enjoying the life of journalism, and all its hard-drinking characters, than being totally serious about the craft itself. There was a lot to be uneasy about in his career, not so much misrepresenting people and facts, but inattention to detail and unprofessional mistakes in copy, or missed deadlines, sometimes because of drink.
Don Bentley always called journalism his craft, or even his trade, and he felt uncomfortable when it was described as a profession, largely because he had left school at 16 to be a copy runner and had not furthered his education, beyond a certificate in journalism obtained by taking a day-release course during his newspaper training. He had been indentured to the Surrey Advertiser group for three years, so he was right in describing his training as an apprenticeship in the great trade of journalism. All the same he wished he had gone to university, even as a mature student, to possibly study English literature, not for the letters after his name, but the books it would have demanded that he read, books he had always meant to get around to reading, and had never done so.
These were private thoughts, however. Publicly, from his armchair or at the bar in the pub, Bentley would argue time and again that journalists were not meant to be academics, or literary geniuses who churned out novels and biographies. The writers who plied their trade on newspapers were wordsmiths, especially the sub-editors, and Bentley was proud of the image that that word conjured up. Bentley had honed his skills during a long and sometimes painful process under the eye of a succession of news editors and chief sub-editors, beating out his words on the anvil of life. It was the news and not necessarily the words that were his raw material. He dealt in facts and not thoughts. His words were merely there to be beaten and banged and shaped into the headlines of the day. Sometimes they were squeezed and stretched, sometimes shrunk, even bent but never twisted. He now brought to his work the perfectionist of the printer, and by doing so Bentley considered he was keeping the twin traditions of printing and journalism alive.
The sub-editors waited impatiently for the copy messenger to return with the ball. “Where the fuck is he?’’ said the journalist who had been serving, Alex the Scot, growing still more impatient with the realisation it was Saturday night and it would not be until Monday that they could buy a new set of balls. The Scot went to the door to see the copy messenger dashing towards him across the floor of the newsroom, weaving between the sub-editors’ desks and that of the sports editor as he went. “Got the ball, but … ‘’ the messenger shouted, panting heavily to catch his breath and force out the words. “But a log truck ran over it,’’ he said and held up the ball, which was crushed and beyond repair.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
The third 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.