I was 17 years old and filling time on the Big Baxter’s monthly computer magazine while I decided what to do with my life. I wasn’t expecting it to be hard work. I certainly wasn’t expecting any great responsibility. I was a teenager being given a gentle leg-up by her indulgent dad. Then he got sick just before press day and left me holding the production baby. Suddenly I was in charge of the whole thing.
In the four months I’d spent on the Big Bax’s magazine Computer-Asia I served as an odd-jobber, learning skills as the need arose. So I’d done a few small interviews, attended a few press conferences and learned the rudiments of sub-editing. And proof-reading, endless proof-reading…
We were a magazine serving Asia, not just Hong Kong, so every couple of months, as our meagre budget allowed, Bax would take a trip around the region and come back with a clutch of stories.
This time he got sick, very sick. He returned from Malaysia with another round of the bronchitis which plagued his asthma-damaged lungs throughout his life and went straight to hospital. It was one week to press day. His stories were unwritten and inaccessible, locked in his notebook and his fevered head.
I hadn’t been idle in his absence but we were still short a cover story, two inside features and a good chunk of the news in briefs which made up the first few pages.
There was a stack of raw press releases and some second-rate features kicking around but how much copy did I need to churn out? I’d learned the basics of laying out pages and sizing pictures but I’d never been involved in planning the book – determining how many pages it should be and where to put the ads.
So it was in a state of some panic that I headed down to the offices of Asiaweek late at night in search of its Editor Michael O’Neill, armed with a list of the ad bookings and the stories in hand.
The late, great O’Neill was a formidable and brilliant journalist who started at 15 on the Taranaki Herald in his native New Zealand. He was a great friend of my father’s but he was not an approachable man and I went into his office as a mouse might enter the den of a lion.
He sat behind his enormous desk and peered long and silently, with an air of grave disappointment, at the paperwork I handed him. And then he showed me how to make a dummy, a mock-up of what the magazine would look like.
O’Neill patiently folded some sheets of A3 paper and then stapled them together, using an eraser to ensure the staple was straight down the middle and then folded neatly closed.
I was used to Bax throwing a flatplan together on the back of an old envelope, drawing out a grid of the pages, marking ads with an ‘x’ and scribbling in story names around them.
I was twitching with impatience to get started on the immense job ahead of me and O’Neill, aware of my fidgeting, mischievously decided the staple was insufficiently straight and pulled it out to begin the painstaking process again.
“The better looking your dummy, the better looking the book,” O’Neill said quietly and picked up a ruler to draw a perfect border on the cover.
He admonished me for not bringing in a copy of the magazine so he could cut it up to glue the actual masthead and border on the front. And then went through the dummy meticulously marking the ads into position.
Words were few, smiles none, but I left O’Neill’s office armed with a perfectly drawn road map and a bit more certainty that I was up to the job. I worked harder over the next week than any dissolute teenager ever wants to.
It was not our finest edition and Bax had the grace never to comment on anything other than the fact it hit the streets on time.
And from that day I was in charge of production. I wore bright red overalls on press days, with a long leg pocket for my em-rule and a short wide pocket for my wheel, the proportion calculator for resizing pictures. There were pockets for my pencils, blue pen and my green-inked Staedtler for raw copy subbing. I was just 17 after all, and so prone to affectation.
John Mallen, the ad manager, said I looked like a tomato. Perhaps I did, who knows. I was certainly a tomato having a lot of fun, in what remains to this day the best job I ever had.
Another great friend of the Big Baxter’s was David Smith. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1971 and had worked with Bax on the China Mail and with O’Neill on the Far Eastern Economic Review and then Asiaweek before going on to serve as Editor of Media Magazine.
He dropped in on the office one day and found me copy subbing. He picked up a piece of my work and told me I was too neat to be a good sub. Not sure he was that impressed with the green ink either.
But Computer-Asia’s typesetting bill was high and I’d noticed a lot of the corrections were the simple result of Bax’s scribbles being difficult to interpret.
It seemed reasonable to me, since the typesetters were working in their second language, to try and be as clear in my instructions as possible and not waste their time and our money trying to work out whether they were looking at an ‘a’ or an ‘s.’
So my subbing got neater and neater as time went on. I did however adopt the O’Neill Principle in full and my dummies were things of beauty.
We didn’t print in full colour in those days and the number of colour pages was strictly determined by the ad revenue. But which pages run in colour? It was my job to build the dummy and make sure the colour didn’t bust.
To understand what that means, grab your latest copy of The Australian or any other broadsheet newspaper you have lying around. Pull out one of its august sheets and fold it in half, so that you have four pages of news. Note that they are not numbered consecutively unless you’ve pulled out the middle pages.
Now fold it in half again and instead of four pages you’ll find you have eight tabloid-sized pages, four on each side. Now fold it again and you’ll have 16 pages of A4.
Each sheet is called a signature and pages are printed, in an A4 magazine, eight to a side, before they are cut, bound and trimmed. It’s vastly cheaper to take the colour up in blocks of eight, and very expensive to get it wrong.
I’d seen it go wrong a couple of times in my first few months with Bax and was sure his back-of-the-envelope approach to production was to blame.
For a student who was consistently hopeless at maths, I found to my surprise that I had a real aptitude for the constant calculations of production, the very thing my father, a maths scholar, seemed to be weaker in.
Once the copy was typeset into columns, what we in the trade called galleys, and pasted on to boards in pairs of pages we took them down the road to a photoshop – yup, you young ‘uns, that’s where the name comes from – where they were photographed.
Pictures were photographed separately, sized according to my meticulously calculated instructions, and stripped into the negatives – first step of the photographic process, where white is black and black is see-through.
That was my favourite job of the month, down at the photoshop, checking the negatives before they were developed into the positive films that would be delivered to the printer. Once again, the staff were all local but, unlike the typesetters, they spoke no English.
My Cantonese was pretty rubbish, not helped by an extreme shyness which has never really left me. Still, we muddled through in a cloud of cigarette smoke, a combination of a few English phrases from them, a few Cantonese ones from me and plenty of good humour.
The most basic job was to check pictures against their captions to make sure they weren’t flopped and ‘left to right’ had suddenly and confusingly become ‘right to left’.
But there were other things you could do at that late stage with a scalpel, red masking tape and a red pen.
The guys and I spent hours bent over the negatives painstakingly colouring in any spots or other imperfections with red that would show up as white once the films were processed.
Last minute alterations could be made to the text too with a scalpel – a bust line that had gone unnoticed perhaps on the board, spilling past the border of the page, could be cunningly removed and a comma turned into a full stop.
The thing to avoid at all costs was a need to photograph the pages again.
Once I’d signed off the negatives, it was pretty much out of my hands. Bigger outfits would get a blueprint – a first run off the press – but changes at that stage were expensive, so once again this was about keeping costs down as much as possible.
Just about every single part of this pre-digital process is now ancient history – but what endless, fascinating fun it was, something I never expected as I sat, overwhelmed and intimidated, in the Editor’s office at Asiaweek.
Looking back, it’s pretty clear O’Neill was having a bit of a game with me. He died alas before I ever woke up to the joke or really thanked him for holding my hand when I took those first faltering steps.