Opinion

25 things that have changed about journalism during my quarter century as a hack

tim burrowes landscapeMumbrella’s Tim Burrowes began his media career 25 years ago today. He reflects on the changes journalism has seen during that time.

A quarter of a century ago, I was feeling pretty nervous.

A shy 18-year-old, who tended to blush if somebody spoke to me, I’d somehow mumbled my way into my first job in newspapers.

Monday July 10, 1989 found me walking in through the door of Penmark House, the former flour warehouse that was the headquarters of the Aldershot News.

Penmark House circa 1986 | Source: Hantsphere

Penmark House circa 1986 | Source: Hantsphere

Feeling a little nostalgic, last night I looked at the building on Google Streetview. It’s derelict, which moves me more than I would have expected.

penmark house aldershot derelict

Penmark House, now derelict | Source: Google Streetview

 

On this day 25 years ago, I couldn’t believe my luck.

On the verge of failing my A-Levels (they’re a bit like the HSC) and unlikely to get into university as a result, I’d somehow talked my way in as a junior reporter on the basis of little more than working on the college magazine and an unlikely claim about my typing speed.

As I waited in reception, all I had to do was avoid getting found out. (When I think about my unhealthy work-life balance, I realise I’ve spent the subsequent 25 years still trying to avoid getting found out.)

And I now realise I got in just in the nick of time to see the whole journalism world change. I happened to start my career in the UK, but I think the trends have been the same for journalists across the developed world.

Mostly, I didn’t notice at the time – certainly not during the formative five years I spent working for the Aldershot News. Please forgive me this huge piece of self indulgence. With the benefit of hindsight, these are the changes that mattered for journalists…

1. Layers

Of everything that’s changed with technology – and I’ll come on to that – it’s actually an organisational thing – the removal of layers – that has most profoundly changed the product.

Take a look at the top floor of that derelict building. See the window third from the left, with the stickers on it? That’s roughly where my chief reporter sat. For the first couple of years, nothing I wrote would go any further without her scrutiny.

We were on the Farnborough desk. It had been her patch for years, so she knew the people and the politics, and she was likely to catch most of the howlers I made.

Only then would it get through to the terrifying Glaswegian Scottish news editor who sat at the window on the top left of the picture.

He would also scrutinise my copy (I still have a copy of the memo he wrote me about the correct spelling of the word “liaison”) – not only for accuracy (he’d been with the paper for decades) but also for angle.

Only then would it pass to the back of the building, still on that top floor, where the sub editors would sit in a room foggy with cigarette smoke.

The sub editor who would then get their hands on the copy would be a former reporter who again knew the patch intimately.

And after they’d subbed the story for length and sense, only then would it be seen by the chief sub before going across to the printworks, where the editor would see the piece on the stone.

That’s a lot of layers to hone copy, ask questions and catch errors.

By contrast, when I hit post at the end of writing this piece, nobody else had read this before it was online.

2. Training

Allied to that is training. Not only did I get drilled every day by people who had the time – and willingness – to do it, but they paid for me to go off for three months and do a full time course. By the time I qualified as a journalist a couple of years later, I’d learned from people every single day and been taught the essentials of public administration, media law and interview skills.

I doubt there are cadetship schemes that would take on an 18 year old with no qualifications now.

Olympus typewriter3. Word processing

I arrived just in time to train on a manual typewriter. It looked a lot like this one.

The way it worked was that you took a piece of folio paper, about half the size of a piece of A4. You piled on a piece of carbon paper, followed by another folio. And you repeated it one more time.

On this folio, you could fit two or three paragraphs. You could use correction fluid for a minor error, but otherwise you had to rip it up and do it again.

The only word processing available to you was shuffling the order of the folios.

When your story was written, you’d staple each of the three piles of paper together, keep one for yourself, and give the other two to the news editor. He in turn would keep one and pass the other to the subs.

When deadlines were tight, the news editor would snatch each folio from your typewriter and walk it through to the subs.

It certainly taught you how to write cleanly.

4. Spikes.

story spikeThey were a thing. Metal spikes you’d keep your folios on for future reference.

