“It’s a struggle, but we hope to be here for 100 years. It’s our community link, not Tamworth’s, not Sydney’s, not anybody else’s. It’s ours.”
Sharon Thompson sits in her office with only one other person at the front desk. The office is quiet, but her phone is running hot. She is in the process of calling her readers to tell them there will be no paper this week. Or the next.
The Quirindi Advocate has weathered it all. Wars, drought, the Great Depression and the Global Financial Crisis, yet its doors have never needed to close – until now.
On the back of the media’s transition into the digital age and four years of relentless drought, 2020 has delivered a paralysing blow. COVID-19 has crippled the Advocate. First through the loss of advertising revenue and now the closure of the printing presses in nearby Tamworth.
“I won’t let this newspaper go down without a fight,” Ms Thompson says. And you know she means it.
The Quirindi Advocate is one of the many regional newspapers to fall victim to this pandemic. But unlike the others, it is fiercely independent and 100 per cent local. A lifeline to remote communities that keeps them connected, now severed at a time when communication is needed more than ever.
“We need to get it back”, says 80-year-old Lindsay Bridge, a sixth-generation local who’s been reading the Advocate every week since the 1950s. “Everyone in my family read that paper – my grandparents, mum, dad, everyone.”
Launched in 1885 as the Quirindi Gazette and Liverpool Plains Advocate, the newspaper was re-named the Quirindi Advocate in 1925. This July is its 95th birthday. Sharon Thompson remains hopeful that it will live to celebrate this milestone and stay in circulation until it reaches centenary status.
Nestled beneath the Who’d-A-Thought-It Hill, Quirindi has a population of 3444 and is considered the gateway to the North West and New England.
At 145 George Street – the main street – is a small brick building with a green and blue sign across the roof. “The Quirindi Advocate. Established 1885” is written in white letters. You wouldn’t know it, but you’re standing in the shadow of the town’s beating heart.
Quirindi is also known for its blooming sunflowers in summer and its yearly rodeo showdown. Anything else you need to know is in the Advocate. It exclusively covers Quirindi and its small neighbouring towns.
“We’re a local paper, and we do nothing but local,” Ms Thompson says.
Before COVID-19 struck, the weekly newspaper was published every Wednesday. It was distributed to local news agencies and petrol stations, mailed to the doors of subscribers, or bought over the counter at the Advocate office. Its readership is mostly elderly.
“They get their paper and they sit down with a coffee and read about how ‘Joe Bloggs has got new cows’, or you know, little things that are happening in the town.”
*(Photo: Sidney Boen)
The Advocate building is also home to Quirindi Printing and Publishing Pty Ltd (QPP Media). The company’s owner, Jocelyn Rose, was born and raised in Quirindi but now lives in Sydney. She bought the Advocate 10 years ago from her mother, who bought it 10 years earlier from another local family.
“It was very difficult,” she says of having to suspend operations. “It’s obviously the hardest time when you have to talk to your staff and let them know that we need to stop printing for a little while, because [they are] just as invested in the business as I am. But at the same time, they are very resilient, very invested in making sure that we come back bigger and better and that we keep providing these services to the local community.”
People like Emily Caldwell, 24, are banking on it. She lived all her life in Quirindi until moving to Tamworth a year ago and is desperately worried for those like her father, who depend on the local newspaper. “I know that for my dad this will be a really big blow,” she says.
“If the newspaper never comes back, and I really hope that won’t be the case… that would be a massive blow for the community in general because they wouldn’t have a local voice anymore.”
Former print journalist and Murrurundi local Janie Jordan agrees: “The Quirindi Advocate is part of the very rich fabric of our community. It’s an incredibly important role that local news plays to provide the essence of what’s going on in a community.
“It’s indicative of what a local newspaper is – to keep us informed and up to date on what is happening. Hyperlocal news is what regional newspapers, like the Quirindi Advocate [are about] … that’s their role.”
Sharon Thompson is passionate about the paper, having worked at the Advocate for 18 years on and off since 1999.
Chatting from behind her desk, her eyes widen with pride when talking about her work. Her current role is the sales and advertising manager. She works with just one other person. But back when she first stepped foot in the Advocate office, it wasn’t this empty.
“When I first started here, there were 13 [people] on staff – 14 including our boss,” she says. “I started at the front desk, and it was a lot busier before the world went digital.”
“People would come in with a photo of their wedding, or their first baby or a death notice because things weren’t sent by email. But it’s different now. Because of Facebook we don’t get any of that.”
Before she started at the Advocate, the building was a printing powerhouse for the community. Advocate staff would produce budget and tax books for the local farmers, business cards, and historical books on the town. This was its commercial work. You even had the newspaper in your hands in a matter of hours, straight off its own printing presses.
Now it’s no longer a bustling hub of workers churning buckets of black ink for the presses or cutting the thick stacks of paper with “Guillo” the guillotine. Now the printing floor sits in eerie stillness, frozen in time.
As you descend the stairs, old wrought iron machinery grows out of the concrete floor. The guillotine, Intertype (typesetting machine) and old photographs of the town peak through the clutter – items you would expect to see in a museum. Everywhere you look there is a film of dust, acting as a protective layer shielding the years of untouched history.
