The Star 150th: Tales from the newsroom

Trish Grant (left), Eve Flain, Ian Reddington, John Crowley and Tony Ford at the New Albion.

“Is that the young man starting today?,” came the voice from out of sight.

Relief. I was starting my first day on the job as a cadet reporter, January 8, 1980, just out of high school.

Moments earlier I had deflated like a tyre. The nail was Verna Thiele, the receptionist, tall and decisive.

“I haven’t been told this. Who are you again?. There’s nothing here to say you are starting today,” she said to me or something to that effect.

I’d been hired just before Christmas by Community Newspapers manager Derek Laver, on the back of a good memory from then Star sports reporter John Crowley, who would go onto senior positions at The Star, Greymouth Evening Star, New Zealand Press Association and Fairfax.

From left: Editor-in-chief Barry Clarke and former Weekend Star sub-editor Tony Ford.

Earlier in the year, Crowls had organised a visit to The Star for me, then one of New Zealand’s best dailies and stocked with great journalists I would later learn much from.

He was mates with an uncle of mine, Gary Clarke, the then Canterbury league coach. I got a look at the inner workings of The Star on a Saturday morning and on Monday I went back to school.

Fast forward several months. I got a phone call from Gary. Crowls had told him there was a reporter’s job going at Community Newspapers, which was part of The Star. “Tell your nephew to give Derek Laver a call,” he said.

Laver interviewed me. I was in the sixth form, he lamented. But he’d give me a chance.

“Go home and write me a report on your weekend’s tennis match (I played tennis back in those days),” he said.

About a week later, just before Christmas, I was working at my school holiday at the Skellerup rubber factory in Woolston. A phone call from home came through. “Derek Laver wants you to call him urgently,” my mum said.

Minutes later I was on with Laver: “You’ve got the job. Start on January 8.”

Laver hadn’t told Verna I was starting. But the voice I was hearing from around the corner was Tom Keown, the sub editor and unofficial editor.

He emerged, smile beaming: “I’m Tom Keown. Nice to meet you Barry. Come on through.”

And so started the journalistic journey I am still on, a voyage that has taken me to The Star, Weekend Star, Auckland Sun, The Press, Sunday Star Times and back to my ancestral media home, The Star.

The Star in Kilmore St during the early to mid-80s was where I cut my teeth.

I learnt the workings of a newspaper with Community Newspapers, which was tucked away in a separate office in the Kilmore St complex. There were reporters Eve Boyce and Verity Thorpe, and Julie Molloy, later to be Dame Julie Christie, queen of reality TV. Gary Anderson was the advertising manager, former NZ cricketer, sales rep Roy Scott, became a great work colleague and Dave Moore, later the long time Press motoring writer, was the graphic artist.

Former Weekend Star editor Tony O’Brien.

Noel Ryde was one of the freelance photographers, who I had a lot of time for. But it pained me just about every shot was a firing squad line-up;  dozens of people in each frame.

Ryde would tell me he made his money by selling the photos. Back then just about every parent of a kid in a photo would order one.

The Star newsroom on the second floor was another world.

In the sports department, Bill Mayston led a crack team: Larry Saunders, Geoff Longley, Wayne Honeybone, Nick Tolerton, Brian Cowley and Mike Cockerill.

In racing Dave Cannan, Kevin Bell, Mike Grainger and Warren Cawood were the best in the business.

Later Cannan would hold senior general news positions on the Otago Daily Times, and was regarded as one of the best in the game whether it be sport, racing or general news.

Ross Kiddie (from left) compositor, Tom Keown (middle) sub editor, Ken Howat, compositor.

On the general news floor, Crowley (who had moved from sport), Gordon McBride and Bob Cotton ran the reporters and news lists.

There were the great court reporters Keith Cronshaw and Stan Rayner; the general news reporters included current Press sports editor Tony Smith, music writer Rob White, Sandra Stewart, David Clarkson, Bevan Rapson, Jeff Field, Anna Price, Con Jackson, Cullen Smith, Debbie Hannan and Neil Clarkson (brother of David). Photographers Stu Menzies, John McCombe, Don Scott, Derrick Tonkin and Bill Gamble and their boss Neville Hawke.

