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.
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.
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.
Editors 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.
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.
He 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.
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 jimtuckermedia.com.