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Miscellaneous writing Newspapers

Newspaper life in the 1980s

When I began at the Financial Times in 1987 the typewriter was the standard tool. As a sub-editor you were meant, indeed expected, to re-write copy, though front page re-writes were the priority of the chief sub. Re-writing could also be done by hand, using a biro or pencil, cutting out words, rephrasing a sentence, while also putting the typesetting instructions at the head of each page. There was a code to what was called ‘marking up’ so that the Linotype operators would know what to enter on the machine: bold type, italics and so on. The art of subbing in the time of hot metal was to ensure, as far as was possible, that the copy – the story – would physically fit into its allocated space on the stone. (Actually the metal slab on which the type was assembled within the forme, a bit like the frame of a painting, and the same size as the printed page.) Subs who went down into the composing area were called Stone Subs and, by established tradition, were never allowed to ‘touch’ the metal type, having to point out to the compositor where mistakes were, changes needed.

There were also Readers, sitting in a room somewhere in the labyrinth of the building, employed to ‘read’ every galley [page proof] and, of course, the editions as they came off the presses. These Readers not only checked for accuracy, so duplicating the work done by the sub-editors, but also sense and House Style. Every national newspaper had its own Style Manual, rules for punctuation, spelling and, in our case, most importantly the financial markets. I still have my copy [each sub-editor was given a copy on appointment], with its thundering introduction: ‘The FT’s reputation rests on the accuracy of the information in its pages, the depth of its reporting, the perception of its analysis and the clarity of its writing’.

The FT had many quirks, just one being the banned use of the word ‘plane’. As the Style Guide notes: ‘plane is used to shave wood; what you fly in is an aircraft, jet, airliner, helicopter, etc’. However, humour was not lacking in its pages: ‘Remember that a rise in the mortgage rate from 11 per cent to 12 per cent is not a 1 per cent rise but a 1 percentage point rise or a 1 point rise. It is important to get this right. Failure to do so is a barrier to promotion’; and ‘expletives the FT has no strict policy…Four letter expletives will usually be confined to infrequent use in the review pages. The word wanker has appeared only once in the FT; it was a misprint for banker’.

Another now redundant item was the ‘spike’, a pointed metal stake about 30cm tall, secured in a circular wood base, on which ‘dead’ copy [an unused news story] was literally pierced through the middle. The spike has no place in today’s world, policed by health and safety. First edition was around 9pm, Bracken House shaking as the presses started, and about an hour later the freshly-minted salmon-pink newspapers were brought up from the works below. A pile would be dropped on the subs desk and we would devour them from cover to cover, still hot with the nutty smell of damp ink. We were reading for mistakes, literals, and sections would be torn from the page with errors marked, while new stories for the second edition would already be subbed, the page editors re-designing their pages to fit the new copy, and to work out the nightly ritual of how to squeeze more into less. Some of the first edition stories would be ‘spiked’ and since the first edition went, in the UK, to far flung outposts like Scotland and Ireland no one would be the wiser. All that really mattered was when London got its ‘late’ edition (any time after 2am) for this contained all the ‘news fit to print’. The FT was a newspaper where, it was said, editorials were written for the few, not many; meaning those who were influential, politicians, leaders of industry, financiers and stockbrokers, and might be influenced. There was also the phone call from The Editor, the first edition having been couried to his London home, and who would tell the Night Editor changes to be made before the ‘London’ edition.

Claud Cockburn wrote of his time at The Times in the 1930s in a book titled In Time of Trouble [published the year I was born, 1957]. By my time gentlemen sub-editors did not go to their clubs [we, and women, went to the pub]; we had no Proustian debates; did not spar on the news floor translating from the Greek. Yet we had sub-editors writing monographs before deadline; and the then editor did the same trick as Dawson at The Times. I was summoned into his presence on learning I’d been given a full-time position in September 1987 [paid the near equivalent of a Cabinet Minister] and ushered out a side door without speaking a word.