Friday, July 10, 2009

Bush Telegraphy

I’m back in Brisbane after a tiring nine hour drive the full length of the Warrego Highway. My nine day stint at the Western Times came to an end yesterday. Conveniently, the weekly edition arrived in Charleville on my last day and it was good to see the paper I put together wherever I went around town. The front page with my lead story and the photos I took stared at me from obvious places such as the Western Times office and the newsagent. But I also saw copies at a café, the petrol station and even the bakery. And when I went into the Hotel Corones for a farewell drink last night, a punter sat next to me engrossed in the paper. I resisted the temptation to ask him what he thought of it.

I was happy enough with it, though it wasn’t error free. I got through Super Tuesday when I put the paper together with the help of the sub-editor in Chinchilla. This week’s paper was 24 pages thanks to additional advertising so I had to find more articles to fill than the previous week’s 20-pager. As the day wore on, I would get messages such as “we need more for page nine” or “page 17 is looking a bit thin” and I would scurry away trying to find more articles or better still more photos (they chew up more space). A couple of photos accidentally snuck in that had already been used the previous week. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The permanent journalist at Charleville returned to the office yesterday and he told me about my issue’s biggest mistake. At a local council meeting yesterday morning, a councillor told him gleefully that I’d photo-captioned the wrong shire name for a local mayor. I had a story about Bruce Scott (not to be confused with the local federal MP of the same name) the mayor of Barcoo shire which is centred around Quilpie 200km west of Charleville.

Scott has a valid concern his remote area is about to miss out on the government's $250m regional broadband plan. I based a story around a press release and other information he provided to me. I even had time to send it back to him prior to publication and he was happy I had captured the nub of his issues. The problem was that I had second unrelated story about another local mayor. This one was about Jo Shepherd the mayor of the shire around Cunnamulla which known as Paroo. When it came to putting a caption for the accompanying photos, I confused my Barcoo with Paroo and Mr Scott scored the wrong mayoralty (Ms Shepherd I got right – they were both “Paroo Mayor”).

While I was berating myself for landing in the Barcoo-Paroo poo (luckily I had no further complicating story about Thargomindah’s Bulloo too), an older lady entered the office. She asked me whether I was responsible for the “way back when” piece. This is a regular segment and a piece of local history provided by the redoubtable George who is the local font of knowledge of Charleville antiquity and runs Historic House museum. Each week he sends in a story with an accompanying picture. This week had an old photo which George said was taken of the three Burns sisters in a makeshift raft during a flood in the 1940s. The older lady pointed to the photo and asked whether anyone checked George’s information. I told her that alas I had to assume that George knew what he was talking about as no one else did. She said they were just two sisters – and she should know because she was their cousin. She also said they were "Byrnes" not "Burns" and doubted the photo was taken in the 1940s. She didn’t know who the third girl was but left me under no illusions that regardless of George’s memory, the Western Times had failed in its duty by getting the information wrong. I was fiddling while Byrnes roamed.

The lady was right of course, though I’m not sure how I could have validated George’s information. But the lesson I learned was that the 2,500 readers of the Western Times take their local publication seriously. And mistakes or not, I really enjoyed being given the opportunity to put it together for them. There is something about working for a small town paper that is richly rewarding. On the way home to Brisbane today I dropped in on the boss at Chinchilla. He reckons he will have more work for me elsewhere before the year is out, probably a permanent role somewhere. I could end up working for him at St George or Roma or at any one of a half dozen papers out west. I don’t really mind where. I think I will learn much about journalism wherever the paper and reckon I will have a hoot of a time into the bargain - as long as I get the mayor's shire right. Bring on the bush.

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