JOURNALISM wasn’t Toni Bell’s first career choice.
The then Toni Baker completed her Higher School Certificate at Wingham High School in 1975 and her career adviser suggested she go into teaching.
“Maths, English and general primary were my options,’’ Toni, now the editor of the Manning River Times and a 40-year veteran of the newspaper game, recalled this week.
“Maths was my third choice, but they were short of maths teachers so I was shuffled into that.’’
So she headed to Newcastle University – university education was free then courtesy of the Whitlam years. However maths and Toni didn’t add up.
“I lasted one semester,’’ she recalled. “I slept my way through calculus.’’
Toni headed back to her Dead Dog Gully home and pondered the future. She gained employment with Aggie McClutchy in her newly-opened shop in the newly-opened Centerpoint Arcade in Taree.
“Aggie sold wool and if she needed some she’d pull all the stock out of the shelves. It was my job to put it all back again,’’ Toni smiled.
However, fate has a way of intervening.
The Times had an opening for a cadet journalist.
“My future father-in-law Kevin Bell mentioned me to (then editor) Ken (McDonald),’’ Toni said.
Toni duly applied, gained an interview and gained the nod for what was a much-sought after position. She started on Monday, October 4, 1976. Toni quickly found out there is no such thing as a day off for a journo – October 4 was a public holiday.
“I'd always been a newspaper reader, but I admit I hadn’t really thought about going into journalism,’’ Toni said.
They were the pre-computer days for journalists. Instead there were typewriters and copy paper, line gauges, glue and page layouts done on paper.
“One of my first jobs was to look after the TV pages,’’ Toni said.
But first she had to learn how to type and enrolled in the Taree Technical College (now TAFE), although she mastered the art in a couple of weeks.
Toni was still a cadet when two of the biggest stories the Times covered in the last century occurred within weeks of one-another. Both attracted national media attention.
One was a bread-and-butter job for a country newspaper, but the second was right out of left field – the devastating flood of March 1978 followed by the Centerpoint Arcade bombing.
Both were a test of Toni’s developing skills as a reporter – the first chronicling the tales of heartbreak and heroism as the Manning was inundated by the worst flood in nearly 50 years.
The flood was still front page news when Taree awoke on Friday, March 31, 1978 to the news that a bomb had exploded in Centerpoint, causing minor damage. A second bomb that would have flattened the immediate area, failed to detonate.
Friday wasn't a great news day for the Times, given the next edition wasn’t until the following Tuesday.
But Toni along with editor Ken McDonald and fellow reporter Ian Crowther went straight to the crime scene. As had been the case with the flood, a decision was made to produce a special edition that day.
“That’s only happened twice in the paper’s history – for the (78) flood and then the bombing,’’ Toni explained.
The stories overlapped for her as well. Earlier she’d reported on a couple who had lost all their possessions – including, they said, valuable antiques, in a house fire. They were later charged with the bombing.
Toni’s story interested Taree detectives, who wanted to subpoena her notes. However, the flood had turned the Times news room into a minor waterway.
“Our desks were flooded and our notebooks were pulp,’’ Toni said.
Toni was also the paper’s court reporter, a job she found ‘exciting’.
“I was always terrified of getting something wrong,” she said.
“But it taught attention to detail, something that’s important to a journalist.’’
I'd always been a newspaper reader, but I admit I hadn’t really thought about going into journalism.Times editor Toni Bell
Toni was graded in 1979 and three years later was offered the position of journalist-in-charge of a new free that had been launched – the Times-Extra, which had replaced the Thursday edition.
In 1985 the company purchased the Wingham Chronicle masthead (that had earlier gone free and was known as The Chronicle).
Toni was appointed journalist-in-charge of the Chronicle-Extra (now the Manning Great Lakes Extra). It was a challenge she relished.
“The Extra was my baby – and everyone loved it,’’ she said.
Her first edition in charge had more than 80 pages.
“And I still needed more space,’’ she recalled.
Copy poured in from the Forster-Tuncurry and Manning areas and editions were bulked up by special features. The Extra rarely had less than 60 pages.
Toni, with the assistance of Hazel Martin, who worked part-time at Wingham (she was my 80-year-old cadet, Toni jokes), ran the operation with military-like precision.
She also had to lay out every edition while usually having to write news stories for the front few pages.
“I’d still be working at home at 10pm on Mondays,'’ Toni said.
Her time at the Extra came to an end with the birth of her children, daughter Sarah and son Griff.
Toni was appointed senior journalist with the Times and had regular stints as acting editor, spurning offers at taking the role full-time believing that with a young family, she didn’t have the time.
However, eventually the then general manager John Bulmertalked herinto taking the job in 2007.
A journalist’s role in newpaper production has changed massively in Toni’s 40 years – from typewriters and copy paper in 1976 to laptops, online forums and social media in 2016.
A reporter can be on site at a news event now supplying up-to-the-minute information.
In 1976 they’d have to find a public phone and relay the copy through to someone typing it at the other end.
“I must admit sometimes I’ve had trouble getting my head around the changing technology,’’ Toni said.
“But I think in many ways our job is easier now with the resources we have available to stay right on top of a story and to get it out there before and better than anyone else.’’
Print media faces challenges these days, but Toni remains supremely optimistic about the future of community papers such as the Times, the Wingham Chronicle, Great Lakes Advocate and Gloucester Advocate.
Toni is now the editor of them all and conducts news meetings with each site every morning via video before speaking to fellow editors at Port Macquarie and Kempsey, in a forum conducted by group managing editor Dave Coren.
“I think our role is now more important than ever, particularly with the council amalgamation,’’ she said. “We’re the voice of our community – that’s not going to change. People still drop into see us when they have a story and we’ll always listen.’’
Toni says nurturing young journalists is a highlight of her career, particularly in her time as an editor.
“I’ve been lucky, everyone here has loved their job and wants to learn. That makes it easier,’’ she said.
The Times is moving to a new office in Victoria Street this month, beginning a new chapter in the paper’s history that stretches back nearly 150 years.
However, Toni isn’t going anywhere, at least as far as her job is concerned. “I can’t afford to retire, so I hope to be here a while yet,’’ she laughed.