Sunday, January 24, 2010

Characters are welcome

Newspapers in the 21st Century barely resemble the place I was first introduced to when I worked on my local paper at school.
The Gloucester Citizen used to be crammed into offices down a narrow Medieval lane. On the upper floor the journalists bashed out copy on bulky typewriters the size of modern photocopiers and chain smoked in murky corners.
Below them the 'inkies' toiled away in a mini print works. By 2 p.m. all the court copy, minor crime and council material had been transformed, by a mysterious process from messy and double typed pieces of paper sprewed from the hukling typewriters into newspapers that rolled out by 3.30 p.m.
By 4 p.m. I were on the bus home, clutching a copy, with page 4 prominently displayed in the hope fellow passengers would pick up on my by-line.
It's one of the fallacies of rookie journalists that members of the public actually care who writes a story. In reality you could use the by-line "Adolph Hitler" and few would pick up on it.
By time I took a journalism diploma the industry was already changing. Although we showed up in Cardiff with our typewriters, which would be left in a drop zone in the middle of the "Woodie" pub during extensive after course drinking sessions, an online newsroom arrived half way through the course.
For a couple of weeks I found it almost impossible to write copy directly onto a computer. I missed those tiny pieces of paper that meant stories were segmented up into their constituent parts. But finally the small blue typewriter was abandoned in favor of new technology.
Some time earlier modern technology had hit the industry like a digita tsunami. In great secrecy media mogul Rupert Murdoch had moved his London papers to a vast East End compound in Wapping, dispensing with hundreds of 'inkies' in the process sparking a virtual siege by the trade unions.
The industry was becoming a lot cleaner and a good deal more clinical.
Still the characters from the old days lingered on.
One of them was Alan Coles, a formidable former sub (or copy) editor on the Daily Mirror, who had been hired to teach on our course.
Coles had a face that was made for East End pubs. Pitted and gaunt with dark eye sockets Coles conjured up images of darts, overflowing ash trays and the collective mutter when the last orders bell was rung.
Coles was the guy you didn't want editing your copy. Except here he was taking home all of our pathetic, fledgling efforts at news.
Unlike the other tutors Alan didn't shield us from the withering intolerance of Fleet Street. Copy was returned with so much red pen on it, it was difficult to read the original words.
If you had "boring, boring, boring" written on your story, you breathed a sigh of relief.
One of my friends had a story on a golf game returned with: "What a load of balls" written on the top.
When the course tutors posed as emergency service works on the end of the phone, the two words: "Fireman Coles" were enough to send the reporter into a fit of paralysis and to leave the conversation without getting details of the fire. Coles would occasionally break from character and burst through the door to scream: "Ain't you going to ask about the fire then?"
I knew Coles was losing it to some extent when he presented a lecture on measuring copy with a ruler. I may not be the most techni-savvy reporter, but even I realized you could probably do that on the computer.
Eventually his contract wasn't renewed. Some of the women on the course took exception to Coles. The time when he said they should smoke because everyone in the newsroom would be dragging on a cigarette seemed to be the turning point.
When I started work on a newspaper Coles lived nearby and he would call me occasionally. Although he put the fear of God into people I missed him in a way. He represented the industry back in the days when Britney Spears' fashion faux pars did not a story make.
Coles wouldn't last five minutes in today's politically correct newspaper world. I can imagine him waving his ruler around and yelling: "What the fack is Twitter?"
But in a world when we can spend eight hours lost in the depths of the internet and not talk to any colleagues before we head home, characters are welcome.
And I can still hear his voice now when I write certain things that wouldn't pass the Coles test.
"Emerge. You don't emerge. How does a person emerge into something?"

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