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Monday, 30 November 2015

Death of a Copytaker: 'Full Point, New Par'

Copytaking at 20sec here
copytaker (ˈkɒpɪˌteɪkə)
1. (Journalism & Publishing) (esp in a newspaper office) a person employed to type reports as journalists dictate them over the telephone.
Peg Carter, right, with her late husband Jack ("JJ") Carter and another former Daily News copytaker, Trudi Martin. This was the time I saw Peg and Jack, at a Daily News Reunion in Perth in September 2010.
At the end of an especially bad week for print newspapers - with old journos exiting stage left, bemoaning modern standards as they went, Norman Harris shuffling off this mortal coil and young reporters asking, given howlers now so regularly appear in print, whether we should bother pointing them out any longer - Peggy Daphne Carter passed away in Perth.
Peg Carter was an ace amongst that lost and much lamented breed, the copytaker.
Peg Carter, left, the late John Williams, the late Kevin Biggins, Peter Cogan and the late Brian 'Curl' Menagh at the closure of the Weekend News in the mid-80s.
When newspaper proprietors got even greedier than they normally are, in introducing computer typesetting, they eliminated three entire tiers of professionals in one fell swoop. Now, I know that if I was filing this to a copytaker, I would have said to Peg down the phone line, "Foul swoop," and she, of course, would have neatly typed "Fell swoop." That's what good copytakers like her did, and with barely an even vaguely chiding comment. Indeed, the only time I was ever actually chided by a copytaker it was a male, working for The Sunday Times in London, and I was painfully reminded of it when reminiscing about Norman Harris last week.
I like to think I took the rebuke well. I learned early about the value of a good copytaker, and thereafter knew to always keep good copytakers onside. A good copytaker, batting for you, could save your skin. In 1968, covering the New Zealand track and field championships in Dunedin, I filed a story about Eddie Gray being beaten in the 10,000m by some Kuts-like tactics from a couple of Aucklanders. "What's that expression, hoist on his own ...?" I asked the copytaker.
"Petard," he said. "Hoist on his own petard. But don't use it."
"No. It's a cliché. Use something else."
A year later I filed a story on the late Ken Wadsworth's first first-class century. When I got back into the office I noted the lede read differently to mine. The guy who had taken my copy, Doug McGilvary, was the chief reporter. He justified his changes. I didn't argue.
Patience, tolerance and understanding were the other great virtues of good copytakers.
If Peg or one of her team of other copytakers hadn't picked up my "Foul Swoop" mistake, someone from one of those other two long-lost tiers would have. All the people the proprietors so callously dispensed with had contributed significantly toward ensuring newspapers appeared with as few errors in print as was humanly possible. It was never spoken about, but there was nonetheless immense pride taken in producing error-free editions. When a mistake did appear in print, one always sensed a general feeling of, "Let's make sure that doesn't happen again." That is obviously not the case anymore. It should go without saying that those professionals removed from this multi-tiered process are sorely missed today.
Coffee break for copytaker Jan Belcastro on the Daily News newsroom while Deanna Sholdas takes copy on a Remington, left
At the first line were the copytakers. After them came the proof readers and the hot metal compositions (super humans who could read type upside-down and back-to-front).
A copytaker never blamed her work tool, not once, ever.
Copytaking was, as I have said on this blog before, an art form in its own right. Copytakers not alone corrected copy as they took it down on a typewriter at great speed, from a rarely calm and collected reporter or stringer calling from a phone booth, but also often gently offered useful suggestions, like that word that just refused to come to mind. On the eve of the rebel golf tournament in Kempsey in March 1972, a copytaker on The Australian in Sydney bailed me out with the spelling of hors-d'oeuvre. I didn't even know what one was until an hour or so earlier, let alone how to spell it. Earlier, at a PGA event at Royal Canberra in late 1970, we found a Sydney colleague couldn't talk down a phone line while within earshot of other writers. He just stuttered and stumbled, endlessly. It didn't worry us, but must have been tough on the copytaker, sitting there waiting on his next clearly enunciated pearl of wisdom.
