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Not Bowling AloneIn 2017, 40 years after joining my first newspaper, I find myself trying to describe the technology of those beginner times to a class of bright young students at Oxford.
I intended the class to be about ‘digital’ life. Within minutes it becomes obvious these 18-year-olds have little idea what I mean. All their lives have been ‘digital’. What on earth is there to discuss?
They know of newspapers, of course. But they rarely read one in printed form or understand what, for 200 years or more, had been involved in the act of communicating news. Does it matter? I think perhaps it does. Otherwise how would you know that this present age is experimental, that there are other possibilities they may not have dreamed of?
I take a deep breath and start drawing little L.S. Lowry1 stick figures on the whiteboard to show them what – even in recent history – was required for one person to communicate to more than a small group.
I describe the Cambridge Evening News of 1976. It was the paper I joined a week after graduating. It was where my own journey in journalism began.
First I draw a reporter – stick figure (SF) 1 – typing words on a manual typewriter (brief explanation necessary) onto a sandwich of paper and carbon paper (ditto) copies. Then I draw SF 1 handing the top sheet of paper to SF 2, the copy taster, and giving the carbon copy (‘the black’) to SF 3, the news editor. I show a copy taster assessing the stories, then bundling them up with pictures before passing each page plan to SF 4, the lay-out sub, who would then design the page and draw up a plan for the printers to follow, indicating the typographical instructions – type size, across what measure, the length required for each story to fit the allocated space, the size and typeface of the headline needed, and so on.
SF 5, the sub-editor, would then take over and edit accordingly – cutting to length, correcting spelling or grammar and querying any facts. The copy would travel down the line to a revise sub, SF 6. The pages would then pass through a metaphorical curtain to another part of the building, to the composing room where a Linotype operator would key in the copy all over again.
By this stage of my drawing, my students are looking lost … and maybe a bit bored.
Deep breath, plough on: they need to know. Linotype machines, I explain, were squat dinosaurs of machinery, not much changed since Victorian times, used to compose metal lines of type. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, is said to have called these typesetting machines the Eighth Wonder of the World. An operator (SF 7) would sit in front of the clanking contraption – all cogs, chains, rods, wheels, plungers, pumps, moulds, matrices, crucibles, asbestos, pulleys, pistons and grease – and key in the text in front of him. The machinery included a tub of molten metal – a mix of lead, antimony and tin – heated to about 400 degrees Centigrade, which would produce a slug of type.
The students look mildly interested at the thought of foundries of boiling metal being in some way associated with communication.
Elsewhere in the composing room SF 8 would be sitting at a Ludlow machine – a heavy-duty version of the Linotype machine – casting a headline. Enter SF 9, who took all the type and arranged it into columns on a flat iron surface (‘the stone’) – adjusting it from time to time as readers elsewhere compared the original with the typeset print and sent through corrections. Then came SF 10, who, in a high-pressure press, would stamp a papier mâché mould of the metal-set page. SF 11 would place the mould, now curved, over a semi-circular casting box and pour more molten metal into it to create a semi-circular printing plate.
One of the students is surreptitiously consulting his mobile phone under the desk.
SF 12 placed the curved plate onto the vast rotary presses, capable of printing 50,000 copies an hour. In the belly of the cathedral-like printing hall, SF 13 would negotiate enormous rolls of newsprint onto the printing presses and gradually thread the paper through the presses’ rollers. The presses would thunder into life and, in time, a printed newspaper emerged from the other end of the units and would be cut, folded and counted into bundles of 26 copies by SF 14. Then SF 15 stacked and sorted the bundles with the names and address of the wholesale and retail newsagents.
Not done yet.
It was the job of SF 16 to drive the papers in a van (or, once upon a time, a train for national newspapers) to the wholesale distribution points. SF 17 made sure they got into the hands of newsagents (SF 18) who would employ young children (SF 19) to cycle around the local streets delivering newspapers though people’s front doors.
