FORMER Newcastle Herald editor and mentor to hundreds of journalists Chris Watson has died following a battle with cancer.
He was 63.
Watson, more affectionately known as Watto to his mates and colleagues, had only retired from the newspaper game last year, after more than 40 years as a leader in the industry.
He was the Herald’s editor for more than a year in 2002-2003 and held the unique honour of being acting editor on three separate occasions between 1996 and 2000.
After moving from the Cessnock Eagle, where he took a cadetship after leaving school, to the Newcastle Herald in 1971, Watson held many positions at the paper from civic reporter to chief sub-editor and chief of staff.
He was for many years deputy editor.
Close friend and fellow journalist Neil Jameson said Watson’s skill as a newspaperman was only rivalled by his love of teaching others the craft.
‘‘In an industry beset with healthy egos he was an absolute contradiction – the best brain in the room who invariably put the career advancement of others before his own,’’ Jameson said on Sunday.
‘‘As a journalist, he was the complete all-rounder; an outstanding reporter with a great news sense, he was also a fine creative writer.
‘‘But his true skill set became evident when he took on the mantle of leadership as a chief sub-editor, deputy editor and eventually editor.
‘‘Young journalists gravitated to him – not just because they sensed he knew all the secrets of the game, but also because of his generosity of spirit.’’
Those he mentored include Seven political reporter Mark Riley, Fairfax columnist and entertainment writer Tony Squires and ABC 24 news anchor Scott Bevan.
His dedication to regional news and mentoring young journalists saw him awarded the coveted Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism award at the Northern NSW Journalism Awards in 2009. He had also won numerous other ‘‘Prodis’’.
Industry experts said Watson’s ability could have seen him hold a senior position in any newspaper in Australia, but it was the love of the Hunter and the Herald which kept him in Newcastle.
Watson’s talent allowed the Herald to cover the biggest stories the best.
He and Riley remained behind in the newspaper’s crippled building after it was evacuated during the 1989 earthquake to continue manning the phones and making calls.
In 1993 as the world waited to see who would be named as host of the 2000 Olympics, Watson made up several front pages with different headlines and stories, depending on which city won.
When Sydney got the nod, Herald readers were the first in the country to get the news on their front lawns.
‘‘Long before tweets, he carried two pens in his top pocket, ready to jot down a few notes on a coaster,’’ close friend and colleague Mark Rothfield said.
‘‘From the subs’ table and the editor’s chair he covered every major story in the Hunter over 40 years.
‘‘He enjoyed a quiet beer, a punt and a footy game, as much as a film or a vineyards concert.
‘‘He loved local history as much as international travel.
‘‘Throughout it all he understood the mindset of his readers throughout the Hunter.’’
Watson was known as an intensely loyal friend and extremely generous – he shouted 20 friends a trip to New Caledonia to celebrate his 50th birthday.
He loved Christmas and his spending sprees were legendary, with the lounge room of his tiny Cooks Hill terrace overflowing. The record is believed to be about 190 presents.
Current Herald editor Chad Watson said he was among the many journalists who benefitted from having Chris as a mentor.
‘‘Watto always put others first,’’ he said.
‘‘His generosity and wise counsel were something to behold and cherish.
‘‘A giant of the industry, he will be remembered as a true great of the Herald and the Hunter.’’
Chris Watson is survived by his daughter Naomi and his brother Ken, and his family.