Career in print: 30 years making news

PRODUCTION manager for the Far South Coast group of Fairfax Regional newspapers Robert Deighton was this week applauded for 30 years with the company.

That’s 30 consecutive years, not including the seven he worked before a brief hiatus in the early ‘80s.

Bob has seen plenty of changes to the industry, from his time as an apprentice in the days of hot metal compositing, through to the burgeoning use of computers and the internet to produce newspapers.

Here he shares his story – the bits we can print at least:

What was your role when you first started 30 years ago? What was the workplace like?

I left school in 1973 at the end of fourth form (Year 10) after completing the school certificate at Goulburn High. 

I had a choice of three apprenticeships, a far cry to what school leavers have available now. 

The trades being a mechanic, plumber, or a compositor, with the Goulburn Post being the lucky winner.

The first three years of my apprenticeship were served helping 30 or so tradesmen produce a daily newspaper using hot metal.

My daily chores were mostly cleaning up after them, sweeping floors and getting the morning tea.

It is hard to believe that during one person’s working career that a trade can go through such a dramatic change from hot metal to cold type (computers).

During the hot metal period newspapers were forged from molten lead using a series of metal slugs that were produced from machines called a Linotype and Ludlow.

We all wore overalls to work, with the apprentices cutting the sleeves off them to look cool.

It is a bit different nowadays with our clean-cut clothes.

I did my trade education at the Canberra Technical College, which for the first year meant catching the mail train one day a week at 5.30am from Goulburn and arriving in Canberra at 8.30am.

Being a mail train there was no heating during winter and of course it stopped at every locality along the way.

The return trip was a lot better, arriving back in Goulburn at 7.30pm on a heated and quicker train.

My apprenticeship was to be five years, but it was cut back to four because of overtime that I had done during my time.

The workplace was totally different to the modern sanitised workplace.

We used circular saws to cut mistakes from the metal slugs with precision a brain surgeon would have been proud of …and of course we didn’t use safety goggles or the safety guards on the saws as they inhibited the surgery we were performing.

There were the lead splatters on the 12-foot ceiling from where the tradesman hadn’t put the Ludlow stick in properly, a constant reminder we were in a volatile workplace.

They were shown to the apprentice the first instance you used the Ludlow and you were made aware not to put your head over the Ludlow when forming a heading.

Another task assigned to the apprentice was printing the poster that circulated around the local newsagents, heralding the latest breaking news.

This was done using a flatbed printing press, another machine that could cause damage in an instant.

I remember saying to the tradesman “You wouldn’t want to put your hand in there.”

He replied “why would you”.

I often wondered why there were no injuries - after all we were dealing with molten lead heated to 600 degrees on a daily basis.

I’m sure you could tell a story or two about your 30 years in the newsroom?

Back in the early days the production area was a no go zone for journalists and ad staff alike.

Our perception of the journalists who hovered over us in the top level of the building were “intellectuals, but with no common sense” while the ad staff were the good looking people but had nothing much else. 

Us, we had it all, the looks, common sense and we knew there wouldn’t be any chance of getting a paper out without us

If any of these aliens wanted to enter the production area they had to knock on the door and the production manager would then consider letting them into our domain.

It had to be a good reason.

Now it’s all about the team - as it should be.

Which leads me to my first production manager - the “PM”.

Standing some six foot three inches tall and about 17 stone, he didn’t especially like the good-looking people, or the intellectuals and, most of the time, the apprentices.

It was compulsory to do overtime Monday to Thursday so I had told my real estate agent I would be moving out on a Friday evening.

But of course the inevitable happened.

The one Friday he wanted me to do overtime was on that day I had to be out of my house.

When I approached the PM I decided to wear the safety glasses that nobody used as he had a reputation of spitting when he got angry.

I expected the spit, but when he started to make his way behind me I knew that meant the size 14 boot was coming my way…so I took off with him in chase.

I was lucky his brother (who ran the printing press) was coming up the laneway just as I was coming down it, because he was my savour.

Whatever he did or said he got me off the hook because when I came back to work the following Monday everything had smoothed over.

I was forever in his debt.

On another occasion the “PM” was having trouble getting his message across to the intellectuals upstairs. 

There had been a continually bad supply of illegible copy coming to us and he wanted it to change.

After numerous conversations there was definitely a fair bit of the spit starting to build.

When the next lot of copy came to him via the chute from upstairs in the same illegible manner all hell broke loose.

It was around the Queen’s birthday and that meant there were crackers around.

One of the tradesmen had brought a penny bunger into work and suggested to the PM that he should blow the offending copy up.