Nineteen stages (in reality, dozens – if not hundreds – of stick figures) needed for me to enable my act of communication with someone else.
‘And, of course, now,’ I say superfluously, because they already know this, ‘if I want to communicate with any of you I just use this.’ I wave my mobile phone in the air. ‘And then I can communicate not only with you but, potentially, the whole world.’
‘And so,’ I add even more pointlessly, ‘can you.’
The group look as if I have been relating how cave dwellers created fire by rubbing dry twigs together.
‘But what if something happened just after deadline?’ one of them asks.
‘Well, we’d come back and update you the next day.’
The questioner doesn’t look impressed.
In 1976 journalism was, by and large, something you did rather than studied.
There were very few postgraduate journalism schools. The common route into the business was being thrown into the newsroom of a local paper to learn on the job – with a few months at a local technological college to pick up shorthand along with the basics of law and administration.
A crash course in journalism included a single class on ethics and an awful lot of Pitman’s or Teeline textbooks for shorthand. You were required to read two other books, one on libel and another explaining the mechanics and processes of local government written by a former member of Bolton County Borough Council. I was, in due course, to fail my shorthand exam. But I still ‘qualified’ to become a journalist. Sort of.
A week after finishing my finals paper on the dense modernist poetry of Ezra Pound, I swapped my university college – founded in 1428, all medieval courts, honeyed stone, velvet green lawns, punts and weeping willows – for the prosaic 1960s offices of the Cambridge Evening News, a mile to the east on the unlovely Newmarket Road. It was another education: three years spent in a different Cambridge, reporting on a world of factories, housing estates, petty crime and bustling community life.
There were not many graduates in the 20-strong reporting room of the CEN, a paper then selling just fewer than 50,000 copies a day. University types were – rightly – viewed with suspicion as arrogant interlopers who would trade the experience we gained in the provinces to secure a better-paid job in Fleet Street just as soon as we had even uncertificated proof of our ability to write quickly and of our familiarity with the finer points of the Local Government Act, 1972.
For the first week I wrote nothing but wedding reports – the journalistic training equivalent of intensive square-bashing or boot-polishing. It was a far cry from the Cantos of Pound. It was also more difficult than it looked: the mundane but essential ability to record every small detail with complete accuracy. The news editor took an ill-concealed pleasure in pointing out each and every error to arrogant young trainees with newly acquired degrees in English Literature.
The newspaper was owned by one Lord Iliffe of Yattendon, a largely absent figure who owned a 9,000-acre estate 100 miles away in Berkshire. More important to me was Fulton Gillespie, the chief reporter, known as Jock – a growling silver-haired Glaswegian with dark glasses and the stub of a cigar permanently lodged between bearded lips.
Jock became my new personal tutor. He was not a graduate, but a coal miner’s son who had left school with no certificates of any kind and had started work at 14 as an apprentice printer at the Falkirk Herald in Scotland before crossing to the editorial side at 16.
He had cut his teeth recording market stock notes and prices in old pence and farthings along with shipping movements and cargoes from the nearby Grangemouth docks. From this he progressed to writing cinema synopses – A and B pictures with titles and stars’ names. His equivalent of English Literature essays had consisted of funerals and lists of mourners; amateur dramatic societies’ plays and musicals with cast lists; local antiquarian society meetings and debates; miners’ welfare committee meetings; WI fêtes recording best cake and best jams. There had been farm shows to record, with their prize bulls and heifers to spell correctly, before turning up to report on local sports matches. And a quick change in the evenings for annual dinners of all kinds of local charities, sporting, civic and faith groups. The following morning back in courts, councils and other public bodies.
That was Jock’s life in the mid-’50s. It would have been the same for any trainee reporter in the mid-’60s and it was – give or take – my life in Cambridge in the mid-’70s.
