To celebrate the 1,000th edition of The Mercury Bay Informer, we have gone back to where it all began with an interview with the founding owner and editor, Denise Gunson, now a well-known and respected artist living in Coroglen.
Workwise, Denise has had a number of careers over the years, including running a restaurant and property development with her husband, Nev. She has also worked as a builder’s labourer and a multimedia tutor.
Interestingly, it was those latter two occupations that indirectly led to Denise establishing The Informer in March 2003. “I went back to school when I was 45 to do an intensive computer multimedia course in Hamilton because I was sick of being a builder’s labourer,” she said. “The idea was to learn computer skills so that I could put them towards creating a job in Whitianga.”
After the year-long course, Denise established herself as a computer tutor in town, advertising her services in another, now-defunct, newspaper which had a monopoly in the area, for advertising purposes at least.
“I was running an advertisement in the local newspaper and one day I went to drop off my ad and the owner/editor didn’t even acknowledge me,” Denise recalled with a hint of triumph in her voice. “She just said I was three minutes late for the deadline, so she wasn’t going to accept the ad. You can’t print what I actually said in reply.
“Suffice to say I told her, in words that left no doubt about my feelings, that I was going to set up my own paper. I walked straight across the road to Endeavour Print run by Jo and Paul Rowbottom, who were friends of mine, and who also printed the other newspaper, and asked them if they would agree to be my printers if I started a local paper. Their daughter, Tania Rowbottom, gave me a crash course in how to use ‘Publisher,’ the format they needed for the paper.”
And that was how The Informer was born. The first issue was a single A4 sheet with a story on the front page announcing the paper’s arrival on the scene, featuring a witch on a broomstick captioned “Don’t Drink and Fly”, with the back page given over to free classified ads, almost entirely those of Denise and Nev, as until that stage virtually no-one knew about the new paper.
Denise cannot remember the size of the print run, but says it would have been between 500 and 1,000.
By the time they came to the second issue, the paper had increased in size from two pages to eight and Denise knew that this was something that was really going to work. “It just took off,” she said. “The second issue had commercial advertisers on board, a Fagans ad was on the front page. It just kept growing and we thought we were the bee’s knees.
“The first handful of issues were created in the spare bedroom of our house at Coroglen until we moved into shared space with the Rowbottoms. Then ultimately we moved to our own premises.”
However, for the first few issues, the paper had no name at all. That was something that the people living in the wider area got to choose.
At that time, Denise said, the other, nowdefunct newspaper, had stopped delivering in rural areas, so there were around 600 people who were not getting that paper delivered any more. “We didn’t know what to call our new paper and friends came up with some crazy ideas,” she said. “So we decided to throw it over to the community to decide by having a competition to see who could come up with the best name. Our purpose, or philosophy if you like, was keeping town and country connected.
“People in the rural areas felt disconnected because there was no rural delivery of the other paper and they felt they weren’t being informed which is why when ‘The Informer’ was suggested, we tended to lean towards that name.”
Unfortunately, Denise could not remember the name of the person who came up with the name, except to say that he lived in Hahei. His prize for the winning suggestion was dinner for two to the value of $50 at Salt Restaurant.
But there is much more work to running a newspaper than coming up with a name and Denise conceded it would not have been possible without an army of friends on hand to help out.
“We had friends help fold the paper and collate it, though sometimes pages would turn out in the wrong order, depending on how much wine and beer had been consumed,” Denise laughed, adding that they always had beer and wine in the fridge to keep up the friends’ enthusiasm. “And we had friends deliver the paper, including Russell the postie, who delivered it around town in his own time, and Shell and Billy who ran the rural delivery service and delivered it for free. We had huge support from people helping get this off the ground.”
Being as diplomatic as she could about her rival at the other, now defunct, newspaper, Denise said simply that advertisers in Whitianga were keen for an alternative place to advertise at that time. “They were happy for a change and totally supportive,” she said.
Despite all the help from friends, Denise found herself working 12-hour days writing stories and doing all the unseen administrative things that needed to be done to keep a newspaper flourishing.
“It had just got too big, so I employed a wonderful woman, Fiona Murphy, who now owns and operates Pinnacle Pilates,” Denise said. “Fiona created the ads, answered the phone and looked after the reception while I mostly wrote the stories. She was my right hand in everything.”
Denise said that one of the highlights that she and Fiona shared was putting together the first ever Informer Summer Guide. “It was our first ever colour production, we were really, really proud of that,” she said. “We worked many long hours into the nights on that production. We printed 6,000 copies of the Summer Guide.”
