In 1983, Margaret Manuel’s husband Roger woke his wife to tell her that they would soon be living and working in Balaklava, South Australia, population about 1700. He had learned this in a dream.
To say that Margaret was less than enthusiastic by the prospect of leaving the delightful coastal town of Victor Harbour for the arid Adelaide Plains with four kids in tow, is something of an understatement.
Roger had been offered the opportunity to buy The Producer, a newspaper owned by his then employer, The Victor Harbour Times, and it was based in his old home town.
Roger’s friends, including a former owner of The Producer, colleagues in the industry and his dad Charlie, Balaklava’s house painter, advised him not to touch it ‘with a ten foot pole,’ Margaret recalled.
But Roger’s dream was stronger. So, in 1983, Margaret packed up the family in the car that came with the business and set up camp in the only available house in Balaklava that could accommodate them. The deciding factor was that it had a darkroom.
Margaret has been in Balaklava ever since.
‘My heart sank when I saw the first front page lead story: it was a photograph and caption describing the opening of some new public toilets in a tiny town nearby,’ Margaret told writer and fellow Media Super member, John Dickson.
‘The Producer was an “egg-timer” newspaper – eight pages that could be read in two-and-a-half minutes,’ she said.
The Waroora Producer began life as The Central Advocate in 1903. Through various dips in fortune and a name change to The Producer, the little newspaper refused to surrender to the indifference of its new owners. Then Roger Manuel came along and breathed life back into it.
‘The paper was floundering and the incumbent editor was struggling – largely because he wasn’t a “local”. Roger, however, was born in Balaklava and his parents were well-known townsfolk,’ Margaret said.
And Roger knew how to sell advertising, so he set about cold-calling every business in the district.
Welcome, The Plains Producer
Roger quickly turned it into 20-pager. On top of pages of general news and sport, Roger created “features” (now known as advertorials) that would spruik the benefits of local businesses – an innovation that worked in everyone’s favour.
‘Roger wanted to announce it as a newspaper for the area rather than just Balaklava, so he changed the name one more time. It became The Plains Producer and set about informing and entertaining the people of the Adelaide Plains,’ Margaret said.
Eventually the weekly absorbed other titles in the district, including Snowtown’s newspaper and that of Port Wakefield, and circulation began to grow.
‘A miracle a week’
‘We relied somewhat on volunteers to supply information – and remain grateful to those people who cared enough about their community to promote it with a photo or a note about some local event,’ Margaret said.
Roger would gather news and advertising, and take photos during the week. Sunday night was spent in the darkroom developing film, and production and layout would begin on Monday for a Wednesday deadline.
‘Roger welcomed innovation and soon purchased a typesetting machine. Just before he died in 1995, he bought the first computers in the area and became a pioneer in computer-generated graphic design,’ she said.
‘Charlie, Roger’s dad would take the pages across to the The Yorke Peninsula Country Times at Kadina on a Wednesday morning and he would wait while it was printed,’ Margaret said.
And to complete the family affair, Margaret would begin her paper round – a mere 300kms – with her youngest child in the back seat.
‘It always amazed me that we always got the newspaper out. I called it a “miracle a week”,’ she laughed.
The second woman
When Margaret took over in 1995, she became the second woman to own the newspaper. Amy Henstridge was the first in 1926, and was responsible for changing the format from a broadsheet publication to a six-page tabloid.
‘I started working here at the very beginning in 1983. I was extremely grateful for those early experiences because when it came time to step up, I understood how a newspaper was produced, and my contribution was in helping our employees to do the things that they were good at,’ she said.
She was especially grateful to former Adelaide News journalist, Terry Williams who had taken over the local hotel and was available to help when needed. He provided the editorial experience while Margaret tended to the business.
The Plains Producer went on to win ‘best newspaper’ in its category ‘four or five times’ – a modest Margaret wasn’t quite sure.
Margaret joined the Country Press Association of South Australia to keep up-to-date with innovation and activities in her industry, and immediately became Secretary of this [then] all-male organisation. She eventually rose to the Presidency, an office her son Andrew now occupies.
A life apart
Margaret has retired from the hurly-burly of the newspaper world, leaving it in the capable hands of her oldest son, Andrew. She remains grateful for the life The Plains Producer allowed her. But that doesn’t stop her from slipping into the office to ‘do a bit of proofreading’ from time to time.
She is confident that it will continue to survive and thrive, because nobody else covers local news. Nobody else lifts community members into the spotlight, however briefly, and, she said with a laugh, nobody else spells their names correctly.