Kim Hill interviews New Zealand’s journalism godfather
Link to RadioNZ interview on April 16 2022: https://www.rnz.co.nz/audio/player?audio_id=2018838424
New Zealand’s godfather of journalism pens his biggest yarn
By Chris Schulz Senior writer
When finished, Jim Tucker’s memoirs will extend to three parts and 900 pages. Photo: Archi Banal
Jim Tucker wrote thousands of stories and trained hundreds of journalists. Now, he’s turning his attention to himself.
Last week, Jim Tucker received an email that set off his Spidey senses. At 75, the celebrated editor and journalist should be enjoying his retirement, but Tucker remains a committed industry figure, writing columns, spearheading training programmes and fighting for its future. Thanks to 25 years of teaching, many major media figures owe their careers to him. Some might call Tucker the godfather of print journalism in New Zealand.
The note got his attention. The New Plymouth District Council requested feedback on the future of Pukekura Park, the expansive garden lake that incorporates the Bowl of Brooklands, one of the country’s most picturesque concert venues. Tucker lives nearby and walks his brother’s dog there most days. “It’s the most treasured asset any city could have,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”
As he read further, Tucker — so famously wary that he thought his 2021 ONZM award might be fake news — started to believe something might be up. The note included a survey requesting feedback on the park’s 25-year plan. One option involves filling in parts of the moat surrounding the Bowl’s stage, the venue where Elton John, REM, Fleetwood Mac and many other musicians have performed, separated by water from the crowd.
Recently, Tucker noticed promoters had been covering that moat with temporary flooring to allow crowds to get closer to the stage. Tucker had a thought: was the council trying to shrink the moat to appease promoters and attract more concerts to the region? “I thought, ‘Shit! This is news!” says Tucker, a thought he’s had many, many times across his career.
He immediately headed down to the venue, measured out the moat, counted the numbers of geese living there, then drew up a plan of what he thought might be happening. Once he was done, he sent his findings to a reporter at The Daily News, his local paper where he appears as a regular columnist. That reporter, Tucker says, is working on the story. (When contacted, a council spokesperson called the plans “early thinking … draft ideas. It’s still very early days.”)
It’s the kind of boots-on-the-ground reporting that cemented Tucker’s reputation across decades of newspaper reporting and editing, first at the Taranaki Herald, then the Auckland Star, eventually setting up the Sunday Star, the widely-read weekend paper now known as the Sunday Star-Times. After a stint at Woman’s Weekly, Tucker took his experiences and began passing them on to students across various tutoring stints. An estimated 1500 journalists trained under his careful eye.
It’s the same eye that helped him score his first scoop. In 1965, after a full day at work as a cadet at the Taranaki Herald, an 18-year-old Tucker headed off to an evening meeting of the Taranaki Caving Club. There, he discovered a recent expedition had uncovered rare moa bones. He ran back to the newsroom, wrote up the story and after some tweaking, it made the next day’s front page. “Away it went around the world,” says Tucker. “That moment, I fell in love with my job.”
These days, journalism has become a job that’s increasingly hard to love. Thanks to the internet, far less advertising revenue is available to help fund news gathering, meaning fewer publications and journalists. A recent estimate puts the number working in New Zealand at under 1000. Training options are scarce. Those courses that remain “don’t teach you shorthand, they don’t teach you court [reporting],” laments Tucker. “It worries the shit out of me.”
In shredded newsrooms, journalists don’t have time to scour lengthy council documents or attend the Taranaki Caving Club’s annual meetings. As a result, stories get missed, crucial training for young reporters is skipped, and Tucker believes Aotearoa is worse off.
He points to his local council’s public relations department and says they’re free to push “really lightweight stories about what they want the ratepayers to know” instead of being held to account by experienced reporters. (A council rep denies this, saying it has one media advisor and six marketing communication advisors, two of whom studied journalism under Tucker.)
It saddens him. But, from his New Plymouth home that he shares with his wife Lin, Tucker can’t stop, and won’t stop, fighting the good fight. “The tenets have not changed,” he says. “Yes, we face online pressures and deadlines every half hour and live coverage on websites, but nothing has actually changed in terms of the basics.”
