Moving back to where it began

OFFICIALLY OPEN: Prime Minister Robert Muldoon opens The Timaru Herald building in 1984.
OFFICIALLY OPEN: Prime Minister Robert Muldoon opens The Timaru Herald building in 1984.

After 28 years in Bank St, the Timaru Herald has moved back to Sophia St, just a few doors along from its original premises. Chief reporter Paul O'Rourke is among a handful of staff who have moved with the company from Sophia St to Bank St and back again.

In 1984 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon opened The Timaru Herald's new $1 million Bank St premises, ending a 99-year association with Sophia St.

Twenty-eight years later, we are back, and only a few steps away from the company's original premises, with the Herald taking a long-term lease on the two-storey former South Canterbury Finance building.

OFFICIALLY OPEN: Prime Minister Robert Muldoon opens The Timaru Herald building in 1984.
OFFICIALLY OPEN: Prime Minister Robert Muldoon opens The Timaru Herald building in 1984.

The move to Bank St was forced on the Herald when the original Sophia St buildings could no longer be adapted for the changing needs and diversification of the company. It simply ran out of space.

Twenty-eight years later, the opposite has occurred.

Greater computerisation and centralisation of computers, editing and printing has meant the Herald simply had too much space, in what was a former sock and clothing factory.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: Chief reporter and writer of this feature Paul O’Rourke at his desk in the 1980s.
THOSE WERE THE DAYS: Chief reporter and writer of this feature Paul O’Rourke at his desk in the 1980s.

From a business which at one time had two printing presses and several commercial print presses, the equipment required to produce a newspaper today lies largely with computers, journalists and advertising staff.

Many said soon after the Herald moved to Bank St that the birth and growth of the internet would be the end of newspapers.

News and newspapers have remained, but newspapers today face their greatest challenge, that is, to keep readers.

LONG SERVICE: Herald staff members John Bisset, Kelvin Ayson and Paul O’Rourke.
LONG SERVICE: Herald staff members John Bisset, Kelvin Ayson and Paul O’Rourke.

Now news has to be provided instantaneously and on many fronts such as the internet and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The continual introduction of new technology has, over the past 20 years, turned the life of a journalist on its head. No longer do we have one master - the newspaper. Websites are forever demanding instant news.

People want news and they want it "NOW".

The shift into the Bank St premises meant spacious new offices but the typewriter remained king. It was common practice to get a cup of coffee, light up at your desk and have a couple of solid drags on your cigarette, before sandwiching a sheet of blue carbon copy paper between two white sheets and rolling them into the typewriter. There would be a constant clatter and the room was often filled with a blue haze of cigarette smoke. At the end of the day, there would be several stories rolled out and an ashtray full of butts on the desk.

At night the news editor and sub-editors would select their national and international stories from a mountain of paper that came from a bank of clattering teleprinters. Yards of copy paper would have to be cut into individual stories, for the sub-editing team to pore over before it went onto the typesetters. International photographs would arrive once or twice a week posted by an overseas news agency - the grainy black and white images of events, some weeks old, are a far cry from today's instant colour photographs provided from anywhere around the world at a moment's notice, from a tap on the keyboard.

In 1984 the computer was just emerging in newspapers, but reporters continued to tap out their stories on typewriters, and physically handed them to the news editor to be assessed and assigned to a page. The stories then went to a sub-editor to make any changes that were needed and to write the heading. The raw copy was passed to a setter, a member of the Printing Trades Union, who would type the copy out again but into a basic computer which would allow the story to be displayed on photographic paper.

Compositors would take the articles and paste them on to a full page dummy, sticking on individual stories, headlines, photographs and borders. Once complete, it was then on to the photolithography department and transferred to photo sensitive plates to be attached to the printing presses.

By the late 80s the Herald had two printing presses producing several newspapers for the whole of the South Island.

The Sunday Star-Times's predecessor, The New Zealand Times, and the Truth were just two that were printed in Timaru for South Island distribution.

The proofreaders, printers, compositors and photolithography and printing press people have all gone from the Herald. Now journalists shoulder a much higher responsibility to "get it right" - their words can now go largely untouched into publication - on to the internet and into the newspaper.

Today, reporters write their articles directly into their computers for publication. Once sent to the news editor they are assigned a page and to a sub-editor - but that sub-editor is not even in the building. The sub-editing (correcting and laying out of stories) is carried out by Fairfax Editorial Services' pool of sub-editors. One of those sub-editors working anywhere from Southland to Sydney could be working on the pages of The Timaru Herald.

Our racing pages, for example, are made up in Melbourne each night and emailed complete to the news editor, who takes a final look at them before sending them off to the printing press in Ashburton.

In 1984 the Timaru Herald would be busy 24 hours a day with journalists completing their stories by late evening, subs and compositors working early into the morning to ensure the printing presses could roll at around 2am to

3am. It was the job of the head printer to "put the paper to bed" - the signal to allow the press to roll.

Today the term is unknown to most journalists. A lonely news editor or a sub-editor (working on another newspaper's articles) are all who are left at night at the Herald, quietly selecting the stories being fed into news desks and watching on a screen as others from around the country compile the newspaper.

The Timaru Herald has been at the forefront of new technology since it has been in Bank St. It has led the way. In 1988, the paper was the first in the country to be produced by editorial staff through direct inputting of copy into the paper's production computer. It was the first paper in the South Pacific to introduce full computer pagination (page layout).

The introduction of the new technology meant considerable cost savings largely achieved by the departure of the printers union members. Printers' work was guaranteed under the old printing trades award at the time of the original shift from hot type (lead) to cold type (computers).

In other countries the breaking of this exclusive right of printers to set copy was accompanied by controversy, strikes and even riots. In New Zealand it was avoided because the clause was virtually bought from the union and attractive voluntary redundancy and retraining packages were offered at the time.

The second hurdle was to get the journalists to use the technology. There was little resistance and an extra $20 a week was offered as a sweetener.

New technology has not only changed the way in which reporters produce the newspapers but also in the way they often now have to deal with people and especially officialdom.

Before the invention of emails and texts, journalists were actually able to talk to people. Government servants were people you could pop around to an office to talk to and they were able to actually say what they thought.

Not today.

The PR people are often the first port of call and not for a friendly chat - they want questions in written form and by email that will be passed through a chain of management before answers can be "ticked off".

As The Timaru Herald starts a new era in its 148-year history, one thing is for certain: it will continue to bring South Canterbury its day-to-day news, but what form that will take in another 28 years is anyone's guess.

The Timaru Herald