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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.

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Newspapers Thoughts on lettering

In honour of a decade: number 7

Nearly 10 years ago [December 2010], so not long after I commenced this blog, I wrote about the demise of the printed newspaper [see here]. I forecast that the print media did not have long to go, maybe 5 years [I was wrong], at the most 10. Here in Australia, the end of June 2020 saw a swathe of publications, most community-based, many with heritage spanning some 100 years, fall silent.

In my part of the world the print edition of the Tweed Daily News ended. Though the masthead proclaimed ‘daily’ to the bitter end, the paid-for print edition had been weekly [Saturday] for many years, with a free community weekly also hitting the front lawn on a Wednesday.

Tweed Daily News
Tweed Daily News

The end of print was longer coming than I first thought in 2010, but inevitable. I source my news mainly from the online edition of The Guardian where [still for free] I can read the latest from the UK, US and anywhere in the world, and access informed comment [if often not impartial].

Do I miss print? Hell yes – I was brought up on it, the smell and the sound of it, and for many years ran my own letterpress print workshop. But reflect more on the content of journalism today, than the production. Fewer news outlets, and the concentration of those in the hands of managements pushing a bias [which news ownership has ever been] can/does lead to misleading and inflammatory editorialising. Be mindful in the twists and turns of digital.

Categories
Newspapers Thoughts on lettering

Isotype, Rotha and me: a reflection

There’s this slim book on the shelf in front of where I sit typing away on the MacBook Air. Distracted, I pull it out. It’s approximately A4 size and titled Future Books, vol III. There’s no date but from advertising at the rear and the selection of articles I’d make a guess at 1946. The title page/contents page states: Published by Collins / Produced by Adprint / Distributed by Leathley Publications. Editor: Marjorie Bruce Milne.

I scan the contents. One takes my interest – From Hieroglyphics to Isotypes. 20_06_09_IsotypeTurning to the article I notice at the bottom the name PAUL ROTHA as author. Wow! I know that name. [Even if I don’t the inventor of Isotype, Dr Otto Neurath.] Why?20_06_09_Rotha

My career as a journalist [more exactly reporter] starts in January 1978 at a local newspaper [more exactly a community free sheet] based in Marlow, Bucks, UK. I am 21. I have no recollection of how this event unfolds, expect being present when Paul and his wife were evicted and somehow getting them into my car [more exactly my editor’s, I think a Ford Escort, yellow], then driving through country lanes pursued [I think] by what was then called collectively as Fleet Street.

Paul Rotha left this place in 1984. ‘He was a major pioneer figure in the British documentary film movement.’ Though I never knew that in 1978.

20_06_09_Rotha more