LONG READ: A codger looks back at the lost world of the print journo


I noticed a tweet this week that reminded me yet again the world of newspapers I knew and loved had gone and it made me slightly sad.

A reporter at the paper I worked at excitedly posted her promotion to deputy chief reporter with four years experience.

Four years is what I had walking into the same newspaper for the first time as a bog-standard district office reporter where I was ranked 15th most experienced in a district office of 15.

I don’t know this promoted reporter but a mate has worked with her, vouches for her and like her I wish her nothing but good luck.

But it made me think back about the world of newspapers I walked into in the late 1990s and how she’s missed out on the good days that have gone now.

The rumble of the presses

My district office was a Seventies building built off a busy road with offices at the front and a huge print hall tucked away at the back. In there, three print towers could produce 20,000 copies in the time it took to make and drink a round of newsroom teas.

A crowd of red delivery vans would wait impatiently outside for the production line to roll them bundles of the fresh-printed newspapers. The drivers would grab them, jump into their vans and ferry them across the Black Country. You could see, hear and feel the rumble of the presses if you timed your visit right. The smell of newsprint, oil and polish. It was a feeling for a printer to toss you one of the first editions off the press as they trundled by and read the story in ink not yet dry the words you’d written 20 minutes earlier that your blood pressure still hadn’t recovered from writing.

I was as impressed by the roar of those print towers on my first day as I was on my last.

Everything about the place was saying: ‘Now. Now. Don’t be perfect. Be good enough and be accurate. We don’t have the time to mess around…’

Back then, news did not happen unless you read it in a newspaper with a cup of tea in your hand, on the bus or at home in your armchair.

That’s gone now.

And what I learned

I was lucky to have worked on newspapers at a time when you could still reach back and touch their golden age.

I learned what a story was, how to write it quick, how to get something on a screen and get it away. I learned the skill of writing expenses forms with the line ‘Wild Dogs on the Yew Tree estate on’. I covered more than 30 murders but can’t remember all but one or two. I wrote 3,000 stories in my time and many, many forgettable two par stories to get a page out of the door.

My newsroom was in offices perched at the front of the building. Glamorous it wasn’t. Underneath, was an old municipal tip, overhead were giant pylons and we were downwind from the Robinson Brothers chemical works. The windows were covered with grey film that reduced the view of a bright summer day to the murk of an October day in Grimsby. On the desks the sediment of old newspapers and council reports. A spike sat on each desk where old press releases were filed.

It was a tough place to work. At times it was vile.

And yet.

Always we used ‘reporter’ to describe ourselves. Never journalist. I don’t know why. It was one of the many unwritten rules handed down by long-dead journalists whose unspoken influence was still felt.

Us reporters were led by Ken and Dave. Ken was a slightly plump bearded cardigan-wearing Welshman who had first started in 1968. Dave was a rounder reporter from the Black Country who’d started as a young man in 1976 but whose sporting muscle had long turned to extra ballast.

I’d have run through brick walls for the pair of them. We all would.


Looking back, it was the laughter of that newsroom I best remember and miss most. With the deadline gone, it was the jokes, stories and Marion’s incredulity at Dave’s fifth poker face re-telling of the story you’d first heard three years ago now embellished so much you’d forgotten what was actually true in the first place.

Together, Ken and Dave had more than 50 years experience between them leading an experienced newsroom.  They knew in a crisis what to do and what to tell newsdesk. The enemy was never really the rival daily paper. It was always newsdesk.

That’s gone now.

The district office closed down a few years back.

Dave died a few years ago his funeral packed tighter than a council agenda. Happily, Ken still works in a council press office.

Looking back, I miss working with the pair of them and those in the team. I’m freelance now. I work solo. That’s fine. Nothing has beaten the team I once worked in. So, why bother?

Technology has changed.

That’s gone, too.

Digital readers outweigh print by 40 to one on Reach plc regional titles.

New ways to tell stories

Yet, I’m still fascinated at how to tell stories in a way that people will read, watch and hear. Maybe the combined print experience of our team wouldn’t actually benefit the multi-media news gatherers of today. They need to write for print, write for the web, write Facebook, write for Twitter, create and edit video, Facebook Live and blog. The deadlines are real-time rather than 2pm for the Sandwell edition.

