Anorak News | The Crisis Facing Regional Printed Media: Well Of Souls

The Crisis Facing Regional Printed Media: Well Of Souls

by | 3rd, October 2010

I HAD an old fashioned communication the other month when an old friend and former colleague rang to say she had found a video of us she, her husband and teenage boys had made while visiting the last time we saw each other.

When we first met, she was a young feature writer and brilliant at what she did. She had that vibrant and inquiring way of treating a feature piece which made me want to read it.

I was a not–so-young department editor and working flat out in the days when newspapers were still produced in hot metal and journos used battered tripe writers to hammer their daily news stories or pearls of wisdom out on blank sheets of old newsprint known as copy paper.

In truth, I quite fancied her and given half the chance… I had absolutely none. She was, and still is, in love with her man and I was happily married and too damn busy being worked to death.

It was an English provincial evening newspaper and then I was back licking wounds after a disgraceful sojourn into the murky world of local government PR. I found I was a brilliant information and press officer and a lousy arse-licker For me there was little choice and I jumped back into newsprint as soon as I decently could.

The link-renewal telephone conversation went: “…we must meet up sometime, what happened to so and so and how are the family?” plus the usual, but warm, exchanges and apologies for drifting apart.

Those far off days of frantic newsrooms, the heat of newspaper production with compositors paid up to three times the average wage of a journalist, still bring back fond memories and the comradeships of working in editorial teams – first as a cub reporter, then hard newsman and feature writer and eventually over to joining the then elite, sub-editing teams actually putting the papers together each day. The place (and all newspaper offices) was full of character and characters.

In our meetings she had told me of some the changes and challenges the news business had faced. That included the departure of famous owner-families and the arrival of corporate publishers.

Nothing could have prepared me for the truth of it. I happened to be in the circulation area of that office where she still worked and which was still one of my nostalgic halcyon daydreams. I called out of the blue and we met in the foyer of the building where I used to work.

Not once, but on two separate spells there. It was a place where I knew I had once had value.

The first thing I spotted on the way was the press hall had gone. The great printing machines which ran off the four or five afternoon editions had evaporated and were a few cyber clicks away on a new industrial park/estate in a cheaper part of town. Half the original building while still there was gone, sold/leased to the university and, like all super successful micro business, the newspaper staff had shrunk into smaller premises.

In those smaller, bright, computer-driven, offices there were gap-toothed voids; empty desks where the latest round of redundancies had bitten more chunks from the working environment.

We did the rounds. The office I had was now in a University and, when presented with an area to be told that was once the editor’s office, I dropped a bollock and denied it saying it was where the sub-editors held sway. Both were right. During my first work time there it was the subs’ room. During the second stint the Editor and deputy editor each had one of the two offices in the area.

As I looked around the open plan, advertising staff seemed to be having a sales party in one corner. Cakes and balloons abounded and every now and then there were more cheers and a cheek kissing frenzy as a tiny tele-ad was placed by another unsuspecting member of the public.

I knew no-one on the editorial desks, not one apart from my friend. I met an editor so young if I had not been warned I could have given him a couple of quid to wash the car before he went home do his homework.

Looking closer it was evident the strain was etched on faces of those trying to get out a quality evening newspaper with less and less staff and dealing with more and more mistakes actually getting into print.

I then recognized the journo nearest me. When I had last seen him he was one of the media elite, the privileged … a SOGAT union member and compositor who had re-trained and become a sub-editor.

The boss of his Union was Brenda Dean who became Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, a Privy Councilor in 1998. Her union was destroyed by the print media’s new technology.

Her at the type-case man didn’t make it into politics. He re-trained to become a journalist, except there are no sub-editors left. They are ‘group media multi-task desk editors’ or some such Human Resources Department nonsense title… There is no news desk, no subs desk, no division just a bland mishmash of willing people.

Now each day they take a composite of whatever has appeared in the published paper and produce a news website. It does not get many hits but the realisation is there and talk is no-longer of increased circulation. Good figures are expressed in terms of losing less copies of your newspaper than the rival in the next town along. There is a new and awaking knowledge journalists have to get out and find what the readers want from them rather than the traditional presentation of a string of facts. Can newspapers entertain at all?

I looked around the room again; there were no more familiar faces. Then the penny dropped. It was always the same.

Whenever returning to newspapers worked on I would see gaps.

‘Where were Allan, Goldie, Tony, Peter, Jenny, Frank and John?’ “Dead”, is the universal reply.

All the greats, the characters and mates had worked themselves into early graves with the strain of producing copy for a hungry audience and even hungrier printing press; each day a new and totally different product.
It’s then the horror strikes to the bone…these places suck the life essence from you.

It is not a workplace, it is The Well of Souls, and I hope my friend steps back from the brink before it is too late.

I made my excuses and we went for a coffee out of the building and, as we talked of times past, my dead list just grew and grew and grew.



Picture 1 of 8

General Secretary Brenda Dean (centre) joins about 1000 women who marched on Rupert Murdoch's News International plant at Wapping, East London in protest at the sacking of 6,000 print workers.

Posted: 3rd, October 2010 | In: Reviews Comment | TrackBack | Permalink