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The newspaper wars and A Small Wooden Tray Called Albert

Michael McDonald gets back to his roots with good friend Nina Bishop and happily takes the reins from A Small Wooden Tray Called Albert. Photo Tree Faerie.

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.

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

In the mid-nineties the local newspaper scene was heating up almost as much as the always feverish local politics.

At the beginning of 1995 the Byron News was sold to APN. The original owners, the Wright family of Byron Bay, had disposed of it two years earlier to some Sydney businessmen who did not appear to take much interest in their acquisition. At any rate they appointed a manager whose only qualification seemed to be a hatred for The Echo and a penchant for copying it.

Only Aboriginals and hippies

The combination of proprietorial apathy and managerial incompetence diminished the paper, and readers were relieved when it was sold to APN, a group which although not local had a stable of successful regional publications. However, the sale left APN with two weeklies in the same place, so after a little while The Advocate (originally Jim Brokenshire’s Mullumbimby paper) ceased circulating in Byron Shire and became solely a Ballina publication.

If we had hoped for a more professional approach from an APN title we were soon undeceived. The Byron News (which in a few months became a tabloid after twenty-four years of A4 existence) began a campaign of price-cutting and denigration, a campaign aided by Presspak, APN’s PR company in Sydney. One of Presspak’s ploys was to tell advertisers that only Aboriginals and hippies read The Echo.

Competitors misrepresenting The Echo’s demographics has a long history, although the story usually told to advertisers nowadays by startup publications is that readers are only interested in lifestyle content and are turned off by discussion of local issues.

Another misrepresentation concerns circulation. The Echo prints thousands more copies than any other paper, and has done so since it began circulating across the whole Shire (and we have the printer’s invoices to prove it).

Smaller publications conceal their tiny print-runs while claiming that it is ‘cheaper’ to advertise with them. In fact the unit cost of advertisements printed in The Echo is much lower because of their high number. It would of course be cheaper to pin a single ad on a tree, and that is about how efficient ads in low-circulation titles are.

There were other controversial topics beside Council politics and newspaper wars. A local magistrate, Pat Caldwell, was in the habit of imposing jail terms for minor drug transgressions, sentences which were invariably commuted on appeal.

On the other hand, he gave mild penalties for domestic violence, if he convicted at all. One such perpetrator was fined less than someone found guilty of swimming naked in the ocean. He also made gratuitous and prejudiced remarks from the bench, and once angrily ejected a woman quietly breastfeeding her baby at the back of the court.

For some reason the naked human form pressed Mr Caldwell’s buttons hard, as one man discovered when convicted for public indecency for the crime of standing undressed at his own backdoor. It turned out that the neighbour who complained to the police could observe his nudity – if said neighbour stood on a chair placed close to his kitchen window.

The Echo was amused by the naked bigotry of the bench, and reported it at length, but Caldwell’s behaviour was too much even for the Sydney Telegraph, a paper not known for criticising hard-line law and order magistrates, and it ran a front-page exposé. Eventually public ridicule and pressure from the legal profession forced the man to retire, and restored a semblance of fair play to our local courts.

ICAC

The law also provided some interesting stories when the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) began an investigation of Byron Shire Council. ICAC held its hearings in Ballina in mid-1995 and they were a good source of weekly headlines.

The initial brief to examine some odd-looking rezonings put general manager Max Eastcott and some of the conservative councillors uncomfortably in the witness chair, but the commission soon turned its attention to the machinations of a particular developer.

In the end ICAC made severe criticisms of the developer, a former member of staff and one of the conservative councillors, but stopped short of prosecutions. The result was a disappointment for those who believed there was something shonky at the heart of Byron Council. Some took it as a vindication, but others called it a lucky escape.

Meanwhile we were also having problems of an altogether lighter nature. By 1994 Nicholas was becoming bored with the daily grind. He still wrote editorials and perceptive Council pieces, but Michael McDonald had taken over the day-to-day editing of the paper. This left me, as the production manager, in a quandary: who was the official editor to be named in our credits panel? I did not want to deprive Nicholas of the title, but it would be unfair not to recognise McDuck’s efforts.

The solution, until Michael’s official appointment in 1995 (and Nicholas’s elevation to ‘managing editor’), was to have a different editor each week – which is how Jocasta Toadporter, Monsieur Eiffel’s Rejected Raffiawork Prototype and A Small Wooden Tray Called Albert, among others, came to edit the Byron Shire Echo.


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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.

The Echo is one hundred per cent locally owned and one hundred per cent independent. As you have probably gathered from what is happening in the media industry, it is not cheap to produce a weekly newspaper and a daily online news service of any quality.

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Any support you can provide to The Echo will make an enormous difference. You can make a one-off contribution or a monthly one. With your help, we can continue to support a better informed local community and a healthier democracy for another 30 years.”

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