Tomorrow's newspapers

The unholy trinity

Three groups of journalists are needed to produce a newspaper: writers, editors and sub-editors.

Writers discover things and write about them. Photographers come under the same heading.

Editors decide which of the stories and pictures delivered by the writers and photographers will go in the paper and how they will be displayed.

Sub-editors edit the selected stories and pictures into the space allocated for them. Designers come under the same heading, although they think they are a cut above the subs. They all take orders from the editors.

 

This is how they worked before the computer revolution and how that change set them and their newspapers free.

 

Writers and photographers

In the 1960s and 70s, writers used typewriters, notebooks and telephone boxes.

At the Daily Mail, reporters wrote on typewriters, initially using carbon paper to make a copy, but later multi-part paper which made several copies. They had wonderful mechanical desks which had a typewriter on a platform under the desk which could be raised to the desktop by pushing a button.

Copy was moved around the office by copy boys - usually old men - and put in wire baskets for people to read. Reporters delivered their copy to the News Desk who then gave it to the Back Bench - the senior editors - who decided what to use and how to use it.

Out of the office, a reporter would have to find a smelly phone box, hope that it was in working order and dictate her story straight from her notebook to a copytaker sitting at a typewriter in the office.

For a sports writer, covering a live event, life was even more difficult. Most towns ran football papers which had to be on the streets for the fans streaming out of matches. Reporters had to write their match report in sections and phone each section to the office so that it could be set in type. The description of the first half would be in type before the second half had started.

Photographers also had to get plates or film back from the event to the office. Both they and the reporters often used runners - youngsters whose job it was to get the words or the pictures to the office while the principals stayed with the action.

Photographers could not phone their pictures to copytakers, but in the office, there were wire machines which could scan a photo on a drum and transmit the image over phone lines to a receiving drum in another office.

The Tandy 200, which came out in 1984, took reporters into the new world. It was a simple laptop, powered by four AA batteries, on which you could type and save stories. And it could transmit them if you plugged in a coupler and clamped it over the handset of a telephone.

At that stage, few newspapers had the kit needed to receive such transmissions, but in the UK, the telecomms market was being deregulated and Mercury, one of the new entrants, set up a service to receive stories sent with a simple address and deliver them to newspapers in the same way that wire services were being delivered.

The advantage to a staff reporter was clear. To a freelance journalist it was enormous. Instead of spending hours in a freezing phone box, dictating his story first to the Mail, then to the Express, then to the Mirror, all he had to do was address his copy to the three newspapers, plug in his couplers, wait for the ready tone and hit Return. Then shoot off to the pub to warm up.

Photographers had to wait until the 1990s before they could transmit their pictures. At first, they had to transmit their pictures via satellite, but rapidly the cameras, the laptops and the transmission got better and cheaper.

Now, writers and photographers use laptops and e-mail or upload their stuff wherever it needs to go.

Reports are written on a laptop and can be rewritten when the game changes. The whole story can be e-mailed to the office on the final whistle and in a page on screen in the correct type minutes later.

A photographer can sit behind one goal and remotely operate a second camera behind the other goal. He can transmit his pictures to the office in seconds and they can be in a page as quickly as the story.

The other big difference for the people in the front line of newspaper work is the access to information. In the sixties, a reporter had to know where to find the information to verify a story - at a court, at a council office, at a library. Now, with a smart phone or a laptop, reporters and photographers have access to all the information they need on the internet.

And they can keep every story they have written and most of the pictures they have taken on their laptop and look up what they wrote and snapped the last time Rooney was sent off.

 

Editors

Editors also benefit from the explosion in information. In the old days, they worked in the dark for much of the time. They saw all the stories and pictures which were delivered to them. They did not see any stories and pictures which the News Editor had ignored, or was holding for next Sunday.

Pages were created as sketches on a layout pad and did not appear as type and pictures until they were finished and proofed several hours later.

Getting anything changed took so long, editors often had to wait until the next edition.

Now editors can see all the stories and pictures which have been delivered to the office and all those which are running on the internet. They can now say: Why aren't we following up that story about a girl and a snake which is running on YouTube?

They can also see pages as they are put together and change things immediately from their own computer, without asking a journalist to ask a printer to make the change. An editor can do everything himself if he wants - find a story, find some pictures, create a page, put in the story and pictures, write a brilliant headline, then hand it all over to a sub and say: Finish that off.

Editing is about ideas and technology allows an editor to turn a bright idea into a two-page special in minutes.

Bright ideas are the difference between a newspaper and the news available on the internet.

 

Designers

Newspaper pages are designed by artistes who strive constantly for new ways of displaying the news.

No they aren't. Newspaper pages are designed to a rigid formula so the readers won't be frightened by any art school nonsense.

In the old days, designers scribbled their page designs on layout pads and wrote catchlines to show where stories, pictures and adverts went. Copies of these layouts went to the back bench, the chief sub, the composing room and the stone sub.

