Melbourne, October 1990
The first starter arrived at 4.30am and the last was never in later than 6. The first edition of Melbourne’s afternoon daily The Herald was due off stone by 8.30am, which meant a power of work had to be done in a very short time.
The copy-taster began trawling through a long menu of stories filed by reporters who had worked late the night before. Copy chattering off telexes from bureaus on the other side of the world added to the mix.
The chief of staff, who also started at 4.30am, drew up a wish list of stories he ambitiously expected his morning reporters to research and write before deadline. By 6.30am a confirmed list had been prepared in order of newsworthiness for the editor to pick, choose or reject.
Then we sub-editors went to work. Steely eyed we read and re-read the copy as it flowed down the table. Long-winded phrases we summarised, obscure words we simplified and split infinitives we neatly reattached. Stories 1000 words long we snipped like surgeons into 850-word holes; quirky, three-paragraph briefs we seamlessly merged with similar yarns to build a page 7 lead. Active, vibrant, story-telling pictures were selected (all in black and white).
Shared knowledge oiled the flow. “How many games did Matthews play for Hawthorn?” someone would yell. One of us knew. “What’s the capital of Burkina Faso?” would get a quick response, along with the name of its president. “How many ‘t’s in carburettor?” Subs were Google before the internet, spellcheck before Microsoft.
Teamwork wrote the best headlines, words bouncing around the table like ping-pong balls. Always we sought a phrase to catch the reader’s eye yet would still fit an unforgiving space on the page.
The subs on The Herald in the late 1980s were among the best there were, a real super group. They had to be, given the tight deadlines. Four editions a day – six on Saturday – left little room for error. Sales may have been dying but we wanted every page to sing, every story to be worth reading, every word to earn its place on the page.
The DNA of these subs told them Coca-Cola carried a hyphen, as did Rolls-Royce; Deans Marsh didn’t have an apostrophe but Diggers’ Rest did; we avoided clichés like the plague.
The reward for our philological frenzy was the warm, inky newspaper dropped on the desk direct from the press, as comforting as newly baked bread. We were well satisfied; today’s news was on the streets and the city was now better informed.
After a short breakfast break, we tore apart the first edition and replaced content with the breaking news of the day: incidents from the police blotter, the first verdicts from court, movement from the stock exchange, announcements from Spring St or Canberra. By mid-afternoon when the final edition went to bed, almost four complete newspapers had been created. Some days only the crossword survived all four.
But the city was changing in the 1980s. Business was spreading across seven days and 24 hours; workers were no longer bound 9-5 nor funneled on to trains home from the city; commuters and shoppers drove their own cars everywhere. Fewer and fewer readers were reaching for The Herald.
Around this time, another super group was pooling their talents. George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne called themselves The Traveling Wilburys and recorded Handle With Care. It became a favourite of we Herald subs.
Been beat up and battered ’round
Been sent up, and I’ve been shot down …
One of us, Alan Colley, bought the album and generously taped numerous copies to share. For years my cassette rattled around in the glove box.
In September 1990, Rupert Murdoch announced he’d lost patience with the ailing Herald and that it would merge with the better-performing morning tabloid The Sun. Rupert didn’t simply close a newspaper, he closed the lid on an era, on a craft, on a way of life, although I doubt he saw it that way.
The Herald Sun prospered for a while but its last decade has been one of sad and sharp decline. For a while it was still shaped and nurtured by talented and dedicated sub-editors, but one by one, two by two, 10 by 10, we were deemed superfluous and cast aside.
There may still be subs employed by the news outlets of 2020 but it’s hard to see evidence of their work.
I’ve been fobbed off, and I’ve been fooled
I’ve been robbed and ridiculed
In daycare centres and night schools
Handle me with care.
The first edition of the Herald Sun was published 30 years ago on Monday 8 October 1990. It’s unlikely to last another 30 years.
Stereo Story #548