129-year-old Hillston Spectator’s future in doubt as editor eyes retirement after 60 years
Mr O’Sullivan has worked in the same building for more than 60 years. (ABC Central West: Donal Sheil)
After more than 60 years at the helm of his local newspaper, Patrick O’Sullivan is concerned the much-loved weekly might not survive beyond his retirement.
The Hillston-Ivanhoe Spectator has been circulating news throughout western New South Wales since 1889.
Mr O’Sullivan has been the editor since 1955, after taking over from his father, Percy, at just 24.
Now Mr O’Sullivan fears that the paper’s days may be numbered as the end of his working life approaches.
This old printing press lives in Pat O’Sullivan’s Hillston office but hasn’t been used since the 1970s (ABC News: Cara Jeffery)
“I’m worried the Spectator doesn’t have a future,” he said.
“It’s been here 129 years and I’d like to see it keep going.”
“It’s a very good job, bringing the local news to the people and informing them sometimes of things they didn’t know had happened in the town.”
The circulation of the six-page read has stayed steady over the years, though the editions are no longer printed on old printing presses at Mr O’Sullivan’s Hillston office, which is more than a century old.
Mr O’Sullivan said that is only one of the things that have changed over the years.
“The cost of the paper back in 1945 was thrippence — three pence,” he said.
“Now, it’s slowly got up to be $1, but some people must think it’s still okay because they start knocking on the door before the paper’s ready to be sold.”
Still in possession of ancient printing presses, Mr O’Sullivan has managed to make the jump to modern computers. (ABC Central West: Donal Sheil)
Today, the copy is sent to Mr O’Sullivan’s publisher son in nearby Griffith, where around 500 copies are printed each week.
“Six pages is about as much news as you’ll get out of Hillston,” Dave O’Sullivan said.
It can be a struggle to find enough news to fill the Hillston Spectator each week (ABC News: Cara Jeffery)
Patrick O’Sullivan admits that finding enough content to fill the format has often been a struggle.
“The biggest challenge over the years has been to collect enough news every week to keep the paper going,” he said.
“It’s pretty difficult in a small town to find enough news to fill a six-page paper.
“I had one fellow say you can throw it up in the air and read it on the way down.
“But I think we’ve done well to get the paper out for 63 years, and I’m proud of the fact we can still produce a newspaper out of Hillston.”
Dave O’Sullivan isn’t convinced his editor father will retire any time soon. (ABC News: Cara Jeffery)
On the market
It might be a short read, but it is an important one for the people who buy it each week, which is why Mr O’Sullivan has resisted calling it quits until now.
“At 87 years of age, and I’ve been here 63 years, it’s time to retire,” he said.
The paper has been on the market for a few months, but Mr O’Sullivan is still a long way from signing on the dotted line.
“I’ve got a couple of bites at the moment but whether they come to anything, I don’t know,” he said.
“I don’t think the asking price is too high.
“It’s just that the asking price maybe doesn’t correspond to the overall income of the paper.
“And I worry whether they’d find enough advertising to keep the thing going, but if it was a livewire person who took it over, I’m sure they could improve the paper.”
Mr O’Sullivan said the paper’s uncertain future was something echoed throughout the struggling township’s population of about 1,300.
“The community of Hillston is changing quite considerably,” he said.
“A lot of businesses have closed down, as you will see as you go down the main street.”
He would hate to see the newspaper suffer the same fate.
“I think it’s very important to have a local newspaper in a small town,” he said.
“It lets people know what’s happening in the news, what’s happening in the town, in the district, out of the district, and who’s coming, who’s going, and who’s staying.”
Patrick O’Sullivan has been at the helm of the Hillston Spectator since 1955. (ABC News: Cara Jeffery)
Independent papers staying afloat
Peter Mahoney, group editor of the Wilkie Watson Publishing Group, which publishes small regional newspapers across south-west New South Wales, says it is not a bad time to be working in independent newspapers.
“At the moment, I can certainly say that every one of our papers is making money,” Mr Mahoney said.
“I think if you can continue to do country papers well, they will survive.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that when we take photos of kids, they will often ask if it’s going to be in the paper.
“The reason they say that is that it’s not special to be online — but if it’s in the paper, their grandma will pay her money to buy and have it as a keepsake.”
Thelma Whitchurch was the Spectator’s Ivanhoe correspondent from 1973 to 2010.
“I didn’t know whether I could do it or not, but I did say yes,” Ms Whitchurch said.
Thelma Whitchurch was the Ivanhoe correspondent for the Spectator for almost 40 years. (ABC Central West: Donal Sheil)
Located 150 kilometres north-west of Hillston, Ivanhoe has seen steady population decline since the closures of its railway services in 1991.
As an ageing population continues to pass or leave town for medical care, other community organisations have also deteriorated.
This has meant Ivanhoe, now home to 200 people, barely features in the Spectator’s pages.
“As the years have gone on and the numbers have gone down, some of these organisations have closed down or can only meet once or twice a year, which is unfortunate,” Ms Whitchurch said.
“The people are not there, and the social functions are not there.
“So you can’t write about them when they’re not there.”
Today, Ms Whitchurch lives in Orange but still buys the Spectator each week and would be devastated to see it fold.
‘It means a lot to the town’
Kevin ‘Joe’ Rose has lived in Hillston almost all his life and used to deliver the Spectator in the 1940s.
“We get it every week, my wife and I, and take turns of reading the pages,” Mr Rose said.
Patrick O’Sullivan and Kevin ‘Joe’ Rose have been friends almost all their lives. (ABC News: Cara Jeffery)
“We’re going to miss it terribly if Pat goes and nobody buys it.
“Let’s hope somebody does.”
Allan Bourke has lived in Hillston for more than 75 years, and has been reading the local paper for almost as long. (ABC News: Cara Jeffery)
Allan Bourke has called Hillston home for more than 75 years and is also a long-time reader of the paper.
“I love getting all the Hillston news and Pat puts a lot of old-time photographs in there, things that happened years ago, which are great to read,” Mr Bourke said.
“It means a lot to the town, it really does.
“If the paper went, that would be another facility gone from the town.”
The garden’s calling
Dave O’Sullivan does not want to see the paper close, but he would like his father to put his feet up.
“It probably is about time he retired,” he said.
“He’s been around a long time, but I don’t think he’s going to — not in the foreseeable future anyway.
“He’s definitely slowed down in the last couple of years but I don’t know what he’d do with himself if he did retire.”
But Pat O’Sullivan knows exactly how he would spend his days.
“If I’m not here in the office, I’ll just go next door to my house and keep the garden going,” he said.