That’s why old journos like me keep their source material emails in a folder called “story spike”.

5. Computer networks

A while before the internet began to spread, computers arrived in newsrooms. I reckon it was early 1990 at our place. They were networked, so you could file electronically. It also meant the end of the typesetters’ jobs at the print works.

6. Faxes

The fax machine had just arrived in our newsroom when I joined. Initially, nothing used to emerge from it, then the PRs (not that there were as many of them) began to start sending press releases. I estimate that the fax deluge peaked about ten years ago. When we moved to new premises at Mumbrella three years ago, we didn’t bother to take the fax machine with us.

7. Phone boxes

If you saw a fire engine go past when you were out and about, you could try and follow the trails left by splashes of water, or you could stop at a phone box to ring fire control – a number you had memorised.

motorola8. Mobile phones

I was the first journo in our newsroom to buy myself a mobile phone in about 1992. It was a Nokia and had almost the same dimensions and weight of a housebrick. It cost me a hundred quid, which felt like a lot then. Particularly when it got nicked from our photographer’s car a few weeks later.

One lunchtime, I saw a very early example of the opportunities and limitations of that instant communication.

As I drove along a main road, a tree blew down ahead of me. I phoned over a paragraph about the road being temporarily blocked and it just caught the paper, which was going to press.

Within minutes, the winds increased to hurricane force, spreading chaos to much of Southern England.

By the next morning – when thousands were waking up without power – our paper carried the news that a small tree had fallen over.

9. Copy takers

There was a very specific technique for phoning over copy. Point. You would get put through to the copytakers. Point. Par.

They’d ask you for a catchline. Point. Par.

And you’d start dictating, comma, including the punctuation as you went. Point. Par.

Ends.

10. Phone technique

You had to work the phones. If you needed to look up somebody on the electoral roll, you’d ring the local reference library and persuade them to examine it for you.

If you wanted a quote from somebody, you had to talk to them.

At first, I was so shy, I’d sneak into the cuttings library to make my calls where nobody else could hear me.

The ability to email somebody to ask for a quote, tends to make for lazy journalism, I think. Inevitably, you get less colour – and less of a connection – than if you actually talk.

11. Cuttings librarians (and libraries)

Looking at that picture of the derelict Aldershot News, the fourth window from the left was the cuttings library.

Along with the typesetters (and most of the subs), the cuttings libraries are long gone. You’d spend hours trying to track down a previous story. For some reason I was obsessed with the Surrey Puma file…

All that info would now fit on a thumb drive of course.

12. Photographic departments

That’s the window to the top right.

I suspect local paper journalism is more lonely now. At that point, there’d almost always be a snapper with you if you left the office.

They’d have seen dozens of trainees before them and would conversationally ask the interviewee the bloody obvious question you’d forgotten to pose.

The idea of doing a big story without a photograph to go with it would certainly not have occurred. So I’m among those sad to see Fairfax’s plans to outsource much of their photography to Getty Images.

I used to carry an instant camera in my pocket, and even got to use it on a couple of occasions when something dramatic happened, but there was no substitute for a real photographer.

13. Editorial independence

The ad teams were on the floors below. If ever an advertiser rang our news desk and preceded an attempt to get publicity with the words “I’m an advertiser with you…” the news editor would transfer the call straight to the advertising department before they could say anything more. Sometimes the process would occur two or three times until they got the message.

14. Shorthand

I can’t think of a single skill I’ve got more benefit from, even today. It’s still quicker to take a shorthand note and read it back as you write the story, than it is to record and transcribe. Even now, I use it almost every day of my career. Yet few courses seem to offer this as a core skill now.

15. Time

Along with the reduction in layers, time is journalism’s big loss. With newspaper economics allowing (and demanding) big teams, you could spend time getting to know a patch.

We’d bring free copies of the paper out to the fire station, the local nick and the ambos. We knew them all. As a result, the station officer would have one of his men call me at home if there was an interesting fire. They’d even let me come out on calls with them.

tim fireman

The ambulancemen would look out of the window if we wanted to take a peek at the accident report. The cops would tell us what had really happened.

You’d go to local councillors’ homes and drink tea with them.

