The Chronicle was dying after 165 years of publication but it would not get a wake.
As he sat at his desk, Don Bentley was torn by conflicting emotions. A sense of loss at the demise of his beloved Chronicle, and rage at the instruction on his computer screen that alcohol must not to brought into the office on the newspaper’s last day. This would be unprofessional, it said, conveying the editor’s last words.
The anger in Bentley stemmed not so much from the ban on drinks to farewell the newspaper, but the fact it should come from the editor, not the human resources department.
“Has he no soul?” Bentley raged.
The demise of the Chronicle had not come as a shock. It had been on the cards for years with circulation and advertising revenue lost to the internet. Now it was official and the newspaper would close in two days. The Chronicle was going the way of so many other newspapers, including the other love of Bentley’s life, the Independent in London where he had staked his claim to the fabled Fleet Street. Even “The Street” – termed in its heyday the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, or the Street of Adventure depending on how your career had gone – had died with surviving newspapers moving their offices to cheaper accommodation out of the city centre.
But a ban on booze? It summed up the new age of journalism, electronic in which the computer keyboard was unforgiving of a spilt stubbie of Boag’s, and the shaky hand of the journalist who might be drinking it.
The newspaper may have two editions to go, dying conveniently at the end of a week to meet obligations to advertisers, but the funeral had already taken place. There had been eulogies, recalling a century and a half of history in which the Chronicle had served the population of Hobart. “with all the news fit to print”, as its slogan adopted at the turn of the 20th century had proclaimed.
Bentley left it to others to express the pain and loss felt over the newspaper’s demise.
Staffers had dug out back editions, compiling a potted history of what had happened in the world, and to it, since the time Queen Victoria was on the throne. Bentley, though, wasn’t interested in history, of obscure wars of empire, the two great wars, and Vietnam, revolution In Russia and the preoccupations of today, refugees and climate change.
Although journalists might be described as the first recorders of history, they were not historians. They were carousers, to which journalism provided a convenient lifestyle. Admittedly they might be a little curious too, interested to discover what makes the world tick, they might also want to change it for the better but these thoughts for the moment were far from Bentley’s mind. He was in need of a drink.
“I don’t want to hear of the gung-ho, stories of journalists risking life and limb to bring the public the news, journalists under fire, imprisoned,” Bentley implored his colleagues when they came to his desk to lament the most tragic news the Chronicle was about to cover, its impending doom.
In a different age, just before Bentley had started out in journalism more than a half century in the past, he had bought a book on the closure of the great British liberal newspaper, the News Chronicle.
Bentley recalled accounts in The Murder of the Chronicle and Star of daring-do journalists risking life and limb to meet deadlines, one he seemed to remember swimming turbulent waters with his copy tucked into waterproof underpants. The circumstances were lost in the fog of history, a torpedoed ship perhaps in World War II, an escape from Afrikaner commandoes during the Boar War, but Bentley didn’t care; he was only interested in the question: was drink involved, or did the journalists celebrate with whisky or beer when their herograms arrived from head office.
“You’re just a cynic Mr Bentley,” said a young Chronicle journalist, now with her eyes on a position with the ABC. Bentley said again he didn’t want to hear of individual journo heroes and heroines of the past. He was more interested in where newspapers had gone wrong, especially in recent years with the rise of the computer. How newspapers had lost their heart and soul.
It was easy to blame the internet and the mass, instant communication the electronic media revolution made possible, but the rot had set in from the time computers and electronic editing had been introduced from the 1980s to newspaper newsrooms themselves. The electronic age brought with it a different attitude, spurred by business models to make newspapers, and journalists, more efficient. Time and motion studies and human resources departments came into play. The old ways were suddenly frowned upon.
Yes, Bentley would concede that alcohol and the sensitive keyboards – at which a whole story could be lost at a stroke – did not mix. But journalists rarely drank at their desks anyway, as they pounded away at robust sit-up-and beg typewriters which, like fairground boxers, could take a hammering.
Journalists drank in traditional watering holes, usually within a short stroll of the office, where in truth much of the journalists’ work was done by both reporter and sub-editor. The reporter honed contacts over a pint, the sub-editor headlines, captions and introductions to stories, bouncing ideas off his colleagues for the treatment of copy still waiting to be edited.
The journalists in the computer age may have acquiesced to not drinking in the office but the HR departments had used this, as Bentley would complain, as a trojan horse to discourage drinking during work hours altogether. Why, some newspapers in the United States had even made their journalists undertake a breath test when reporting for duty, or returning from a meal break.
Although it might not quite the lexicon of the newspaper business, Bentley was now talking of the “occupational mythology” that sociologists said sustained the profession. It comprised a set of personal and social dramas, arrangements, and devices, which made even the most mundane functions, like compiling the television guide, seem glorious to the journalists themselves and others.
As part of this social mythology there was a social requirement for journalists, male and female, to hang out at the pub and play tough – even if they didn’t drink. That explained why a pub close to a newspaper office could make a healthy profit from selling not just alcohol but Diet Coke.
According to this view, the journalist liked to think of him or herself living close to the edge, whether covering a meeting of the local council or a war. They swore and cracked inappropriate jokes, and told ripping yarns about their greatest “scoops”. They lived in a world removed from that inhabited by mere morals, where institutions like religion and government were there to me mocked, as were social customs. Marriage was regarded as an occupational hazard, as was over-drinking, over-eating and a reliance on tobacco was considered essential to the creative process.
Bentley would concede, however, a ban on cigarettes in newsrooms seemed to have been beneficial to journalists’ health, smoking in entrance ways, and on cold rainy street corners actually ran counter to the creative process, unlike a pint of lager around a log fire in a warm pub.
As British sociologist Meryl Aldridge noted in her 1998 study The Tentative Hell- Raisers, journalists identified with larger-than-life personalities, because that’s how they saw themselves and wanted the readers or viewers to see them. They looked in the mirror and saw a rule-bending individualist, in past times wearing a fedora with a “press” sticker in the hat band.
Don Bentley would regale his colleagues not about what momentous news events the Chronicle had covered in its 165 years but about the riotous behaviour he had observed in its newsroom and without, and the riotous behaviour he had not only seen but been a part of in his 50 years in journalism on four continents.
He always excluded the foreign corresponds – a band he was proud to be a part of for many years – because they lived by their own rules, out of sight of head office.
The drinks, the fights, the foul-mouthed insults. It was all par for the course. “And that was just the men”. Bentley’s pay-off line would always get a laugh.
It seemed impossible to believe now that serious drinkers – to use a euphemism for alcoholics – were once regaled in smoky newsrooms for their ability to drink heavily and still do the job. How things had changed. Bentley had been shocked to hear that a former colleague, and a lifelong friend, had been praised for his “courageous” decision to accept the company’s offer of a rehabilitation program in an expensive clinic in one of the leafy home counties of Britain. The newspaper was The Times of London.
Bentley sat reading the no-alcohol instruction on his computer screen. The smart-suited woman in HR yes, but how could the editor send out such a message?
Bentley, in his whole working life, had never kept a bottle of drink in his desk and he was now on his way, in company time, to buy a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon. When he returned he placed it not in a drawer, but on top of the desk.
And if the editor walked past, he would invite him to join him in a slug of the amber liquid. Bentley, once he had got stuck into the fire water on the last night, might even engage the editor in a fight. He’d seen a few of those in his time, and typewriters thrown out of windows and phones hurled at walls.
And what would the editor do? And the HR department? Fire him? Bentley’s rage had evaporated by now and he chuckled quietly at the prospect.
Donald Knowler (Bentley) is a journo legend. He writes the On The Wing column in the Saturday Mercury.