Some ideas from copytakers were unusable, yet lightened the stress of filing under deadline pressure. Like when I was lamenting the failure of Fijian decathletes to reach qualifying distances in the javelin throw at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982, and Peg jokingly remarked, "Something must have got lost in the genes."
Pestering the busy copytaker was common.
Taking copy could be as stressful as filing it. I found out just how difficult a task it could be during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, when, in the absence of proper copytakers, I was asked to take the late Jimmy Meagan's report at the Irish Press in Dublin; Jimmy's inability to express any coherent lines of copy didn't help much. Like many far more experienced copytakers, I found myself having to compose something that made some sense while typing the garbled story. By then I was at least talking the same language. When I first filed for the Irish Press, from Paris in January 1974, the Jackeen copytaker couldn't understand a word of my then mid-Atlantic accent. It was a nightmare. The only embarrassment came in 1976, however, when I filed from Whangarei to Dublin about a blond centre called Chippy Semenoff. It appeared in print as "blind" centre. Not bad for a bloke who could kick a goal from halfway.
Copytakers often had news editors or sub-editors hanging over their shoulders, as they shouted instructions ("Tell Messenger one more par!") while the copytaker was trying hard to listen to the reporter. At what is now the Irish Examiner in Cork, in 1973 the Crosbies once gave a till-fiddling accountant a second chance, re-employing him as a copytaker for his gambling sins. One night we caught this poor blighter shouting nonsensically into one of his shoes, like a deranged Maxwell Smart, so flummoxed was he by a bollocking he'd just received from our short-fused EEC correspondent in Brussels. He left us soon afterwards. Happily, his replacement was a blindingly beautiful  blonde, Diane, with whom I fell madly in love.
"Full point, end quotes, new par ...": An Irish reporter files an unwritten story from a phone booth in a snowed-in Irish rural town. You get the picture.
I've told the story here before about Malcolm Brodie, sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph, and his love-hate relationship with a male copytaker. Covering the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Malcolm read the first line of his report of the Italy-West Germany semi-final - one with which he was most pleased - "Magnifico, magnifico, magnifico." "Heard you the first feckin' time," the copytaker responded. Ah, how we loved copytakers!  
Tributes paid to Peg Carter by her former colleagues on the Daily News in Perth, Western Australia, were full of this love. They included:
"Peg saved my arse a number of times when I was a total rookie. Garbled sentences I'd given over the two-way from some prang scene or fire miraculously turned into copy. Even got a byline. Thanks Peg."
" ... Peg had lots of knowledge and endless patience. She must have helped launch hundreds of careers."
"Peg was wonderfully calm and forceful in getting that very important first 12-word intro out of me right on deadline as I juggled coins and a notebook in the phone box at some far-flung building site during a strike or protest rally as [news editors] hovered over her. A genuine caring  person whose common sense, along with many other copytakers, assisted me greatly."
"Peg and JJ were a great double act. Both with a glint. If common sense were currency, Peg would have owned a bank. Gentleman Jim Dunbar was a revered cadet counsellor but ... in the heat of deadline battle, Peg was worth JJ's weight in gold."
"Like many cadet journos struggling to phone in a story, I quickly learned that when Peggy asked 'Can I read that back to you?' it was code for 'What I just typed for you was total nonsense, try again!' That was after many years of taking copy from young, wet-behind-the-ears young reporters like me. What a diplomat. She was just as diplomatic when I, a junior C grade reporter at the time, found myself behind the chief of staff desk for the first time in the mid 70s. A gentle question to me about what I thought of a particular situation was nearly always an obvious pointer at what I needed to do. Those who have done the COS job know it can be very stressful and sometimes uncomfortable but Peggy had a calming manner, an enigmatic smile and sometimes a mischievous quip that often kept a lid on things.
Thanks for the memories, Peg."