That’s how he spotted the potential stage changes at Bowl of Brooklands. “Journalists should be looking at every sentence of those reports and that’s the gold that you find.”
Tucker has decided to do something about it. After a career spent shaping the industry, writing thousands of stories, editing the country’s biggest publications and training many of the journalists still employed today, he’s turned his attention on himself, and he’s found his biggest yarn yet.
For the past four years, Tucker’s been writing his memoirs. Released earlier this week, part one of Flair and Loathing on the Front Page is a wild ride through New Zealand newsrooms across the 60s and 70s, when PR reps weren’t to be trusted, and publishing swear words like “stuffed” was a no-no. Reporters would argue, yell, drink at their desks, hammer out stories on noisy typewriters and smoke so much ceilings would be stained with nicotine.
Editors ruthlessly tore up copy they deemed unworthy of being published. Tucker recounts the first time that happened to him, he cried in the toilets. It didn’t happen again.
Tucker is writing about this now because no one else is doing it. “My colleagues are starting to die, and their knowledge … is going with them,” says Tucker. “[I realised] all this stuff that we went through was all going to go.” He admits his ego has something to do with it too. “I thought I’d had a fairly interesting career, and that would be entertaining.”
It is. Impeccably written, resourced and annotated, Tucker’s recount of his early reporting days is compelling. He always told his students to start with short, sharp sentences to hook readers in, and introduce violence, or a murder, as soon as possible. He demonstrates the method in his book, kicking off with his reporting on the shooting of Inglewood High School principal Alexander Stuart Black by a 15-year-old student in 1968. A little later, he’s so eager to cover his first murder scene he nearly trips over the body.
Tucker’s memoirs encounter many famous Aotearoa faces. At one point, he encourages the comedian Billy T James to write jokes for one of his papers, enjoying their weekly phone calls to transcribe his gags. He hires future reality TV boss Julie Christie as a sub at the Auckland Star when she picks up a phone and begins transcribing copy during her job interview. When Tucker becomes a media commentator on Paul Holmes’ top-rating Newstalk ZB show, he hates it so much he quits.
He also chides himself for mistakes made along the way, detailing spats and rifts between journalists and editors, some that seem to stand to this day. He also covers his errors in detail, like the time the Auckland Star published a grim photo of children’s gumboots lined up on a doorstep after their deaths. A photographer had arranged the gumboots for the shot, sparking outrage and a flurry of subscription cancellations.
His biggest regret involves the recruitment of a young Osa Kightley as a journalist. Tucker advised the young reporter to change his name to “Oscar”. The name’s stuck, and Osa, who didn’t last as a reporter but has become one of Aotearoa TV and film’s most familiar faces, hasn’t changed it back. Tucker calls it a “telling sign of the dire state of the average New Zealander’s grasp of diversity in those days”. He also calls it “a travesty”.
Why did he include so many of his failings when he could easily have edited them out? “Self-deprecation is one of the golden rules with [memoirs],” says Tucker. “You’ve got to take the piss out of yourself.”
Tucker’s influence can still be felt in newsrooms across the country. He can’t open a newspaper, read a magazine or watch the TV news without seeing the name of someone who’s passed through one of his training courses. “The editor in chief of the NZ Herald, Shayne Currie, is one of mine,” Tucker says. “Karyn Scherer, the editor of The Listener, is one of mine. The editor of The Press, up until recently, is one of mine.” He sounds proud. He should be.
The extent of his influence is on show at The Spinoff too. Tucker asks me to say hi to one of the website’s senior editors for him. She’s a former student, and he calls her “magnificent”. Then he turns his attention to me, asking if I’ll contribute to an updated journalism handbook he’s working on. “You bloody well will after this, boy,” he laughs, suggesting I owe him one after this interview.
Of course I will, because I do owe him one. In 2000, having been rejected from journalism training courses in Auckland and Wellington, I finally found someone who would accept me.
At New Plymouth’s Western Institute of Technology, Tucker honed me and 18 other rough and ready students with big dreams of becoming hard-hitting journalists. He taught us all the techniques and skills that had been drummed into him by his editors over the years.
It stuck. Twenty years later, I can still feel Tucker looking over my shoulder, and hear his voice, every time I write a story. What’s he saying? “This intro’s not good enough,” “This sentence needs to be cut,” and, “You mean ‘more than’, not ‘over’”. “Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings,” he’d tell us, deleting entire paragraphs we’d spent hours carefully arranging.
