Today marks five years exactly since the Oamaru Mail was reborn as a weekly community newspaper. To mark that milestone, we asked founding editor Hayden Meikle – now based in Dunedin as an editorial executive at our sister paper, the Otago Daily Times – to reflect on how far the paper has come.
How many people does it take to put out a bumper weekly newspaper?
You can get by with one and a-half. But it will nearly kill you.
My immediate memory when editor Rebecca Ryan asked me to write a piece looking back on five years of the revamped Oamaru Mail was of the utterly manic week of the printing of the first issue.
If you recall, the Mail had been a daily for some 140 years when Allied Press bought it and, recognising there was simply no economic future for it without drastic change, announced it was to be reborn as a free community weekly.
That was a tough time. There were good, hard-working people on the daily staff whose paper had occasionally been treated, by bean-counters in head offices, like something of an unloved child. There were some loyal subscribers aghast at the idea of a “giveaway” containing barely anything decent to read, and sports fans convinced they’d never see anything on the Citizens Shield or Borton Cup again. There were some concerned the next step, after going to weekly publishing, was closure.
I had a couple of things in my favour. I was a local, a third-generation North Otago man, and had worn my passion for the province, the town of Oamaru and my old school (Floreat Waitakia) on my sleeve for a long time.
Also, a stint as ODT sports editor had helped me understand the absolute importance of putting local stories first.
That week of our debut issue was simply crazy. The company had decided to keep the daily Mail going right up until the day before the first weekly paper was published. So, while editor Chris Tobin and his gang of young scribes were busy filling the daily, me and my “half”, Sally Brooker, pulling double duty with the new Mail and rural paper Central Rural Life, faced the terrifying task of filling an entire paper.
I had some ideas that were sound – “Welcome to Paradise”, a series profiling people who were relatively new to the district, became our cover, and we began a long run of quick Q&As on page 2, and I made it a priority (surprise) to have more sports pages than any other paper in the Allied Press community stable – but there were still some blank pages staring at a nervous editor about 25 hours before the presses rolled.
Thankfully, my colleague Sally B is famously adept at making silk journalistic purses out of sows’ ears, and she rustled up a bunch of goings-on and photos to get us over the line.
Holding that first edition in my hands was a surprisingly emotional moment. But the Mail cycle means there is no time to puff the chest out – you immediately start working on the next one.
The weeks that followed were about finding our feet, discovering what worked in a weekly paper – so different, in structure and tone, from a daily – and learning more about what our readers wanted.
It became very simple, really.
Local, local, local – if it was happening in the Waitaki district, or involved someone who once lived in the Waitaki district, it was relevant, and there was no story too small.
Also, important, never forget to run the puzzle page – because you would never hear the end of it.
My life has had it ups and downs but I can honestly say my journalism career has been a ridiculous blessing.
I spent 15 years as a sports reporter and editor. That is who I am, at heart, and that chunk of my career provided me with some wonderful opportunities.
But being the editor of a community newspaper, in the greatest little town in New Zealand, is the most professionally satisfying experience I have had.
To pour my heart and soul into “my” paper every week, to feel totally invested in the community, to tell some cool stories about Waitaki people, to celebrate success, and to have fun doing it? Sign me up, please.
I judged drama nights and sports awards, was the guest speaker at dozens of community organisations, managed a rugby team, still got to cover plenty of sport, and worked every day with people who cared about their jobs.
As the Mail started to boom, we spread our wings, cooking up all sorts of ideas for series and projects.
I am particularly proud of our “Women of Waitaki” edition – it was was cited by the judges when we finished runner-up at the Community Journalism Awards, a real thrill – and the “24 Hours in the Waitaki” special, where we got the staff, the public, and my favourite photographer Carol Edwards to chronicle a day in the life of the district.
I’m biased, obviously, but I believe the Oamaru Mail is a truly great community paper.
The journalism industry has been worse than decimated in recent years – witness the number of community papers, including our old rival the Waitaki Herald, that have been closed – but readers in paradise get a wonderful weekly package of news, views, sport, quirkiness, inspiration and information, thanks to a dedicated staff and loyal advertisers.
I kept editing the Mail from Dunedin for a couple of months after leaving, but was delighted to hand off to Rebecca Ryan when she accepted the job in January last year.
Rebecca – and I hope she doesn’t edit this bit out – is the quintessential small-town newspaper editor. She is passionate, smart and talented, and her love for the Waitaki district is stamped on every issue.
It’s been a tough year. But the weekly Oamaru Mail, five years and counting, continues to thrive.