On the subs and news editing area there were  Ian Reddington, Tony Brown, Brian Prebble, Graham Ingram, Russell Fuller, Norm Gill, James Mackenzie, Brian Thomas and Dermott Fitzpatrick to mention a few.

On embassy row, editor Mike Forbes and Warwick Spicer were still there. There was also Phil Osborne, David Gee and Jack McClenaghan.

The reporters cricket team after an in-house match against
the subs in the mid 80s.

Ingram and Brown would later tragically drown during a tramping trip in the Upper Rakaia in March 1990. Honeybone would be claimed at a young age by cancer, and after he retired Saunders was hit by a vehicle and killed while crossing the road. They were tragic times.

I soon started covering rugby league for the sports department. Communities during the day, sport for the daily at night and at the weekends.

Tony Brown (above) and Graham Ingram (right) tragically died during a tramping trip, March 1990.  

Saturdays were spent in the Addington Showgrounds (now AMI) press box, watching matches on the No 1 and No 2 grounds simultaneously, straining your neck to see who had scored in the corner, and getting consensus with The Press league reporter John Coffey that we had the correct player.

The typewriter would churn out individual pieces of paper so the paragraphs could be switched by the sub editors back at the newsroom.

A copy boy would pick up the first matches on his motorbike; the late games would be phoned in to meet deadline for the Weekend Star, or Star Sports as it had been known.

A far cry from the technology of today.

Then one Saturday, photographer Martin Woodhall, came into the press box. “Go and see Al Doney,” he said quietly. Doney was Weekend Star editor. A fulltime sports reporter position was being created.

Former editor of the Weekend Star Al Doney.

Doney hired me, but gave me a piece of advice: “Make sure you come in with a good story.”

I took that advice and sewed up the usually media shy All Black Craig Green. Doney was happy.

Tony O’Brien was Doney’s No 2 and with Tony Ford subbed the paper. Don ‘Scoop’ Grady and Colin Bryant were the reporters and Woodhall, the photographer.

I would learn much from those experienced campaigners. Grady, who I sat next to, was the master at tracking people down for a story. It didn’t matter how many phone calls he had to put in. And the further away the location of the interview subject, the louder his voice became for some reason.

O’Brien and Ford were masters of the tabloid game, picking great angles out of stories other media had missed and handing those on to me to chase. I watched the way they put pages together and soaked up all of the experience and knowledge.

Within weeks of starting Doney took early retirement. O’Brien was appointed editor. James Mackenzie and later Sue Cone were recruited from the daily’s subs bench.

The following year (1986) NZ News (owner of The Star and other dailies around the country) despatched me on the six-week Kiwis rugby league tour of Australia and Papua New Guinea, covering it for the New Zealand News group and the PNG leg for the New Zealand Press Association.

I later heard Star managing editor Rick Swinard and O’Brien had persuaded NZ News to get me  on the tour ahead of the Auckland Star’s man. It caused some rumblings in the Queen City.

I travelled and lived with the Kiwis for those six weeks, covering the on and off field action, including a drunken policeman with a loaded revolver in a bar in Goroka, a bus driver,  also intoxicated, who we had to stop and pull from the wheel on a mountain pass and despatching a drunken (Papuan) official from the Kiwis dressing room after they had lost the second test in controversial circumstances in Port Moresby.

There was of course the football to cover as well.

The following year, O’Brien was recruited to a senior role on NZ News’ new morning daily, the Auckland Sun. Winton Cassels, became the new Weekend Star editor.

Several weeks later I got a phone call. “Come to Auckland”.

If the Weekend Star had been great so was the Sun. I was in the sports department with Richard Becht, Trevor McKewen, Chris Rattue and Wynne Gray, headed by sports editor Andrew Sanders.

The paper’s editor was Peter Pace, a former London Sun sports editor, and a man not to be trifled with, as one general reporter found when he failed to find a pregnant woman who had collapsed at a concert (David Bowie from memory).

When the phone smashed against the wall, no one looked up for a considerable time.

In 1988 it came tumbling down. The stock market crashed, the Auckland Sun  closed and I returned to Christchurch, spending eight years on The Press, most of it as the crime and emergency services reporter.

