Ella Ebery loves her work as a newspaper editor in a small country town and says she’d rather be carried out in a box than retire.
Ella, who is the editor of St Arnaud’s North Central News in rural Victoria, turned 97 in December.
Yet while people 35 her junior are planning their retirements, Ella is busy making sure making sure the independently owned paper meets its weekly deadline.
“People are inclined now to say I’m a legend because of my age,” she said. “But I’m not as good as I might look. I look fine but I’m battling a bit,” she confessed.
Ella got her start in newspapers at the age of 60 – again, when most people are thinking of winding down – when she was asked to be the editor of the St Arnaud paper at a time when it was experiencing financial woes – “notice they put a woman in charge of a sinking ship,” she says wryly”.
She’s had a background in writing and, while her family was young, did freelance work – mostly unpaid – for newspapers and magazines. That’s how she came to the North Central News’ attention.
“They offered me the job as the editor which was a bit of a poisoned chalice but the paper was independently owned and the farmer who ran it was subsidising it from his farm income. So he took on a managing partner to put it back on its feet.”
Ella had done what most women of her era did in her early life – she left school early, married young and raised a family. Writing remained a passion, though, and she kept it up during her married life, a move that ultimately led to a newspaper career much later than most.
In 2000, Ella was awarded the prestigious Shakespeare Accolade for Excellence in Editorial Writing, presented by the National Country Press Association.
The recognition meant news reporters from around the nation were keen to chat with her.
“It was a personal Walkley Award for me and it got me lots of publicity at the time.”
Ella also featured on ABC’s Australia Story.
Ella says the paper is a voice for the community. “The paper is very much community-orientated in that we take up all sorts of causes. We just put our support behind whatever the community is fighting for,” she said.
Ella involves herself heavily in the community, but doesn’t see that as particularly special. “I’m just another local in that regard,” she said. “After 30 years, you create your own identity and the community fits you into it comfortably. That’s what happened to me”.
Ella knows that as a newspaper editor, she doesn’t always win the favour of the locals. When asked what the community and her staff members think of her, she laughs and says “It might be better not to know” adding “I may not be universally loved but I’m well respected.”
Despite the small-town existence, Ella is well aware of the changes and challenges gripping the newspaper industry. St Arnaud is not immune.
In 2011, the newspaper changed management and decreased its paging and reduced staff. “We had a big printing works here that went elsewhere and we went back to being a little local newspaper with only six of us to put it out.
“I’ve come through from the old mono-types, to the paper being driven away and printed elsewhere and now it goes down the line on the computer to another town.
“I work with the news and I mainly work on the weekends. That’s when people do things so I go and cover it. You’ve got to cover it, even if it’s 10 o’clock at night.
“Basically I don’t work mid-week because that’s between papers and I get a rest then.”
Ella’s career has been full of highlights, she said. “There’s never a dull moment there’s always something going on.” Like one Tuesday morning in the early 1990s when the team had put the week’s paper to bed, an “unfortunate incident occurred”.
“An announcement came over the radio that a motorist had been shot outside the town and our paper was just merrily going off to the printers, which was most inconvenient of the shooter,” she said.
“So we contacted the local police and we asked is it was safe to send a reporter and he said yes. So I sent a young cadet I had and he came back with a collection of gory pictures of the body.
“I found out it was a bank robber known as the ‘country bandit’. He was on his way to rob a bank in the country and a policeman had pulled him up for speeding. While the policeman was writing the ticket the motorist took the policeman’s gun and the policeman turned around and was facing two guns.”
The policeman wrestled the offender and while summoning help via his radio, the offender pulled another gun on him, so the policeman shot him.
“Half the state’s press converged on the scene and because the body had to be left all day until the coroner got there the whole thing was a tremendous story, but we didn’t have a paper.”
Not to be outdone, though, Ella secured an exclusive interview with the policeman and published it the following week.
At one point, Ella the editor got herself elected to the local council. She recognised the potential for conflict and imposed a rule that seemed to work.
“I suggested to council that I would continue to report, but for anything controversial, I would bring a cadet up. I wouldn’t be involved and that worked very well and we didn’t have any problems,” she said.
Today Ella still retains an interest in local government but her head and heart are with country newspapers.
“The little country newspapers are one of the most valuable things that Australia has got,” she said.
Ella still has her driver’s license, but is smart enough to recognise that she’s not as sprite as she used to be. She has a roster of drivers who “drive Miss Daisy around” – but quickly adds “I’m not going to marry any of them”.
And there’s definitely no talk of retirement. “Not being able to work and get around, I would go quietly insane. I’m more interested in being involved in what’s happening than being a spectator.”
Ella doesn’t pay much heed to her birthdays anymore, preferring to let them slip quietly by. “It’s another step down death row and I don’t want to be reminded I am 97,” she said.
“There is real fear. If you love life, then you don’t want to give it up. When you get to 97 you can’t deny that you’re not going to be here for much longer. I take each day as it comes and don’t plan ahead.”