"Peg was  a terrific, warm person as well and an unsung
mentor.  My experience mirrors [others], sometimes with
a crackly two-way radio thrown in as an added handicap. So many times she saved me from sounding a complete nong."

"... one clear memory was her calm manner amid all the noise and haste. While all around were losing their heads she kept hers. It's amazing to reflect upon the technology in those days: typewriters that weighed a ton atop metal trollies, Peg and her colleagues placing the grubby carbonated sheets on to the inch-wide conveyor belt that spirited the latest news to the subs. You have to smile. It is a world away from now."
"Peg certainly had the ability to calm the nerves and focus the mind as you tried to unscramble the thought patterns, decipher your attempt at Pittman's shorthand and come up with a newsworthy piece as the minutes ticked by."
"Peg was a wonderful 'mother' to us, working in her quiet efficient manner to save many of us from inexperience or ineptitude ... Real warmth and a down-to-earth disposition made her special! It's impressive to read how Peg touched our lives, many memories of long ago - characterised by quite cumbersome, daily activities."
These words give some indication of how much reporters relied on copytakers.
A BBC radio news copytaker catches every word in 1939.
Peggy Daphne Campbell was born in Camberwell in London in December 1931, the eldest child of Sydney Alfred John Campbell (1909-1972) and his wife Dora May (nee Barrett, 1908-1987). Peg left Southampton for Fremantle on the Moreton Bay with another 22-year-old fully qualified shorthand-typist, Hazel Blake, on July 16, 1954, arriving in Australia that September. 
Angels of the newsroom
She found a place to live on Scarborough Beach Road and a job taking classified ads down the phone line at The West Australian. Peg moved to the Daily News as an editorial copytaker in the early 1960s and later became personal assistant to the chief of staff, with responsibility for the newspaper's copytaking team. That brilliant copytakers such as Jan Belcastro, Trudi Martin and Deanna Sholdas became so efficient at their jobs was due in at least some part to Peg's expert training, advice and guidance. In 1968 Peg married Noel Atkinson, a clerk at West Australian Newspapers, but Noel died, aged 48, in 1970. 
Where copytakers went to learn their craft. Or so I imagined.
On a company river cruise in 1976, Peg tripped and fell overboard into the Swan River. Jack ("JJ") Carter, a former head compositor who was chief of staff on the Weekend News and deputy sports editor on the Daily News, quickly dived into the water and saved Peg's life. Naturally, they became very friendly and at the Registry Office on Harrow Road in Paddington, Westminster, London, on August 27, 1977, they married. They returned to Australia and continued to work together for the Daily News until their retirements in the late 1980s. The Daily News closed on September 11, 1990.
Waiting for the copytakers?
Did copytakers ever dream of switching roles, and becoming reporters while the idiot reporters took down the copy?
Printer's ink was in Jack Carter's blood. He was possibly the only person in the world to ever take down from the phone, write, sub-edit, typeset and print his own newspaper story. It was about the Cadoux earthquake in June 1979. Jack was turning off the lights and locking up the office at the end of a Saturday shift at the Weekend News when word of the 6.1 jolt came through. Using his training as both a compositor and a journalist, Jack wrote the copy, typeset it on a Linotype, hauled back the page one forme and put the new type in, then restated the presses himself. People who could do that don’t exist any longer.
Jack Carter, born in Perth on May 27, 1926, died in January 2013, aged 86. Through his mother, Eily, he was the nephew of the legendary newspaperman John Joseph 'Boss' Simons (1882-1948), a youth organiser committed to social improvement, Australian nationalism and the Labor Party. The 6ft 4in Simons was a strong debater, knowledgeable about Australian writing, an advocate of military, naval and industrial self-reliance and an organiser of "Buy Australian" campaigns. As secretary of the Western Australian National Football League in 1905-14 and founder of the Young Australia League (1905) he consolidated Australian football in Western Australia. With Paddy O'Dea, Simons tried to introduce the Australian code to California in 1911, before O'Dea pulled his famous disappearing act to avoid jail for embezzlement and bigamy.
'Boss' Simons
Simons and Victor Courtney founded the weekly the Call in 1918 and the Mirror in 1921. Headlines like "Nakedness at North Beach" made the Mirror a big seller. In 1935 Simons and Courtney bought Perth's Sunday Times for £55,000. With Simons as managing director, Western Press Ltd and Country Newspapers Ltd expanded to three metropolitan and more than 30 country newspapers. In 1941 Simons assigned his interest in Western Press in trust for the YAL. This yielded more than £50,000 after his death from hypertensive heart disease.
"Hold the line, Arthur, I've got Ross calling from Kalgoorlie on line two."
"Can you hear me, Nick?"


Jasper Lindell said...

I'm simply in awe of the skill which once filled newsrooms.

Richard P said...

A fascinating insight into the highly skilled collaborative work that went into producing newspapers on tight deadlines. I could never do such things!

Ted said...

I love these great articles on the heydays of news reporting, as told from the inside. It's good that these legacies and vignettes of the working life of the newsroom are told and preserved. (:

shordzi said...


Bill M said...

Great insights into the world of newspaper reporting. I must say radio news seemed a bit easier.
Write the story, call it in and the engineer on duty would record it. The story may or may not have been edited and then it hit the air with the next newscast.