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Life Before Weldon: Newsreader Carolyn Robinson’s elegy for the glory years of 3 News

In January, TV3 newsreader Carolyn Robinson read her last bulletin, her job yet another casualty of Mediaworks CEO Mark Weldon’s cuts. She looks back at the “wondrous” newsroom he gutted.

I wore white that last time. When it was done I pushed back from the desk. I took off my jacket – my favourite one – and hung it on the chair. I walked behind the cameras and stamped a small kiss on the cheeks of camera operators Penny and Matt. Confused, they may have blushed a little; I’d never kissed them at the end of a show before. Another regret. I went towards the studio door, stopping briefly to do the same to Ingrid. “No”, she said softly, realising. I moved into the loading bay and grabbed my bag, stowed before the show under a table. I took off my heels and put on the flats I had ready. It took seconds. Fluid. I didn’t allow myself to pause. And 18 years after I arrived, I slipped out the door.

In the late ’90s I turned up at Flower Street with the NZ Herald under my arm. The ink was still smudgy. I had little bits of Helvetica on my fingertips, Milo on my breath and two sharpened pencils in my satchel. An absolute beginner, I couldn’t imagine needing anything else, ever.

I’d been schooled up. I could do 80 words-per-minute of shorthand! I’d been working at TVNZ while studying. Through-the-night shifts calling cop shops up and down the country every few hours. You’d get to the end of the list, and it was time to start over again. Occasionally I’d help out at weekends, penning over-written VOs for Angela D’Audney and Tom Bradley to read. My biggest accomplishment had been shot-listing Princess Diana’s entire funeral without bawling.

But now I had a real job. I was going to write and cut and front Newsbreaks, little mini bulletins that TV3 was going to have every hour, every day, FOREVER!!

I was a bona fide journalist. I hatched a plan to start drinking my coffee black.

Carolyn Robinson TV3

Carolyn Robinson presents 3 News with Simon Shepherd, November 2015

3 National News was a place filled with amazing people, amazing writers everywhere – mentors aplenty. All of them practicing their scripts out loud with no regard for looking bonkers. People talked about “the craft”, about “tinkering”, about “the yarn”. I was in the company of master artisans.

The Foreign News Editor – a man with the most beautiful legato voice – showed me how to spool through raw footage from far-flung places. I remember viewing pictures from the aftermath of a suicide bomb and seeing a severed head. I bravely kept mine.

Another journo would slam his hand onto the desk when viewing something desperately sad or unjust. He was outraged! He ignited my outrage. He also taught me effective workplace swear words. We would take piles of massive D2 tapes into a dark little cupboard-like booth in the labyrinth and watch the body of work from our affiliate stations across the world. He’d take furious notes on spiral-bound notebooks – he could only fit around seven words a page. It seemed a just and beautiful end for those trees.

Reporters wrote poetry and prose, words with rhythm and cadence. The percussion of their writing cast a spell when said aloud. I wanted to wave my hands in the air, and wave them like I really cared. It was like working somewhere with permanent background music. I was moved.

One of the producers wrote commonly mispronounced words on the wall. He showed me the difference between knowing your shit, and knowing you’re shit. I was so excited I tried to introduce The Word Of The Week – sadly, it didn’t take.

I remember watching a group of journos chatting one Friday after the show. I was still new, but I edged my way in, nodding solemnly in the way I’d practised. I ventured the opinion that the talent they were talking about was indeed “very unique”. There was silence. Crickets, even. Then, “Tautology”, said one. I felt a rush of shame, followed by a rush of love. What was this wondrous place?

John Campbell was already there and already marvellous. Long-form journalism was as fit as a butcher’s dog. And Y2K was a thing. Then Ben and Olivia vanished. And 9/11 happened. There was Kosovo. Saddam. Harry Potter. Milosevic. SARS. Willie Apiata.

And though much of it was traumatic, much of it very bad, it was a very good time to be a journalist because everyone loved news. You’d fight for your story – and you knew people would watch. They would gather in their living rooms and insist the kids be quiet – no My Sky rewinds available – and dinner would be arranged around the broadcast. And the internet was still sleeping.

