Obituary: Herald editor Peter Scherer – a gentleman and a journalist of principle

OBITUARY

Great newspapers are like great ships, sailing steadily on a reliable course set by a calm and consistent captain on the bridge. Peter Scherer commanded the New Zealand Herald for 11 years, 1985-96, one of longest-serving editors in the paper’s long history.

He was not a hands-on captain. He ensured that capable people were on the helm and in all other crucial positions and kept a distant eye on them. Many found rare visits to his office unnerving, not because he was personally harsh – far from it, he was unfailingly polite – but his mind was sharp and his views never fuzzy.

Those who wrote his daily editorials, which he sometimes practically dictated, were told they were never to use the phrases “on the one hand (and) the other”, and must always come to a definite conclusion.

The editorial column was the only place in the paper he wanted to see a journalist’s opinion. He was a newspaperman of an age when reporters dealt strictly in facts and quotations, not impressions, descriptions, comment, analysis or anything that could be attributed to their opinion.

Bylines were a rarity when he was starting out and if readers never saw the editor’s name in the paper, that was exactly as he thought it should be. When he retired in 1996 he said, “In 41 years, I cannot remember writing for publication in the first-person singular.”

He was a Herald man for his entire career (if these gender specific references date him, he would not have minded). He began as a “printer’s devil”, or errand boy, in his summer holidays during his last two years at Takapuna Grammar School.

He swept floors, pulled proof from the old hot-metal presses and the bus and ferry fares from the North Shore took up nearly all of his $2 weekly pay.

He joined the paper as a cadet reporter aged 17 in 1955 and cut his teeth on the usual array of local body “rounds”. He remembered a senior minister in the Nash Government falling asleep while he was interviewing him on a sunny afternoon in Auckland on some matter of local and central government relations.

But the record shows he was good enough to win the Cowan Prize for Outstanding Journalism in 1959.

In 1960, the Herald sent Scherer to the parliamentary press gallery and there he flourished. He reported politics from the gallery for 12 years, becoming the Herald’s bureau chief in 1965. He struck a chord of mutual respect with political leaders that would continue to stand him in good stead after he returned to the Auckland office in 1971 and began to climb the editorial executive ladder.

He became Business Editor in 1973 and an Assistant Editor in 1977 before stepping up to be editor in 1985. His years in the chair coincided with the period of New Zealand’s drastic economic reforms under the fourth Labour Government and the subsequent National Government.

Scherer understood the rationale of the reforms and lent them full support in the Herald’s editorials, not just in the exciting first term of the Lange-Douglas Government, through the KZ7 summer and the stock market boom, but through the 1987 crash and subsequent recession.

While Scherer deserves recognition for the contribution he made to the economy New Zealand has today, he did not interfere with critical reporting of the reforms in the Herald’s news columns through the difficult years of 1988-93.

He was conservative by instinct but capable of radical enthusiasm for a cause that made sense to him. When a royal commission on the electoral system proposed a system of proportional representation for New Zealand in 1986, he thought it much fairer that the status quo and was an immediate supporter.

To the surprise, and probably the dismay, of most leading politicians of the day, the Herald endorsed MMP editorially long before it became popular in the 1990s as a means to rein in reforming governments.

The 1990s were also a time of rapid change in the newspaper industry as digital technology replaced typewriters and hit metal printing presses, and the internet brought printed news to readers at a pace newspapers couldn’t match.

The Herald came under a sharemarket attack from Brierley Investments and lost its benign ownership by the Wilson and Horton families. Scherer had been a board member but he and managing director Michael Horton had maintained the separation of business and editorial decisions that is essential for reputable news media.

By 1995 the Herald was undergoing a thorough redesign to take full advantage of the data made available and presentational improvements made possible by digital technology.

There was also to be more opinion in the paper, more comment, along with more colour, more graphics, more pages devoted to a big story.

Not all of these changes were to Peter Scherer’s taste and he stepped down on June 30, 1996. He and his wife Gaelyn moved from the city to a bushy rural property at Tomarata near Wellsford where he had time to read, garden and play more tennis.

He is survived also by his daughter Karyn and son Karl. Following in her father’s footsteps, Karyn was also a young reporter on the Herald for a time. Former Deputy Editor Don Milne remembers that one of the few serious disagreements he had with Scherer was over his reluctance to promote his daughter as rapidly as Milne knew she deserved.

But nobody was more proud a few weeks ago when Karyn Scherer was appointed editor of NZ Listener.

Long ago, the family had given him a personalised car plate proclaiming EDITOR and in every sense he was. He was a gentleman and a journalist of principle and taste who maintained the best traditions of a reliable, trusted newspaper. – John Roughan

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