‘I’ve got a bit of copy here that’s going to get lost in the… “This is the mushroom that pushed through the asphalt path near the cenotaph in St Arnaud” — good on it. Country papers always have the biggest mushroom and the biggest pumpkin. I’ll put, “A determined mushroom”. Anyway – what do you want to start with?’
Google the words ‘Ella Ebery’ and you’ll find a woman of many things.
A daughter; a wife; a mother. The first women councillor and only female mayor in the Shire of St Arnaud; the 1984 St Arnaud Citizen of the Year; the 1989 Victorian Senior Citizen of the Year.
You’ll be hard pushed to find a byline by the journalist – except for the odd ‘Country Viewpoint’ – but she’s been on Australian Story and interviewed by countless journalists, the ABC, National Nine News, Good Weekend, and The Age.
In 1981 she became the first female editor of the country newspaper, the North Central News – a St Arnaud-based weekly in north-west Victoria, with a circulation of 2,400 – and she’s still the editor after 30 years. She’s also 95 years old.
How did you get into journalism?
I’d always loved writing… I used to hang around the newspaper office – The Mercury – here and a couple of the good editors gave me a bit of training. Sometimes I got paid, sometimes I didn’t. I wasn’t interested in being paid; I was just interested in learning and I just learnt as I went along.
You became the editor of the North Central News in your sixties, your first full-time paid job. How did you get there?
In 1979 the paper was sold and it was going down the drain rapidly. The men always put a woman in charge when the ship’s sinking so I was offered the job as editor. Twelve months later another editor was brought in and I stayed on doing features. After about 18 months the poor guy was burnt out, and they couldn’t get a suitable person in, so by default they put me back in the editor’s chair and I’ve been there ever since.
Country newspapers run quite differently to metropolitan papers — for one there’s a much smaller staff. What does a typical week for you involve, in terms of your duties?
Well I do everything. I do interviews, take photos, go to events, I write the editorial of course and I decide what goes in the paper — I do a full-time journalist job. I probably write three-quarters of the paper.
You were born in St Arnaud, grew up there and raised a family there — do you think this helps you as editor?
Oh of course it does. I think the reason I do what I do and the reason I’ve been a successful writer and a successful editor is because I’ve had all that knowledge… You’re in it, it’s happening to you, you’re a part of it, and you write about it.
In 1988, you became the mayor of St Arnaud, at the same time as being the editor of the local newspaper. How did you manage both roles?
I didn’t take time off — I said to the council, ‘It’s going to be awkward reporting, will you be happy if I do the reporting but for any controversial issue, I’ll put the cadet in and back off?’ and that worked well, we had no problems at all.
In 2000 you won the Australian Country Press ‘Shakespeare Award for Editorial Writing’, a national award that recognises excellence and appropriateness in editorials. Can you tell me about the editorials you write?
Now I didn’t have a very high opinion of myself as a journalist until I won the Shakespeare Award — it was my Walkley. After that I got a lot more confidence but everybody loves my editorials because they’re all old ducks like me and I write for an older audience. This week’s editorial was ‘Back off you cynics and leave us alone to enjoy the Royal Wedding’ and I’ve had quite a few people comment… They’re the light relief ones. I don’t usually go into the sort of subjects you see in The Age and the Sun.
The judge, Jack Waterford, said your editorials ‘stood out’, they were ‘gutsy, willing to provoke debate and stood up strongly for their community’. What drives you to write this type of editorial?
I’ve lived here all my life and I’m so involved in the life of the community, it’s not hard to write an editorial. It’s supposed to get people talking. You have an opinion or a view and if it’s a controversial issue I say to the owner, ‘This is going to be controversial, now do you want me to do it or would you like me to take that out?’… I was never asked to take anything out.
Does it help that the newspaper is independently owned?
Oh of course it does – look at that old Murdoch, what’s his name? We’re a crusading newspaper because we’re independently owned. I think we’ve achieved a lot within the community in making things happen and making a difference. I’m proud of that.
You’ve been in the journalism business for over 30 years now – what’s been the biggest change?
Oh this is [points to her computer]. I mean how much newspapers have changed is incredible because when I started we had hot metal, linotypes — a totally different ball game. But I still only use computers like typewriters — I don’t go any further with them and if I get into trouble somebody from the ‘comp’ room comes out.
The death of newspapers has been called for so long now, especially the city-based papers. What do you think the future holds for county newspapers?
I say country newspapers can survive if they carry good editorial, high quality editorial that you’re not getting everywhere else. I think it will be a battle but I think the country newspapers will survive. But I think Rupert Murdoch – those big newspaper tycoons – will kill newspapers eventually.
When you appeared on Australian Story in 2001, aged 85, former politician Stephen Elder said he thought you would still be editor at 90 — you’re now 95. Have you ever thought about retiring?
No, I’m not going to retire if I can help it! As long as I can do the work and as far as Peter’s [owner] concerned what I can give them is experience and the ability to handle people so he’s quite happy and I take my own time to do what I’m doing… I might look good but I’m rapidly going to pieces physically.
But you do such a fantastic job…
I’m doing a fantastic job because I haven’t got any alternative — the other option is much worse. I don’t want to sit up in Kara Court [local nursing home] having afternoon tea. I think what I enjoy incredibly is the fact that I have a voice and I can say what I want to say and that it does make a difference. People read it and they can agree or disagree with it but I’ve caused them to think and we really need people to think in this day and age.
You’ve already accomplished so much in your life – is there anything you still want to achieve?
I would’ve liked to have travelled more and I would like now to capitalise on everything I’ve learnt and really start to do something… I don’t think there’s anything special about me – it’s just the life I have lived. I’m certainly no wiser about what life’s all about. The older I get, the more confusing it gets.
But my physical body is not cooperating; it doesn’t believe in me working. Mother Nature says, ‘You’ve had your used by date’, and I’m determined I haven’t.
Ashley Fritsch is a journalism honours student at La Trobe University and a former co-ordinating editor of upstart. She is currently writing a thesis on the history of the Buloke Times and the role of country newspapers.
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