MEMOIRS – Story in The Spinoff

MEDIA  April 9, 2022

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.

Jim tuckerJim Tucker’s review of The Seekers concert at the Bowl of Brooklands. (Photo: Supplied)

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.

Jim TuckerJim Tucker says he still loves journalism, despite the setbacks the industry faces. Image: Supplied

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.

Jim TuckerEditors 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.

Jim Tucker wrote the handbook used to train journalists around New Zealand.

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.

Jim TuckerHe 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.

Some of Jim Tucker’s many accomplishments hang on the wall of his New Plymouth home. (Photo: Supplied)

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

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.

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My memoirs, Part 1, now available

This is Part 1 of my memoirs. Go to the BOOKS page for more details.

This is an e-book covering four decades, beginning with New Zealand journalist Jim Tucker’s early life in Taranaki and traversing through 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.

For a payment of $NZ25, you can buy and download a copy of this book to read on your phone, tablet, iPad, laptop or PC.

Go to the BOOKS page of this website for details or simply email me at:

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Is PM Ardern our Winston Churchill?

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Image Robert Kitchin/Stuff

Popular British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill was ousted after steering his country to a victory in World War II – because his people were sick of war.

Will the same thing happen to NZ PM Jacinda Ardern because we’re sick of the pandemic? It might. There’s no guarantee Ardern’s high rating overseas as a leader who really cares for her country’s aged and vulnerable will be rewarded by their votes when Kiwis go to the polls next year.

But who knows? There are a lot of Covid politics to go before then.

Jim Tucker’s opinion, Stuff/Taranaki Daily News, March 19, 2022:

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Why school reunions are still a good idea

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Why reunions are a good idea still

New Plymouth Boys’ High School prefects in 1964. Jim Tucker is seated, second from left – only one with his eyes closed.

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Good journo beneath mild-mannered man

Mike Watson – the reporter behind that welcoming smile
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Big seas off New Plymouth driven by Cyclone Dovi

One of the aftermaths of Cyclone Dovi after it passed over Taranaki on Sunday, February 13, 2022, were huge seas that broke in spectacular fashion along New Plymouth’s coastline.

Here’s some photos I took of the 5m surf as it pounded the Port Taranaki main breakwater and the reef off Kawaroa Park. The sheltering seagulls shot was taken near East End Reserve looking beyond to Fitzroy Beach.

The end of the Port Taranaki main breakwater.
Remnants of Cyclone Dovi darken the sky over the port.
A tugboat waits offshore from the port to escape the wave surges.
Seagulls shelter at East End. Fitzroy Beach has a big surf in the background.
Big seas hit the reef off Kawaroa Park.
A couple basks in sunshine to watch the waves off Kawaroa.
Another whopper wave smacks into the breakwater. The wave on the inside surges towards the harbour.
An innocent-looking sky off the New Plymouth coast as a strong sou’ easter pounds the city on a Sunday afternoon.
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The short and long of getting a gong

In case you’re wondering, although probably you’re not, getting a gong is a process that in itself has as many twists and turns as the lifetime it recognises.
For a start, you have no idea who put you up for it, and there’s no way to find out without potentially embarrassing likely suspects.
There was another initial conundrum in my case: I thought it was a hoax.
An email that first arrived on November 1 to ask if I would accept appointment as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to journalism purported to be from Parliament’s Honours Unit, and it certainly looked official.
However, I was in the middle of dealing with nasty aftermath to a column about the anti-vaxxer brigade, including the creation of a false Jim Tucker Facebook page. Was this more mischief?
The email had the name and phone number of an official in the honours unit, so I rang. He was taken aback, but understood (I think) when I explained my uncertainty. No, this is for real, he said.
I hung up and started to feel excited. Lin whooped (gracefully, of course). We weren’t allowed to tell anyone, so that’s as far as it went – a mixture of surprise and delight, shared by two. Neighbours might have heard the sounds of animation, but no details.
I was surprised because I’ve never entertained the idea for a second that those in power would want to acknowledge, let alone reward, a constant, sharp critic of their goings on, someone who’s been harping on about them for more than a half century.
My upcoming memoirs are entitled “Flair and loathing on the front page”, the “loathing” a reference to the scepticism and outrage I’ve sometimes felt at the behaviour of some – but not all – politicians I’ve observed over the years since I began in journalism in 1965.
Our delight, though, was a much stronger reaction.
Delight not for myself but for journalism, and for an army of practitioners of this oft-reviled occupation who have shown spirit and courage and resourcefulness and, yes, absolute flair in the face of public and political diffidence.
Not many gongs are given to journos. In my time, I can recall the only knight being NZ Herald rugby writer Sir Terry McLean, with lesser medals going to photographer Peter Bush, Metro editor Warwick Roger, NZ Woman’s Weekly editor Jean Wishart, Pat Booth, Geoff Chapple, Dr Gavin Ellis, Lance Girling-Butcher and, a year ago, Jim Tully.
There may have been a few others I’ve forgotten. Some might have turned it down, given the pressure on journalists to at least appear to be independent of governments.
I had a similar view, if I’m honest – that being recognised by a regime of any hue carried the risk of being labelled something I have always tried to avoid.
Nothing gave me greater pleasure than having readers of my column variously accuse me of being left or right. That was a measure of success.
However, when it came to that unexpected moment when the offer arrived I didn’t hesitate for long. Yes, I was flattered. Few can claim to have no ego whatsoever.
But more crucial is the official recognition that the people willing to go to the back of the cave to check out the origin of the bad smell do indeed have a value to society, no matter how unwelcome is the news they bring back.
The process of being gonged is still revealing itself to us.
After saying yes, I was sent some forms to fill in, one of which included the citation written by whoever put me up for it. Was it accurate, I was asked.
Being someone who never reads instructions properly, I rewrote the biographical notes into a detailed essay of several thousand words, to which I attached the long version of my CV.
A polite reply came back: sorry, Mr T, but we want only 200 words.
Right. That done, a long silence followed. I started to wonder again. Lin said for goodness’ sake be patient.
Then, two letters came, one from Governor-General Cindy Kiro, the other from PM Jacinda Ardern.
On Xmas week I got calls from the media, in advance for the preparation of coverage for announcement day, 5am on December 31.
Many thanks for the kind notes.
The challenge now is to find something to wear to the pinning on. I haven’t worn a suit since 1987.

