I have been insulted by experts in my time, but the favourite put-down was from a reader who wrote to the editor that if it was true that Jack Waterford was at large, he should be recaptured and put back on his medication. I cannot recall what had inspired his indignation, but it helped resolve, for me at least, the conundrum of what, exactly, an "editor-at-large" was.
Disloyal colleagues had already suggested that it was a reference to my girth, and others, that the real title was "editor at lunch." This was more a reflection, alas of an earlier glorious time in journalism when an important part of any journalist's duties involved eating out on behalf of one's employer. I would not say that this practice has entirely disappeared. But modern bureaucracy is such that it takes longer to fill out a form claiming expenses that it used to take, in the good old days, for an expansive fact-finding and research-oriented lunch. Just as I never learnt to tie shoelaces, by force of not having attended a kindergarten or early years of primary school, I have long had a complete incapacity to fill in a form or to understand what one meant. The last decade of lunches, or office Christmas parties, have been at my own expense because I can't do, can't be bothered to do, forms.
A new general manager at The Canberra Times once decided, as new general managers sometimes do, that management prior to his arrival had been pretty slack, and that the point needed a complete shake-up. A part of this revolution involved a plethora of new bumph, forms and documentation circulating around departments. As a joke, I drafted a form, resembling one of the new model, called a "Form retention review form." I photocopied several score, and circulated them to other managers, along with a note that one was to be filled in for each form in use. It had sections for describing the form, canvassing its purpose, and asking whether it was really necessary.
I expected that the other managers might appreciate the joke, and that the general manager might himself ruefully realise that a good deal of his reinvention of the wheel was tedious and unnecessary. I was somewhat amazed, in doing a casual patrol of other sections, to see managers, and their secretaries, bent to the task of completing the forms. Irony simply cannot co-exist with bureaucracy.
I became editor-at-large, without quite knowing what it meant, after a decade or more as editor, then editor-in-chief, and eight years as deputy editor, during which I had often stood in as editor while the editor, whoever it was was on leave. It is 28 years since I first took the executive shilling, a job then at least recognised as putting the company's interests even ahead of my own, in the certain knowledge that it would look after my interests. Since then, the ownership of that trust has changed repeatedly, if ultimately returning to a new Fairfax. I think I am the longest standing Fairfax editorial executive, and the last who worked, as an executive while Warwick Fairfax was alive.
For me, the title of editor-at-large, reflected a desire to drop the duties of administration, and the ancillary burdens of responsibility, and to return to what I assumed had brought me to such posts, some interest in, and facility for writing. It is one of the contradictions of journalism, as it is of teaching and the public service, that the rewards for being good at one's job generally involve being taken away from what one is good at, and made to manage others. But journalism is exceptional in that it allows to a far greater extent than elsewhere editors and administrators to step back down into the newsroom, unembarassed by the loss of rank, power or status. A title of being at large may reflect the fact that one is of a seniority that one cannot be bossed around as a mere cadet, but frankly, I would never have minded if I had been. I had long learned, as editor as much as anything, that good journalism in any field, whether as reportage, analysis or commentary, is a reflection of what is put in and invested, not a reflection of the quantity or the quality of the nuggets of news lying about. Canberra Times journalists whose writings have given great pleasure – people such as, over the years, Tony Wright, Crispin Hull, Ian Warden, Penny Layland or Chris Uhlmann – have made as much mark writing of sport, or the mundane as of great matters of state.
I have been blessed with great and generous editors. Nine of the 10 editors with whom I have worked are still alive. John Allan, who died only recently, had a great, even sometimes terrifying, zest and passion for news, and for accuracy. Ian Mathews, who succeeded him and gave me a cadetship, was a long-time editor of broad outlook, great love for and loyalty to this city, and a surpassing decency and willingness to take risks. It is particularly from his outlook that I have thought, if I were penning a leader, "What would, or should The Canberra Times think?". That was never just what I thought, even when I was editor, because the paper, as an institution had to be above the petty and the ephemeral, and had to be consistent. It could, and did, change its mind, but when it did, it explained why.
All newspapers have fabulous personalities, and there is no heresy more rank than the idea that one should employ them by personality profile focused on those least likely to be troublemakers. Troublemakers make the best journalists. But newspapers, even information silos, are not compose merely of writers, but of subeditors, editors, artists, photographers, people in advertising departments, and printers. I have often had to realise how much they contribute and how much they care. Subeditors, not least MIchael Travis, have saved my life repeatedly, and given me such reputation as I can enjoy for literacy. I once after Michael, after submitting a column whether it made sense. He said, "It does now." He still has his pen out, and a frown on his face, as he reads his newspaper.
I was once told by an accountant that it was his job, not mine, to do the accounting, and his aim to provide editorial with the resources we needed. We might argue about their quantum, but we were on the same side. But I should always remember that no editor ever became famous, or successful, for not exceeding his budget. Even as I tried to keep to one, I never forgot the advice.