It’s still exciting.

Maybe like pit-prop makers journos who began in print belong to a different era. But maybe that’s a lot of experience to lose and I worry when those at the top have little life experience to fall back on when the going gets tough.

I know I sound like an old codger but I can’t escape the feeling these newer reporters are missing out a little. As much as I enjoy today, I don’t regret a single day I spent on old school newspapers.

Yet, I get veteran Sunday Times editor Harold Evans when he wrote: “I love print but I’m intoxicated by the power and possibility of the internet.”

Picture credit: istock

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    A thoroughly good read, Dan, but late 1990s ?– that seems like yesterday ! However, I feel our experiences are not that far apart.

    It was November 1971 when, as an 18-year-old cub reporter on just over £7 a week, I walked nervously into the newsroom of my local weekly paper – a big brute of a broadsheet, packed full of news and advertising, with a monopoly in the area and a cast of many.

    At the heart of the editorial team was a band of about ten reporters surrounded by the news editor, sports editor, diary editor, features editor, sub editors – all led of course by our aged editor.

    Nowadays, staff numbers on local newspapers (yes, some good ones still exist) can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

    It was hot metal then. The constant clattering of the bank of linotype machines as they converted your written word into lead, combined with that foundry-like smell and the aroma of ink, never leaves you. Especially, when you recall the increasing intensity as the days went by, the final deadline approached and the huge press waited impatiently on Thursday evening to churn out that week’s masterpiece.

    A quick check over the first copy and then, if you were about, a wander next door to the local pub with the editor. He drank a half of best before retiring home for supper with the wife while the younger ones consumed several pints.

    It took me a while to realise the importance of the seemingly menial tasks I undertook as a junior reporter. These included visiting the ministers at the local churches to elicit some snippets of reportable information and writing up details of the local weddings (the bride wore a dress of broderie anglaise…..) to go with their pretty photos.

    I recall sitting amongst the coffins as the local undertaker provided details of the latest deceased. Details of these unfortunate people would be reported back to the Editor who, having consulted a 25-year-old electoral register, would tell you which ones deserved a full obituary. Then there was the knock on the door of the bereaved, never knowing how you might be received. A door slammed in your face or a welcoming arm guiding you indoors to join in the drowning of sorrows with the wicked spirit brewed by the dead man.

    We gathered the names of mourners at funerals; made sure we recorded the top three in the dog, baby and cake contests at the many local fetes; crammed in as many details of the local sports events and wrote colourful accounts of the lives of couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversaries (“Where did you two meet ? At the local Tea-dance. Fantastic.”)

    Why was it important ? Of course, all this activity, gathered together in our newspaper, kept the Press in the centre of the community – the source of all knowledge. It shared what was happening and satisfied the natural human curiosity and nosiness. It served a massive public service.

    Equally important, was the need to sell the paper. No such thing as freebies then. The philosophy was simple – include as many names and photos of local people as you can and they, and their aunts and grannies, will go out and spend four pence (as it was then) or arrange delivery with their local newsagent.

    Trying desperately not to speak as that old codger, I do believe that the demise of the printed newspaper has left a hole in the world of communication. I do not believe that either on-line newspapers or social media has replaced that great sense of community reflected in my old broadsheet.

    I remember clearly during one of the two general elections we suffered in 1974 when I stood in the front window of my newspaper’s High Street office, chalking up the election results as they were declared. Right in the centre of the community; face to face with the community and communicating directly with the community.

    The more the years pass by, the more I loved those times.

    After 17 years as a reporter on local newspapers and as a freelance, I took the plunge and moved into public sector and Government communications where I remained for a further 28 years.

    My professional career can be seen in other places so I will not bore you with details but , however much excitement and enjoyment I have experienced, especially in the emergency services, and however many challenges I have faced and overcome, I don’t think I have ever been as close to “my” public as I was in the days of pen and ink; in the days of typewriters and carbon paper; in the days of my old, long gone, newspaper.

    David Jervis

    p.s. When I moved into public relations in 1989, most of us were ex-journos. To an extent, I think it did help to understand how the media worked. However so much has now changed that this is no longer necessary.

    It is important, of course, to be able to write and converse clearly but the key qualities must be a commitment to communication, courtesy, care and, crucially, common sense.

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