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Tricky road to a new driver’s licence

I just got my driver’s licence renewed, but it wasn’t easy.
That was my fault…entirely. Instead of doing what a lifetime of journalism taught me – proper research – I listened to what others said. Bloody nightmare, was the consensus.
The problem is we’re all different at that moment when society rightly demands to know whether advancing age has made us a menace on the roads.
There’s a lot of potential impediments to driving when you’ve got kilometres on the clock – fading eyesight, wobbly heart, diabetes, arthritis, strokes, dementia, et al.
I could have found all that out by consulting the NZ Transport Agency (Waka Kotahi) website, which has a plain and simple rundown. But no. I preferred to consult friends my age.
One in particular had a helluva time. A retired bus driver who’d driven safely all his life, he was declined by his GP for medical reasons, and failed both the road code and practical driving tests. He missed the driving one for going too slow on the open road.
After hearing all that (he got there in the end) I was more than a bit worried my driving days were about to end this coming February 15, after 60 years without an accident and only one recent speed camera fine for letting our overly lively little car hit 58 in a city street.
I started the process by going on the Automobile Association website and attempting the road code test. What a shock – I scored 21 from 35 (a pass is 33).
I bought the 20-question pack ($20) and after four goes got my score up to 30.
It’s an ingenious and useful refresher. Each new test repeats the ones you got wrong last time and after each attempt you start to absorb such obscure rules as how much your trailer can weigh with a load and what’s signified by a yellow cat’s eye.
There’s also a blue car whose options in a variety of traffic situations must be correctly chosen from four or five suggested answers. If you get it wrong, the correct answer comes up, too.
The next step was a trip to the GP for a medical. Our med centre has a specialist who puts you through basic tests like eyesight, diabetes and dementia (my score was 30/30, so that was reassuring).
That was followed by a thorough going-over from the doctor. She said I was fine to drive, filled out an elaborate form and signed me off.
Next stop was the Automobile Association office in central New Plymouth, where my first move was to pick up a frighteningly thick copy of the NZ Road Code and get in a deceptively short queue.
The cramped and busy office has two queues for licences and one for “other”, attended on the day I went by three extraordinarily patient and skilful women (with a backup to support them).
Each member of the public in the queues seemed to have a different version of getting a licence or some kind of transport issue that needed sorting out, and each took a long time.
The women were not only helping people fill out forms, but also checking their credentials and sitting them down to take headshot photos, each time with advice that “it’s okay to smile “ (in contrast to that familiar passport photo edict to play it sombre).
Even though I stood at the head of my queue for what seemed like half an hour, the system was complicated by people returning from having filled out their forms and thinking it was okay to jump to the front.
I was tempted to say something to one guy, but he stood at least seven feet tall and looked determined to brook no objections, especially from a pensioner.
In the end, the woman at “other” had no takers, so came around to ask me what I was after. Her response changed my life.
When she saw the medical certificate from the doctor, she told me to return the road code to the book stand: “You won’t be needing that. You won’t be doing any tests. We can issue your licence now.”
No road test? Nup. Your doctor says you’re fine to drive for the next five years. We’ll issue a temporary licence until the agency sends out your new one.
My blood pressure – which had been up a bit at the doctor’s – returned to normal. As did my life.

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Reunion NPBHS 1964 – contacts needed

Prefects at NPBHS in 1964.

Former New Plymouth Boys High School pupil from the early 1960s, Michael Rich, seeks contact details of former colleagues from his final year, 1964.

The photograph above shows prefects, but Michael is keen for anyone from that year to gather at some time in the middle of next year (Covid-depending, of course).

His email address in Sydney is:

Failing that, email me at:

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