There was a trip to Bahrein to cover NZ’s involvement in the first Gulf War, the Aramoana massacre, the gang wars of the 1990s which included an underworld war against the police, the closest NZ has come to urban terrorism, in my view.

In 1994 Press editor David Wilson said I was wanted to head up the company’s South Island bureau of the new INL paper, the Sunday Star Times.

That voyage lasted for 10 years until late in 2003 when I bumped into Martin Woodhall again, at a Christmas function.

“The Star is looking for an editor,” he said. Bob Cotton, who ran the newsroom was retiring.

By January 2004 I was in the hot seat.

The Star would become a conveyor belt of good young journalists. There was  Amanda Legge, Rachel Tiffen, Anna Leask and Joelle Dally amongst others. Tiffen and Leask would later make their presence felt on TV and the NZ Herald respectively, and Dally is now a senior news executive at The Press. Young reporter Emma Butt would later become a senior sub editor in Auckland.

When the roof sprung a leak, former The Star reporter Anna Price put up her umbrella and kept working.

Experienced campaigners Nick Tolerton, James Mackenzie, Ross Kiddie, and Woodhall were still there.

Then university student Shelley Robinson turned up one day and wanted to talk to me about a research project she was doing about community newspapers.

That led to work experience as a reporter and then a fulltime job. She later departed The Star for The Press but has returned – as deputy editor and website editor.

The Star has always been a newspaper of opportunity, no matter what generation it has been.

Then roll onto February 22, 2011.

I had been on secondment to the Herald on Sunday in Auckland for six months in 2010 and had missed the September quake.

It was around the time The Star had been looking to vacate Tuam St (it was too big for our purposes). In late  2010 a floor was available for lease in the CTV building. One of our senior people inspected it. His recommendation: Look elsewhere.

Weekend Star lunch in 1998.

February 22, it hit. The Star management team was having its weekly meeting. I grabbed Jenny Wright sitting next to me. “Get under the table I yelled.” We don’t recall if other words were used.

We were lucky. We were still in our Tuam St building, which was wide and not too high.  It was badly damaged and liquefacted but it held.

The following day the managers met at McDonalds in Riccarton. Could we survive as a newspaper?

Clarke in discussion with sports reporter Gordon Findlater and subs Ross Kiddie and Mike Hansen. PHOTO: MARTIN HUNTER

We needed our computers from Tuam St. Police let us through a cordon at the corner of Tuam St and Fitzgerald Ave. But we had to sign in and also list next of kin on the form.

We set up in operation’s manager Peter Grueber’s Burnside home.

The NZ Herald via our owners APN had kept the Star going in the aftermath of the quake, but our future was not certain. We had daily discussions by phone with company’s chiefs in Auckland.

A number of staff couldn’t work; they were traumatised by the ongoing aftershocks and the company allowed them the time off on full pay.

I lived in Burwood at the time, right by the Avon River. My house was smashed, the section liquefacted and power and running water was off for weeks.

My wife was in Japan at the time of the quake. There was no point her returning, given the state of the place. Then as she was about to come back, the mega quake in Japan struck and she couldn’t get out.

So it was the dog and I. I’d take her to work every day; first to Peter Grueber’s and then when we moved to the cricket pavilions in Hagley Park.

The sound of choppers constantly landing made it feel like a war zone. She enjoyed the space of the park – and Ross Kiddie – who would slip her treats from his lunch box.

Reporters Sophie Cornish, Emily O’Connell and Georgia O’Connor Harding at work in the newsroom. PHOTO: MARTIN HUNTER

At home at night, the dog and I would hear the police helicopter overhead, brought down from Auckland to use its search lights on the vacated neighbourhoods, which were targeted by looters and thieves. Then the chopper would go. It was dark and quiet, broken only by the aftershocks which sounded like incoming artillery shells.

Then I’d be woken out of my light sleep by the dog growling. There was vermin about but they weren’t all rats. I’d let her out as the first line of defence and I would follow.

But whoever was there would always slip away into the darkness.  The footprints left in the liquefaction told the story when morning arrived.

But like 25 years earlier on the wild league tour of PNG, it made for great copy.

Would a journo have it any other way?