Friday, February 25, 2011
Prostituting the newspaper industry
If prostution is the oldest career in the world, re-posting is the blogisphere's equivalent. I fear I am drifting into online ho-dom, but at least I'm admitting this is a re-post. And I don't need to because nobody read my posts or commented on them in the winter of 2010. And I'm ashamed to admit I made one post in the whole of February. Forgive me father. I have re-posted.
Newspapers in the 21st Century barely resemble the place I was first introduced to when I worked on my local paper at school.
The Citizen in Gloucester 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.
I never understood how handing over a piece of toilet paper full of copious xxs and crossings out, could be translated into legible copy.
By 4 p.m. I was 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. A couple might pick up on that to be fair, but not Hugh Jass, for example.
By the 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.
A heavy night at Cardiff didn't normally involve waking up with a woman you didn't know; more likely a strange typewriter.
Many a dual was fought over a man who woke up with another man's typewriter.
When the course "newsroom" became automated, 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 Carr, a formidable former sub (or copy) editor on the Daily Mirror, who had been hired to teach on our course.
Carr had a face that was made for East End pubs. Pitted and gaunt with dark eye sockets Carr conjured up images of darts, overflowing ash trays and the collective mutter when the last orders bell was rung.
Carr 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 Carr" were enough to send the reporter into a fit of paralysis and to leave the conversation without getting details of the fire. Carr would occasionally break from character and burst through the door like Nicholson in The Shining to scream: "Ain't you going to ask about the fire then?"
I knew Carr 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 Carr. 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.
"Smoke, smoke...you've got to fecking smoke, aint ya."
When I started work on a newspaper Carr 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.
Carr 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 Carr test.
"Emerge. You don't emerge. How does a person emerge into something?"
And if, like me, you have been in newspapers for too long, you begin to wonder if you will ever be able to emerge as a viable member of the human race. Rather I fear that one morning I will look in the mirror and Carr's mocking features will stare back at me.