Almost from the moment we arrived in Hong Kong in 1967 my father Jack Spackman was working as a stringer, most regularly for Australia’s Fairfax newspapers. A stringer is a locally based correspondent who may sometimes be paid a retainer but often is paid only for published stories.
Jack said the term arose back in the olden times when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and scribblers were paid by the length of their work, as measured by a piece of string. I filed that little unverified factoid under “Shit my dad says” until I stumbled across a similar explanation in a book by Australian academic Rod Tiffen which, I discovered, also featured some quotes from the Old Man himself.
In The News from Southeast Asia – the sociology of newsmaking (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 1978) the good Professor Tiffen wrote: “Compared to regular correspondents, most live in a state of relative financial insecurity.”
Then, a few paragraphs later, up pops Spackman, quoted by Tiffen on the precarious life of a stringer:
“A stringer has three problems where a staff correspondent has only one. Both have to get the story but the stringer also has to get someone to accept it and then to get paid,” he told Tiffen.
Jack had quickly established himself as Fairfax’s Man in Hong Kong, filing for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne. It’s not hard to find examples of his work in their archives.
They include his contributions on the ‘big’ stories of the day but there are also some quirky pieces which illustrate the life of the jobbing stringer, in which creating a story out of next-to-nothing can reap reward.
He weighed in to a debate in The Age in 1969 on whether the ladies of Victoria could improve the image of lawn bowls by wearing culottes. Jack was straight down to the Hong Kong Bowls Club to fire off a picture of women playing bowls in short shorts. True – you can read all about it here.
Every morning began with the newspapers. Dad would comb the South China Morning Post and the Hongkong Standard for anything which might yield an angle for an overseas market.
He would also read the Sydney Morning Herald which arrived by post, in best colonial tradition, a few days old.
By breakfast’s end the table would be littered with torn bits of newsprint, each one a potential earner. “Never forget the public notices,” he’d tell me. “I’ve picked up some great stories from the public notices.”
Now and again he’d make a trip to the newspaper sellers at the Kowloon Star Ferry terminal. They would have all the newspapers and magazines from around the world, discarded by airline passengers and picked up for on-selling by the cleaners at Kaitak Airport.
“Sometimes the crossword’s been done or there’s a few pages missing, but that’s alright,” Jack said. “It’s always good to see what sort of stories these jokers are running.”
He never lost the habit of tearing out snippets from the morning newspapers. And I’ve never lost the habit of checking the public notices, turning to them instinctively even in mouldering old newspapers. And yes, I did pick up a nugget or two of my own from that dry dirt in my reporting days.
As he worked his way through the newspapers he’d bounce ideas aloud, interrupting my reading of the comics to test them out on me. By the time breakfast was over he’d have perhaps half a dozen leads and a rough map of contacts to follow up on through the day.
It would be a mistake to think that the purpose was to do a swift rewrite on the first couple of pars of someone else’s work, although there are Girl and Boy Reporters who make the odd bob doing just that, for what they are worth.
Instead, the morning’s news would act as a stimulus to ideas for new stories in a creative process which usually began with a slurp of lemon tea and a call to my attention.
“Here’s an interesting one, Sally,” he would say. And in the telling of it he’d muse aloud, picking out some small point or hunting down something else he’d read in one of the other papers, to put two small points together and triangulate a direction which might, just might, hold the sniff of a new story or an unexplored angle of an old one.
“The best stories never really end,” he said.
Spackman the Philosopher divided people into three basic groups – farmers, hunters and fishers.
“Office workers are typical farmers, cultivating their little patch of dust on a desk,” he’d say. He equated sales jobs with fishing and journalists, of course, with hunters.
Those mornings represented what he loved best about the hunt – not the full-throated chasing down by the pack but the dung sniffing, the wind reading, the picking of the prey.
“There’s no secret about how to get your stories,” Jack said
“Most of them are the result of being methodical. Every journalist keeps a diary, not so much of the things they’ve done but of the things that are due to happen. If you’re following a story you’ll make a routine check every few weeks to see if there have been any developments.
“Then you’ll have your daily or weekly rounds – morning press conferences, regular ring-rounds to official sources like police and the courts, irregular ring-rounds to unofficial sources, and sometimes you just pick something up, maybe in a conversation with a shopkeeper about how his business is going, or perhaps you overhear something in a bar that’s worth following up.
“But you have to start with the day’s news and see where it takes you. Some of my best stories got their start over breakfast.”
By the time Professor Tiffen interviewed Jack for his 1978 book, my father had mostly left the vagaries of stringing behind. As he told Tiffen, the work started drying up once China opened its doors to foreign journalists, leaving him and his fellow lone wolves chasing ever leaner pickings.
But even at its heyday my father’s career as a stringer was precarious and rarely his only source of income. In 1968 he was working for the China Mail when he founded the Hong Kong Journalists Association and over the years he also worked for the South China Morning Post, did a bit of television and had his own talkback radio show.
It didn’t matter what his job was, at its heart it was about the news and that always started at the breakfast table with the sound of gently tearing newsprint. Dad had found something interesting.
Want more Baxter? Some memories of a colonial childhood in Hong Kong here
© Sally Baxter 2015
This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network