Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: How journalism works


Greg Dixon reflects on the colourful characters he has encountered and the changes he has witnessed during his 20-year evolution from boy reporter to Canvas deputy editor.

'My 20 years in journalism have regularly supplied me with moments of great entertainment and at least one of complete terror.' - Greg Dixon. Photo / Thinkstock
'My 20 years in journalism have regularly supplied me with moments of great entertainment and at least one of complete terror.' - Greg Dixon. Photo / Thinkstock

Now here's a queer fact. I'm pretty sure my 20-year-old journalism career began in more or less the exact spot that I sit writing this sentence - except, that is, I was sitting at a desk one floor down.

An optimist might consider this and say, "well there you go, since you started as a journalist you've moved up in the world". But if there's one thing I've learned as a journalist, it is never to listen to optimists. They're idiots.

The completion of two decades in a career, much like turning 40 or retirement, is typically a time for sober reflection, for thoughtful contemplation about where one has come from and where one is going, for some sort of philosophical squaring of one's circle. It is, perhaps, a signal moment in which to access whether one has made a difference and how one might make a difference in the future. Conceivably it should be a time, too, to look at the state of one's trade, profession or - in the case of journalism - craft.

It is, in short, a perfect place to stop, to sniff the air, cast an eye about you and to clear one's throat before embarking on a painful bout of pontificating.

And there has certainly been quite a lot pontificating about the state of journalism in this country since I, wearing an appalling tie, first walked into the Herald's Auckland newsroom back in 1992. Surely then this is my moment to bang on and on and on about the parlous state of the modern media, etc.

Frankly, I couldn't think of anything more dreary. You have no idea what a bunch of bores (myself included) journalists can be about the business of journalism when assembled, particularly in the vicinity of a pub. So I will spare you (and myself) that and leave that to the chin-scratchers. What I thought I might do is reflect on a few things I have observed since embarking on what was once memorably described as a racket for people who never wanted to grow up.

I have absolutely no idea why I became a journalist. Many of my colleagues, bless them, became journalists to - no laughing please - change the world, though of course they wouldn't be stupid enough to put it quite as baldly as that, at least not in public. But there it is: they got into this business and remain in this business to right wrongs, to expose graft, criminality, lying politicians and to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Me, I'm pretty sure I got into this racket because I couldn't think of anything else I could (or wanted to) do at the time. So that much hasn't changed in 20 years - though pretty much everything else has.

My first day in journalism proper began with a hell of a shock. The Herald - the country's biggest newspaper then, as now - had an Auckland newsroom that looked like the place (pre-TradeMe) where old furniture went to die. Indeed, I suspected the desk I was assigned (opposite a rather scary Audrey Young, then a mid-grade reporter and now the paper's political editor) was older than most because I was a cadet reporter and, therefore, less than pond scum.

However, it wasn't the decrepitude of the furniture, nor even some of the senior staff, that shocked me, it was what was sitting on my desk. It was a typewriter, an electric typewriter it has to be said, but a typewriter, nonetheless.

The year, I would point out again, was 1992. I had first used a computer at school in 1983, had worked on them at university and had done my journalism training on them the same year as I started at the Herald. The big opposition papers all had computers. But as far as the then-Wilson and Horton-owned paper was concerned, such dangerously newfangled and, in all probability, transient gadgetry was, like flying cars and time machines, still somewhere in the unknowable future.

Of course it has been in this area, technology, that the job of the journalist has changed the most. Indeed, some days I sit at my desk wondering how the hell I used to do my job before the internet, mobile phones, email, Google and even digital voice recorders. Presumably I rang people on a landline (or, horrors, even left the building to talk to them), asked them what I needed to know and wrote this down on a pad before using my typewriter to turn it into a story (each sentence on separate piece of paper) that would then be completely rewritten by a creature rarely seen in modern newsrooms, the sub-editor.

For historical facts, there was the Herald's archive (a vast collection of cuttings from the paper) or the public library.

It all seems very quaint now, much like doing the shipping news, clearing the faxes and typing up the bowls results from Thames - all tasks required of a Herald cadet in 1992 - but then as the writer William Gibson has said, "it's harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future".

But if technology is now everywhere and is indispensable in journalism, it can't really fill the big hole left by the disappearance of the traditional fount of all wisdom, a creature that I'll call the the "grumpy old hack".

Ancient, smug and quite often lazy, the grumpy old hacks could always be relied upon as a sort of pre-internet Google. They were where the paper's institutional knowledge resided and they were invaluable.

Better yet, the grumpy old hacks were sometimes completely, madly eccentric and thus terrific entertainment. I remember being in a lift with one who, for no apparent reason, and as soon as the doors closed, began harrumphing loudly and repeatedly as we descended. Eventually, after a final and particularly loud harrumph, he kicked the lift door just before it opened on the ground floor. He then exited, as though nothing indecorous or odd had taken place.

Sadly for journalism - and for workplace amusements - the grumpy old hacks were mostly moved on years ago (too old, too expensive) or have retired and their replacements have tended to be more sober, less strange and, thus, less strangely entertaining.

So it seems unlikely that a young reporter will ever again have to do what I once had to do when a grumpy old hack who shall remain nameless arrived back from a long, liquid lunch completely ripped - which is to say drunk - and with a ripped trouser fly.

I can't remember who told me to do it, but my only real job that day was to drive the sozzled, grumpy old hack home so he might change his trousers, then drive him back to work again. Such was the once exciting world of the Fourth Estate.

A long-dead grumpy old hack, novelist and genius, by the name of G.K. Chesterton, famously said that journalism largely consisted of saying "Lord Jones is dead" to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive. Which is still true, though rather than Lord Jones' death, the media is now more interested in So-Called Celebrity Jones, who's been convicted of drink-driving after crashing his European car while texting a woman who was not his wife. Mind you, most of my stories haven't even been as excitingly dull as that.

Still for all their insignificance to readers other than my mother, my 20 years in journalism have regularly supplied me with moments of great entertainment and at least one of complete terror.

The latter was going to MP David Lange's house on an election night. I had, ahem, ever so slightly defamed the former Prime Minister in a story a couple of weeks before. He'd threatened to sue, but dropped it in the end. My punishment was to seek a quote from him on election night.

As I walked up the path of his Mangere manse, I spotted him sitting on his veranda with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Then he saw me: "Don't worry, Greg," he bellowed in that unmistakable baritone, "you only cost them [the Herald] $1000 this time."

You have to love the "this time".

Cock-ups and humiliations are, in my experience, as much a part of journalism as breaking news. But there have been dozens, probably scores, of interviews I have done in the last two decades that have more than made up for the minor disgraces.

Like most journalists, I've interviewed politicians, business people, academics and others of the so-called great and good. But while there are plenty of us who have interviewed a stony-faced Helen Clark, there can't be many other local journalists who can brag that a stoned Anna Nicole Smith once told them "I just can't believe how dumb I am" or have had an interviewee ask "would you like to talk to Darth Vader?" (the question was asked by, can you believe it?, R2D2, or a least the tiny actor who was inside the tin can that was R2D2). It might not have been Watergate - little journalism is, of course - but at least it was memorable.

I suppose, looking back, I should, though it goes against my nature, be grateful. But I can't help asking myself, as I register the shock of having spent 20 years in the business, if I had my time over again, would I still have become a journalist?

Or would I have been better growing up?

- NZ Herald

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Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. He has been deputy editor of Canvas since 2008 and has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

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