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The Examiner celebrates 175 years

The Examiner newspaper in Launceston is celebrating its 175th birthday this month (12 March 2017) which is a remarkable achievement for any business let alone a media organisation.

I spent just on 45 years of my working life at The Examiner and the 175th celebrations got me thinking about the history of the paper and what it was like when I started there.

When I joined The Examiner staff in 1969 the newspaper office was in Paterson Street where it had been for 115 years.

The Abbotts cordial factory was next door and there was a very old cottage on the Charles St corner. The Commonwealth Employment Service was just across the street.

That's where I went when I came home after a year or so working in Melbourne. The man in the CES told me to get a haircut and present myself for an interview at The Examiner. I didn't like the idea of a haircut but working on the newspaper certainly appealed.

I started work as a copy holder, which was an assistant to a Proof Reader. Proof readers were supposed to be printing tradesmen but the need for machine compositors and hand compositors on the production floor meant many were drawn from other lines of work.

Some came from the Editorial Department as part of their training to be sub-editors.

The Head Reader in my time was Ken McKenna who’d been an explosives operator (powder monkey) working at Bell Bay and had hurt his knee. He reckoned he’d only taken a job in the Reading Room while he recuperated but had been there for something like 15 years by then.

There were about 10 of us in the Reading Room on two shifts. The night shift was a six day roster but the day shift only worked Monday to Friday.

We worked all public holidays except Christmas Day and Good Friday and got six weeks holidays a year. We checked every word that went into every edition of the paper.

There was a tradesmen’s entrance in those days, to the side of the building. You had to go through a big set of gates and you had to wait each morning for the gates to be opened.

There were about 200 people in the Production Department then, no women (except for the Production Manager’s secretary) and everyone was in the union.

It wasn’t called the union, it was called The Chapel. The chief shop steward was called the Father of the Chapel and the minute secretary was the Clerk of the Chapel.

This, of course, was the case in most newspapers in Australia and Britain as far as I know.

It sounds a bit strange these days but then it was very serious and was another reminder of the long history of the newspaper and the printing trade.

The Chapel was apparently the traditional name given to a meeting of printing compositors and had its origins in the early days of printing which was controlled by churches.

According to Wikipedia, the name also honours the origins of British trade unionism, where non-conformist churches often acted as covers for trade union activity, which was illegal at the time

The Reverend John West, who helped James Aikenhead and Jonathan Waddell found The Examiner in 1842, was the leader of a non-conformist church in Launceston.

The Aikenhead and Waddell families were all members of John West’s congregation.

I served as Clerk of the Chapel at The Examiner for a couple of years. We ran the upstairs canteen and organised lots of social events for Production Department staff.

The Chapel and the linotype operators controlled the newspaper in those days. Lino operators, who were paid by the number of lines of type they produced, were among the highest paid people at the newspaper.

Some of them were paid more than department managers.

Each edition of the newspaper was created using molten lead to make the lines of type, on big iron machines with names like Linotype, Ludlow and Elrod.

I seem to recall that one of the linotype machines was stamped 1898. The linotype machine was the first big technological change in newspaper production.

They came into operation at The Examiner in 1896, when The Examiner building was first wired up for electricity.

It was the year the Duck Reach Power station was commissioned and The Examiner was one of the first businesses to take up the new fangled energy supply.

The Examiner’s description of the new technology was interesting:

It is pretty generally known throughout the city that within the last fortnight some remarkable machines have been set up in The Examiner office that in their operation approach as nearly to human skill as is possible in the domain of mechanics.

The [linotype] machine does not set ordinary type, but it casts a whole line at once, hence its name, being an abbreviation of ‘a line of type’.

A fabulously large sum of money has been expended in experiments and subsequent improvements of the machine, until today it may be said to be perfect, the first machine having been erected by the New York Tribune in 1886.

You could have nearly said a similar thing in the 1970s when computers were introduced into newspaper production and eventually made the linotype machine redundant.

The Examiner has always been an early adopter of new technology and I think was the first printery in Tasmania to get linotype machines.

I learned to operate a linotype machine towards the end of their reign as the engine room of newspaper production.

They were dangerous things, there was a pot of hot lead on one side and if you mucked up, the molten lead squirted on you instead of going into the machine.

The keyboard had 90 buttons and it was arranged with lowercase letters on the left and capitals on the right and the numerals and symbols in the middle.

The layout of the letters was very strange and nothing like the querty keyboards we know today

The ‘lino’ room was a pretty hot place with more than a dozen machines generating a lot of heat. Many of the operators wore shorts and thongs in summer. There were lots of burns.

One of the operators there in my first few years had started work at the Examiner in 1912.

Cyril “Smiler” Yost was the ‘casual’ Friday lino operator. He’d retired in 1963 but came in to help out on Fridays.

In those days Friday was the biggest production day of the week.

Cyril was nearly 80 and still pretty sharp and could recall all the characters who had worked there when he was a young apprentice.

Every time he came into work he reminded me of the Examiner’s long history.

But he wasn’t the longest serving Examiner employee that I have been able to identify. That honour belongs to Rupert Stanley Button who started work there in 1886.

R. S. Button was the son of Henry Button who had himself started work at The Examiner in 1844, just 2 years after the paper was founded by his uncle Jonathan Waddell.

Henry owned The Examiner for a period in the late 1800s and Rupert was born in that cottage on The Examiner site.

Rupert Button worked in the Processing engraving department and in July 1901 he produced the first photo blocks for the Weekly Courier on state-of-the-art equipment bought by The Examiner.

He retired in 1956, after 70 years of service!

When I went into the Editorial Department in 1983 another aspect of The Examiner’s history was revealed to me.

It was the Editorial Library.

Here was a treasure trove of history. A copy of every newspaper produced by The Examiner and all the wonderful Weekly Couriers with their pictorial inserts and great photos, many of them produced by Rupert Button.

There were hundreds of old reference books in the Editorial Library, like the Cyclopedias of Tasmania, old company ledgers, all sorts of interesting material.

It seems like sacrilege today but whenever someone did a story on John West or the transportation of convicts they would get out the 1842 bound edition of the Examiner and thumb through it looking for a new angle on a very old story.

Up until the 1990s, use of the Examiner Editorial Library was pretty much open to the public. People would come in and flick through the old editions searching for those gems of information for a book or a family history.

And every time there was a flood or a royal tour, someone would dig out the Weekly Courier’s Flood Specials or Royal Tour Special for a photo to go with their history piece.

Those early Examiners and some of the Weekly Couriers got pretty worn.

When new 50-year copyright laws came in a decade or so ago the National Library of Australia undertook to scan and OCR every Australian newspaper up to 1954. They called it Trove and last time I looked it contained 205,457,213 articles, starting with The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of 1803.

The last time I looked there were 3,517,422 Examiner articles in Trove. It's a wonderful resource and will help keep the Examiner’s history alive for a long time to come. And give those old hardcopy versions of The Examiner a much needed rest.

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