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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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printing

The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate – a typographic anomaly in Australia

The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate should not really exist – especially now when papers are closing like it’s going out of fashion or becoming web-based only. But if the Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate did not exist reason would have to be found to invent it. The newspaper lays claim to being the ‘ONLY paper printed in the Bellingen Shire’ and has provided ‘news for the famous Dorrigo for 102 years’. Dorrigo, for those unfamiliar with Australia, is a small town in northern NSW – about an hour west of Coffs Harbour on the coast. I’ve not been there and these images are from copies of the paper sent to me by the publisher. Why? Because I discovered (through chance) that the Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate (and yes there is a National Park not far from Dorrigo called Guy Fawkes, the notorious 17th century ‘terrorist’ who is alleged to have tried to blow up Parliament in London, after whom the English fireworks festival of November 5 is named) is the only newspaper on this Continent still printed letterpress week by week, with the headlines hand set.

The machinery is wretched and old (a 1950s  Intertype and a 1940s Heidelburg cylinder), the presswork patchy to say the least but, hey, it’s letterpress living. And for that three cheers to the blokes at Dorrigo who, for all I know, are at this minute setting up the formes for next week’s edition. Good on you.