Former Byron Shire News editor Gary Chigwidden outside the paper's office at Habitat in Byron Bay, June 2020.
Former Byron Shire News editor Gary Chigwidden outside the paper's office at Habitat in Byron Bay, June 2020.

Former editor on the ‘extraordinary’ tale of the Bay

GARY Chigwidden and his wife Pam had been tired of the city life in Sydney.

They wound up in Byron Bay and, with no abundance of journalistic jobs on offer, decided to buy a cafe.

“We naively thought the best approach would be to initially buy an established business and go from there,” Mr Chigwidden said.

“Which is how, after two flying weekend visits to inspect the shop and the town, we came to buy an existing patisserie/cafe called Au Peche Mignon in the Old Bakery complex in Marvel St, Byron Bay.”

After scouring the Businesses for Sale columns in the Sydney papers, they bought a patisserie/cafe then known as Au Peche Mignon, today known as Bay Leaf Cafe. More than three years later, they sold the cafe – which had been renamed Savoir Fare – and Mr Chigwidden needed another plan.

He found a job ad advertising a journalism role for The Northern Star’sByron office and then-editor Jim Brigginshaw hired him into the role.

Mr Chigwidden said he was still thankful for that decision.

Seven years later, in 1995, he was headhunted by merchant banker David Kingston and journalist Glen Burge from Sydney; the pair had just bought Byron News from John Wright, the son of its founders, Reg and Jean Wright.

“It was tough but exciting in those early days for everyone who worked there,” Mr Chigwidden said.

“I knew nothing about Apple Macs and even less about the Pagemaker production system we had inherited. Which explains why I was still there at two in the morning on production day of my first Byron News.

“I went home, with the paper still not finished, and wondered what the hell I had got myself into.”

APN bought the paper a few years later, bringing it into the same business at The Northern Star and increasing it from an A4 to tabloid size.

Then-teenager and rising kayaking star Nathan Baggaley was on the cover of the first “big paper”.

The newsroom moved from its “rabbit warren” home on Bangalow Rd to a spot above Westpac Bank in Jonson St.

This, Mr Chigwidden said, was his home for almost 17 years and was a place where lifelong bonds were made.

“Without being too melodramatic, I can truthfully say I gave the job and the paper my heart and soul,” he said.

“For this lifetime journalist, it was a dream job in a dream location. It didn’t get any better.”

Mr Chigwidden had an abundance of fascinating and momentous stories in his time covering the Byron Shire, but he says the biggest story of his time working in northern NSW was that of the town itself and its transformation.

“To grow, as it has done in the 35 years that I have lived on the Far North Coast, from the small coastal, industrial town I knew nothing about, but fell in love with the day I arrived, to international tourism icon status, is extraordinary,” he said.

“But oddly, out of the hundreds of stories I wrote over the years, none got more reaction than the very personal piece I wrote on the death in 2011 of my dog Belle.

“There were letters, phone calls, stopped-in-the-street conversations and it even became a feature talkback piece on local ABC radio.

“It certainly stunned me.

“My aim through the years always had been to try and capture the spirit and essence of the shire and its people.”