Half a century of getting the news out

WARREN GAMBLE
Last updated 09:26 18/11/2013
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MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
NEWSPAPER MAN: George McKenzie joined the Nelson Evening Mail in 1961 as a linotype operator and compositor, and left the ifNelson Mail nfafter 52 years.

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Few people can reflect on 58 years in the same industry - 52 of them with the same company. The Nelson Mail's durable George McKenzie tells Warren Gamble how printing and newspapers have evolved.

George McKenzie slides eagerly into a chair in front of the bulky museum piece. His fingers automatically tap the strangely ordered 90-character keyboard.

"E, T, A, O, I, N," he says, drawing on long-ingrained memory; the key letters are no longer legible.

The 74-year-old explains its intricate workings with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, which is what he was when he first got to grips with a linotype machine.

That was in 1955 at the Greymouth Star, as a bored 15-year-old schoolboy from Dunollie looking for a summer job. It set him on a course of 58 years in newspapers, 52 of them with the Nelson Mail until his retirement last month.

For our photo, he was reunited with a linotype - the once revolutionary printing machine that sets lines of type in lead slugs - in the Mail office at Founders Heritage Park.

It's a symbol of the massive changes in his career, which were not foreseen by his first general manager in Greymouth.

"Mr McKenzie, you could have a job on this machine in any city in the world for the rest of your life," he recalls being told. Within 15 years, linotypes were on the way out.

They took with them a colourful vocabulary, such as a "printer's pie", the mess left when metal type was dropped; "hell box", which the used slugs were thrown into; and "printer's devil", the apprentice who got the blame for everything.

George (few call him Mr McKenzie any more) started at the Nelson Evening Mail in 1961, moving north after meeting a "charming girl", Jan, who later became his wife.

He began as a compositor, assembling columns of type in pages ready for printing. It required a range of skills, including the ability to read backwards and upside down.

This quickly became second nature, he says, and he proves the point by spotting a spelling error in an old slug at the Founders office.

The job put him at the receiving end of some of the biggest stories in an era when print and radio were the dominant news sources.

He recalls the astonishment on a Saturday morning at the Mail 50 years ago as teleprinters spat out the news of John F Kennedy's assassination, as well as the shock of the Inangahua earthquake in 1968, only a month after the Wahine disaster.

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The news became terribly personal in January 1967. His younger brother Hector was one of 19 men who died in the Strongman mine disaster; their father narrowly escaped.

A colleague at work told him about the explosion, but it wasn't until he had driven down to Greymouth with an uncle that night that he learned the worst about his 25-year-old brother.

Three months later, another brother, Dave, who was also a printer, gave the family and the whole West Coast a boost by becoming the first New Zealander to win the Boston Marathon.

George, who was an accomplished road runner himself, with three Takaka Hill titles in the 1960s, says his unheralded brother's victory in the snow at Boston lifted some of the gloom.

"You can imagine just how low the community was. For him to do that was just what we needed.

"Dad picked up the Star and there was this big banner heading [about the win]. ‘Christ', he said, ‘World War III has been declared'."

George has also witnessed landmarks in his own industry.

He was among the sceptics when former Mail managing director Rex Lucas, who he describes as a trailblazer, returned from the United States in 1964 to announce that the paper was switching to web offset printing. This replaced linotypes and hot metal with a phototypesetting or "cold type" process using photographic paper.

The Mail was the first paper in the southern hemisphere to use the process, leading to an upswing in work because of its improved quality and capacity. Other papers from around the country, such as the National Business Review were printed in Nelson.

George shifted to the commercial print department under a manager, Gerry May, who he says taught him a huge amount and set an inspiring example. In 1986 he moved to the circulation department, first as manager, and for the past 18 years as administrator.

He reckons he has filled in on most of the Nelson region's paper rounds at some stage, from Atawhai to Murchison and Tapawera, and made countless trips to deliver papers to subscribers who were missed.

"Wherever I could, within reason, get the paper to a person, I would."

He also credits the legions of "unsung heroes", the paper boys and girls who used to go out in all weather.

Among his many stories is one about phoning a subscriber and getting a young boy on the line. "Tell your mum it's the man from the Nelson Mail," he said. "Mum," the boy shouted, "there's a naked male on the phone."

George credits his longevity in the job to the many great characters he has worked with - Mail printers such as Bill Ferguson, Dick Ward and Johnny Bishop, and circulation colleagues like Jim Goodman and long-serving delivery contractor Neville Stratford.

There is also the sense of enthusiasm, which began during his first week in Greymouth. when he told his mother: "It's not work, it's fun." He retained that far past the time when others would have packed in their day jobs.

In the Mail office, you could tell when George was in the area by a cheerful whistle - often to ballroom dancing tunes - announcing his approach.

"What other product comes out each day and changes every day? It's the excitement of that, trying to meet deadlines."

He has concerns about the challenges to print in the digital age, but - as his own career has shown - he believes newspapers can continue to adapt.

In retirement, he hopes to do a bit of community work, keep up his dancing, cycle, hopefully pick the odd winning horse and, of course, keep reading the Mail.

"Oh yes, I'm a newspaper man."

- Nelson

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