Early in my time as a trainee reporter Jock told us about the ritual for covering Scottish hangings. This involved befriending the murderer’s soon-to-be widow by promising to write a sympathetic account, possibly hinting at a campaign to demand an 11th-hour reprieve. Once he’d extracted the quotes and purloined the family photographs the reporter would, on exit, shout at the distraught soon-to-be widow that her husband was an evil bastard who deserved to rot in hell.
‘Why did you do that?’
‘So that the next reporter to turn up wouldn’t get through the door.’
That was what real reporting was about. Get the story, stuff the opposition. Jock saw it as his duty to school us in hard knocks. We would begin the day with the calls – a round trip to the police, ambulance and fire services. As we set off in the office Mini he would deliver one of a small repertoire of homilies about our craft. ‘If you write for dukes, only dukes will understand, but if you write for the dustman, both will understand. Keep it short, keep it simple, write it in language you would use if you were telling your mum or dad.’
He explained that police work involved keeping one foot on the pavement and one in the gutter. You got their respect by kicking them in the balls at regular intervals, because, in the long run, they needed us more than we needed them. That, he emphasised, was a good rule applicable to all those in authority. It had been hammered into him by the old hacks on the Falkirk Herald and it would always be true. He repeated this homily often in case I had failed to grasp it. They needed us more than we needed them.
We owned the printing presses: they didn’t. End of.
In time I was dispatched to a district office where the routine was the same, only with more alcohol. I drove the 20 miles to Saffron Walden in Essex on a clapped out old Lambretta scooter. There were three reporters for a town of fewer than 10,000 people. The chief reporter poured whisky into my morning coffee before we made the police calls. There were two or three pints at lunchtime, more Irish coffee in the afternoon and more pints in the evening before I wobbled my way back to Cambridge.
We covered all the local council committees and courts. There were golden weddings to record and local amateur dramatics to review. On Saturdays I would be packed off to cover ‘The Bloods’, Saffron Walden Town Football Club, who were forced to play in a modest Essex league because the sloping pitch at Catons Lane was deemed to have ‘excessive undulations’. I knew little about football – just enough to be able to record the bare facts about the game on a telex machine in the corridor at the top of the stairs.
Above the telex – a machine that punched holes in paper tape to transmit the copy back to Cambridge for typesetting – was a list of footballing clichés. For every cliché that survived the attention of the subs back in head office and made it into print, we had to buy the other two colleagues in Saffron Walden a pint. They included describing the goalkeeper as ‘the custodian of the woodwork’; ‘a fleet-footed midfielder’; and (to describe a penalty) ‘he made no mistake from the spot’. By 6 p.m. the match report was on the streets of Cambridge, along with all the other local and national football teams or in the special late Saturday afternoon ‘pink ’un’ sports edition.
Most of the news – back in Cambridge as well as the district offices – was pre-ordained, in the sense that the news editor in each newsroom kept an A4 diary on his desk in which he or she would record every upcoming council committee along with the relevant health, fire, ambulance, water and utilities boards. Late in the afternoon you would check the page to see what job had been assigned for the following day.
Often you would travel with a photographer. There was a strong demarcation between writers and snappers. A reporter would not dream of taking a photograph and a snapper would never dare to write a line of text. Indeed, union rules forbade it.
Around two thirds of the work was what you might call ‘top down’: the newspaper telling the citizens about the workings of the assorted institutions put in place to regulate or order local and civic life.
The other third of the news flowed the other way, bottom up. This was not a Bowling Alone world – the deracinated hollowed-out communities described by Robert Putnam 25 years later in America. There was bubbling social and institutional activity all around, and where we lacked the resources to cover it ourselves we recruited local stringers (today they might be called ‘citizen journalists’) to file accounts of discussion groups and scout sports days and charity baking mornings for the local hospital scanner. Every name sold a paper, as the news editor would remind us at regular intervals. We were duly encouraged to cram as many names as possible into our reports. Every picture sold a paper, too, so photographers knew to take group pictures and collect the names for the captions.
