Ripper yarns at dawn

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Tamahere resident Venetia Sherson, former editor of the Waikato Times, looks back at her long career with the paper on the eve of its transition to a morning newspaper.

Venetia Sherson (2nd left) with current and former Waikato Times reporters Annette Taylor (from left), Denise Irvine and Philippa Stevenson

The Waikato Times, which has hit the streets in the afternoon for 140 years, will, from Monday, September 5 be on those same streets around dawn.

“When I first entered the Waikato Times newsroom, I was a few weeks short of 18,” recalls Sherson. She takes up the story.

The Vietnam War had just begun, long-haired peaceniks were clogging Victoria Street with their placards and Ray Columbus was belting out Till We Kissed.

At the time, the Waikato Times occupied premises in the centre of Hamilton, opposite what was then the Commercial Hotel. The newsroom was on the second floor, thankfully shielded from the public view. It wasn’t a lovely sight, especially in the morning when pasty-faced reporters were wrestling with their first yarns of the day in a fog of cigarette smoke. The noise was deafening around deadline as two-fingered typists bashed out their stories on manual typewriters. Everyone swore and everyone screamed at someone else.

I also remember the smell: a brew of printers’ ink, smoke, stale alcohol, liniment from the sports department and a whiff of Chanel No 5. There weren’t many women reporters in those days but they all seemed glamorous to me. Their skirts were short, and their fingernails long and red but they were strident and fiercely competitive when it came to chasing down stories. The chief subeditor, who only ever wore trousers, was the toughest woman I ever met but she could bring a mediocre story to a state of near perfection.

The senior editors sat in a row in the centre of the newsroom. Their desks were a mess of crumpled copy paper, galley proofs, half-filled coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. This was the powerhouse of the newsroom, fuelled by testosterone.

“Who wrote this shit?” the chief reporter would yell and 20 pairs of hung-over eyes would glance up and then get on with their work. The writer would slink towards the chief reporter’s desk.

“Spike this piece of crap and come back with a story. And get some decent bloody quotes from the mayor, while you’re at it. Tell him I said he needs to have more balls!”

It was into this newsroom that I walked in 1966, wearing a burgundy corduroy suit made by my mother, a sensible pair of “spiggot” (now “kitten”) heels and a new shoulder bag (a gift from my Nan). I sat down at my desk.

One of the female reporters in the women’s department leaned across my Olivetti. She was wearing the shortest miniskirt I had seen on an adult female. A few days later she would be sent home by the women’s editor for revealing she was wearing paper underpants.

“Love the suit,” she said. “Vogue?”

I can’t honestly say journalism was my first choice of career. But my stars were not aligned for teaching or nursing. And a veterinary degree, while appealing, was just too damned long. I was good at English and had edited my college magazine so news reporting seemed as good a choice as any.

The Waikato Times wasn’t the Wall Street Journal but it had a reputation as a strong-minded newspaper. It campaigned against New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War and its editorials carried weight. Some of New Zealand’s leading journalists began their careers in the newsroom. The paper has always been a greenhouse for talented reporters. I am amazed when I get together with colleagues, how many have passed through the Times and still regard it as the newspaper that launched their career.

The editor when I started was John Barrett, who had a posh accent and eyebrows that grew like a hedgerow across his brow. He was the antithesis of the young Turks on the newsroom floor; I never once heard him swear. He smoked a pipe and a delicious aroma of pipe tobacco worked its way into the newsroom as the day progressed. He called all the female reporters “pet”, probably because he couldn’t remember our names. One of my jobs was to deliver a newspaper to his desk each afternoon. He would look up from the pile of galley proofs on his desk, peer at me trying to bring my name to mind and then give up. “Thank you, pet. Good paper today?”

He was known to all of us as “Mr Barrett” and although he was a frail man, who walked with a stick, he commanded great respect. His wife was a much younger blonde who caused a sensation whenever she entered the newsroom. She picked him up each afternoon, her toy dogs yapping at her heels, and they would walk arm in arm from the office, Mr Barrett nodding and doffing his hat as he departed.

Once, when I had been in the job less than a fortnight, he asked if I could give him a lift home. I had never driven a work car, but this didn’t seem like the time to tell him.