Crispin Hull, under whom I became deputy (and who, later, was to be my deputy) is a person of tremendous intellectual breadth and curiosity, but also a master of technology and the processes of production. We once jokingly agreed that such was the quality of younger folk coming forward to apply for jobs that neither of us would now hire ourselves, or each other, but he ingrained in me the certainty that the most important and enduring task we performed was in the selection and leadership of new journalists. Even if, as both Crispin and I did, we indulged ourselves by continuing, as editors to write under our own bylines, our best work would always be from what others in the orchestra did under our baton. It came from the way we led, the example we set, how we brought resources to the tasks, and with what priorities set, and how we engaged our critical facilities over the whole product.
A good newspaper has tone and personality; much of that comes from its market, its readership and its traditions, but a good deal comes from its leaders and their own character – and even from parts of the paper not always closely studied by everyone, such as the editorial or leader. An editor may not have personally written it – although there is a long tradition at this paper of their mucking in, and I once, wrote every editorial, seven days a week, over a period of nine months. But it is the editor's view of what the newspaper as a whole should say or stand for on a particular topic.
It was the editor's view, not the management's view or the owner's view. Either could sack an editor, that was part of the price for the general freedom their underlings had. But in all my time, in any event, editorials were in the sole province of the editor (or editor -in-chief) and the editorial department. I was once delighted when John B. Fairfax, with effective ownership control, wrote a letter to the editor disputing a point of view in an editorial I had written. I published the letter, naturally. Some imagined that it meant I was in great trouble. In fact the owner was affirming that policy was my call, and that, if he disagreed, he would use public, not inside channels, to express his disagreement.
The newspaper was established by the Shakespeare family in 1926, and passed into the hands of the Fairfax company in 1964. When I joined it, most, but not all of its staff, was post-Shakespeare, but the influence and character of the paper did bear their DNA. The first Fairfax era was essentially remote and benevolent and the newspaper, and its aspirations, grew with a rapidly developing city, if one subject to busts as well as booms. I remember once reproaching a great general manager, Graham Wilkinson, for what I regarded as parsimony as we were doing well, financially, after a Fraser-government induced Canberra recession. Wilkinson said that staff and resources would increase steadily and deliberately, but on long-term, not short-term trends. As an executive at Sydney Fairfax, he had had to retrench staff in downturns and never wanted to do it again.
Wilkinson had benefited, at the start of his career from a Kemsley journalism scholarship to Britain, and was an apostle of the virtues of travel and ongoing training and investment in staff. He helped organise for me a Jefferson Fellowship in the United States – a boon I jokingly called a CIA scholarship but which enormously opened my eyes about that country. I have the privilege, these days, of being associated with the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre, which both organises training and Australian experience for journalists at all career levels from Asia and Pacific countries, but also short intensive programs taking Australian journalists abroad.
All levels of journalism involve editing – making choices. The merest cadet edits when he seeks gold in the dross, the matters worthy of record in a great piles of facts, arguments and events. More senior journalists, section editors, and people deploying our writing talent, struggle to decide what, of hundreds of competing matters, are worth committing resources, and, ultimately, newspaper or web space to. There is never enough money, but, equally significantly, never enough space. And even if it were infinite, as it might be with the "cloud", one must remember that those who rely on us have limited time. They want the information critical to them, but in a digested form, reflecting some judgment about what mattered. Increasingly all who use The Canberra Times have access, if they wish, to all of our source material.
An array of our more recent editors have come, already senior journalists, from other newspapers, including the Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Newcastle Herald. This has broadened and strengthened our sense of ourself, and also renewed some qualities we took for granted. Some of those who pontificate on newspapers seem to think that questions about the right balances between local, national and international news, or about tone and dignity are new ones, but they have always been a part of the dynamic of putting out, each day, the best of what is available to us. In the course of making those decisions, journalists, but particularly editors have to think of their market, their readers, the record, and make choices – not least about the material in competition. I sometimes fear that some people do not realise that news conference s are about choosing between rival stories vying for attention, not abstract rehearsals of our prejudices and predilections.
One of our great sub-editors, the late Lindsay Clark came to this newspaper after retiring as a long-term editor in New Zealand. He had been a war correspondent, and had worked on some of Australia's most rumbustious newspapers, such as the Truth. There was little he had not seen or experienced. He once saw me bowed after some encounter with an abusive politician and said, "Jack, remember, the first 50 years are the hardest". Perhaps he is right, but I think that I should devote a few of what is left of them them to other things, not least my family, my books and this city I have loved, and watched as we grew up together.
I should say a thing about books. In interviewing would-be staff, I would often ask what books they had been recently reading. Some thought they had to impress me and would cite learned tomes. Frankly I never cared, whether it was crime novels, but I cared about whether they were reading. "An unbelievable number would say things like, Mr Waterford I have been studying these past three years and haven't had time for books." They would say the same now about e-readers.
Frankly I do not see how one can be a soldier in the battle of ideas if one does not read. I do not care on what medium. It is from relentless reading that most of my ideas have come. And not merely non-fiction, but also novels and poetry. It's time for poetry now.