The Sydney Morning Herald | 8 September 2016
By Helen Pitt
THIRTY YEARS AGO today I started as a cadet journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald. September 8, 1986. It was the year Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison, a nurse called Anita Cobby was murdered in western Sydney and two Australians, Barlow and Chambers, were executed in Malaysia for drug trafficking.
The old "new" Parramatta Stadium had just opened and the issue occupying the front page was transport: namely the then controversial construction of the monorail (now dismantled). The upcoming Bicentennial was big and the Barangaroo back then – the building Sydneysiders loved to hate – was Darling Harbour's Convention Centre (also now dismantled and like the Eels' stadium being rebuilt.)
Our records show the median Sydney house price was $109,752; (read that and weep). No one much cared about real estate – trust me, I was a cadet on the property page, singular. It wasn't until the next year that property prices became hot news, with the 1987 real estate boom which dove-tailed with the stockmarket crash.
The Herald's photos were black and white and the broadsheet was read all over town. I was young and in love with newspapers and felt there was nowhere quite as exciting to work as our news room; a smoke-filled cacophony of characters and constantly ringing telephones (with pre-mobile seven-digit numbers with no nines in front of them.)
I was young and in love with newspapers and felt there was nowhere quite as exciting to work as our news room; a smoke-filled cacophony of characters and constantly ringing telephones.
It is still a fun place to work, though I am no longer young. When I come to work I sometimes feel a bit like the man in the 1970s commercial for milk who walks into a bar and asks a young girl; "where have you been all my life?" "For the first half of it I wasn't even born," she replies. Which must be how some of my colleagues feel about me. Many weren't even born when I began as a cub reporter.
While I began work here three decades ago, the bulk of my career has been spent outside of the Herald, overseas and at other publications. But like Brylcream, I came back. So my ancient history of the city is perhaps better than my modern. I have a big blindspot from 1999-2009, when I lived in California.
After a decade away, I found myself asking embarrassing questions like: "who are Kath and Kim?" "what's a 'ranga?" and "when did Bernard King die?" No wonder one of my younger co-workers had to rush to Google to find out what I was talking about when I called ABC Radio 702 by its old name 2BL.
The older I get, I realise the older young becomes. Like age, time is a relative concept so when they tell me something happened "a really long time ago", five years say, it seems just a blink of my over-50 eye. I look at my younger coworkers' business cards which read "senior writer" and remember when I was in my 20s and 30s that's what my business card said too. Now I eschew the word senior. I want nothing to do with it as I'm closer to senior card and senior moment.
Which reminds me of a more worrying element to ageing in a newsroom: I've heard so many Sydney stories now I've forgotten who told them to me and if they are true. I'll find myself retelling an old chestnut and get a bit vague on the details. So I look them up in our digital library and realise I WROTE the story – and have no recollection of even doing it decades on. What I'm surprised about too, in looking back on my early days at Fairfax, is how few photos there are of us writing and photographing the news: we were certainly not the selfie generation. Never part of the story.
I'll find myself retelling an old chestnut and get a bit vague on the details. So I look them up in our digital library and realise I WROTE the story – and have no recollection of even doing it.
The other concern I've noticed is not only forgetting but wrongly remembering stories. I was having a heated discussion about this with a longtime friend and colleague recently – I don't call her an old friend because that would make us sound, well, old. For the purposes of this story we'll call her Connie (not her real name.) Connie was reminiscing about a guy we were cadets with.
"Remember Lesley's old boyfriend XX," she said. "No Con," I said, he was my old boyfriend. "Are you sure?" she said with such conviction I almost thought I'd wrongly remembered my romantic past (though was keen for Lesley to be the fall girl in this particular case). She didn't believe me until she texted Lesley who confirmed she'd never met XX, let alone dated him. What's worrying is we are both reporters, now editors, who have covered countless news stories. I'm wondering what else we have wrongly remembered.
All I know for sure after three decades of making a living from storytelling is there are still some that stand out for me. There's former Herald science writer Bob Beale's piece on explaining an orgasm to his daughter (like a sneeze.) There are former colleagues like Richard Macey, a master of clearly explaining the intricacies of space exploration, and Tony Stephens' beautifully rendered portraits of Diggers and dignitaries. There's Malcolm Brown's compelling portrait of "the madness within" his mentally ill brother Owen. That made me want to become a journalist.
I've learnt a lot from my Herald elders about growing old gracefully. When we get together we complain about how small the newspaper typeface has got. Then we put on our glasses. And suddenly everything, the past and the present, is back in focus again, in easy to read black and white.
Helen Pitt is a Fairfax journalist