Seasoned journalist has no heart of stone


Journalists are often portrayed as unscrupulous vultures when they are just doing their job; people who prey on others’ harm and shame, but the irony surrounding this profession is that journalists – especially at community newspapers – are often members of the public’s confidant. They are a problem solver, someone to approach if a community urgently needs help.

Of these, Tobie van den Bergh, seasoned journalist and editor of the Middelburg Observer who retired at 66 after more than 48 years, duly attests.

He recently titled his book Ink is thicker than blood – newspaper stories that make you laugh and cry, launched. Hundreds of people turned up for the launch.

One of the readers noticed that Tobie had experienced more scenes and trauma than the average policeman.

In the foreword to the book, Irma Green, group editor of Caxton community newspapers, writes that the role of an editor of a community newspaper is much wider than publishing a newspaper every week in which the community’s events are correctly and accurately reproduced.

He is sometimes also a psychologist, investigator, teacher, peacemaker, bridge builder, mediator and servant.

If you live and work in a community for 48 years, you become, as it were, the people’s property of the town, says Irma.

You know your community like few others and are closely watched at the same time.

Tobie’s colorful career ended at a fragile 18 at the White Bank News s editorship began, but it was in Middelburg that he made deep inroads in journalism and where he wielded the scepter as editor for many years.

It was the era of Olivetti typewriters and papers and the editor’s chair was often a warm chair to sit on.

If you publish a favorable story about someone, you are the hero, you step on the toes of others, you are accused of vendettas and prejudice.

At times when you close the door behind you, the tears flow over a mother who has lost her child or over a family mourning a murder because an editor is often trusted with the most intimate details.

Because he lives in the same town as his readers, he may run into this morning’s disgrace and front page face later that day in the Spar. In every Middelburger’s home, there is probably a clip that has already yellowed in which they used to adorn themselves, says Irma.

About how on earth he remembered everything, Tobie tells that over the years he was called “old Box” because he hoarded everything. He even spent R7 000 on a wooden house to store all his boxes.

For Tobie, one year at a community newspaper is equal to seven human years. His father was not at all impressed at first when his son decided to write “stories for a living”, because men worked (at that time) in the public service.

The story that gripped him the most was surely with the first cover photo he took of the little girl who took her mother’s pills and then died.

“It upset me tremendously because I was only 18 years old at the time. I was in the mortuary and present when the child was buried and the coffin’s lid was unscrewed again by the undertaker.”

Yes, the subjects he reported on were far and wide. So he reported on the country’s first “poof protest”.

Because the municipality did not want to remove it, it was taken to the newspaper. Worship you!

As a community journalist, you report on everything – from the woman and mother movement and crime to the morgue.

“Death and disinfectants stuck to my clothes.”

He reported when television was allowed in our country for the first time in 1975, when the evening broadcasts ended patriotically with the national anthem and flying national flag.

They had to drive to Johannesburg every week to get the television programs at Auckland Park.

At a newspaper there is always a new story to chase that you want to tell the world. A deadline to meet.

Tobie felt himself in the stories he wrote. This was one of the compliments he received at his book launch: He is part of his community’s conversation and their life. This is the kind of response Tobie got.

For the residents, it was exciting that their stories were revived in his book. How he kept the dead alive in loved ones’ lives.

The book means a lot to Angel, one of the discarded babies saved by the newspaper.

A story that touched his heart was the one about the body of a perfectly formed baby girl in a garbage bin.

A church erected a tombstone for her.

The newspaper was then involved in a baby safe in which unwanted babies were safely placed.

“That way we could make a difference. Little Angel is one of my favorite little girls in town today. We are very close and she often visits the office. With such stories, I shed a tear every time.”

Although Tobie received many offers from large newspapers, such as being a bureau chief at Perskor, he decided that he would rather be involved in the intimacy of a community newspaper.

“You are so close to your community. What you write is not far away in a big city. It’s here with you, you go to church with the people you write about and run into them in the supermarket. It is very special to me to this day.”

You name it and Tobie reported on it.

Reverends, for example, often quote the newspaper, but, alas, not always for the right reasons. So it was written about the reverend with the beer brewery, the reverend who provided marriage counseling to a lascivious parishioner and then about the reverend with the poisonous straight left who was not above sailor language when he threatened Tobie to keep certain information out of the newspaper .

Over the years, Tobie has written about murder, transit robberies, crazy behavior of people whose heads are hanging off and suicide.

The newspaper is also the place where people knock when they are in trouble.

Journalists have always been regarded as more or less “omniscient”. As Tobie writes: “When you need something, you call the newspaper. So we arrange funerals, diapers for babies, school placements, surgeries, food, sewer leaks, roads that need to be repaired and even act as speakers.”

Tobie talks about what many journalists experience. People sometimes share their deepest secrets with you.

Nothing escapes the journalist’s eyes and ears. Like when a distraught relative stormed into the office and sobbed: “My baby was buried in the wrong grave”.

You are also simply called upon at large accident scenes to hold a drip bag, or to call your contacts if there are few ambulances.

Child abuse always makes journalists see red. Like the story about the parents who enjoyed takeaway, while the children only got sugar bread.

Moral matters were particularly enthusiastically hung on the big bell a few decades ago. The Action Moral Standards movement was outraged by Glenda Kemp and her snake grandfather’s visit, not to mention the topless hairstylists in town. The men apparently flocked from far and wide to the town’s hair salon, which became a popular destination overnight.

However, the question is also asked in the book whether it is okay for a journalist to be constantly exposed to so many tragic and violent events.

After all, a journalist does not have a heart of stone.