A typical week might include residents with damp problems who wanted to get on the radar of an unresponsive council. The petition about the dangerous pedestrian crossing. The man with the dog who’d made friends with an owl. A couple of times a day a reader would find their way to the Newmarket Road office and one of us would have to sit down in the reception area to debrief them. The representative of a group trying to stop the bulldozing of a few acres of Victorian cottages to make way for a shopping centre. The reader who has brought in a potato resembling Winston Churchill. Another is obsessed by an electricity junction box at the bottom of his garden. All our visitors want the local paper on their side.
The first edition of the paper hit the streets before lunchtime, with two or three more editions during the afternoon. A hinged door was all that separated the newsroom from the industrial machinery required to turn our words into type. Within a few yards of the sub-editors’ desks were the Linotype and Ludlow machines. The smell of molten metal and grease would waft into the newsroom with each swing of the door. Around 11 a.m. the entire building would shudder as the rotary presses started to roll with the first edition.
It was impossible to forget that newspapers were as much light engineering as fine words.
There are many things we did not discuss back in 1976. We didn’t talk about business models. The model for the Cambridge Evening News was relatively straightforward: nearly 50,000 people a day parted with money to buy a copy. There was display advertising – a local department store or car showroom promoting a special deal or sale. And then there was the lifeline of local newspapers: classified advertising. The vast majority of second-hand cars or houses in Cambridge and surrounding towns were offered for sale through the pages of the Cambridge Evening News. Every job vacancy was announced in the paper, along with every birth, marriage and death. Every official notification from the council or other public authority: they were all printed at the back of the newspaper between the news and the sport.
The profit margins on local papers at their peak – and the mid-’70s were as good a time as any – were in the 30 to 40 per cent range and would continue to be until the end of the century. Nearly 30 years later the regional press was still taking something like 20 per cent of the UK’s advertising spend.
So, no, we didn’t talk about business models; we didn’t need to.
We didn’t talk about ethics. And we didn’t talk about technology. Not much had changed about the way our journalism reached the readers in a hundred years or more. Hot metal typesetting machines had been around since the 1880s. The presses had got faster over the years, but otherwise a journalist from the late nineteenth century would have found little to surprise him in the 1970s. We banged out stories on battered typewriters – the only technology we used apart from telephones. If we were out of the office on deadline we’d phone it in to copy takers who did their best to conceal their boredom. No intro more than 30 words. Get the salient facts into the top of the story so, in haste, it could be cut from the bottom. The production methods of a newspaper seemed timeless and immutable.
We met our readers out on stories and, by and large, we were welcomed and – apparently – trusted. Sometimes we deliberately intruded on grief. The ‘death knock’ was the name given to that heart-sinking moment when the news editor might send you to see the parents whose daughter had just died in a traffic accident. Oddly, we were rarely sent packing by devastated relatives. More often, the response was to welcome us in, even at this moment of unimaginable pain. For many, it seemed to be something of an honour for their relatives to be remembered in the pages of the paper.
Some 40 years after my stint in Cambridge I made contact with my old news editor, Christopher South, to check my memory of my local reporting days. South, now nearly 80, produced two cardboard boxes of old papers he’d stuffed into brown envelopes as he cleared his desk between roles. He was, he explained apologetically, a bit of a hoarder.
I had a Proustian moment as I unsealed the first box. The smell of the Newmarket Road office seeped out of the battered cardboard container as I sifted through the papers – mainly the smell of the cheap newsprint on which we typed. I found a story written by my old (now late) colleague John Gaskell on 27 April 1976. In the top right corner, his surname: in the top left, ‘sweepers 1’ – the catchline, or running head, given to the story so that it could be followed through the process from sub to compositor to printing press. The intro was tight, 23 words long. At the bottom of the page ‘m.f.’. More follows.
