Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!

Number 21 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 …

His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler
NEWS could be as addictive as nicotine or alcohol or any other drug Simon Prince cared to mention. He was a news junkie and he didn’t care if everyone knew it.

Prince, or “Princey” as he was known to his colleagues, worked as the chief sub-editor on the sports pages of the Townsville Express, a position that did not require news gathering abilities at all. However, Princey could still spot a news story when many of his colleagues with the title of “reporter” could not, and when he spotted what was news he felt compelled to bring its significance to the attention of the news desk, sometimes writing the story himself.

Princey’s other addiction was smoking and one hot night, on the backstreet of Townsville where the Express had its offices, the two addictions combined to give Princey the biggest scoop of his life.

Princey had once tried to give up smoking, like he once tried to give up news. The anti-smoking campaign lasted three weeks; his break from news a little longer. He had left journalism and his native North Queensland to travel to Canada. From being a wordsmith he had tried his hand at another craft, carpentry, and worked on building sites for a number of years along the Canadian and United States western seaboard. Tired of carpentry, he had returned to Queensland and worked on fishing boats plying the Great Barrier Reef, once being part of a news story himself when his crew blasted a hole in a coral reef, illegally, to gain easier access to fishing grounds from their port in the Whitsundays.

All this was in Princey’s past, of course. He now felt ashamed of what he had done to the Reef, but grateful he and the rest of the crew had escaped detection and prosecution and escaped the embarrassment of being named in the national news story about the act. That may well have barred Princey from returning to the business of news forever.

“We all do fucking stupid things,” he would say some nights, reading reports of court cases about to go into the Express. People close to him knew what he was talking about, the sort of journalists Princey counted among his friends and told his secrets to. To be Princey’s crew you had to know what news was and be able to identify it. To Princey, a journalist who could not spot a news story was like a journalist who didn’t smoke, flawed.

Princey had accepted, though, that some of his colleagues had genuine health concerns attached to smoking and he merely demanded that those who still wanted to be his friends merely gathered for the evening “smoko” on the pavement outside the Express building, a venue for a smoking ritual that had started when smoking inside the building was banned.

Management was not entirely happy with this smoko arrangement. The managing director of the North Queensland newspaper group that owned the Express had driven by one evening to see a gaggle of journalists on the pavement, when he considered they should have been inside at their work stations. A message was posted on the notice board, warning about the dangers of smoking to health, with a rider in smaller type that also mentioned the effect the ritual and practice of the smoko could have on productivity.

None of this mattered to Princey. If management had bothered to ask him, he would have said that smoking was part and parcel of the journalism he had known and still knew. It was a tool of the trade without which he could not polish a story or write a headline, or indeed produce one of those news stories from the gossip he heard about town – stories, he would always complain, he never got paid for.

The smoko at the Express followed another age-old journalist tradition, the gathering in the pub during lunch and tea breaks. These breaks were not just about drinking alcohol or smoking nicotine, they were about camaraderie and talking journalism, and life. How many sharp and deft introductions to news reports had been honed during those conversations, how many headlines had been written, how many perfect metaphors had been nailed; as words and thoughts and ideas were bounced around. Princey’s rule in journalism was if you had doubts about getting it right, ask your colleagues, but ask them in an environment away from the office where thoughts were fresher and clearer, eased with a little alcohol or the slow draw on a cigarette.

One night as Princey lingered on the pavement outside the Townsville Express office, nicotine still on his lips and the embers from a freshly stubbed cigarette dying in the gutter, a taxi approached, the driver flashing his lights.

It pulled up across the road from the Express’s entrance and the cabbie hurriedly wound down his window.

“You want news, well I got news, you just get down the docks,” he shouted across the street. “The shipping firms have kicked out all the wharfies.”

As a major Australian port, Townsville had long been awash with talk of government legislation to reduce union power on the waterfront. Limited measures had been introduced to rein in the workers and these were being strongly resisted, with threats of industrial action. What the taxi driver appeared to be saying was the major shipping firms had seized control of the docks, with government support, and would be shutting out the unions and bringing in their own labour

Princey dashed into the newsroom to inform the news editor, but she did not seem interested in accepting the word of a taxi driver, which might be mere gossip. Besides, it was just on the newspaper’s deadline and checking out the story would take too much time. Princey was furious. All his instincts told him this was a major story, it was news and here was the news editor saying it did not count for anything.

“You wouldn’t know a story if it jumped up and bit you on the arse,” Princey shouted out before running out to the office car park and jumping into the beaten-up, rusty old Nissan he drove to and from work. He raced the half a kilometre to the Hobart port area and saw that the docks had been sealed off by a private security firm.

A group of wharfies lingered at the entrance to the docks, shouting abuse at security guards on the other side of the high wire fencing surrounding the dockland compound. A quick interview informed Princey that four busloads of security personnel, flown into Townsville secretly that evening, had arrived at the docks about half an hour previously. They had promptly expelled any union labour they had found there. It was Good Friday and the docks had been running slowly with the shipping companies and wharfies enjoying a break over the Easter weekend period.

Princey dashed to a public phone booth, outside a dockland pub, and quickly phoned the office. The news editor phoned the editor at home and he instructed the print works to hold the presses for half an hour.

As soon as Princey reached the office he started to bang out a few paragraphs of copy from the scant information he had so far. There would be no time to contact the port companies employing the security guards but he had enough quotes from union officials to be getting on with. The quotes would give him a brief story, even if the cardinal journalistic rule of getting comment from both sides of the story would have to be forfeited on this occasion.

It was clear, however, that security guards had taken over the docks, witnessed by Princey himself.

Before Princey had written his account, which was now to make the front page lead of the newspaper, a report from the Australian Associated Press news agency came over the wires confirming the dock takeover. What was more, events happening in Townsville were being mirrored in other Australian ports, and within this wire story was confirmation and comment from the shipping companies.

The editor next morning was delighted with his staff’s effort. The Express had beaten the north Queensland editions of Brisbane’s Courier Mail and the national Australian to the story and, more importantly, it had scooped its rival in the city, the Townsville Bulletin. The managing director also praised the staff for their initiative and particularly Princey, whose byline was on the story. He offered Simon Prince a pay rise but Princey negotiated instead a corner of the loading dock at the back of the Express building so journalists could gather there for an official smoko each night.