A reporter’s rounds are as much about people as they are about the overnight crime stats and the latest council decisions. If you want to know what’s going on you have to be there. You have to be familiar with the mundane before you can recognise the extraordinary. And sometimes it’s only by knowing the people who are providing the information that you can get behind the dry report to what’s really going on. They’re called contacts for a reason. And staying in contact is probably the hardest part of the ‘local’ reporter’s lot, even with the glories of mobile technology.
One of my favourite stories about the late, great Richie Benaud related not to his legendary role as the Voice of Summer but to his days as a newspaperman back in 1959.
When he wasn’t captaining the Australian cricket team he was a police roundsman for The Sun in Sydney. His ‘other’ job had its advantages when it came to getting quotes out of usually taciturn police officers and a few memorialists mentioned his generosity to his fellow reporters.
One of them was Max Presnell, racing writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, who gave this example in his obituary for Benaud:
In October 1959, the big story was the recapture of Leslie Allan Newcombe, who had been on the run from Long Bay for 13 days with galloping mate Kevin Simmons. The search was described as “Australia’s biggest manhunt”, a title possibly given enhancement by a hack. However, Newcombe was to be put on display at the Criminal Investigation Branch headquarters, accompanied by Ray Kelly – Sydney’s precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – to make sure further flight was impossible.
Every copper at the CIB gravitated to The Sun’s Richie Benaud – unsurprisingly, because he was Australia’s cricket captain and they were enthusiastic to give him any special insight or colour he required.
Meanwhile Frank Crook, then a first-year cadet with the Daily Mirror and on his first major assignment, was left in the dust of the stampede. When the pictures were taken and the police figured Richie had had his fill, Newcombe and the law departed just as quickly.
Benaud walked over to the young reporter and said: “Get your notebook out”. Crook was given every quote and angle Richie had secured exclusively.
The rounds are the bread and butter of a newsroom. They include police, fire, ambulance, the courts, the hospitals, the council chambers, the shopkeepers, the racetracks – the list can include anywhere things happen.
Back in Benaud’s day they included shipping. My mother was working the shipping round in Sydney in 1965, going on board the cruise liners at the customs point at Circular Quay to interview any visiting celebrities or quirky personalities arriving on our shores.
The shipping rounds ended as jet travel superseded the ocean liners and many other reporting rounds have also withered as times have inevitably changed.
Philip Knightley in his book A Hack’s Progress recalled his time on the lottery round, a fierce Saturday battleground between his newspaper The Mirror and The Sun in Sydney.
The rival reporters, each in their radio cars, would race from the lottery headquarters as soon as the result was announced to be the first to break the good tidings and grab a picture of the lucky winner.
Ten years and a distinguished career in London later, Knightley said he returned to Sydney and was urged by his mother to buy a lottery ticket: “I read my stars in last night’s paper. It says I’ve got to buy a lottery ticket with an Aquarian. You’re the only Aquarian I know, son, so buy a ticket between us on your way to work, will you?”
Knightley protested. “Mum, I used to write those star columns on the paper up at Lismore. It’s all bullshit. Let’s not waste our money.”
Mrs Knightley would not be deterred and, you guessed it, they won first prize. The news was broken with a phone call from a reporter on the Daily Mirror. By that stage, the car race through Sydney’s sprawling suburbs was no more.
By their nature the rounds can be mundane, yielding most days a string of one-par ‘news in briefs’ – or nibs, as they are affectionately known. They can be tedious and a sore test for the shy. Boy Reporter Tim Burrowes, looking back on his 25 years and counting, used to make his calls in the cuttings library, where no one else could hear.
Your own Girl Reporter got through the ordeal by a bit of role playing, working my way up to a morning on the phones by imagining how the fictional Sally Baxter would do it.
But a well-trodden beat could just as easily land a hungry young reporter a page one lead. And woe betide you if your nib turned up on the rival’s front page because you didn’t spot the story’s potential.
It was as much about getting to know people as getting the news. Burrowes:
We’d bring free copies of the paper out to the fire station, the local nick and the ambos. We knew them all. As a result, the station officer would have one of his men call me at home if there was an interesting fire. They’d even let me come out on calls with them.
The ambulancemen would look out of the window if we wanted to take a peek at the accident report. The cops would tell us what had really happened.
You’d go to local councillors’ homes and drink tea with them. Indeed, there would be a journalist in every council meeting and covering every court case.
The rounds were where the best shone and the rest fell. Sometimes they were brutal. When I was considering my future career choices and named journalism among them, a number of my parents’ friends – all male – took me aside and warned me what to expect.
One after another they told me their horror stories and said that as a Girl Reporter I could expect to be sent to every car crash, every fire, any opportunity to turn my stomach and drive me out of the game.
It’s hard to remember now whether they meant that Girl Reporters were singled out for special treatment or that as a Girl I might not be up to the rigours of the rounds. In my own experience there was no difference between the assignments handed out to the Girls and the Boys of the newsroom but I’d welcome some other views on that in the comments.
My mother told me one of her first assignments for the Daily Mirror in Sydney was to doorknock a woman whose child had died after being (unintentionally) strangled by the cot bumper she had so carefully made during her pregnancy.
Mum said her knees were knocking harder than the feeble rap she managed on the door, which was quickly slammed in her face as soon as she said she was from The Mirror.
“Don’t worry, love,” said the photographer. “I’ll tell them you went through with it.” In addition to their camera duties, some snappers also reported on the reporters.
Not that reporters didn’t need a bit of stick now and again. Covering your patch could just as easily provide cover for an afternoon at the cinema or the pub and on occasion did.
Newsroom efficiencies have cut down on that sort of waste thank goodness and today’s Boy and Girl Reporters can manage their daily rounds without leaving the office.
Nowhere have these efficiencies been felt more keenly than in the realm of the local reporter. It’s a fight for survival but the slashing of editorial jobs in community newspapers and the restructuring of distinguished rural titles has an air about it of ‘destroying the village to save the village’.
A reporter’s rounds are as much about people as they are about the overnight crime stats and the latest council decisions. If you want to know what’s going on you have to be there. You have to be familiar with the mundane before you can recognise the extraordinary.
Sometimes it’s only by knowing the people who are providing the information that you can get behind the dry report to what’s really going on. They’re called contacts for a reason. And staying in contact is probably the hardest part of the ‘local’ reporter’s lot, even with the glories of mobile technology.
So if you should stumble across a shy Boy or Girl Reporter actually out and about in the community they serve, spare a thought and perhaps a cuppa. They don’t get out as much as they used to.
Richie Benaud dead: In the newsroom and on the field he was a gentleman – Max Presnell, Sydney Morning Herald
25 things that have changed about journalism during my quarter century as a hack – Tim Burrowes, Mumbrella
The news we lose when we cut local newspapers – Shawn Burns, The Conversation
Layoffs/buyouts/staff cuts – the view from America, from Poynter
Fairfax cuts jobs in regional South Australia – Just one recent Australian tale of woe, from the ABC
Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here.