We drove the 10 miles to his country estate in second gear because I couldn’t find third and didn’t know there was a fourth. When it came time to leave, I couldn’t find reverse. Mr Barrett and his wife watched arm in arm as I bunny-hopped perilously close to the edge of the cliff before revving down the drive. Nothing was said but he never called on me to drive him home again.

Because the Waikato Times was an afternoon paper, we journalists kept gentlemen’s hours. Our days began around 7.30am but by 3pm we were across the road in the pub. The newsroom secretary knew where to find us and the bar staff were great at taking messages or covering the tracks of a husband who should have been at home. Journalists have always had a special relationship with pubs and it was here that we young reporters heard the best war stories – embellished by alcohol – and learned much about our craft. That drinking culture doesn’t exist now, which is probably a good thing. But, separated from their supplies of spirits, reporters seem to have lost some their character.

I was never a Woodward or a Bernstein as a journalist. I certainly never brought down a government and I have never reported from a war zone. But this job has given me a ringside seat at some of the best shows around. It has also given me access to some exceptional mentors.

What I have decided after 45 years in the business, is that journalism is a calling and it is addictive. It is not for the thin-skinned. And it has very little to do with pretty phrases and appropriately-placed apostrophes, although those things are still important in my book.

During my editorship of the Waikato Times and later, as editor in residence at Wintec, I saw hundreds of budding journalists pass through the newsroom and the classroom. Many were bright young things with excellent degrees and a pleasant attitude. They produced half-decent stories, with minimal rewriting. Their work ticked all the boxes in a formulaic way. Some will go on to be editors.

But the ones who shone for me were the rogues and rebels who frequently tested your patience as a boss or a tutor. They were often loners, with a strong sense of injustice. People who wanted to set the world straight and who wouldn’t back down in the face of authority.

Fairfax executive editor Paul Thompson tells journalists they are put on this earth to cause trouble. It’s a view I like. The best journalists do not hunt with the pack; they take risks and ruffle feathers, especially in high places. Brilliant cartoonist and writer Tom Scott was banned from Muldoon’s press conferences because he wouldn’t kow-tow to a bully.

We need good journalists now more than at any other time in history. In an age when random thoughts can be shared with millions of strangers, we need serious reporters who can sniff out a story, pursue it and get it published. We also need newspapers to be bold and outspoken on behalf of their communities. The Waikato Times, which has served the region for 140 years, is well-placed to do that.

I am often asked what journalism has taught me about life. My answer is that it has made me wary – but not cynical. Yes, the news can seem grim at times. News by its very nature is exceptional and unusual and often has to do with trauma, tragedy and scumbags.

But it can also be uplifting. And the best way to illustrate that is to tell you about a story I wrote that had more impact on me than any other in my career.

In 2000, I was the editor of the Waikato Times. One evening, when all the reporters had left for the day, the phone rang. It was a man whose wife had been killed in a horrendous accident in Hamilton a few days before Christmas. A car had veered across the road smashing into the mother of six as she walked home from the Christmas Parade with her two youngest children, killing her instantly.

The caller said he was ringing to complain that the report of the court case in the Waikato Times was not correct. He insisted he wanted to tell his story and – as I was the editor – he would tell it only to me.

He came to my office the next afternoon. He was an older Maori man, who walked with the aid of a carved cane, and he brought with him a man in his mid-twenties – the driver of the car that killed his wife.

The older man told me he had forgiven the younger man. He said it was not in his heart to be vengeful. He said he had stood in court and pleaded for leniency for her killer. “I said to the judge, ‘On behalf of my wife, I forgive him.”

The judge handed down a non-custodial sentence.

The young man did not speak during the visit to my office, but his eyes never left the older man’s face. He was an illegal immigrant from Kiribati, an island in the central Pacific, and had been working double shifts at an orchard to earn money to send back to his family. On the day of the accident, he had fallen asleep at the wheel.

When the story had been told, he walked across to the older man, took his arm and helped him to his feet.

After they left, I walked over to my desk, in the way I had done thousands of times before. I set up a file and typed the slug, “Christmas Gift.” I thought what a privilege it is to be able to tell people’s stories
The story appeared on Page 14, a long way adrift from the front page. It never won an award. But it did result in two phone calls. One was from the Australian boss of the news organisation that owned the Waikato Times. “Ripper yarn,” he said. The other was from the man who had shared his story. He just said he was grateful to have his voice heard.

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