Indeed, there would be a journalist in every council meeting and covering every court case.

We sometimes wasted this time. There were certainly more long lunches with colleagues rather than contacts. Most Friday afternoons I used to sneak off to the cinema. There were staff who used to doze at their desks.

16. Time lag

You could write something and it would take days for the bomb to explode. If a complaint came in and you’d messed up, you would feel like somebody else had written it. Now of course, publishing online means that the world will tell you about your typos in seconds (you just watch…).

17. Democratisation of media

The single most significant change for journalists is the ability for anyone to get their story out.

To be independent then, you’d need to be able to afford to print your own mag or newspaper. Starting on your own would probably mean putting your house on the line. Now, of course, anybody can start a blog, and if that’s too much trouble, share on Twitter.

18. One-way conversations

It used to be that we decided what was important to readers and told them. They bought the papers regardless, or maybe sent in something to the letters page.

At the same time though, we were taught to write for the readers. Every story we we wrote, had a picture of those imaginary people (they were called Sid and Doris Bonkers), and what would matter to them, in our mind.

Social media has made that two-way. And traffic analytics tell us in real time if nobody’s interested in reading what we write.

The comment thread that follows does the rest. It changes how we write, I think.

19. The stable business model

The flip side of the huge barriers to entry was that as an employee you could be reasonably confident that if your employer had been in business for a while, they were going to stay in business.

Circulations were stable, and advertisers were loyal. You had what looked like a job for life.

20. Trust

While people would always joke about whether you were from The Sun, journalists were mostly respected and trusted, in a way they are perhaps not any longer. You’d be invited to come in to schools and give careers talks. A wedding photograph or 50th anniversary picture in the local paper would be treasured forever.

21. The time before email

Now it feels like email has been around forever. I reckon I started using it regularly in about 1996.

Of course it’s an amazing resource, but it’s made the relationship between PRs and journos an asymmetrical one. I miss the days when a PR’s pitch to a journo was one-on-one, not a single button to email hundreds of titles.

And it’s also a wonderful publishing distribution tool, and an underrated one at that.

22. When you needed a notepad to browse the Internet

There was a brief period between when we had the internet on our computers and when Google came along.

I used to tear articles about new websites out of newspapers and staple them into a notebook for future reference. That was my search engine.

I remember at about that time urging my publisher that we should buy the URL doctor.co.uk (it was the name of the magazine I worked on). He balked at the 50 quid price tag. The mag is no longer in business.

23. Before smartphones and tablets

Most of us as journos don’t, deep down, understand what mobile really means for us yet. The way we write, even for the web, isn’t that different to how we did it for print. We tend to consume and check our own words on desktops.

But a mobile browser behaves differently. For all the talk of “mobile first” publishing, not many of us are really dealing with it.

Yet tablet technology changes everything.

Last month we had a keynote speaker from BuzzFeed at our Mumbrella360 conference. On my iPad, I tracked his flight, watched it approach Sydney airport in real time, took a picture of it from my balcony coming in, and posted it to Twitter.

Most of those tools have been around for less time than Mumbrella, which isn’t even six years old yet.

24. Before video

We can all do live video now – any of us, at any time. All it takes is a webcam. It’s another game changer we haven’t fully understood yet. It’s happened so fast.

Four years ago, we live streamed the first Mumbrella Awards. We had to instal a special, dedicated fast upload connection. And it was still pretty dicy. Five years ago, last time I ruminated on this stuff, video wasn’t even on the radar for us.

Last week, I sat at my desk and streamed a chat with consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier about marketing science live to our home page.

And it was all completely routine.

25. The romance

But there is a romance about journalism that we are in danger of losing.

Unless you’ve phoned over a story right on deadline, headed back to the office and picked the paper off the press to see your front page byline, you may not know what I mean. I’m not sure those words mean quite the same when they’re on a computer screen.

Next

The retirement age is 70, and I’m coming up for 44. So I seem to be approaching the halfway point of my career. For all the scary things happening to the business models, it’s been an amazing time to be a journalist. The next quarter century is going to be mind-blowing. So long as I don’t get found out.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

 

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