Hot metal typesetting was designed to go in regular columns. Type in irregular widths, or running around a picture was so hard to produce, that page layouts were usually kept simple.

Now, pages are initiated on screen and type can be set in any shape, at any angle and overlapping a picture. Some newspaper pages are as good as the glossy magazines.

Editors still insist that they look something like yesterday's paper. Design changes are done very carefully.

 

Sub-editors

Sub editors edit the golden words produced by writers and improved by editors and turn them into newspaper pages. They make a story fit the space allowed for it in the paper, make it something people will want to read and write a headline to encourage them to read it.

In the old days, subs did all this on paper.

Editors would pass the typed stories to the Chief Sub and he would pass them, in turn, to individual subs.

Subs had no typewriters or wonder desks. They had pens or pencils. They cut and pasted with scissors and glue - horrible pots of gloop which were filled each day and which ended up with a thick rim of congealed gum, like candles.

The picture above shows a subs' desk with pots of glue, lethal spikes and cigarettes.

Subs would cut off the reporter's first paragraph and glue it on a fresh sheet of paper so that the intro, which was set in a bigger type, could go to a separate typesetter in the Composing Room.

They scribbled their changes, or rewrote complete stories - all in handwriting.

They marked setting instructions for the typesetters on every sheet. 7x10 meant 7pt body type on a column 10 picas wide. A nut each side meant 6 points of space on either side. One point is 1/72 of an inch. One pica is 12pts.

For headlines, a sub had to mark the typeface, the size and whether it was to be set left, set right or centred: 60 Schoolbook Bold x 54

Some of the type was still called by its original French names. Minion and brevere were tiny typefaces used for race cards and a 6pt spacer was a nomp - short for nonpareil.

Subs had to know how many words would make how many inches when set in metal.

They had to count the letters in headlines against examples of type in various sizes in their typebooks. In those days, type was not elastic. If your killer headline did not fit in 60pt Schoolbook Bold, you had to write a shorter, less brilliant head which did.

When the copy was subbed and marked up, it was given back to the Chief Sub to check and then on to a Revise editor to check again. Good newspapers still have lots of checks.

When the Revise man was finished, the copy went into an out basket and a copy boy would roll it up and put it into a pneumatic tube which whisked it up to the composing room on the next floor. These tubes were also used in some shops so that all the money could be handled in a secure accounts department, rather than at individual tills. Some newspapers dropped copy down chutes or hauled it up on dumb waiters; some had moving wires to which copy was clipped.

The editorial floor was very different from the slick offices newspapers have today. People smoked constantly. People also drank. The subs at the Mail had a ceremony called the Back Stairs Run, in which a sub ran from the subs' desk down the back stairs to the White Swan, known in the trade as the Mucky Duck, drank a pint as quickly as possible and ran back up the stars to his desk before the Chief Sub noticed.

Now, subs do all the typographical work which used to be done by the composing room hordes.

They can turn plain Times Roman words into elegant Gill Sans in the twinkling of an eye. They can make a newspaper page look like something out of Vogue. They can crop and scale a picture this way or that.

If they work for The Independent, they can edit a story in one style for the main paper and sub it down to another style for the i.

They can write a brilliant headline and if it doesn't fit in 60pt, they can drop it to 59pt, or squeeze it so the 60pt letters are slightly narrower than they should be.

On the Sports Desk, they can get a match report into the back page seconds after the final whistle, complete with the injury-time goal, and add the managers' quotes minutes later.

They can do more editions, more versions, more changes required by idiot editors than I ever did when I was a sub in the 1960s and 70s.

And they drink less. Most of them are so busy, they don't have time to eat, never mind drink.

Sadly, the business of sub-editing is dying out. Technology, which has replaced most of the manual workers in factories, is now replacing knowlege workers in the law and in journalism.

But subs have always done more than master the nuts and bolts of newspaper production. Like those who write advertising copy, they know the mood of the day, the things people are talking about.

An algorithm may be able to sum up a story in a headline, but can it can weave the current buzz into a headline which makes you smile?

Margaret Ashworth could. She is now passing on her considerable knowledge of the art of sub-editing here:

stylematters.margaretashworth.com

 

 

The f****ing journalists

Being late is the ultimate crime on a newspaper. Printing thousands of newspapers takes time and they then have to be driven to hundreds of corner shops and stations before the first commuters wander in at 6am. If the papers are late, the early crowd will take a rival's paper instead and the newspaper's circulation will dip. When that happens, there is an inquest to find someone to blame and, if necessary, sack to make sure it never ever happens again.

In the days of hot metal, journalists always blamed the composing room - the f***ing inkies - for late editions. Now there is no composing room, they blame the people at the printing plant for not making their plates quickly enough, or not keeping all their presses running fast enough. As modern printing plants are so efficient they employ only half a dozen people, journalists are running out of other people to blame.

HotMetalSubs3

Sub editors at work on the Daily Express, probably in the 1950s