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Expansionist plans! The Echo embarks on the Lismore foray: a town too far

Thirty-one years have passed since Nicholas Shand dreamed up this newspaper and gathered a band of fellow dreamers to help him make it real.

In those 31 years The Echo has grown, like a magic beanstalk, far taller than we ever imagined, and it is now a feature of Shire life.

The fifth instalment of our ongoing series on the history of our beloved rainbow rag continues this week, written by the newspaper’s longest-serving drudge, David Lovejoy.

The two Echo editors Nicholas Shand and Jennie Dell interviewing John Howard at Southern Cross University in the early days of the Lismore Echo.

The content of the Lismore Echo was to have a significant overlap with the Byron Shire edition in the form of contributors: Mungo MacCallum, Lilith’s astrology column, television guide, and so on. This would bring down the running costs of the new publication, as would sharing production facilities with its older sister.

We carefully selected the new crew: Jennie Dell as editor, Mac Nicholson (a former Lismore Shire councillor) for advertising sales and Graham Askey as circulation manager and general factotum. Jennie was a journalist who had been around in the area since at least the celebrated 1973 Aquarius Fesitival in Nimbin. She was also married to the chief psychiatrist of the area health service, whose official title was ‘Master of Lunacy’.

Fair means or foul

As we prepared for the launch of the new paper in June that year, we were aware that Australian Provincial Newspapers, proprietors of the daily Northern Star, would resist any intrusion on their turf – by fair means or foul. The foul I was already acquainted with; there had been an earlier attempt to start an independent weekly paper in Lismore, and my wife Wendy and I had been contracted to supply the typesetting. The paper only lasted a few issues, and according to its owner the Northern Star’s senior advertising bully had gone round the cinemas threatening that any ads placed in the rival publication would mean no editorial reviews or support for their films in The Star. The ‘fair’ means came just days before our first edition with the launch of APN’s weekly Lismore Happenings.

Despite saturation promotion from the Northern Star, its new offshoot never took root. In fact Lismore Happenings folded after a few months and we were left in clear possession of the weekly market. But we had our own problems. Sharing production facilities was not as simple as I had thought; at any rate the electronic system I had devised was too far ahead of its time. There were no fibre optics or broadband channels in those days, so our modem link had to slowly squeeze all the text from the Lismore office to Mullumbimby, where I composed the pages on a primitive layout program. It was all much more laborious than expected.

So more money had to be found to equip a production facility in our Lismore office, and as de facto technology manager I had to split myself between the two locations to keep them both running. Nor was it any easier for Nicholas, who similarly had to commute to help Jennie, whose budget did not run to additional journalists, or Jeff Dawson, who oversaw the Lismore sales effort.

Somehow or other the Lismore Echo struggled through its first year, losing about $70,000. The material we imported from the Byron Echo did not attract the generally more conservative Lismore readers – even the satirical television guide provoked merely bewildered complaints.

Echo franchise

It occurred to Nicholas and me that when we hit on the idea of franchising The Echo we had thought we had a winning formula for newspaper content. But we didn’t; what we had was an audience for that content, and it existed only in the Byron Shire.

Worse still, Lismore in those days was controlled by a few old families with a deep investment, both financial and emotional, in the Northern Star – which itself had been an independent local paper until its fairly recent takeover by APN. They did not like interlopers from Byron, and most of the major businesses refused to advertise with us.

There were staff changes too, which did not help. Advertising people came in enthusiastic and went out defeated. Even Jennie left and was replaced by Robin Osborne. Then, ominously, Nicholas totalled his car on the side of a bridge on the way to Lismore and had to spend several days in hospital having a metal plate inserted in his mangled arm.

Our decision to sell the paper was not taken lightly, but once taken it considerably lightened the load we had taken on ourselves. We refused to offer it to APN, and there were no other buyers available, so it was sold to the staff for a few thousand dollars, less than the value of the furniture and equipment.

The paper, renamed the Northern Rivers Echo by the new owners as a gesture of independence from us, had to endure a few further lean years before it became profitable, but under general manager Heather Williams it eventually thrived. In fact it thrived so well that Heather and her fellow shareholders sold out to APN in 2008. The paper – having reverted to its original Lismore Echo title – was then purchased by News Corp in 2016 as a minuscule element of its strategy to own everything. There is a sad irony in the sibling of the Byron Shire Echo now being controlled by the most deservedly reviled figure in newspaper publishing. However, it is almost certain that Rupert Murdoch is blissfully unaware of his good fortune.


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A note from the editorial team

Some of The Echo’s editorial team: journalists Paul Bibby and Aslan Shand, editor Hans Lovejoy, photographer Jeff Dawson and Mandy Nolan

The Echo has never underestimated the intelligence and passion of its readers. In a world of corporate banality and predictability, The Echo has worked hard for more than 30 years to help keep Byron and the north coast unique with quality local journalism and creative ideas. We think this area needs more voices, reasoned analysis and ideas than just those provided by News Corp, lifestyle mags, Facebook groups and corporate newsletters.

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