It's the end of story for this reporter


Tending The Star tomato in 1988.
Tending The Star tomato in 1988.
Keast with former Guardian reporter Gary Newton and Sir Arthur Porrit
Keast with former Guardian reporter Gary Newton and Sir Arthur Porrit
John Keast filming for The South Today.
John Keast filming for The South Today.

Reporter John Keast is bowing out on a newspaper career spanning 47 years.

In his career, which started as a school leaver, he met and interviewed thousands of people, including prime ministers and people on their death beds.

From people in cities, to the country, in schools, businesses, and churches, reporting from accident sites, celebrations, and community events, he has written the stories of everyday people in times of good, and bad.

He has worked at many New Zealand newspapers The Press (three times), The Dominion Post, Sunday News, The Christchurch Star, (news editor and subbing), Ashburton Guardian (twice) the former Hawkes Bay Herald Tribune, covering hard print news such as death, murder, and accidents as well as community stories of people past and present before extending his repertoire with video and online content.

He has been the managing editor at Ashburton Courier for the past 10 years.

And it will be from this position that he will hang up his hat in journalism. It's not retirement, it's a change of pace, a chance to do things he wants to do.

"I never chose journalism, it, in a back-to-front way, chose me,'' he said.

"I was desperate to leave school and wound up in the front office of this (the now-Ashburton Courier) building with John Bell, Bruce Bell's father.'' It was a former home to the Ashburton Guardian newspaper.

"I'm sure against his better judgement, he took me on as a sort of factotum - office junior/print hand/deliverer. But The Guardian had plans to start doing its own photographs, and I had done some photography at high school. I think that swung the deal."

Up till then, photos had been supplied by Ashburton commercial photographer Gordon Binsted.

Mr Keast, 63, started on a new electronic plate-making machine, a Klischograph.

"Someone from Australia was brought over to teach me and the advertising manager, Doug Forsyth, how to use it - but I think Doug was far better at it than me.

"The Guardian's first camera was a Polaroid with a fixed lens - not the ideal camera for, say, rugby. But it served its purpose for point-and-shoot shots, if the light was right.

"The paper progressed to a full darkroom and a later editor, Graeme Connell, taught me the basics of processing film and prints.

"From then, I was the Guardian photographer.

It was the beginning.

A junior reporter job at The Press in Christchurch followed; including court reporting, general reporting and shipping reporter.

"One of my first jobs was helping long-time court reporter Ron Vogt in the No.1 Magistrates Court.

"It was a nightmare. I was told to take several notebooks - and they were needed as every story had to be written long-hand. Ron would do one case - say, a fine for drunk and disorderly, when it was an offence - write it up, and then I would take notes and write up the next.

"We worked on a long wooden press bench, heavily marked with names and witty sayings, and there was always a reporter from The Star, Radio New Zealand and, at times, Radio Avon. The Star used a copy runner as it (then) was an afternoon paper and had tight deadlines. "The reporter was the late Stan Rayner, who did a terrific job. He knew the courts - and its clients - very well. If a story was urgent, he would tell the copy runner to go straight back to the office in Kilmore Street and not deviate to the Oxford or any other hotel. His advice was rarely taken.''

"The Press, then, was heaving with staff: there were two farming reporters, three, I think, racing reporters, five sports reporters, a heap of general reporters, and reporters, too in Ashburton, Rangiora, Nelson, Blenheim and, of course in Parliament.

"And in Greymouth there was Pat Taylor, whose career spanned 44 years, many of them as the Greymouth reporter for The Press."

Pat did not drive - a handicap for a reporter - to get to meetings he went by railcar, so he spent his career in Greymouth, aside from rare - and celebrated trips to HQ in Christchurch, where he was feted.

"Pat even had his own place, Pat's corner, in the Kingsgate Hotel. I took his copy more than once, bashing away at an old Imperial while Pat dictated, word perfect, from the hotel.

"It would not happen today.''

Mr Keast's working life has been split between sub-editing and writing.

He is still unsure which he prefers.

Five years working in Australia saw him writing for a big community paper in Sydney, trade magazines in Melbourne, and the Warrnambool Standard in south-western Victoria, before returning to New Zealand.

"I was taught layout - a stuttery start, I have to admit - at the now defunct Hawkes Bay Herald-Tribune in Hastings."

From there it was to The Star in Christchurch where he started as a general sub and ended up as news editor.

"It was a fine a daily as there was, and teeming with top people whose only goal was to get a great paper out, on time, every time.

"There was always a fight between reporters to get the front page, and that enthusiasm led to some great stories.

"And I saw, first hand, how television began to get the audience for afternoon dailies.''

The Star fought on but falling sales and revenue led to a round of redundancies in which staff were asked to the cafeteria where the latest financial woes were passed on - and staff given a brown envelope. Some said "you have been made redundant'' or ''you have not been made redundant''.

"After the paper ceased being a daily, my role, too, became surplus to requirements.

"I finished at The Star (now a thriving city tabloid) on the Friday, started subbing at The Press on the Monday.

"After several years of subbing and copy tasting, I spoke one night with (then) chief reporter David Clarkson about a shift south.

"He said: 'You must be psychic. The Timaru reporter has just resigned.'

"I made the arrangements and shifted to Geraldine, covering Timaru, Ashburton, Waimate - and points south - from there.

"It was a heady mix of hard news - plenty - perhaps too much - death and destruction, feature writing, colour stories and run-of-the mill council stuff.

"There were two big stories: the breach of the Opuha dam, and rabbit virus in the Mackenzie.

"The dam story started innocently enough. I was well aware of the dam and someone told me fairly late one night that heavy rain had brought the lake level right up.

"I went there and was assured by staff all was OK: that it was safe.

"I filed a story to say it was close to the top and the rivers feeding it were in flood.

"Then I was told after deadline that the water had breached the dam and that a channel had been cut in to the top of it to let some of the water through.

"The rest is history: the force of the water gouged out the top of the dam and it breached. Badly.

"The dam, and the damage the water did, kept me busy for weeks.''

Mr Keast said he had met thousands of people over the years and "so far as I know, only fell out with one, and there is no need to mention his name''.

Mr Keast said community journalism had prospered because stories are about everyday people.

"Our city cousins might think it droll but it need not be, but it can burn as brightly as any city journalism.''

He finishes in early December.



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