On another piece of now-tattered copy paper – evidently intended for the staff newsletter – a call for any stamp-collecting enthusiasts who would like to ‘pool their knowledge, contacts, exchange deals and ideas in order to enrich their hobby’. On another, a memo from the editor stressing the ‘vital necessity for keeping costs down’. No reporter was to spend more than 75 pence on lunch, or £1.20 on dinner, without prior approval.
There was a memo from the agricultural correspondent on the state of the paper – presumably in response to some invitation for feedback. It suggested that the arts coverage should be ‘more down to earth and more relevant to the readership we serve who aren’t all intellectuals or artistic’. It ended: ‘I would think twice before paying the new price of 4p but the basis is there for making it worth 5p if we all work at it.’ And a randomly preserved copy of the Times, the crossword half-solved: Saturday 8 November 1975. There are 22 headlines on its front page, some of them over entire stories, some of them flagging up further news inside. The typography is busy, workmanlike, factual. There is one small picture. The page is densely informative. The pattern continues inside, with multiple stories and very small black and white pictures.
South had also clipped an article from the New Statesman of 21 March 1975 (‘The Establishment and the Press’), which referred to the National Union of Journalists’ rule, introduced in 1965, that no one could be recruited to Fleet Street without first having had three years’ experience on a provincial newspaper. The author, Tom Barstow, reflected on why this rule had been introduced: ‘This letter was forged in the heated resentment that developed as growing numbers of Oxbridge graduates were hired straight from university and in many cases given “direct commissions” without any pretence of putting them through the ranks. The anger of newspapermen who had been through the provincial mill wasn’t based on the fact that these elite recruits had been to university but that they hadn’t been anywhere else.’
And, finally, a staff list for 1973, recording that the company then employed more than 70 journalists, including two reporters in each of seven district offices. In the composing room there were 18 Linotype operators to work the old molten Linotype machines. There were eleven compositors, ten stone hands to assemble the type into pages, seven readers to check the typeset galleys against the original and five print apprentices. There were eight men in the foundries and 29 to run the pressroom, including cleaners and machine minders. Finally, there were 16 mechanics – and drivers to drop off the papers at newsagents and street sellers throughout the county.
Back in 1976 there were, if we did ever pause to think about the finances, only two potential clouds on the horizon.
One was the advent of free newspapers, usually launched by small-scale entrepreneurs who imagined a much simpler model than traditional newspapers. They wanted to get the income (advertising) with almost none of the expense (journalism). But none of us really imagined that catching on because – well, people bought the paper for the stories to and read about their communities, schools and councils in a detail no free sheet could match.
The second was something rumbling away 90 miles northwest of Cambridge where a local newspaper, the Nottingham Evening Post, was locked in battles with its trade unions over the introduction of something called new technology. This apparently involved journalists doing their own typesetting, thus abolishing the need for all the type hands on the other side of the newsroom swing door. Our journalists’ union was against that. And anyway, it all seemed a very distant prospect in 1976.
In a sense it was. It was another ten years before Rupert Murdoch would stage his bold confrontation with his national print workers, throwing 5,000 of them out of work and producing computer-set newspapers from behind barbed wire in Wapping, East London. And it was 13 years before the management at the CEN would sack all the pre-press workers and insist on full computer typesetting. After 124 years in independent ownership, the Cambridge News, by then renamed and a weekly paper, was sold in 2012 to a new consolidated company called Local World, backed by a hedge-fund manager intent on bringing together 110 titles and 4,300 employees in a ‘one-stop shop’ serving ‘content’ to local communities. Three years later the company was sold on to another newspaper group, Trinity Mirror, with the intention of delivering ‘cost synergies’ of around £12 million. The paper now sells fewer than 15,000 copies a week, reaching around 52,000 a day online.
The film of the year in 1976 was All the President’s Men, in which Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman gave us the journalist-as-hero role model, which would prove very resilient over the decades to come.
It is the narrative we have often told the world, and which a few journalists might even believe. It usually involves the word ‘truth’: we speak truth to power; we are truth-seekers; we tell uncomfortable truths in order to hold people accountable.
