A difficult day for a 150-year-old paper

8:22 pm on 3 May 2017

First Person - There are a few of us at RNZ who cut our teeth as journalists in the once smoky rooms of the Nelson Mail.

At 151 years old, it's one of the country's oldest regional newspapers and right now, after today's Fairfax and NZME merger rejection, it is among many with a large question mark over its future.

I started my career as a journalist 30 years ago when it was known as the Nelson Evening Mail. I'd sent a handwritten letter (in pencil) to then-editor Rick Neville, in response to an ad for a junior reporter.

At the time I was working in a factory with a lofty ambition of being the Lois Lane of Nelson. I didn't hear back until months later when Mr Neville called to ask if I'd like to become a proof-reader. He had kept my letter because it didn't have any spelling mistakes - and that is how my cadetship began.

They were the days of manual typewriters clacking furiously on deadline, writing stories in triplicate, and sending copy on newsprint through suction tubes to typesetters and compositors.

I got to do everything from interview royalty to factory-floor workers, and drive a mini-bus of drunk reporters to the annual union meeting.

So it was with a slightly heavy heart that I returned there today, but when I walked into the newsroom, the team spirit still lingered. Editor Victoria Guild had just ended a staff news briefing. She explained the lead story was about a dangerous dog that had been ordered to be put down, but the owner was taking the fight to the Supreme Court.

It is the type of story that binds and divides a community.

Ms Guild has been at the Mail since 2003, when she began as a sub-editor. She now heads 22 staff in offices in Nelson and in Golden Bay.

The Mail serves a combined population in Nelson City and Tasman District of close to 100,000 with a daily circulation about 10,000. Readership hovers about 28,000 a day and the online audience tops about 54,000 a week.

Nelson Mail editor Victoria Guild, left, and chief news director Sally Kidson

Nelson Mail editor Victoria Guild, left, and chief news director Sally Kidson in the newsroom of the 150-year-old regional paper. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Ms Guild said a local paper served as the village square - and a soap box as a platform for the public's voice.

"It's really important for local papers to be connected to their community - to be aware of what their community cares about. You can get that feedback through Letters to the Editor, and now of course we can get that feedback through Facebook and digital pages as well."

There are times also that the Mail is at the forefront of national news. Former editor Bill Moore recalled the Cave Creek tragedy on the West Coast in April 1995, when a viewing platform collapsed, killing 14 people.

"The entire newsroom was stunned by what was unfolding on the West Coast. There were people in tears in the newsroom when they were learning about what was going on. Those are the sorts of days when everybody pulls together across the whole building - all departments, to try and get the news out to the readers," Mr Moore said.

He said people worked in the news industry for the greater good.

"Not only the journalists but everyone who works at a newspaper feels they play a much more than just a commercial role - making money for a business - they feel they're doing is actually an important part of the life of their community.

"They take that as seriously now as the Nelson Mail has always done," Mr Moore said.

One reporter who knows that better than almost anyone at the Nelson Mail is its chief news director, Sally Kidson. She started at the Mail as a reporter in 2003 and described, on a difficult day, what it meant to be a journalist there.

Nelson Mail editor Victoria Guild, right, and chief news director Sally Kidson check the day's front page

Ms Guild, right, and Ms Kidson check the day's front page. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

"These guys are just really passionate about what they do. They work really hard to tell the stories and they work really hard to tell them in a way that people want to hear them.

"They're the voice of the community and they've got that on their shoulders when they go out and talk to people," Ms Kidson said.

Fairfax and NZME, when making their case for the merger, argued the modern media market - driven by Google and Facebook - was eroding the economics of their businesses and they needed to merge to survive in the long-term.

They had threatened to cut back their investment in front-line journalism if the merger was knocked back, including regional and community reporting.

Ms Guild said the transition now was the biggest in the Mail's 150-year history, but she was confident the masthead would stay alive.

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