Using Tucker’s teachings to write about the man who taught them to me is a terrifying proposition. I can imagine him reading this story, peering over his glasses, hovering over his keyboard, tutting as his two typing fingers prepare to make many corrections.
Maybe he’s too busy for that. Now that Tucker’s working on his biggest story yet, he can’t stop. He’s got parts two and three of what will end up being a 900-page memoir to finish. He’s also writing another journalism industry guidebook, has just joined a sub-committee examining the future of journalism training, and is an assessor for applications for the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
His eyesight might be fading, meaning he has to triple-check every word, but he’s enjoying his writing more than ever. “We are seen as shit-stirrers, but I’ve never worried about that because I think the job’s so bloody interesting. We can do so much good,” he tells me. “I’m like a kid in the bloody sandpit again. I’m having a great old time.”
Flair and Loathing on the Front Page part one, $25, is available through jimtuckermedia.com.
This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our members. If you value what we do and believe in the importance of independent and freely accessible journalism – tautoko mai, donate today.
Jim Tucker’s Memoirs – Pt 1
This is an e-book covering four decades, beginning with New Zealand journalist Jim Tucker’s early life in Taranaki and traversing though to 1987, when he had become editor of the country’s second largest daily newspaper.
It’s a 283-page read, comprising 111,000 words and 375 images (photos – many of them from Rob Tucker – cartoons, drawings, maps) that relate Tucker’s progress from winning the high school English prize to starting a new newspaper, the Sunday Star (now Sunday Star-Times) in 1986. In 2022, he was invested as an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for services to journalism.
This is a detailed record of the last great era of newspapers, how it played out in NZ as the effects of TV and changing leisure-time interests greatly diminished people’s desire to read a paper every evening. The names of many outstanding journalists, photographers and graphic artists are recorded here, as are anecdotes and reports – some grim, others amusing – on what they did to ensure Kiwis got professionally gathered news every day.
This e-book has been specially designed for reading on a laptop, tablet, iPad or smart phone (iPhone or Android). Each page has a single wide column of text on the left, leaving space on the right for images, which are positioned directly beside the part of the narrative they illustrate. The book is published by Jim Tucker and his NZ boutique book company, JimTuckerMedia (JTM). It was edited by experienced journalist Sue O’Dowd.
The price is $NZ25.00
The book can be purchased now by emailing Jim Tucker on:
Kiwi Journalist is back.
In the absence of a current practical textbook for New Zealand journalists, I’ve revived my first effort, Kiwi Journalist, after feedback from former students that it contains timeless guidelines on how to gather and write news for newspapers and radio.
So, no apology for the outdated scene-setters in the book, just a recommendation that if you’re starting out in journalism you’ll find stuff in here that applies just as much to the modern newsroom as those of the 1990s.
If you’d like a digital copy, please email me at email@example.com. I’ll invoice you for $10 and send you a copy when you’ve paid.
Jim Tucker revisits favourite columns
A collection of some of my 237 columns published by Stuff/Taranaki Daily News between 2016 and 2021. They include followups about anything what eventuated from the columns, plus some new columns never before published.
Available for $40 at the five Hospice Taranaki shops in New Plymouth, Waitara, Stratford and Hawera. Postage of $7 is added for out-of-province purchases made on TradeMe or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writing Style Guide
Life of a Taranaki All Black
He was as famous as Jonah Lomu in his day. Neil Wolfe set the rugby world aflame when he first played for the ABs in 1960. If you want to know the full story, you’ll find it all in my newly published book – Wolfie: The life of an All Black.
Bella Italia – Luck o’ the Irish
A remarkable account of the merging two cultures – Italian and Irish – in the lush rural landscapes of South Taranaki in New Zealand. April, 2019.
Life on wheels
Rex and Jane Phillips’ story
A family story about one of Taranaki’s leading car companies, W R Phillips Ltd, as told through the eyes of Rex Phillips and his wife Jane.
