The facts will always get through - fast

By Poppy Wortman

Urgency drives every news report, whether it be from Napier's 1931 quake or Wellington's shakes in 2013.

Photo / NZ Herald
Photo / NZ Herald

"An indescribable scene is occurring on the main road leading out of Napier," the Herald reported on February 5, 1931.

"Refugees are pouring out of the stricken town in thousands ... Great fissures, which opened up in the road between Napier and Te Aute, have to be negotiated with great care to ease the pain of the wounded ... Early this morning nearly 200 bodies had been buried or awaited burial ... On the grass in front of the hospital, carpenters are making coffins."

That special report was scribbled down in pencil in reporters' notebooks as they met the wounded and grieving.

It was written up wherever they could find an opportunity - in this picture, sitting by the side of the road.

And it was filed, not by email or satellite phone or Twitter, but by wireless from a naval ship anchored in Hawke Bay, the HMS Veronica.

Striking at 10.47am on February 3, the Napier earthquake devastated the region and killed 256 people.

The Herald sent nine reporters and five photographers to cover the disaster but, on their arrival, they found that telegraph, telephone, road, rail and air communications had been cut.

Former Weekend Herald editor and historian David Hastings says the situation was saved by the Navy's offer of the warship's radio transmitters and by the arrival of the editor, who had been holidaying in Rotorua, by airplane.

Photo negatives and copy were rushed to the nearby town of Hastings, flown back to Rotorua, then driven to Auckland by the editor's daughter, arriving late at night with enough material to fill two pages of the paper.

Ronald Duncan Horton, on the far left in this photo, later become the Herald's chairman and managing director. His son, newspaper publisher Michael Horton, says the paper's coverage of the quake, sending staff by road and sea, gave a significant boost to the paper's journalistic reputation.

Nowadays, says Hastings, reporters still scribble stories furiously in the streets, although now it is on laptops or hand-held devices.

"They were sending pieces of paper and negatives of film back to Auckland to be packaged on paper, whereas now they would have rolling deadlines and would be constantly updating electronically on the website."

The crowds that used to surround the newspaper office to hear news still exist, Hastings adds.

"It's just that now they're all online, they don't appear on the street. The number of people going to news websites skyrockets through the roof when a big story like that breaks. Everybody wants to know about it.

"In a time of crisis, everybody scrambles away. But newspapers flood the zone.

"They've always flooded the zone because that's what people are interested in."

* David Hastings is author of Extra! Extra!: How the People Made the News , a history of newspapers in New Zealand.

- Herald on Sunday

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