The editor came into the room waving a brand-new table tennis bat, spongy on one side and hard on the other. His jaunty walk, and his swishing of the bat, said he meant business.

“Right, who’s for a thrashing?’’ he shouted, attempting to take off his tweed jacket. As it slid from his shoulders one arm, caught on the bat that was still in his hand.

“Bugger,’’ he said, as one of the sub-editors who had been playing rushed forward to help.

“Leave it, leave it,’’ the editor said irritably, ``I can manage.’’

The bat had now become wedged in the end of the sleeve and there was a tearing sound as the editor forced it free, eventually throwing the jacket on one of the old leather armchairs that was spread around the room.


The sub-editors gathered in the messroom beyond the main office of the newspaper looked at each other in silence. It was going to be a long evening.
“Well, who’s first?’’ the editor barked. He looked at his new bat, swivelling it in his hand so that it flashed the green, spongy side one second, and the red rubber hard side the next.

There was a slowness, an apparent reluctance by any of the sub-editors to step forward but then one of the newest recruits to the department picked up his bat and moved to the table.

“We’ll play three balls for service,’’ said the editor, bouncing the ping-pong ball on the table. He then hit the ball over the net.


It had become a familiar scenario in the room that was once the newspaper’s library and had now become a messroom with the advent of electronic editing and the job cuts in the library and other departments it had brought.

The days of cutting and clipping newspaper stories were long gone, and it now took only a single staff member to enter the record of the day’s paper into the library retrieval system.

When the former library had become available for the reporters and sub-editors to use as a messroom, someone had suggested table tennis for recreation and the idea had been taken up enthusiastically, especially by the sub-editors who spent long hours at the computer screen and welcomed a chance to stretch their bodies.

But when the idea of ping-pong was mooted no one foresaw the problem of the editor, Ted Lawrence, dusting down the bat that had been buried under the detritus of his long-past youth, and then going out in his lunch break to buy a succession of new ones which he hoped would improve his game.

Lawrence cut an eccentric, some would say sad, figure in the night when the production of the newspaper was well under way and the bars had emptied after the post-work rush. The editor was not in a hurry to go to an empty home; his wife had died 10 years previously and his only son lived in Melbourne, where he was a lawyer. So it was back to the Chronicle to find company there.


       




“Got ya,’’ Ted Lawrence was now shouting as the ball bounced past the young sub-editor.

The rest of the sub-editors shuffled nervously, wondering who would be called to the table next, and studying the editor’s mood to see if they would be required to lose the game on purpose.

The joke in the office was that Editor Lawrence was not so much a bad loser as someone who expected to win, his status as the newspaper’s editor demanding such.

Lawrence had become a figure of fun from about the time the table tennis table was installed, but staff were wary of him all the same. He still held the power to hire and fire, but firings during his tenure as editor had actually been few and far between. Those who had been dismissed generally deserved it, or so the consensus of opinion went. Lawrence as an editor was merely past his sell-by date, someone who, if he had been a can of beans in a supermarket, would have been taken off the shelf long ago.

Lawrence had commanded respect until recent years when the electronic revolution had hit newspapers, and the old ways of pen on paper, and type set in lead, had been replaced by type set on screen.


The new process, even the simple task of writing a story, required computer skills, and produced a feeling in many older journalists that someone else was in control and that someone held the magic key to innovation that consigned the old ways and all their familiarity to history. In Ted Lawrence’s case it was not so much someone else pulling the strings of what had been the simple task of writing a story, and reading and editing it on a galley proof, as “it’’ was in control and “it’’ was somehow conspiring against him each day. Confounding his unease was “t’’ did not have a face, a face to register being admonished when things went wrong.


Lawrence was not alone in his inability to grapple with the computer age, to feel alone, lost and cast adrift in the hostile environment of cyberspace. Even the silence of the computers, relative to the tapping of manual typewriters and telex machines, and the ringing of phones that had to ring louder in the old days to rise above the newsroom clatter, made Lawrence nervous.


Many an old journalist had turned to drink to soothe their worries, or returned to drink after beating its menace in previous years, but Lawrence fell into a difference category. He had always been a heavy drinker, only now he wasn’t in control of both his drinking or the process that brought out his newspaper each night.

It had been 20 years since Lawrence had finally hung up his editor’s hat, but there was not a night that the name of Lawrence did not come up at the table tennis table. The game of ping-pong was indelibly tied to Lawrence and his eccentric stewardship of the Chronicle, the memories of those times still carried forward by the old guard on the newpaper.



A good shot, in which the opponent was made to stretch for the ball, crashing into the kitchen unit that ran along one side of the room, was called a “Lawrence’‘. The name came not so much from the shot but the antics of the receiver hitting the sink or the cupboard which held the tea towels, something Lawrence had done when he had come to the table with more drink inside him than normal. On these occasions, Lawrence was known to flop and founder at the receiver’s end, and totally miss the ball when serving, an action now known as a “Ted’‘.


