newspapers

9am: Arrive at the newspaper. Disturbed that someone has parked their horse in my space.
9.30am: The accounting department queries the number of horse-drawn Cobb & Co carriage vouchers I’ve used. Apparently carriage voucher fraud is rife in journalism.
9.45am: Would I like to do a first-person story about a “nude bicycle ride on George Street in protest against the Iraq War”? No.
10am: Sub-editor asks if I’ve ever thought about changing my name to Patterson. “You know, to spare future generations from spelling it wrong.” I take my horsewhip to him.
10.30am: Feel scandalised by the number of bare female ankles on display. I do my best to avert my eyes.
11am: Another editor wants me to rewrite The Man From Snowy River to The Man From Potts Point to help with real-estate advertising. Again, I employ my horsewhip for the second time that morning.
11.15am: Head of the website wants to change my copy to “there was movement at the station, for the word had passed around, that the colt from old Regret had got away … and you won’t BELIEVE what happened next”.
More “hits” and “clicks” that way, apparently.
Once again the horsewhip comes out.
11.30am: Am enraged to see my story about a rough diamond drover living in the bush has been changed to “a banker from Kirribilli looking for an investment property in the city”.
I point out that, in fact, wealthy landowners are the villains of my poems, but the editor scoffs.
“Not in this red-hot real estate market they aren’t, mate. We need all the AB readers we can get.”
Apparently shearers and drovers can’t afford properties in the city and don’t read the paper anyway.
In fact, I am told, these rough diamonds no longer represent the quintessential heart of Australia. I am asked to picture the “quintessential Australian” as an aspirational tradesman who votes conservative and has at least one investment property.
I suspect it will be difficult to write quality poetry about such a person.
11.45am: Readjust my hat. Am alarmed that so many of my male colleagues are hatless. Surely a sign of moral degeneracy?
Noon: Am I interested in writing a yarn entitled “Whatever happened to the Hare Krishnas?”
The answer is most emphatically no.
12.15pm: Editorial meeting. What, am I asked, are my recommendations for the new transport plan for Parramatta Road? More horse lanes, I respond, to unexpected laughter.
12.30pm: Lunch is served. My sandwich is served on what appears to be a roof tile. Am reliably informed that this is acceptable – nay, even encouraged – down Sydney way.
City folk.
12.45pm: HR phones to say that “horsewhipping is forbidden in the office”. Truly, we live in an officious, rule-heavy, interfering state governed by overzealous, matronly-like figures. (I wonder if there is some shorter, catchier way of saying that?)
1pm: Editor wants me to broadcast my latest story over “social media”. I tell him I have no idea what social media is. I fail to understand his subsequent explanation.
1.15pm-2pm: Have a crack at this social media palaver. Stand on a hilltop painstakingly transmitting my harrowing accounts of the Boer War using semaphore flags. My arms are exhausted after trying to transmit thousands of words via this flag-based method.
3.15pm: Secretary tells me the switchboards are lighting up. “At least one person saw your semaphore,” she says.
3.20pm: Enjoy a refreshing pinch of snuff.
3.30pm: No, I am not interesting in reviewing a band called “The Coldplay” or whatever barber-shop quartet is currently in vogue on the gramophone charts.
3.45pm: Case study message received on the electronic mail system: “Ever been held for ransom by Filipino insurgents? Eaten a guinea pig in South America? Paid $20 for an ice-cream in Rome? The travel editor is on the hunt for disaster stories that aren’t too grotesque to print for Saturday’s cover story, entitled ‘Terror Australis’. Anonymity guaranteed.”
4pm: Sub-editor asks if he can change the words of Waltzing Matilda to “once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong … and you wouldn’t BELIEVE what happened next”.
I deliver the sort of right cross worthy of an outback bare-knuckle boxer.
4.30pm: Reach for my pipe, only for a boon companion to point to the “no smoking” sign. Next I will be forbidden to drink gin at work. Once again I am reminded that we truly live in an officious, interfering state governed by overzealous female domestics (note to self: find shorter way of saying that).
4.45pm: As an expert on the bush, would I be interested in contributing to a weekend supplement entitled “regional Australia real estate liftout: why it’s never been a better time to buy”?
I shake my head so much my hat is in danger of being dislodged.
4.50pm: Down a schooner of brown ale in one go to the cheers of the newsdesk.
5pm: Someone tells me that vaudeville is dead. Dead! I have endured too many outrages this day. I retire to the local pub to play two-up and share stories of the bush until the publican throws me out.