Writing Style Guide
The first 25 years
A book to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the founding of Taranaki’s hospice in 1997. The book is here: Hospice Taranaki – First 25 years
Clearing the Water
The saving of Taranaki’s most precious asset
This is a 140,000-word account of the state of Taranaki’s waterways, published by Puke Ariki Museum.
It examines the history of water pollution and counter-measures in Taranaki, referring specifically to the author’s land-mark 1972 investigation published as an award-winning series in the Taranaki Herald newspaper.
The book analyses work by Taranaki Regional Council over the past several decades to improve water quality in Taranaki’s 500-plus streams and rivers.
The book is available free HERE> Clearing the Water
My PC Adventure
A Kiwi male’s brush with prostate cancer
Here’s the beginning of my story about being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and the treatment (so far successful) I underwent in 2009. It was published as a blog, which can be read HERE>
A guide to professional news journalism in NZ
I wrote just a few chapters for this textbook, which was published by the NZ Journalists Training Organisation in 1998. I edited the remaining contributions, which were provided by a wide range of New Zealand journalists in print, TV and radio. It went through three editions, and lasted as the main J-School textbook until 2007.
Here’s a sample from my chapter on writing news story introductions:
Metro magazine gossip columnist Felicity Ferret once sneered that the now-defunct Auckland Star would cover the “second coming of Christ” with an eight paragraph news story.
The Star later disappeared forever, so perhaps he/she’d put her finger on something, a lack of analysis or interpretation or some such journalistic deficiency that hastened the paper’s eventual demise.
Yet whenever I do a reality check with newspaper editors – the biggest employers of journalism graduates – all insist the key attribute they seek in young job-seekers is an ability to write tight, accurate, basic news stories; if not eight-par stories exactly, then certainly not long ones. Even some magazine editors first look to see if a job applicant’s CV has news reporting experience listed.
When I wrote essays at school, we put the conclusion last. But we had a captive audience, long-suffering teachers who were paid to read our prose, supposedly to the end.
News stories don’t have any such privilege. Their readers scan, eyes sampling, tasting, skipping on. There is no obligation to go past the first couple of paragraphs.
If interest is not arrested, it’s on to the next story, and the next. Which is why the news story is so different to the school essay.
Instead of leaving the main finding – the conclusion – until last, it must begin there, then prop up that first, compelling sentence with support material, usually in descending order of significance.
A practical guide to news journalism
Here’s how I began my first textbook on journalism, written over three weeks in 1991 when I was “on holiday”. The book is out of print now, but I have it all in digital form. Might resurrect on day (with a lot of updating, of course):
Any illusions about the glamorous life I was about to lead as a journalist receded quickly in my first week. Cadet duties instilled humility.
One chore was bringing back to the office a packed lunch for one of the printers – his wife worked at the local bookshop where I had to go to collect the New Zealand Heralds.
My reaction to such prosaic responsibilities must have been noticeable because the news editor, a kindly man called Clem Cave, said: “My boy, the way you do those newspaper files will be a measure of how good a journalist you’ll become.”
Cadet reporters don’t have to tread the traditional slave labour route these days, which is probably a shame. Our mundane duties -which included drawing the weather map, making tea for the subs (I put 15 teaspoons of tea into the pot on the first day and was never asked to do it again), filing papers, calling at the town’s hotels to see if anyone “important” was staying, cleaning the chief reporter’s car, doing the shipping column (listing shipping movements), helping in the proof reading department, getting the newly-printed papers from the press (a chore I’m certain put ink in my veins) – gave us a chance to slide gently into the news office routine.
Today’s cadets have mostly graduated from a journalism course, with an implied readiness to get straight into reporting. They start automatically on the second rung of the grading ladder (some on the fourth rung, if they have degrees) and these things put them under a pressure to perform that didn’t exist in the mid 60s. But I know which system is better.
How to Survive Without the Applause
A guide for newsroom middle managers
After 15 years of being a newsroom middle manager in newspapers and magazines, I wrote down the 20 rules for survival. Excellent illustrations by cartoonist Tom Scott.
The book (more a booklet) was printed by NZ News Limited, then the biggest newspaper chain in NZ, and circulated to managers throughout the group. The only feedback I got was from one colleague who said it told him more about me than how to manage.
However, I got a request for it from someone running a management seminar in 2006, so there must have been something useful there apart from Tom’s great cartoons.