Once, during an Olympic Games, Lawrence had come into the messroom extolling the virtues of Chinese table tennis, and explaining just why the Chinese were world beaters at the game. It was nothing to do with a large population, most of whom played the sport, he would say. It was Chinese guile and sophistication, the world’s oldest civilisation mastering and perfecting the ancient game to beat all games.

At this time he tried a torso-twisting serve he had seen a Chinese star use during the Olympic men’s singles final. Lawrence put his back out and was not seen in the office for two weeks.

How many pay rises had been lost and won during those games. It was not just a case of an employee losing deliberately, of course. Lawrence was cunning and canny, unlike his serve, and he could spot a sycophant. The skill was in playing expertly, giving Lawrence a good game. As the journalists who gathered now, 20 years on, described it, it was not absolutely vital to let Lawrence win, just let him win on the occasions when the world manifested by a computer was against him, and it was important to let him feel he was in control.



Lawrence had commanded respect in his younger days, when he first became editor and the page proofs of the next day’s paper, and the stories in galley form, were laid out before him on a big blackwood table in his office. Instead of a ping-pong bat then, he carried an em rule, a printers’s ruler that measured both column width in ems and type size in points, along with imperial inches on its reverse side. He waved it about like a sword, staff ducking to avoid its blade when Lawrence became excited about a story destined for the front page.



Lawrance had been editor of the Chronicle for 20 years in a 40-year career with the newspaper. From the days he had walked through the front door of the newspaper as a 16-year-old recruit to the newsroom during World War II he seemed destined to assume the top position. His father had been a prominent lawyer in Hobart, but Lawrence had eshewed that career for the adventurous world of journalism. Instead of reading law, he used the contacts made at one of Hobart’s top private schools to ease his way up the Chronicle ladder, his progess watched closely by the directors of the newspaper, albeit the Tasmanian family that owned the publication and its associated printing business.


Lawrence might have had his critics, of how he ran and edited his newspaper, but no one could deny that he had established a reputation in his youth as a campaigning journalist. Notable among his campaigns was preserving the Tasmanian environment and promoting national parks, although it was noted that these neatly dove-tailed with how the establishment of Tasmania, the old-money families, viewed how Tasmanian should be promoted at the time.

After his training, he had left the Chronicle with the nod of approval of the Chronicle management, for the Sydney Morning Herald and then its London bureau, where he became chief foreign corespondent. It was accepted that a Tassie boy, indeed like any young Australian, should venture overseas, to Britain or the United States, and have exposure to what was termed the real world. It was dangerous for an Australian to believe that Australia was the centre of the universe, even if many beleived on their return that it could become that.

The Suez crisis, a couple of wars in Africa, and Lawrence was ready to return to Hobart where he immediately assumed the role of the Chronicle’s news editor. It was only a matter of time before he became editor.

Lawrence was the man to take the Chronicle into the second half of the 20th century, and at the same time maintain its reputation for restrained, factual journalism when other newspapers were setting sail on a tabloid course. Lawrence would be the editor to steer it through a sea increasingly awash with the flotsam and jetsam of television triviia.

Lawrence saw the Chronicle as newspaper of record and when inducting new recruits would send for a bound volume of a year gone by.

“Look there,’’ he would say pointing from an edition from the 1920s or the 1930s. “That is a history of what happened on that day. In a 100 years from now I want someone to look at my newspaper and say, `This was a day in the life of Hobart as it was actually lived. These were the issues that concerned people’. It’s not just about who’s appearing on television.’‘

Drink was always part of the job, as it had always been in journalism. Recruits to newspapers soon discovered it was a social industry. Young reporters learned the best places to pick up stories were bars, senior reporters took contacts to liquid lunches, and news editors, night editors and chief sub-editors made final decisions about what was going into the late edition of the newspaper over a pint of ale.

The directors of the Chronicle were tolerant of Lawrence’s drinking, just so long as he did not embarrass the good name of the family that owned the newspaper, or damage the reputation of the Chronicle itself, something he never did.

With the advent of electronic editing, however, Lawrence’s drinking had got out of control and, more importantly, his grip on the newspaper slipped.

Scrolling through pages on a computer monitor confused him. It obstructed his focus. And then there was the question of the keyboard after a bottle of whisky. A typewriter keyboard, slow and mechanical, allowed error that could be simply wiped out with a row of crosses. And after the paper had been extracted from the typewriter, further corrections or additions could simply be added using the nib of a fountain pen. The typewriter was forgiving of drunks. Not so the computer keyboard which was not only a means of composing a story, of setting down thoughts and information, but was also the gateway to the production process of the newspaper. One false stroke and a whole page could be lost.

That had happened too many times, and Lawrence had to go. He was put out to grass with a generous pension and for a while he still came into the office at night for a game of table tennis. It was not the same, however. He got to win less often and each time he knew he had also lost his authority.



      



“Who’s next?’’ Lawrence would shout in his last days as editor, at the line of sub-editors backing away from the table after he had soundly beaten his first opponent. The chief sub-editor would step forward at some point during the evening. Like an officer in the First World War trenches, he felt compelled to go over the top with his men.

Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!

The fourth 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.