My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.

“Turn on the TV,” said Francine as she called me at 6am.
“Why?”
“Just do it.” I turned it on. To see planes flying into the Twin Towers. To see buildings on fire. People jumping from windows. The awful ash and smoke covering New York. The horrified faces of people running from the scene. Then the dreadful spectacle of one of the buildings collapsing, dooming thousands inside and hundreds of brave emergency workers who had rushed in to save them. Followed later by another collapse.
I felt stunned to my core. This was something. This was different. Pure horror. An interruption of normality. Reality sent off its axis. This wasn’t supposed to happen in the West. This wasn’t supposed to happen to the most powerful country on earth. And it was happening before our eyes. This was a defining moment of my generation, a point of before and after: “Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?” Watching it on TV, mouth agape, like everyone else.
I knew the world would never be the same again. I could only imagine how the Americans would react. There would be war. There had to be. Someone was going to get bombed. You didn’t take such a savage swing at a superpower and expect to get away with it. Who did this? Who had the answers?
I showered and got ready for work in a daze. As I caught a taxi in all the radio stations were talking about it. Even the programs devoted to youthful nonsense suspended their satire to wonder about what had happened. Its stunning import, I imagined, was like the day JFK got shot. The vision of planes in the sky filled me with horror. I felt a strange sense of doom going to work in a tower that day. I felt vulnerable.
Some of my colleagues were similarly stunned. It was all anyone could talk about. Conversations became one-word expressions of horror. “Shit.” ‘Fuck.” It was hard to put the events into complete sentences. All we could do would express our vast shock.
Yet amid the tragedy the Clarion came together in the most noble of ways. Staff came in early or skipped holidays to come into the office. They knew that an event of the most devastating import had occurred. The public would rely on them to explain the event. Document it. Record it for posterity. Help make sense of the horror. It was their task to collect the facts, the information, and then present it as soon as possible to their stunned readers. And the world.
And so they did.
Sombrely, with dedication and respect, the Clarion’s news desks worked tirelessly to fill the paper with stories about the event, to do their duty as newspeople. This was serious news which demanded serious, sustained attention. The various arms of the paper worked together like a beautiful machine, people dedicated to one cause. Information and imagery came in from around the world, to be dissected, examined and edited. Then our reporters would put their own interpretation on the facts for local consumption.
The horrible imagery meant that there was a surfeit of stunning, awful shots for page 1 and elsewhere. Yet such images would have to be chosen with respect. They would have to portray the grim facts – to tell the story – without falling into the trap of being sensationalist. To inform and impart without seeking to inflame. And so the wise elders of the Clarion selected the pictures with great care.
Information continued to filter in throughout the day, as the world sought to digest and react to the news. At some point it was revealed that Australians could be among the victims. The crime scene was rubble, so details were sketchy. No one was counting bodies yet. But few doubted that the death toll would be among the thousands.
Leaders came forward to reassure the people. That the government would care and protect them. That those who had committed these crimes would be punished. Partisan politics was temporarily cast aside. The leaders’ thoughts and prayers were recorded in the paper as Clarion staff worked late into the night to create editions of outstanding quality. They rose to the challenge.
Next day’s paper was one of the most outstanding the Clarion ever produced. The tone was near-perfect. The balance of text and imagery was superb. It was informative without being sensationalist. It was as if everyone instinctively knew what they had to do and did it without hesitation.
Amid the shock, I felt immensely proud to be part of the Clarion family that day.

From my unpublished novel, Zombies Ate My Newspaper.

7am. Wake up. Partner asks, “What myriad of problems will you be tackling today?” Get out the Style Guide (Home Edition) from under the pillow and educate them on the correct use of “myriad”.

