PRESS ROOM PARTY: Former editor Nancy Bates (third from left) in the early days of her love affair with print newspapers
PRESS ROOM PARTY: Former editor Nancy Bates (third from left) in the early days of her love affair with print newspapers Contributed

Legendary editor's memories of days when the press rumbled


RAMPANT soccer fans crowded the underground station in London where I usually hopped on the tube after finishing work in a Mayfair news monitoring office in the mid-1970s.

A midweek game was about to be played on Chelsea's home ground at Fulham Broadway.

I was headed there too on my way home but I elected to avoid the peak rush by walking through backstreets to the next station.

Something drew me back to that slightly longer route every evening. I didn't know why.

Then I became conscious of busy blokes loading trucks and took a deep breath of the scent of fresh ink on newspaper.

My longer way home took me through the back lanes off Fleet St where the final editions of the evening papers were flowing from the presses out to the people.

I had worked in daily newspapers for more than 10 years before taking a year off from the Maryborough Chronicle to explore Europe.

Nancy Bates in her early journalism days
Nancy Bates in her early journalism days Contributed

How much I had missed that addictive smell.

Melting ingots of lead, the exhilaration of breaking news and deadlines, arguments between compositors and sub-editors, linotype operators giving cadets brutal grammar lessons, beers all around for any reason and laughter on tap from dry-witted characters - all of those vignettes were wrapped up in that aroma in the backstreets of London.

I was homesick for the Chronicle.

When I first started as a reporter at Maryborough's daily newspaper in 1970 I felt I had stepped back in time.

Out the back was a flat-bed Cossar press, serviceable but getting close to being a museum piece. I was fascinated by it.

Just before my 16th birthday, I had started work as a cadet journalist at the Bay of Plenty Times in Tauranga, New Zealand.

We typed out stories on copy paper - newsprint cut to roughly A5 size so it would sit neatly on the copy-holding plate in front of the linotype operator.

Subeditors would make corrections, decide what to crop (based on available space and newsworthiness) and write a headline on a separate piece of paper.

Unwanted pages of copy, or sometimes the whole unworthy story, would be spiked - rammed on to a sharpened steel skewer sitting on a lead base and held over just in case another story fell over.


Former Chronicle editor Nancy Bates.
Former Chronicle editor Nancy Bates.

A fast sub had scars on his palm from occasionally skewering his hand on the spike.

I said "his" because female sub-editors did not exist.

Our "women's editor" who wrote about weddings and her dogs for the women's pages wore spiked glasses.

Her shrieks for help regularly ripped through the office when she set on fire her large rubbish bin, overflowing with discarded copy, when she emptied her overflowing ashtray.

Her doctor had ordered her to stop smoking cigarettes so she switched to cigarillos but hadn't mastered the art of stubbing them out.

Our copy with setting instructions was put into a box and lowered with a piece of string to the lower floor, a netherworld of banging, clacking, metal, newsprint and ink.

Ink seemed to be everywhere.

I loved hovering there in the heart of the Times.

Ingots of lead melted into crucibles on the linotype machines, where men operated a complex keyboard to pluck out brass moulds for letters and grammar symbols to form a single line, squirting molten lead into the machine and sending the type line by line into a steel holder.

Headings of varied fonts were handset into steel frames and cast in a Ludlow machine.

Both machines offered fine opportunities to get a "squirt" of hot metal.

When complete the story would be packed with the heading, inked and an imprint rolled on to a galley - a long sheet of newsprint - and taken with the copy to the proof reader and copy holder.

Pages were taped together and cast into semicircular plates to go on the rotary press.

At my next stint, the Rotorua Daily Post, we had Australasia's flashest press, with thin metal pages clamped to rollers and inked by other rollers that printed on to the rolls of paper.

Arriving in Maryborough half a century ago, I stood in awe of that old flat-bed Cossar.

Its waving arms of rollers came down on the carefully positioned flat pages of type.

It looked as if it would fly to bits.

How proud was the Chronicle when the Cossar was replaced in 1977 by a flash Community offset press in the 1970s, as we marched into the cold type era where lino operators retrained on glorified typewriters, printing out stories to be pasted on to pages and taken to the camera room.

FW: John Grey and Nancy Bates circa 1976
FW: John Grey and Nancy Bates circa 1976

Centralisation hit us hard. Losing our press hurt.

I stayed behind long after midnight to tearfully watch the last run.

Full digitalisation of production, a shared press at Yandina meaning earlier deadlines, and the slow, then rapid, move to online news delivery followed.

Fifteen years ago I sat with other editors at a conference and listened to a young techie tell us about the future of news online.

He described how people would go to their "paper" online for news written by trained journalists.

Advertisements would be blended into the "newspaper" site with infinite ability to link to club news, sports, entertainment and virtually anything in the world.

When he finished explaining how the new world of professional news gathering and journalism would be at the core of this exciting, active, 24-7 hub of the community, I asked the question: "So where does the printed newspaper fit into this?"

He stared and replied bluntly: "It doesn't."

We stared back in disbelief, dismissing him as a pimply nerd wrapped up in his little virtual world.

He was right and how quickly that new world has arrived.

Advertisements and readers drifted to online.

The smell of ink has long disappeared from most newspaper sites and COVID-19 has heralded a work-from-home culture.

Still a community needs its daily diet of important, trusted news that affects lives and forms opinions.

It is a vital element in our democratic process.

A new adventure online, without deadlines or space limits, awaits.

Nancy Bates is the former editor of the Chronicle. She held the post for more than 20 years and was the first female editor in Queensland and the second in Australia. Nancy was recognised as a Queensland Great this year and received an OAM last year.

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