But with the success of a soaring circulation came the need for a bit more mechanisation. “We became so big that we had to buy a collating machine because there are only so many friends you can get to fold the paper,” Denise said. “And then we bought a Risograph printing machine, a bit like a computerised Gestetner, to print the paper ourselves.”
But even with the labour-saving machinery, things were getting too much for Denise despite the unremitting help of husband Nev, who looked after the machines, fixed things and fitted in where necessary, not to mention delivering the paper with huge speakers blaring on his bright blue scooter - all carried out in addition to working full-time as a builder.
“We just got to the point where the paper was getting bigger and bigger and bigger, so we sold it in 2005,” Denise said. “At the time of selling, we had grown to an average of 28 pages and a full-time staff of four, including myself. It was after a hospital stay with cancer that we made the decision to slow down and sell the paper. The one thing about newspapers is the stress of deadlines. The paper was getting bigger and that brought a lot more stress.”
While those were difficult times, Denise remembered fondly the many get-well messages and flowers from advertisers while she was in hospital. “I used to deliver to every shop, every issue to make a connection with the advertisers and I was very touched by all their good wishes and flowers,” she said.
By the time Denise sold the paper, she had boosted circulation to over 4,000 a week.
Denise had nothing but praise for Stephan and Petra Bosman, who bought The Informer in January 2013. “I think what they have done is just fantastic,” she said. “It is the sort of direction I would like to have seen the paper going in and the Summer Guides are an absolute credit to the whole team.”
Denise commended Stephan and Petra on their sense of community involvement and support. “When I had the paper, it was always about ‘community’ but they have taken it to a whole new level,” she said. “It is definitely a community newspaper in every sense of the word now and I am extremely proud.
“I totally appreciate the effort that they put into involvement in the community and their commitment to putting out a really great product.”
Denise, who has concentrated on her passion for stained glass art at her Coroglen studio since retiring three years ago, said she personally appreciated the support and sponsorship that Stephan and Petra provided to the Mercury Bay Art Escape. “One of the things that Stephan and Petra did really well was their generous sponsorship of local groups, which was something I did too with my support of the now-discontinued Coroglen Raft Race, the Peninsula Poker Motorcycle Run and the Whitianga Scallop Festival,” she said.
As for journalism, Denise rather modestly said that when she started The Informer, they did not call what they wrote journalism, because they did not have a lot to write about.
“That’s the big difference between Stephan and Petra and me - back 20 years ago there was virtually no news,” Denise said. “So we had to use a lot of humour instead. If we had a big space, we would put in a borderline joke. We also had a column called ‘Penelope Possum’, which was named after Felicity Ferret from Metro Magazine. At the time the column was a big thing, gossip really, but it was very popular. It was the first page that people used to go to. People used to love it. And we also had weird competitions for fun, just as a filler.”
One such competition was photographing the upper half and lower half of consenting, fun-loving advertisers in Whitianga, and getting readers to match up their bottoms and heads, if they could.
One of the pranks Penelope Possum pulled was making people believe that Bruce Willis was staying in town. “We had the whole town believing he was staying in Whitianga and people were actually claiming they had seen him, they knew where he was staying, that he had been in the local pub or had been out on a fishing charter,” Denise laughed. “People would ask me where he was staying and could I let them in on the secret, that they would not tell a soul. This was more about fun, because there was no news to speak of.
“Everyone was scared of Penelope Possum. When you spoke to people you could see them wondering, ‘Is this going to end up in the paper?’”
The identities of locals were only ever hinted at by Penelope Possum, like the well-known “garbiologist” who was reported to have come home worse the wear for drink and put a crayfish in the pot to cook, only to fall asleep on the couch causing clouds of thick, black putrid smoke throughout the house that did not endear him to his wife at all.
Or the well-known farmer, who for reasons best known to himself, was spotted with purple nail polish on his toenails.
However, there were sometimes important stories to tell and Denise did not shy away from them. One involved a series of resource consents for an apartment building. “We were threatened with being sued, but we just laughed because we knew it was true because we had seen the documents from the council,” she said.
Denise said Whitianga has changed a lot since she started The Informer. “I remember the kids would be late for school because the ferry used to follow dolphins up the estuary,” she said. “Everything was way more relaxed then. Life was simpler and more laid back. But at least I know that however the town and the wider area develops, The Informer will be there to keep people informed - which was the reason I set up the paper in the first place.”
Pictured is Denise Gunson established The Informer in March 2003.