Good idea…he bound the copy around the bunger with an elastic band, put it in the chute, lit the fuse and away it went to the top floor.

They finally got the message.

All you managers and editors take note, I’ve always told you, you have got it lucky.

During the years between 1976 and 1980 the production area fell silent and the linotype and Ludlow machines were replaced with the advent of computers

The cut and paste era began.

It was where sheets of typed photographic paper were produced using a computer keyboard.

It was then put through a machine to be developed using a series of chemical baths.

The paper was then put through a waxing machine to make the back of it sticky so it could be cut and pasted and stuck onto a card the actual size of a newspaper page.

Once approved, the page was sent off to the dark room where a neg was formed and a plate was made.

Any special people over the years who have taught you? Care to share any of those lessons with the rest of us?

In 1980 I left the industry only to return in 1983, hence the 30 years within the company.

Around 1986 I transferred to the coast and ran the production area for the Shoalhaven and Nowra News.

I had an opportunity to move to Bega and my reply was “Why in the hell would I want to move to Bega” and opted for Nowra.

During this time Goulburn lost control over the Nowra News and the Bega District News took over the reins.

This is when I established my relationship with John and Anne Leach and the then production manager of the BDN, Kevin Tarlinton.

John had asked me to transfer to Bega, but I still had reservations about the move for my family.

I still remember the day when Kevin flew up to meet me and to have a look at the operation at Nowra.

We hit it off from the start and it didn’t take long to establish Kevin liked to have a beer . 

So off to the pub we went.

I thought I would try and loosen up his lips to find out what it was really like at the BDN.

I thought I could drink a beer or two, but I had nothing on him and next thing I knew my family was on its way to Bega and I have never looked back.

It wasn’t until I got to Bega that I found out Kevin’s nickname was “Soak”, hence his ability to drink.

I owe a lot of my success in managing a production area to Soak.

 He also went out of his way to make me feel welcome in the Bega community…thanks Soak.

I was in charge of the night shift and at one point of time the Bega production site produced about 600 pages a week, which included the Bay Post, Moruya Examiner, Narooma News, BDN, Eden Magnet, Bombala and the Cooma Express

All this was done at our old site across from the Bega Primary School.

During this time computers really started to take over the production area and being so far from the nearest IT support (Sydney or Melbourne) we had to improvise, often pulling parts out of machines that had been sent to the graveyard until we finally got the offending machine to work.

What has it been like working as production manager on the Far South Coast, in charge of multiple mastheads each with unique personalities?

The life of a production manager is deadline after deadline listening to excuse after excuse.

There isn’t one I haven’t heard.

Coordinating editors, managers, advertising staff and journos to do the right thing and get their copy to production in on time and legible is quite a feat.

In the end you begin to love the stress and the adrenaline rush you receive dealing with day to day problems.

When the powers to be closed the press down the production area went through another massive change.

All the image setters, chemical baths and dark room equipment were thrown out.

Bega went from a hectic production site to having only to produce the two Bega editions and I’m sure the Bombala paper.

The onus went back to each town having to produce its own paper using computers and programs such as Quark, Photoshop and Illustrator.

We got a week’s training and told to go for it and from there on we have never stopped learning new technology.

Now I think of it, this is the period where I really started to enjoy working in newspapers, the design work you could do for clients and their ads are endless…the satisfaction I get from doing this is something else.

It may sound corny but it is true.

During this period I spent a lot of time on the road, travelling up and down the coast helping sites out of difficult situations.

I was working out of the Narooma office for a couple of years and during that time I received a phone call from the managing editor of the BDN, Anna Glover, asking if I would like to return to Bega and take over the reins as production manager.

Sadly Kevin Tarlinton had passed away.

And here I am.

In the ensuing years, slowly but surely Bega Production site, or the Far South Coast Production site as I like to call it, regained the Eden, Merimbula, Bombala and Narooma mastheads.

Yes we are based in Bega, but we give every masthead the same quality attention, there is no bias at this site.

This is one aspect I had to make sure came about when we undertook the production work for the other mastheads.

Once you get this industry into your blood it becomes your passion and love, it’s hard to let go.

How has technology changed the way you do your job?

The internet is a growing organism, it is an exciting and new avenue for newspapers to merge with and one that I’m truly excited by.

To quote Bob Dylan “Times they are a changin”, quicker than most people like or realise, who knows what technology will throw at mankind in the next 10 to 20 years. 

For over a hundred years the production area hardly altered, but within the span of 30 the changes have been dramatic. 

PS. Production people really do like journalists and ad reps.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop