REAL AUSTRALIA

Stop the press: the bushfire-edition newspapers that never reached their readers

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from Australian Community Media, which has journalists in every state and territory. Sign up here to get it by email, or here to forward it to a friend. Today's newsletter is written by ACM executive editor James Joyce.

Eden Magnet journalist Rachel Mounsey documented her home town Mallacoota's fire emergency. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Eden Magnet journalist Rachel Mounsey documented her home town Mallacoota's fire emergency. Picture: Rachel Mounsey

Compared to the heart-wrenching decisions so many Australians have had to make in the past week as wild fires roared towards their homes, it does not amount to a hill of beans.

But last week I made a decision that I've never had to make in 30 years as a journalist and editor.

With raging bushfires and road closures preventing safe access to the NSW South Coast, copies of Wednesday's Bay Post and Moruya Examiner newspapers could not be delivered from Australian Community Media's print centre in Canberra to our loyal readers in the fire-ravaged towns of Batemans Bay and Moruya. Copies of January 1's Milton-Ulladulla Times couldn't get through either.

So, what to do about the Friday, January 3, editions of the Bay Post and Moruya Examiner? The chances of our delivery trucks reaching the coast on the Thursday night were next to none.

Not quite a "stop the presses" moment. More like, "don't start the presses". So, to print or not to print?

Hundreds of copies of the January 1, 2020, editions of the Bay Post, Moruya Examiner and Milton-Ulladulla Times newspapers never made it to readers on the NSW South Coast.

Hundreds of copies of the January 1, 2020, editions of the Bay Post, Moruya Examiner and Milton-Ulladulla Times newspapers never made it to readers on the NSW South Coast.

The dilemma brought back memories of December 28, 1989, when an earthquake registering 5.6 on the Richter scale struck Newcastle. I was six months into my journalism career, a cadet reporter at the Newcastle Herald.

That Thursday 30 years ago was obviously expected to be a quiet one in Newcastle: they'd rostered the newest of the newsroom's newbies - me - to do the early-morning police news! Luckily, I was being supervised by an ace crime reporter, acting chief of reporting staff Mark Riley, thesedays the Seven Network's cucumber-cool political correspondent.

Somehow, from an old building in the heart of a shattered city that'd been rocked by a deadly earthquake, the Herald managed on that day to print and distribute a bumper edition of the then-broadsheet newspaper.

(Alas, I was not present when the printing presses in the basement of the Herald building in quake-damaged Bolton Street miraculously rumbled to life that night in 1989. Ingloriously, I'd been sent home by the editor not long after my shift was supposed to have finished, seriously sunburnt after spending the day running updates from Newcastle Police headquarters to the Herald office down the street.)

I still have a copy of the Herald's '89 earthquake edition. And I've got copies of the Batemans Bay, Moruya and Ulladulla newspapers that couldn't be delivered on January 1 to give to Bay Post editor Kerrie O'Connor and journalist Andrea Cantle, and Ulladulla Times journalist Sam Strong and his editor John Handscombe. They're the papers that never arrived, now keepsakes for the people who slaved over them as fires raged around them.

Camberwarra RFS volunteers Graham and Angus Lowbridge helped protect their family's historic home in the Shoalhaven. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Camberwarra RFS volunteers Graham and Angus Lowbridge helped protect their family's historic home in the Shoalhaven. Picture: Sylvia Liber

In the end we did not send the Friday editions of the Bay Post and Moruya Examiner to press. It was the obvious, and pragmatic, decision given the newspapers could almost certainly not be delivered safely. Instead, we published a digital replica of the paper and shared it free to audiences at batemansbaypost.com.au

The appreciative response of readers - already glued to their smartphones for the Bay Post's comprehensive and compelling online coverage of the unfolding emergency - was of some consolation for Kerrie, Andrea and their colleagues on the coast and elsewhere who helped pull together another fine edition of the Bay's twin papers.

But I expect it will always gnaw at me, as I know it gnaws at Kerrie, that the January 3, 2020, edition never made it to - let alone off - the printing presses. Not a single copy.

You can read that paper, and see why it gnaws away at us, here.

As I said at the outset, not getting a newspaper to its readers probably seems like a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things right about now. But it's another measure of normal everyday life turned upside down in parts of Australia where the usual shining sapphire skies of summer have been consumed by a foul orange haze and, in some terrible instances, ash-filled darkness.

The devastating aftermath of the Mallacoota firestorm. Photo: Rachel Mounsey

The devastating aftermath of the Mallacoota firestorm. Photo: Rachel Mounsey

In some of the fire zones, ACM journalists and editors evacuated from their own homes have continued to gather and publish essential information and updates for their local communities. Some have volunteered to venture into danger zones to bear witness. Many have chimed in while on leave to help chronicle the courage and compassion on show in their towns and regions.

Last week I wrote about Rachel Mounsey, our reporter at the Eden Magnet on the NSW Far South Coast, who was on holiday at home across the border in nearby Mallacoota when fire ripped through her remote village on New Year's Eve. Rachel picked up her camera and documented the drama and the aftermath.

At the weekend, on South Australia's Kangaroo Island, journalist Stan Gorton of The Islander (who used to write for the Narooma News on the NSW South Coast) ventured out with local Country Fire Service teams to the Playford Highway where father-and-son Dick and Clayton Lang were overrun by flames as they drove home from volunteering as a farm firefighting unit.

Father-and-son farm firefighting duo Dick Lang and his son Clayton died on South Australia's Kangaroo Island when their vehicle was overrun by fire. Photo: Stan Gorton

Father-and-son farm firefighting duo Dick Lang and his son Clayton died on South Australia's Kangaroo Island when their vehicle was overrun by fire. Photo: Stan Gorton

As much as one-third of majestic Kangaroo Island, regarded as "Australia's Galapagos" for its pristine wilderness, has been scorched, including the luxury clifftop resort, Southern Ocean Lodge. Whether he's been posting urgent updates on social media or sharing the Lang family's tribute to their loved-ones at theislanderonline.com.au, Stan has been living and breathing the bushfire emergency with his local community.

There have been reasons to smile too. Like when Canberra Times photographer Karleen Minney and journalists Doug Dingwall and Elliot Williams were about to begin the long drive home from Ulladulla on Friday after three days reporting from South Coast firefronts. As they headed to their car to join the endless queue of retreating holidaymakers, they passed a local rolling down the Princes Highway with a message scrawled on cardboard. For Karleen, the moment "encapsulated the spirit" they'd seen on the coast.

A friendly message from an Ulladulla local as evacuating visitors queue on the Princess Highway on the long drive out of the fire zone. Photo: Karleen Minney

A friendly message from an Ulladulla local as evacuating visitors queue on the Princess Highway on the long drive out of the fire zone. Photo: Karleen Minney

Like appreciative reader Rachel Panckhurst (of Montpellier, France!), whose Letter to the Editor appears on page 7 of that January 3 edition of the Bay Post, I'm grateful for the incredible coverage produced by our editors, journalists and photographers across the country in recent weeks, often in the most challenging of circumstances.

When I posted a message to ACM staff on Friday thanking those colleagues for doing us proud with their deep commitment to keeping their local communities informed and connected, Bay Post editor Kerrie O'Connor piped up in a flash to hit the nail on the head: "Local news," she wrote. "There before the fire, during the fire and after the fire."

If you're reading this, thank you from all of us here at ACM for supporting local news - before, during and after the fires

See below for more bushfires-related reading from around the ACM network, including veteran Canberra commentator Jack Waterford's fascinating explanation for why Prime Minister Scott Morrison has seemed "in a bubble of his own, completely disconnected from reality, but also from the mood, the apprehension and the fear that the bushfires and the evacuations have caused".

James Joyce

Executive Editor, ACM

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