Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Spiked


I’ll never forget my first Thursday afternoon in the newsroom. A siren cut through the air, and a low growl rattled beneath us. Nervous, unsure what to do, I looked around me. No-one turned a hair.

That rumble and hum grew louder and faster until it settled into a steady, strident rhythm. A new sound followed, a liquid slither as a river of paper was swallowed by a mighty monster in its lair, as the twin scents of hot metal and printing ink wafted their way up the stairs from the presses.

It was September 1970 and my first week as a cub reporter was nearly over. I was fresh from grammar school and not yet shaving daily. I was wide-eyed, green and utterly in love with the gritty glamour of the world of print journalism.

I was excited to become part of the ‘Fourth Estate’, even if that was as the lowest of the low in shabby, cluttered newsroom in South London with more than double the national rate of divorce and alcoholism. It was a place of jangling telephones, raised voices, petty arguments, bluff, bluster, cynicism and cut-throat competition. A cluttered, smoke-filled den filled with scruffy excitable individuals who were deceptively organised (they had to be, to create order out of all that chaos).

That first print day is branded on my memory as surely as that week’s lead story was splashed across the front page. It’s still there, nearly 50 years later - unlike the headline which was wrapping fish from the chippy by the following Friday night.

Back then, we had to bash out our copy on slips (one original, two carbon copies) with manual typewriters, and the paper was printed using hot metal typesetting. Discarded copy slips, expense claims forms, old notes slammed onto ‘spikes’, forgotten coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays littered our desks.

Sounds like hell, but I loved it.

I’d never been a sporty kid at school, being too fond of meat pies and sneaky smokes behind the bike shed. But in my first two months at the Gazette, I must have lost 20 pounds running down corridors and flights of stairs to thrust handfuls of copy at the subs working with typesetters to set up each page on the ‘stone’. They paid no attention to the sweating pile of human panting at their feet. I was a junior, after all.

There was no Internet or mobile phones back then. We had to hunt out the news - walking the streets, calling on people, checking with police and fire stations. The tools of our trade? Our wits, our contacts and our notebooks. Stories that broke just before deadline had to be phoned in, if you could find a working phone box.

A local paper was a strange beast, part of the community it served. And we were not easily forgiven when that community felt we failed it. People knew the reporters, the cars they drove and, often, where they lived. They had no qualms about confronting us if we got something wrong. That – and the fear of god (or the News Editor, basically the same thing) – make us check everything over and over.

In my time at the Gazette, I’ve covered grisly murders, outrageous miscarriages of justice, horrific accidents, council meetings dull enough to paralyse your brain, petty disputes and human tales that restored faith in humanity in the heart of this cynical old hack. I hope that I have, in some small way, helped bring about some changes to make the world just a little bit better or fairer. I hope I’ve answered that call that landed me in the newsroom back in September 1970.

Today’s newsrooms are very different. They’re politically correct, clinical, air-conditioned havens peopled by clean-living individuals who have probably never seen an electric typewriter, let alone an antique like the one I started on. The only sounds to break that ordered atmosphere are the clicking of computer keyboards and the occasional chirrup of a mobile phone.

News is now instantaneous, so the focus of a local rag has had to change. It’s no longer a priority to get the local news to our readers – they get it all online, after all. Instead, it’s about attracting advertisers, offering the best promotions, and giving unpaid, untrained 'citizen journalists' a platform from which to grind their axes to fill column inches (often at the cost of impartiality and decent writing). And if there’s an empty space on page 6, we get some starry-eyed intern to bash out a ‘listicle’ telling readers 15 things they didn't know about the Town Hall, or 30 ways to keep their kiddies amused during the holidays.

I'm nostalgic for the old days' chaos and uncompromising News Editors who insisted on the best reporting and writing. We produced something we were satisfied with every week – and occasionally something we were proud of.

News is less physically demanding now. You don’t have to leave the office to chase a story. You don’t even need to leave your screen. You’re encouraged not to.

The stone has given way to on-screen layout, the symbiotic relationship between sub and typesetter is dead, murdered by digital design. We all now have access to multiple sources of information, instantly, at the touch of a button.

But something’s been lost along the way. The hacks that populated newsrooms for much of the 20th century still have 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 mold and take a sideways look at things. That it's right to be outraged by injustice and believe things can be changed.

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. It’s a tradition I am proud to have served in my own little corner of the world.

I miss my spike, that vicious sic-inch nail that used to grace every reporter’s desk. That's where old stories went when they died, along with our notes for reference in case of a dispute or the threat of legal action. Can't but them for love nor money now. Health & safety.

I’m another relic from an age gone by. I belong on the industry’s spike – kept for occasional reference, but mostly forgotten.

As I can't say I'm sorry to say goodbye to my life as a local newspaper man. I was lucky to come into a business I loved, and for many years believed we were doing something that mattered. But the business has changed beyond recognition and now I’m happy to leave it.

It’s just not my type any more.

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