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Tony Reid: 1943-2020

Ground-breaking journalist and former Listener editor. 

The journalism of the years 1960 to 2000 is littered with masthead casualties now, but it was within those publications that Tony Reid became what’s now called a destination journalist. Reid, who died on February 14, was the one you’d buy the magazine, or the newspaper, for – just to read. Within those years he’s acknowledged as a master of long-form print journalism – the in-depth interview, or the revealing personal profile.

Reid learnt his trade on provincial newspapers, but progressed quickly to the Dominion Sunday Times and a weekly interview series, “The Frank Portrait”, that established a lifelong pattern. Sir Edmund Hillary, Denis Glover, Sir Ernest Marsden, Sir Eruera Tirikatene and many others were all ushered through “Frank” and emerged afresh. If Reid’s Catholicism gave him anything, it was his priest-like ability to draw from his subjects far more than they might want to give.

In 1967, he joined the NZ Weekly News, and trialled stories that centred on himself as observer. For a story on the New Zealand Post Office, he mailed himself as a stamped item from Cape Reinga to Stewart Island, loaded en route into trucks, railway guards’ vans and ships.

But he had a darker Irish side, too. When Paremoremo’s high-security D Block opened, in 1968, he spent a night inside. His fellow inmates staged a noisy demonstration for him alone, and his interest in prisons led to an interview series called “The Criminal Mind”.

After a stint at the Sun in Melbourne, Reid returned in 1972 as a feature writer on the Listener. The intuition within his big round head was formidable; his subjects often sleepwalked towards revelations that are the profiler’s holy grail. In 1974, his profile on Hugh Watt, the then Labour Government’s deputy prime minister, began – “In a word? Dull? I suppose that would be the adjective.” It’s widely quoted as the beginning in New Zealand of the so-called new journalism, but Reid had been doing it for years.

Encouraged forward by editor Ian Cross, Reid became, in 1977, the magazine’s fifth and youngest editor. But in 1980, he stepped down to return to his first love, reportage and writing. The Listener’s coverage of the 1981 Springbok tour by Reid and Phil Gifford would win the top feature-writing prize for that year. His long 1983 interview with the intensely shy redhead, Janet Frame, published in the NZ Herald, remains a classic of literary journalism.

He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995, but, although the long illness quelled his journalism, his reputation endured. In 2010, the Qantas Media Awards honoured him with a lifetime-achievement award.

This article was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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