Those early days had their moments: Jim Eames

Editing a newspaper in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s came with a whole range of challenges to overcome but a massive amount of satisfaction in return. Not long after Melbourne’s Herald and Weekly Times took over from the Yaffa Syndicate in the early 1960s, staff from Melbourne began to move to PNG to support the operation.

While most people were assigned to the South Pacific Post in Port Moresby, several of us were sent to the Times Courier in Lae. Those early days were to bring their own tragedy. One of the Herald’s brightest young cadet journalists, David Kiley was among the first to be posted to the Times Courier at Lae and had already started to make a name for himself among his peers for his journalistic abilities and his talents as a news photographer. Such a promising career was cut tragically short when David died in a fire which destroyed the Times Courier house in Third Street in September 1965. My arrival in Lae on the day of his funeral service was a sad introduction to the Territory.

The Times Courier of those days ranged from sixteen to twenty four pages and was published twice weekly — Tuesday and Saturday — and in circumstances which would have made the average city newspaperman wince.

While the team in Port Moresby, led by Herald-appointed managing editor Keith Mattingley, tried to come to terms with printing press idiosyncrasies and an extensive modernisation program, those of us in Lae were left to confront our own demons. Since there were no printing press facilities on our side of the Owen Stanley Range, the Times Courier, along with our other newspaper commitment, the fortnightly Nu Gini Toktok, relied on a complicated production process. City-bred journalists who had never taken a newspaper photograph in their lives found themselves not only gathering copy for stories but behind the lens of the office Yashica as well.

News, sport and social pages had to be written, photographs taken and printed in our darkroom, and the whole lot given appropriate headlines, type sizes, etc., on specialised layout sheets. When that was done, all that remained was to get the finished package to Port Moresby so it could be typeset and printed. In those days, long before computers and emails, the only available option was by air. Thus the daily Ansett or TAA Lockheed Electra services, which flew overnight from Sydney and Brisbane, arriving in Port Moresby and then on to Lae early in the morning, was utilised to carry the layout packages for the Times Courier and Toktok to Port Moresby on their return journey to Australia.

Despite us having special permission to use the diplomatic priority mail bag in the aircraft’s cockpit, and the aircraft being met in Port Moresby by the South Pacific Post representative, the process was fraught with danger, with the occasional consignment missing the Port Moresby pickup completely and having to be returned to Port Moresby from Brisbane the next day!

As the paper was regarded as the main print outlet on the New Guinea side of the mountains – thus taking in everywhere from the Highlands to Wewak, Madang as well as New Ireland and New Britain – the first challenge was getting enough copy to fill every edition. We had nothing like the population and news-generating potential of a large town like Port Moresby to fall back on.

Apart from our full time correspondent in Rabaul, Mike Fallon, who covered New Britain for us, the remainder of our correspondents were casuals like Janet Whish Wilson who covered the Western Highlands from Mt Hagen, while Hank Cosgrove in Lae wrote copy for our sports pages.

By the mid 1960s there were still few roads in Papua New Guinea and even the Highlands Highway up through the Kassam Pass to Goroka and Mt Hagen had only just emerged as an all-weather road, so most human, freight and mail transport had to travel by air and the vagaries of weather often played havoc with the despatches of our correspondents. There was little you could do if the inbound DC3 from Mt Hagen with Janet Whish Wilson’s copy was delayed due to weather.

Most times though, the DC3s and Fokker Friendships of the day were our transport lifeline, thanks to a contra arrangement with Ansett and TAA which swapped advertising space for air travel when we had to move around the Territory to cover stories.

Meanwhile in Lae we gathered whatever copy we could from local activities as well as anxiously sifting through Administration press releases out of Port Moresby for anything that might present a specific New Guinea ‘angle’ for a story.

Naturally, because we considered ourselves far removed from the machinations of government in Port Moresby, those of us in Lae tended to be somewhat parochial in our news outlook, often to the chagrin of Keith Mattingley who’s oft-stated aim was to have a ‘one country’ approach to the newspaper business in Papua New Guinea. Often, however, those of us in Lae considered that what might have been good for Port Moresby was not necessarily good for our side of the Range.

I seem to recall the matter once coming to head over the approaching South Pacific Games. While much of the planning seemed to be directed towards events taking place in Port Moresby, we considered our side of the country was being overlooked when it came to selecting venues for the events.

Despite the fact that it was company policy that editorials never appeared in the Times Courier, they being the strict preserve of the South Pacific Post, we launched a campaign to show Port Moresby we considered we were being regarded as second class citizens when it came to such major events.

I can’t recall now whether we achieved anything but I vividly remember the phone call from an irate Keith Mattingley, firstly taking me to task on the tone of the editorial and then launching his ‘one country’ lecture. Fortunately in those days of radio phones it was possible to continue speaking while gradually moving the handset further away from one’s ear, thus making it appear at the other end that the line was fading. Keith’s words disappeared mid-sentence, but sadly, when the next edition of the Times Courier arrived, so had our editorial!

When another Herald cadet, David Warner, replaced David Kiley he too created excellent images with the office camera. But printing them was another story and it soon became clear that the biggest photographic challenge of all was presented by our primitive darkroom facilities. The darkroom itself was actually a converted cupboard about seven feet long and barely three feet wide. There was no air conditioning and once in the darkness amid Lae notorious humidity, the heat became oppressive, the only respite being provided by a bare bladed fan of six inches diameter on the back wall. Whoever originally installed the fan must have had a twisted sense of humour as its delicate positioning made sure that each time you experienced a mild electric shock from the rusty enlarger on the bench in front of you, you were immediately tossed back into the whirring blades of the fan.

Not that we journalists were the only ones constantly surprised. Judy Boag, who ran the front office and organised the advertising, was occasionally presented with her own challenges. Nu Gini Toktok, the Pidgin English paper, was a community effort by the H and WT but also heavily subsidised by the Administration. With a fortnightly print run of around 6,000, the idea was that, once it reached the far flung villages throughout the country, any village elder who could read Pidgin would gather the folks around the fire and read the news, thus keeping them in touch with the world.

Those of us who produced it however always doubted that’s what actually happened. The fact is that the pages of the newspaper were often more valuable as for use for that rare commodity in a remote village — cigarette paper for stick tobacco. As well as becoming known as probably the most ‘smoked’ newspaper in the world, any left over copies of the paper in our Lae office found ready customers among the locals who would buy and on sell whole batches of them for a few cents a sheet.

One such customer from up the Markham Valley walked in one afternoon and asked Judy in pidgin for some “pepa.” When she asked him for payment he indicated he had no money but had something to trade. With that he dropped a hessian bag and out wriggled a small python!

Judy’s scream could be heard across town but by the time the rest of us reached the front office she’d done the deal. He could have the batch of papers for nothing, as long as he took the python with him!

Overall though, just another day in the PNG newspaper business in the 1960s. None of us would have missed it for quids.

 

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