Thursday, 27 February 2014

Times, they are a-changin'

Manual typewriters, scratches of shorthand in a notebook, reams of copy paper and bakelite 'phones used to  be the tools of the trade in the news room.

[A blast from the past (blog)]
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 many things have changed almost beyond recognition.

When I started out as a trainee reporter on a South London local newspaper in the early-mid 1980s, I had to bash out my copy on an antique manual typewriter and the paper was still printed using hot metal technology.

Now, 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 (and correctable) computer keyboard and screen, but there was a strange glamour to the old printing process that I still miss.

Our news room was above the print floor and there was an indefinable thrill in watching the chief sub and printer working on 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 the presses were running, we in the news room would heave a sigh of relief safe in the knowledge that another edition of Croydon’s finest had been “put to bed”, 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 news rooms 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.

Now, news rooms tend to be quiet, 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 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 an instantaneous business, 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, often 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” where the 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 news rooms 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? 

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