It. Was. The. Best.

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My first Nightline story was about a man who played piano live, to accompany silent films. I sat in the TV3 cafeteria with Hilary Barry and she helped me practice my script. “Giving silent films a VOICE”, “Giving SILENT films a voice”, “Giving silent FILMS a voice”. Speaking of silence… Hilary must have wanted to surgically remove my larynx. My very first six o’clock story was about a car accident. It went to air before the first break (!) and shortly thereafter the fax machine played its little sound (Kanye, why you no remix that?) and out spat a note from my former colleagues at TVNZ, congratulating me on my first-ever primetime track. I kept that fax for ages, until the ink was all gone.

The seven years I spent on Nightline were brilliant. Our team was small and perfectly formed, with a fierce devotion to a fresh lead story. Fierce too, our devotion to weather music. Authors, musicians, actors, comedians, artists – they were all welcomed. The door was always open to the creative. One night we had a story about a Russian TV channel featuring a naked newsreader. I was persuaded to read the studio intro with just an open newspaper for modesty. Over the years I was sent a bank cheque, and a marriage proposal (I believe the police were called); dead flowers, and stickers featuring my picture; jewellery, and a box containing VHS tapes of every Nightline episode I’d ever done. And then there was the time I was filling in for Hilary for a week and I got a letter politely inquiring when she’d be back. Jim from the Wairarapa, you made me laugh and laugh.

I didn’t know then I was at the tail end of broadcasting’s best time ever. It wasn’t just about the words, but how you said them. Not just about the pictures, but the way you revealed them. Not just about the sound, but the patient way you let it exhale all the way. I could weep for how good it was. I have.

There is a lot I’ll never forget. The Beslan school siege. The Boxing Day tsunami. The GFC. The hunt for Bin Laden. Obama’s victory. Much more. But mostly, producer Angus Gillies phoning me in the middle of the night on September 11, 2001. Sitting the rest of the night on the edge of the couch, cradling the receiver between my dressing gowned-shoulder and my ear as we watched the second plane hit. We gasped at the same time. Then sat without saying anything for ages.

Watching raw footage come in from Kosovo – those boys, those fathers, their bodies betraying themselves as their own feet stepped carefully into the ditch. Carefully choosing the best, safest path down and down and down.

And tiny Aylan Kurid washing up on a beach in Turkey. He did me in. The newsroom had changed. “Harden up”, said someone who used to know better.

And then, after 18 years (not 15, as Mediaworks said), it was over. The week I left, David Bowie died. My last bulletin produced by long-time mentor, Angus, was on that day. Gus (some morons would say, controversially) led the programme with Bowie’s death. Not only that, he devoted seven minutes to the story. Plus a special closer. So we could hear him, too. Twitter went off – grief and gratitude in equal measure. It was the most difficult bulletin I’d ever done. There was no one like Bowie. No one! So unique. Tautology!! To do Bowie proud, to do Gus proud; to know we’d never work together again was ridiculous. I’d asked if the make-up artist could paint a lightning bolt on my cheek. “No,” said someone who used to know better. When I hear Bowie now, I think of Gus. My hero.

I was asked not to tell anyone I was leaving. The news of my departure was only announced after I’d in fact gone. After they’d organised my $100 Whitcoulls voucher. What for me had begun with such optimism, such joy, had ended in a way that still makes my breath catch.

There have been 14 weeks since my last 3News bulletin. That’s 96 days. 2304 hours, if I was counting. But, I’ve still got it. Because, the other day I was in my car listening to Hilary reading news on the radio. I played a little game I used to play years and years ago of repeating back every sentence of the news broadcast, while simultaneously listening to the next one and then repeating that, and so on. The aim: if someone could hear only you, they could understand completely. There I was, still ready to back up Hilary if she needed me. Such fun! Hadn’t played that in ages. The kids laughed. “That’s your news lady voice, Mum!”

Yes, children. It most certainly is.

 

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