Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Times, they are a-changin'

Not so very long ago, if you saw someone walking down the street talking to themselves there was a good chance that you were looking at the local loony. These days, they are more likely to be chatting away on their mobile phone.

In the relatively short space of time since I’ve been a working bod (OK, it's been a quarter of a century but it FEELS like just a couple of years) many things have changed almost beyond recognition.

When I started out as a trainee reporter on a South London local newspaper, I had to bash out my copy on an antique manual typewriter (1 original & 2 carbon copies) and the paper was still printed using hot metal technology.

I won’t deny that I was glad to see my old typewriter go the way of the dodo and be replaced by the far more forgiving computer keyboard and screen, but there was a strange glamour to the old printing process that I still miss.

Our Newsroom was above the print floor and there was an indefinable thrill in watching the Chief Sub and printer bent over scrutinising the 'stone' that would become the plate for each page. Next would come the unmistakable rumble as the massive presses started up for the Thursday afternoon print-run, accompanied by the distinctive smell of hot metal and printing ink.

Once those presses were running, the Newsroom would heave a collective sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that another edition of Croydon’s finest had been 'put to bed'. Then, we'd submit our expense slips and head for the pub. Of course, there was always the chance of something big happening and us having to swing into action. But the cry of “Stop the presses!” was rarely heard (mainly due to the huge cost of stopping and starting the machines once they were on a roll).

The Newsrooms of today are very different to the one I walked into at the tender age of 18. Then, they were chaotic, cluttered, smoke-filled dens filled with scruffy excitable individuals who were deceptively organised (they had to be, to create order out of that chaos). Desks were littered with copy slips, expense claims forms, old notes slammed onto “spikes”, forgotten coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays. Sounds like hell, but I loved it.

These days, Newsrooms tend to be quiet, politically correct, clinical, air-conditioned havens peopled by clean-living, non-smoking (either by choice or enforcement) individuals who have probably never seen a manual typewriter. And the only sounds to break that ordered atmosphere are the gentle clicking of computer keyboards and the occasional chirrup of a mobile phone.

Thanks to the Internet, news is now instantaneous, so the focus of a weekly local rag has changed too. It’s not so much a matter now of getting the news to your readers, but offering the best promotions, inviting 'citizen journalists' to contribute to your column inches (filling space for free and allowing them to grind their own particular axes, sometimes at the cost of impartiality and decent writing) and attracting the most profitable advertising.

I am not going to pretend that I don’t get nostalgic for the 'old days', when the grimy gritty glamour of organised chaos, combined with uncompromising News Editors who insisted on the best possible quality of reporting and writing, produced something we were satisfied with every week – and occasionally something we were genuinely proud of.

However, times are a-changin’, as they must, and in many ways things are better now. We all have access to multiple sources of information, instantly, at the touch of a button. And if we are so inclined, we have the ammunition to judge and reach our own conclusions based on a variety of sources.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath-water.

The renegade tradition personified by the newspaper hacks that populated Newsrooms for much of the 20th century still has valuable lessons to teach us. That we should never simply swallow everything we are told. That we should not be overawed by authority. That we should always ask the key questions – what, when, how, where, and (most of all) why – and insist on straight answers. That it’s OK to break the mould and take a sideways look at things. That it's right to be outraged by injustice and to believe that things can be changed.

Looking even further back, the roots of that tradition go back to social observers and would-be reformers like Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and George Orwell.

Isn’t that a tradition worth keeping up?

1 comment:

  1. My first journo job was on the Echo in Southampton and the thrill of watching the mighty presses fire up is one of my happiest memories. :)

    Even running down several corridors and up even more flights of stairs to get to the stone every day for three days in a row to get the copy to the subs, collapsing in a sweaty heap, and thrusting the paper out is a good memory.

    Hell, ALL of it is a good memory. There was nothing quite like journalistic deadlines to get the adrenaline pumping ;)