8am. The bus stop notice says “stationery” instead of “stationary”. A rookie mistake. Correct the spelling with the indelible ink pen all sub-editors carry. Passenger accuses me of vandalism, until I point out that I am, in fact, a sub-editor, unofficially licensed to correct spelling mistakes everywhere. Bus queue looks on at me in awe, as if I am some kind of superhero.

9am. First coffee of the day. Note with distaste that “cappuccino” is spelt “cappucino”. Staff member says he’d love to change the spelling but he doesn’t have permission to use the menu chalk.

9.01am. Demand to see the manager. Manager is surprised to learn that “cappucino” is wrong. “I’ll fix it for the second edition,” he jokes, in an alarmingly apt journalistic reference.

9.30am. Receive email titled “its your abc”. Offended on so many levels.

10am. Fistfight breaks out over the correct use of “its” or “it’s”. A common occurrence in the newsroom.

10.30am. Discuss the internet. Agree that “it’s a fad”.

11am. Consider with irritation the brand names “McDonald’s” and “Hungry Jack’s”. Yes, they are technically correct … but what are they actually referring to? “McDonald’s Burgers”? “Hungry Jack’s Five Hungry Children”? Send an angry email to McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s PR asking them to fix the problem. Ask for more background: “Who exactly IS Hungry Jack? Is he based on a real person?”

11.30am. Case study email goes out: “Does anyone know any senior citizens selling their pain medication to bikie gangs to supplement their pension?” Sadly, I am not among this august list.

Noon. Send out note to writer: “It’s BARBRA Streisand, not Barbara Streisand.” Feel strangely self-righteous and satisfied.

12.15pm. Tick off junior writer who spelt “Colombia” “Columbia”. My tsk can be heard across the newsroom.

12.30pm. Correct the copy of the political reporter. “It should be, ‘The Prime Minister disciplined his staff with his nunchaku,’ not ‘nunchuks’,” I tell the amazed reporter.

12.45pm. Point out that “Sydney’s thriving Spanish Quarter” consists of precisely four buildings. “Four corners … that’s technically a Quarter,” says the reporter. I am left speechless.

1pm. Note that the daily crossword has, disturbingly, taken on the shape of a swastika. Tell the puzzle editor, who says that the crossword shapes are randomly generated by computer. He promises to fix it. A smug glow fills my being.

1.30pm. McDonald’s PR gets back to me. Changes to the McDonald’s logo will have to wait.

2pm. Lunch. Note with alarm that “cappucino” has not been corrected on the menu board. Fix it with indelible ink. “You can’t do that,” squeaks the junior behind the counter. “Of course I can,” I reply. “I’m a sub-editor.” The lunchtime crowd applauds. Maybe I really am some kind of superhero.

2.30pm. Point out to reporter that she has filed 400 words too much for her story. “Just cut it from the bottom,” she says snarkily. “Is that what you always do?” “Not always,” I say, deleting furiously. “Sometimes we cut them mid-sentence.”

3pm. Blood pressure spikes as junior reporter writes Dalai Lama “Daily Lama”. My thrown copy of the Style Guide hits him square between the shoulders.

3.30pm. Check tomorrow’s page three correction: “It was reported on page three yesterday that Gladys Jones was charged with manslaughter after allegedly beating her husband to death with a George Foreman Griller. She is in fact the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”

3.45pm. Remove the honorific “Mr” from the name of a now-convicted felon. “Justice is served!” I shout to no one in particular.

4pm. Reporter who should know better asks, “Does the Oxford comma have something to do with Oxford Street?” My sigh can be heard two suburbs away.

4.15pm. Strenuously object to headline entitled, “Mummy, do I have scurvy?”

5pm. High-five the sub-editor next to me in the time-honoured tradition.

5.15pm. Discuss decline of spelling, grammar and punctuation in society … as well as why no one wears hats any more.

5.30pm. Turn off computer, knowing I have made the world a better place today.

Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99). He is also the author of the unpublished book The Last Newspaper on Earth, which he is rewriting as a zombie thriller entitled Zombies Ate My Newspaper.