When I was a kid growing up in Hong Kong, my dad, Robin Hutcheon, used to take my brothers and me into the bowels of the roaring printing press where he was editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post.
I remember well the heat and diesel aroma of fresh newsprint and I loved grabbing a handful of red mark-up pencils and unlimited scribbling paper, the offcuts of yesterday’s news.
As I prepare to leave the ABC this week after twenty-five years, I’m reminded of my constant companion on this journalistic journey: news technology.
In the early years of my career in 1980’s Hong Kong, I worked on a weekly TV current affairs show where we shot our stories on film.
Venturing out on reporting assignments, I had a three-person crew: cameraman, assistant cameraman (who loaded the film into the magazine) and sound-recordist, who captured sound on a barely portable reel-to-reel tape recorder.
After the day’s shoot, the film was processed overnight and ready for editing the next day.
Then, I’d write my script on something called a typewriter — later when we were ‘computerised’, typewriters were replaced with VDT’s (Video Display Terminals).
Finally, I worked with a film editor to edit my TV package.
The editor clipped the film at exactly the correct frame and matched the sound to the pictures by syncing up the clapperboard.
I thought (and still do) that the video editors were magicians and I remember those times with immense fondness.
From film to smartphone
By the time I became the ABC’s China correspondent in 1995, television — and the technology to deliver TV news — had moved on.
In the bureau, a noisy telex machine spewed out reams of paper from the Xinhua News Agency.
Every day there were hundreds of stories on everything from China’s urban housing construction to aquaculture.
It was in China that I first used the internet.
We called it ‘dial-up’ because it used the regular phone line.
I can’t forget that crackly whirr that some of us, who are old enough, might remember.
Given the state of China’s landline network back then, if the internet connection held for 30 seconds, it was my lucky day.
To transmit our stories back to Australia via satellite in the mid nineties, it required battling Beijing’s all-day rush hour to reach the feed point at Chinese Central Television in the west of the city.
On more than a few occasions, we nearly didn’t make the satellite window.
A satellite spot was 10 minutes, costing around USD$1200.
I loved how the adored satellite co-ordinator at ABC news, Virginia Haigh, referred to the satellite as ‘the bird’.
At other times, when we had the luxury of a distant deadline, we put our camera tapes on a plane to Hong Kong where they were air-freighted to Sydney.
Compared to now, the process of producing news stories back then seemed cumbersome, slow, deliberate.
But it was what it was.
One night in February 1997 my biggest nightmare came true.
The so-called Paramount Chinese Leader, Deng Xiao-ping, died.
He was in his late nineties and his death was expected, but I hadn’t even started to write the obituary for The 7.30 Report and a very long news day lay ahead of me.
I had around 12 hours to finish that story, which seems like a luxury in today’s terms.
Reporting from war zones
Throughout my postings to the Middle East (2003-2005) and Europe (2005-2008), the speed of newsgathering technology continued unabated.
In Iraq in 2003, we transported our cameras, lights, editing equipment and generators across the desert from Jordan to Baghdad.
By then, the satellite technology was small enough to pack into large, hard-plastic cases and the satellite panels were set up on the roof of our hotel.
We transmitted our stories from the war-time comfort of a hotel room which had been converted into a miniature news bureau.
The transmission process was unstable and often took cameraman Louie Eroglu long hours to complete at the expense of sleep.
I bought the ABC’s first mobile phones in Iraq in 2003.
The following year, I covered the death of Yasser Arafat, reporting live into the ABC TV news bulletin via mobile phone from the West Bank city of Ramallah, while the Foreign Desk in Sydney ran international news agency images over my audio.
The speed of 24 hour news
Now if you will, fast forward (to use an outdated term) to 2010 when the ABC’s TV News Channel was launched.
As a news presenter, I sat alone in a studio accompanied by remote (operator-less) cameras while I followed the progress of the latest international incident unfolding thousands of kilometres away.
Reading prepared scripts had become a thing of the past for a breaking news event.
The job is now done by watching near real-time images and delivering information from the combined resources of our producers, journalists in the field and verified reports from social media.
However, in the rush to deliver news on demand, I often felt that it had lost its context.
Why did certain events occur?
We seem to move so quickly at times that the underlying human motivation is forgotten in the rush to the next big story.
In my small corner of the ABC, in July 2010, I was given the gift of a half-hour timeslot, repeated four or five times over the weekend.
Programs like mine were designed to fit into the second half of the hour when there is usually less news to speak of.
The ABC’s Director of News, Analysis and Investigations Gaven Morris named the show One Plus One — TV terminology for the presenter plus one other.
My first interview was with thriller-writer Matthew Reilly.
We had one camera and I felt terribly inefficient and inexperienced (sorry Matthew).
Though One Plus One launched with two or three shorter interviews and a range of contributors in a single half-hour time-slot, it became obvious that these brief bursts of interview did not have the same impact as a conversation with depth unpacked over 28 minutes and by 2012 I was doing one interview per half hour.
Since creating One Plus One, I have rediscovered what journalism, to me, is all about.
By listening to these amazing people, I discovered the spiritual heart of my career.
I also learned more about humanity than I could have ever hoped to learn.
While news technology continues its advance (now everyone has the ability to shoot video via mobile phone cameras), through One Plus One I have been given a ringside seat to see what makes us human.
From great performers like Barry Humphries to great scientists like Michelle Simmons, artists like John Olsen and all the resilient, brave individuals who humbled me with their fighting spirit.
What I love about the show is that it appears low-tech.
It’s recorded in a studio with four remote cameras operated by a director and a technical director and expertly stitched together by a video editor and a producer.
The show is the product of a team that uses all the advances in TV technology and yet it’s heart is firmly rooted in good old-fashioned research, empathy, attention to detail, listening and a curiosity that binds it, so lovingly, together.
It’s a far cry from the old printing press I used to visit with my dad in Hong Kong.
Thanks for your company. See you next time.
Watch Hamish Macdonald interview Jane Hutcheon on her last One Plus One program on ABC TV on Friday at 1pm, repeated on the ABC News Channel on Saturday at 6am and 5.30pm and Sunday at 2.30pm and 9.30pm or catch up on iview.