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.

lettering printing Thoughts on lettering

Newspapers, printing, the future – it’s rosy (but not as we know it)

I have been involved in the newspaper industry since I was about 20 – that’s, on and off, 3o plus years. When I got a job in what was then known as Fleet Street (even though the paper I worked at, the Financial Times, was beyond that area, up near St Paul’s cathedral) there was a printing plant and shop in the basement and sub-basement. The FT was still, and this was the mid to late 1980s, being set letterpress. I subbed copy using a typewriter and the copy was then Linotyped by another person, who was a member of a separate Trade Union and, quite possibly, used a fictitious name, such as Mickey Mouse. Abuse was rampant; I remember being told by my senior colleagues how one year there was a strike and the journos managed to get the management to up wages by some staggering 30 per cent; or was it more?

Daily Telegraph
Daily Telegraph building in Fleet Street, London, early 1990s. [copyright John Pitt]
Then came computer-setting; the unions were broken by a bloke called Eddie Shah in London who started up a newspaper called Today; which eventually led to Rupert Murdoch taking the Times/Sunday Times/News of  the World and Sun to Wapping. I have an old  colleague who was on the picket line there. It was not a happy time. Murdoch won.

But that is now history. Very recent history. My history. Now the newspaper business, indeed printing on paper, faces its greatest battle. One which it will lose. Just as calligraphers on vellum lost to Guttenberg; just as Smiths Corolla typewriters lost out to IBM.

This blog is inspired by an article by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books. This is the link – but I doubt if you will be able to access it as it is for subscribers only.

Assuming you can’t, or can’t be bothered, and without permission from LRB, these are the guts of the piece:

“A recent OECD report, The Evolution of News and the Internet, makes the picture clear.[*] Between 2004 and 2009, the US newspaper industry lost 34 per cent of its readers; the UK industry lost 22 per cent. Since then, the speed of the downturn has increased. In the last 12 months alone, seven broadsheet titles in the UK have seen their sales decline by more than 10 per cent. In the US, in the first six months of this year, the Chicago Tribune lost 9.8 per cent of its remaining readers, and the Los Angeles Times 14.7 per cent…

“The global flagship of serious journalism, the New York Times, lost $74.5 million in the quarter to March 2009, and accepted an injection of $250 million in cash from the Mexican telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim; it emerged that the paper was carrying $1.3 billion in accumulated debt. And it is one of the healthier US newspaper companies: the Tribune group, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, had already gone bankrupt. In the UK, Times Newspapers lost £87.7 million in the year to June 2009, having lost £50.2 million in the previous year. These figures are not, by industry standards, especially bad. It was mayhem out there…

“A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: ‘a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we’re so low in our estimate of the Times’s printing costs that we’re not even in the ballpark.’ Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that’s using the low estimate for the costs of printing…

“So this, I think, is the future of newspapers. Their cost base will force them to junk their print editions. (I know some people would like a luxury product, only-for-nostalgics print version, but it’s not clear to me how the economics of that would be made to work.)…”

If you have got this far, he is absolutely right. Where I live a man drives round in a clapped out Toyota Hiace at 6am each morning and throws out a cling-film wrapped newspaper onto my driveway. Where’s the economics in that?

Instead I can turn on my iPad and source news from all over the world. The fact that I don’t have an iPad is no impediment. One day I will. And then I will not need print anymore. The printing presses can go; the distribution vans can go; the blokes who operate the printing presses will go; and the bloke who drives the battered Toyota? Well, he’ll be on his iPad at 6am…

It’s only a matter of time – certainly before the next decade is out. Maybe 5 years.

This is probably what those calligraphers felt like when they heard about printing from movable type. “It’ll never take on,” they scorned.

Let us not bury our heads. Let us take it on.


A Financial Times ‘view’ on WikiLeaks

I used to work for the Financial TImes, known as the FT. It is still one of the world’s great newspapers.

The advertising jingle goes ‘No FT – no comment’.

I say that not because I used to work there and have a vested interest. I would hope you know me well enough by now to know that I stand at a distance from ‘organisations’. Yet the FT is still independent, is not part of the News Corporation  or any other media ‘Empire’, and ploughs its own course irrespective of how the wind blows.

So I recommend this blog by one of its columnists, and go to the end where there is a nice take on one of the Prince’s.