I buried the lead

In August 1975, Rupert Murdoch launched a racy tabloid in Melbourne. The Daily Truth was a family-friendly version of News Limited’s twice-weekly rag The Truth. It was printed and published, at 402 La Trobe Street, by a Mr Keith Linden James for Southdown Press. The first issue, on 20 August, featured a chunky red notice to readers at the top of page one: ‘Your new paper, DAILY Truth is here today to put Melbourne back in the news picture’.

What did this mean? The page-three lead gave a few clues. It had a dramatic headline: ‘SHOTS AT PAPER VAN’. The sub-head said: ‘Herald chiefs in narrow escape at picket barrier’. A murky photograph depicted a mob of men enclosing a car outside the Herald Sun building on Flinders Street. Two hundred demonstrators had battled 70 police.

The report began: ‘Two Melbourne Herald executives had a narrow escape earlier today when a shot was fired at a delivery truck outside the newspaper’s loading bay.

Herald accountant Mr Keith Marsh was driving in truck and Herald finance director Mr Donald Eric Bowman was a passenger in the truck when the missile was fired through the window.

‘The shooting incident happened as Melbourne’s daily newspapers spent their third night under siege from unionists. Deliveries were disrupted once more as The Sun and The Age, backed by a huge contingent of police, fought to stay on the streets.’

The two executives ducked the missile, kept driving and delivered The Herald. The day before, protestors had stopped The Herald – the first time in 135 years that the paper had not come out.

The Age and The Sun only made it out of their respective loading docks because a ‘human horseshoe cordon of police with arms linked’ shielded the delivery trucks.

Mr Frank Pederson, secretary of the Victorian branch of the Printing and Kindred Industries Union (PKIU), said publishers had staffed their composing rooms with non-unionists recruited from interstate and overseas. Members of the Electrical Trades Union, the Metal Workers Union and the Photo Engravers Union had gone on strike in sympathy. They had been on strike for 14 days.

The Daily Truth explained: ‘The dispute centres on the emotional issue of exemptions from union membership at a time of vast technological change in the newspaper industry.’ This sentence was printed in bold in the copy I examined at the State Library of Victoria.

The next day, the Melbourne newspaper strike ended. On 22 August, The Daily Truth reported that members would man shifts at The Age and Sun News Pictorial. Melbourne would no longer need Murdoch’s strike-breaking paper and the last issue of The Daily Truth came out on 23 August.

The ‘vast technological change’ referred to was the introduction of electronic typesetting and the end of hot metal. Between the mid 1970s and the early 1990s, more than half of the trades associated with making newspapers ceased to exist. Linotypists, stereotypists, composers, photo engravers, none of them were needed anymore. Thousands of people lost their jobs but this excruciating transition was so public. Newspaper workers fought every change. They kicked trucks, fired missiles, linked arms, and formed picket lines. They went on strike. When the battle was lost and the new technology arrived, newspapers printed passionate feature stories and columns that eulogized the people and the trades that had been lost. Not so now.

Now, we are witnessing an even more ‘vast technological change in the newspaper industry’. We are in what I describe as the final era of mass manufacturing of words on newsprint, but the disappearance of one of the most beautiful, frustrating and under-rated of newspaper trades – the craft of subediting – has won too little comment. In 2007, newspaper subbing began to be outsourced to Pagemasters. In 2012, newspaper subbing was offshored to New Zealand. Now subs are being dispensed with all together.

Last week, Fairfax quietly began a trial of a new production system at the Bendigo Advertiser, a newspaper that has been published in central Victoria since 1853. The newspaper is now being made without any subeditors at all. Reporters are responsible for getting things right ‘first time’. There will no longer be subs to check facts for them.

A journalist at another Fairfax newspaper in regional Victoria told me – off the record – that the company was testing this new ‘subs-free’ method in Bendigo. If it worked, subs would be sacked at other regional papers too. Fairfax owns 230 such papers so it appears hundreds of jobs are at risk.

Earlier today, I called the editor, Rod Case, to confirm what I had been told about the new method of production. We had a pleasant chat but Case explained he could not say anything to me on the record with out getting approval from senior management. I have emailed through questions and I am waiting for a response.

Regional newspapers are regularly described as more robust businesses than their ailing metropolitan cousins yet these papers are now being produced with staffs so lean that the adjective ‘skeletal’ is probably too generous. For the past 14 months, journos in New Zealand have subbed the Newcastle Herald and the Illawarra Mercury.  They are now subbing the features sections of The Age, The SMH and the Canberra Times after Fairfax decided not to renew its contract with Pagemasters.

At Fairfax New Zealand, reporters have been trained in the ‘Right First Time’ system. It was introduced last month. Reporters now write their own headlines and captions, apparently. On community newspapers, reporters check each other’s copy and read their own page proofs. There are no check subs anymore. The phrase ‘ambulance at the top of the cliff’ was one explanation for the change. Fewer subs will be needed and even with the extra work from Australian newspapers, further job losses are expected in New Zealand.

I know I have buried the lead here. A good sub would never have let that happen but most good subs are either unemployed, soon-to-be unemployed or working in newspaper sweatshops, struggling to maintain professional standards in very difficult conditions.  The quality of ‘the daily truth’ is radically diminished as a result.


Image: A linotype machine with hand-subbed copy at The Christchurch Star, ca. 1980. One of a series of images taken by an unnamed staff photographer on the last night of hot-metal production at that paper. PAColl-8070-1-40, The New Zealand News Limited Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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1 Response to I buried the lead

  1. Georges Bernard says:

    As the union person who started the strike, i am impressed with your comments.

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