*Pre-decimal lottery tickets still line the printing floor wall (Photo: Kirsten Jelinek)
Ms Thompson walks between the machines, grabbing at the handles and gears. She places her hands on the Intertype (the typesetter) describing how it suspends a large slab of lead, which would go down into the machine to be melted, creating small metal letters which would go into the chase and then into a press to be printed. Metallic puddles of silver dot the floor, pools of lead the only remnant of the hours of work these machines and their operators completed.
On the left hand side of the printing floor is a rare empty space amidst the organised clutter. This vacant space is where three printing presses used to stand – her pride and joy. When they were taken away, she says it was the hardest thing she’s ever seen.
“That was like the end of an era when the printing presses left. Finished. Gone.”
Two circular divots on the concrete floor show where the “commercial boys” would churn the ink for the printing press.
“Those big old presses used to make gorgeous old noises and you’d sit upstairs and hear them going all the time. And now, the sound is nothing. The three printing presses, one of them was five and a half tonnes. They [the movers] got them out and put them on a big flat-bed truck, a semi that was parked out the front. And I sat in the gutter and cried and watched them drive off because that was it. Gone. Never to be seen again.”
Now she stops at every corner and piece of machinery on the floor, always with a story to tell. Wooden block letters sit in a pile, once placed in ink then stamped onto paper to be made into headline flyers. The flyers were later put in metal grates that sang the headlines from the front of local news agencies.
*A treasure trove of printing history. (Photos: Rhiannon Soliman-Marron, Travis Radford and Sidney Boen)
There are so many anecdotes, you feel like you can still see a bustling Advocate in its prime. Sharon Thompson has a motherly affection for the building and its history, and it’s hard not to feel the same. Standing at the back of the floor facing forward, she points back towards her office on the second floor: “there were two journalists, the editor of the newspaper and our boss, who owns the business.”
The Advocate maintains a fierce independence in a time of regional media mergers and shutdowns.
“We’ve always been a local paper and that’s how we’ve stayed. We’d travel to Currabubula, Wallabadah, Willow Tree and other places to do stories before the coronavirus, so we try to only be a local newspaper. And I think that it’s important for us to be independent so that we can keep that going.
“If we get taken out by Fairfax (now Australian Community Media) or somebody else, then you’re going to get all that national stuff [and] international stuff, which is not our local little paper. We have nothing to do with them [ACM] … I think it has its place and we have got ours.”
Jocelyn Rose says the plan is to get back to what where they were before COVID-19.
“But obviously, that’s all a part of the scoping we need to do,” she said. “What’s viable, what’s possible on what we can do. But that’s the goal, to be back up and running and servicing the community like we always have.”
The Advocate’s place in the digital age remains untapped. Its online presence, and only way of communicating with its readers since shutting its doors, is solely on Facebook. But with the drought impacting its business, and now the coronavirus shutdown, a digital transition might be unavoidable.
“We may soon be digital, that’s all up in the air, nobody knows what’s happening,” Ms Thompson said.
“Our readership is a lot older and a lot of our readership don’t have iPads or computers, so it’s really important that people get to see things that are not on the internet, or on Facebook, or Instagram, or on Twitter.”
Lindsay Bridge is among that older readership; “I’m not online, so it [moving the paper online] wouldn’t benefit me at all,” he says. “The paper is very, very important. If we don’t have it, we’ll lose our identity.”
Janie Jordan however, believes a move to digital is inevitable.
“How can a printed newspaper pivot unless it’s prepared to be digital and change the way it delivers news,” she asks. “There is an argument for the Quirindi Advocate to change its format to be digestible and have more long-form stories online and [on] its Facebook page.”
Jocelyn Rose is considering all options, but the paper’s return is her priority: “Even if we do an online subscription service website, I don’t think that will ever stop us printing.”
Sharon Thompson hands over older editions of the paper, one of them from its 50th birthday. It’s small, but bursting with stories on people’s families, businesses and everything in between.
“It’s the thrill that people get. For example, parents and grandparents like to see their kids in the paper… and then we get paper sales.”
Emily Caldwell knows how much those memories mean to her family.
“My dad always made a point of collecting it [the Advocate] at the newsagent’s, but most of my memories are of my aunt [keeping] an absolutely massive stack of them between the armchairs in her living room and anytime we were remotely mentioned in it, she would cut out the clipping and keep it in a little folder. So, she has a folder full of clippings filled with our moments in the paper.”
The temporary closure of the Quirindi Advocate signals the possibility of losing one of the last tangible examples of independent regional news in Australia.
The Advocate fills a space where digital reporting leaves a void. That is, being one with the community. This bond is essential to towns like Quirindi, where a sense of community is at its core.
Sharon Thompson understands this better than most, and although times may be changing, she isn’t feeling defeated.
“It’s a struggle, but we hope to be here for 100 years. It’s our community link, not Tamworth’s, not Sydney’s, not anybody else. It’s ours.”
— Kirsten Jelinek @_jelinek