FINAL EDITION: War stories on the demise of the newsroom

So, farewell the newsroom, that place of blood, sweat, tears, joy, despair and stories.

Reach plc has announced it wants to keep reporters working from home retaining a few sites where people can catch-up with people.

What may seem a routine accommodation matter for a national newspaper chain also strikes at something fundamental that public sector comms teams also must grapple.

How can you learn when you’ve no-one to watch and learn?

But that’s for another day.

I wanted to just celebrate the best office I ever worked in, the Sandwell Express & Star district office in Black Lake.

It was built on a West Bromwich rubbish tip underneath towering overhead power cables downwind from the Robinson Brothers’ chemical works that put the identifying smell into the odourless North Sea gas.

Window screen tint was put onto the newsroom windows to reduce the glare on our screens so everyday was mid-February.

Everything about the bricks and mortar was ordinary but it was the people in it and the stories they made that made it special.

Through the reception on the ground floor was sales and production and a corridor led to the aircraft hanger at the back where two newspaper production towers loomed. From them, newspapers were produced in a river of drying ink and warm newsprint that would be sent down to be bundled ready for the waiting dispatching fleet of red Express & Star vans.

Sometimes, I used to go down to the press hall to catch an early copy if there was a particular story I’d been working on and wanted to see how it was used. When the towers were running the building would hum and shake and you could only talk by shouting. Journalists can be as cynical as chip paper but let me tell you I was as deeply impressed by that towering newspaper production line on my last day just as much as I was on my first.

The newsroom

But it was the newsroom that really mattered.

Walking through the door, on the right were a large bank of tables with chunky apple terminals, chairs and on each desk the detritus of Firkin sandwich bags, old newspapers, committee papers and letters.

To the left was the darkroom, a table for photographers and over in the far corner by the fire exit a desk for the Birmingham edition reporters. That was the fire exit Dave dragged Paul the chief photographer mid-row.

“That’s enough,” Dave said. “I’ve had enough. I’m going to throw you off the top of the fire escape.”

And he meant it.

“Don’t throw me off,” Paul begged. “Anyway, you’ll get the sack.”

“Yes,” Dave fired back, “but I’ll get the biggest leaving present in history.”

When I started on the Express & Star in the late 90s the internet was still finding its feet. The print edition was what counted. There were 14 reporters and three photographers in the office. First edition had a deadline of around 9.30am and our edition – the Sandwell edition – was the last of 10 editions at around 2pm.

The whole reason the print works was built in West Bromwich was so that we could be as late as possible producing the evening paper so there was a golden couple of hours when news breaking could be ours alone. In that way the competitive advantage was retained.

But it was the people in the newsroom that made the newsroom.

I became a better reporter because I watched and learned and when I was stuck would ask. We were led by Ken, a sage bearded man in his 50s who had been there since 1968. There was no crisis that Ken could not think through a solution for.

Each strategic crisis was measured in what Ken was eating. A minor crisis was met with Ken going to the canteen where he would plot his way through company politics.

But a trip to McDonald’s signified a much deeper crisis to plot through that only a Big Mac meal could provide the answers to.

His deputy was Dave who had joined in 1976. Dave hated gardening while Ken was gardening correspondent. Dave knew the borough backwards but was all at sea four miles down the road in Dudley.

Dave cracked the same repertoire of jokes that had long since stopped being original. The laughter came from eye-rolling disbelief that Dave was still cracking them.

These jokes were for an occasion.

A fire engine with lights and sirens?

“They’ll never sell any ice creams going at that speed.”

A murder?

“Smaller turkey in their house this Christmas.”

The mention of Dudley?

“I had a very sheltered life. I though the third commandment was ‘Thou Shalt Not Commute to Dudley.'”

Dave’s age was a constant source of mystery only solved when he died years later.

Not always good

When things were good on the Express & Star they were the best and when they were bad they were indescribably bad. A Victorian family-owned company they had retained working practices back then that should have stayed Victorian. The photographers who walked off the job because they had had enough, for example. The lack of brown faces in the print edition was another. This was no Garden of Eden but in Sandwell we worked hard to make it so.

When the internal phone rang it was the news desk and your heart skipped a beat in case you fucked up or they demanded more. It was your job to make more happen. Sometimes in 10 minutes.

Once, we’d printed the wrong picture of the road traffic accident victim so we had two lots of family on the war path.

There are so many stories I could tell you, but to really get them you’d have to know the office. That’s how good offices work.

I left Sandwell office, the Express & Star and journalism in 2005 to go to Walsall Council’s press office. After 12-years as a journalist I didn’t want to go to London or go to the Express & Star head office. There was a baby in the house and I needed regular hours and more money.

A few months back in lockdown, we had a leaving do on Zoom for a Sandwell colleague who had retired through ill health. Getting the band back together would be strange, I thought.

Black Lake was long closed and the printing was moved to Shropshire. The internet had done for it.

On the Zoom re-union, we laughed, remembered Dave’s jokes, the time Ken was stalked by a gent with a stained duvet, when Marion went out for the Evening Mail and was so shocked to see a story she’d missed she left her battered Datson with the engine running outside the paper shop. She returned hours later the car unstolen. Not even the criminals of the Black Country were tempted by it.

We remembered the annual bun fight over who was arranging the Christmas party, how Anne never went to the canteen, Ken would cover-up for people with white lies and how we’d repay his loyalty in spades.

I’m raising a cup of tea to the newsroom. That place of joy, laughter, graft, panic, ego, fun, terror and swearing where people learned how to do their jobs by seeing how the best did it sat next to them.

That’s a problem for comms teams, too.

Looking back, I was lucky.

Thank you Ken, Dave, Marion, Jo, Nina, Anne, James, Joe, Anuji, Wynn, Kath, Louise, Paul F, Paul P, Tony, Sunny, Chris, Marie, Phil, Tim, Viv, Katie, Irena, Eileen, Bob and others I’ve missed out.

To quote Paul the miserable photographer: “Things is mate, I made the mistake of joining this place when it was a proper newspaper.”

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent read. Remarkable to note that I encountered the same type of characters, jokes and anecdotes in newsrooms in Lincoln, Middlesbrough and Stoke. A workplace like no other.

  2. Brilliant days Dan and vividly described. It was a week of work experience in that Sandwell office that made me start over as a trainee reporter for the E&S at the age of 29. Absolutely loved it! RIP Dave

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