The truth about journalism, it’s always seemed to me, is something messier and less perfect. Carl Bernstein, one of the twin begetters of Watergate, goes no further nowadays than ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’.
When living in Washington in 1987 I read a new book by the Washington Post’s veteran political commentator David Broder,2 which contained a passage that leaped off the page because it felt so much closer to what journalism actually does.
The process of selecting what the reader reads involves not just objective facts but subjective judgments, personal values and, yes, prejudices. Instead of promising ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’, I would like to see us say over and over until the point has been made … that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours … distorted despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labelled the paper accurately then we would immediately add: ‘But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected updated version…’
‘Partial, hasty, incomplete … somewhat flawed and inaccurate.’ Most journalists I know recognise a kind of honesty in those words – as does anyone who has ever been written about by a journalist. That doesn’t make journalism less valuable. But, as Broder argued, we might well earn more respect and trust if we acknowledged the reality of the activity we’re engaged in.
As reporters and editors of the Cambridge Evening News, we lived among the people on whom we reported. We would meet the councillors and coppers the following morning in the queue for bread. Did that, on occasion, make us pull our punches? Probably. But that closeness and familiarity also bred respect and trust. We were on the brink of a new world in which a proprietor on the other side of the world could dictate his view of how a country should be run. Or when the chief executive of a giant newspaper conglomerate would have trouble finding some of his ‘properties’ on a map. Small was, in some ways, beautiful.
While a young reporter on the CEN I fell in love. The relationship lasted just under two years. It was between two consenting adults – one male, one female – and was perfectly legal, even if it did not accord with one of the commandments in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20. The relationship caused some happiness; and some unhappiness to a few people – literally, no more than half-a-dozen either way.
One Friday night there was a knock on the door. A reporter and photographer from the Sunday Mirror wanted to tell the ‘story of our love’, as he put it, to the 4 million readers who then bought the newspaper every week. The reporter, a man called Richard, was charming.
I was a cub reporter, she was a university lecturer. Nobodies, end of story. Well, almost – for her late father had, some years earlier, been on the telly. So you could, at a stretch, make a consumable tale out of it: ‘Daughter of quite famous man has affair.’
Our relationship really didn’t seem to be anyone else’s business and so we politely declined the opportunity to invite Richard and his photographer over the doorstep.
Richard’s tone changed. ‘We can do this nice or we can do it nasty,’ he said abruptly, and then explained what nice and nasty looked like. Nice was for us to sit down on the sofa and tell the world about our love, and be portrayed in a sympathetic way that would warm the cockles of millions of Sunday Mirror readers all over Britain. Nasty meant they would start knocking on the doors of neighbours and contacting our relatives to put together a story that would be altogether less heart-warming.
It was a good pitch. How many people want their elderly parents, friends or neighbours approached or telephoned on a Friday night by a man preparing a self-confessed hatchet job? All the same, we felt this was – well, private. We were living together openly, and made no attempt to hide our relationship from friends or family. But we had no wish to tell the whole world. So we said no.
Richard and his photographer did not go away and sat outside the house for another 24 hours. From time to time he would lean on the doorbell – not to mention the neighbours’ – to test whether we had changed our minds. They stayed until Saturday afternoon, reappearing the following Friday evening to try again. Eventually we asked them in for a cup of tea, and I – the trainee kid in the room compared with Richard – suggested I might ring his news editor to explain we wouldn’t be talking. That seemed to do the trick. The story – nice or nasty – never saw the light of day.
My life at that point had been learning to report councils, courts, freak weather and flower shows. That was what I understood journalism to be – a record of public events of varying degrees of significance. The ring on the doorbell was my first, sharp realisation that ‘journalism’ meant many different things to many different people. And, also, of what it was like to have journalism done to you.
Copyright © 2018 by Alan Rusbridger