Saturday, 4 January 2014

Office life - how things have changed in 42 years

Last day in the office and time for a selfie. Forty years ago
the idea of a telephone taking a picture would have
been quite radical - to put it mildly.
On 24 December I walked out of the Press Association office in London for the last time. Forty-two years and five months earlier, I had started work as a trainee reporter at the Northwich Guardian.
I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the differences between life in a newspaper office in 1971 and 2013.
There have been massive changes in the newspaper industry in the past 42 years. Technology has transformed production, so that there are now far fewer production staff involved. When I started work, there would have been more production staff than journalists - typesetters (people who operated Linotype machines that set the type), compositors (who assembled the type in the page), lithographers (who created image plates and printing plates) and press operators.
Today, all those jobs have been made redundant by technology and the same technology, plus the need to save money, has also meant that some of the editorial production work (subbing and page design) has also moved out of the local office and into central subbing units serving a score of newspapers. None of this is a bad thing (unless your job was a print worker, of course). In the 1970s, newspapers – like many other industries – had manning levels that would be unsustainable today. If we’d tried to keep all those jobs (and many unions tried just that) newspapers would cost £5 each and no-one would buy them.
All industry used to be heavily unionised and newspapers were among the most tightly restricted. This has largely disappeared. Journalists were always hard to organise; they didn’t like unions very much (mainly because they had to pay subscriptions) and mainly coming from non-working-class backgrounds, they had an innate mistrust and dislike of unions. The middle-class socialist hadn’t really emerged as a type back then.
Journalists were in the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) and there was also the IOJ (Institute of Journalists). I was a member of the NUJ.
Printers were in a number of unions. Typesetters and compositors were in the NGA (National Graphical Association), the people in the camera room who made the plates to print photographs were in SLADE (Society of Lithographic Artists, Designers and Engravers) and the printers were in SOGAT (Society of Graphic and Allied Trades).
None of the unions co-operated properly with each other. Each was jealous of the others and tried to recruit their members and claim their jobs as a job their members should be doing. It was fratricide not fraternity.
All of the print unions viewed the NUJ with utter contempt. Whenever there was a printers strike, the NUJ always crossed their picket lines and it was considered not to be a proper union, just a club for stuck-up journalists. They were probably spot on.
Today, the NUJ limps on, as ineffective as ever, the NGA and SLADE eventually merged into SOGAT and SOGAT eventually became the Graphical, Paper and Media Union. During the 1980s, they tried to recruit journalists and create one media union. That was a sound idea, but the NUJ wouldn’t play ball – the GPMU members were far too working class.
Inter-union mistrust and jealousy about who was authorised to do a particular job made the workplace something of a minefield. Members of the NUJ (or more accurately, non-NGA members) were not allowed to touch pages in production. I was once told off by an NGA official for touching a proof before it was handed to me. When newspaper pages were created in metal type, the type was assembled in a frame on a heavy bench called the stone. When the page was assembled, the compositor would take a proof, which was given to an editorial person for a final check. The type was inked with a roller, a sheet of paper placed on it, covered with a soft sheet of material and then a large hand-roller was run across the page to give you a view of what the printed page would look like.
My mistake, in my enthusiasm to help was to take the paper off the type, rather than wait for it to be handed to me. Rules like these were locally created and applied, of course, and it often depended how militant (awkward) the local union organiser was. This incident was not uncommon and it does illustrate how protective workers were of their jobs.
I guess events of the past 40 years have justified their concerns.
When I started work at the Northwich Guardian, there were five reporters, a chief reporter/sub and an editor. There were three photographers, although they also covered jobs in Knutsford and Winsford, so perhaps we can only count one. Just for the record, the people working there were:
Editor - Maurice Carver
Chief reporter – Mike Talbot-Butler
Reporters – Ruth Eaton, Mark Bevan, Olwen Evans, Debbie Johnson, Eric Rayner.
Photographers – Les Goode, John Quigley and Ken (I want to say Willis, but can’t remember his name).
There were also three people on reception (lots of ads were brought into the office), a girl who looked after estate agents’ copy, two ad reps (selling display), an ad manager and a messenger.
You would not have that kind of staffing on a small local newspaper these days, but the coverage of news has changed substantially. When I started, lots of news came in regularly from local correspondents – people who ran clubs and groups in the town- but unlike today, we rarely got press releases from companies or businesses and never from local authorities.
There were few PR positions in industry, business or local government. ICI (the biggest local employer) did have a small department in Runcorn, but that was it. If we wanted to know what was happening, we went along and reported it.
We covered courts, we went to the police station and fire station every day, we covered council meetings and parish council meetings, planning appeals; I used to visit a whole string of contacts in areas I was assigned to cover – vicars, newsagents, landlords, busybodies ... it was a good job for someone who loves to gossip (and I love to gossip).
Copy was written on paper, always with a carbon copy, using old Imperial typewriters, edited with ballpoint (Maurice Carver used a fountain pen), marked up with type instructions and sent to the printworks at Warrington. The copy used to go into a bag and be taken across to the bus station by the messenger. He’d pay a small fee and the parcel would be taken on the Warrington bus and met at the other end by another messenger. Everything went by this means – photos, editorial and advertising copy. When the messenger was on holiday or ill, everyone had to muck in and, because I was the newest and most junior reporter, I was the one who had to take the package to the bus station and put it on the bus.
I was quite pleased when Margaret came to work at the Guardian, she was to become my wife and mother of my children, but her arrival meant that I wouldn’t have to take the package across. Our first conversation was when I had to walk her across to the bus station and show her where to meet the bus. A couple of years after I started, we got a new machine which was a little like an early fax. You fed sheets of paper between two rollers and it scanned the document, transmitted it across a dedicated phone line and it came out the other end on a sort of photographic paper.
The paper was expensive and it couldn’t be used for photos or artwork, so much still had to go by bus.
The office of 1971 contained no electronic machines at all. There were no photocopiers, no computers, no printers and no fax machines. Telephones were great bulky things with dials and there was just one ring tone – a hammer striking a bell.
The height of technology was a microfilm reader, which was used to access old copies of newspapers.
There was no library, either for cuttings or photos, or rather there was one, but it had been untouched for years. Olwen took it upon herself to sort it out and, when time was available, I helped a little. She had it in pretty good shape within the year, so you’d be able to find previous articles on a running story or topic and stock photos/headshots.
Today, it’s hard to imagine life without Wikipedia.
No reporters used tape recorders; we all depended (for good or ill) on the quality of our shorthand and often we’d work together with reporters from The Northwich Chronicle to ensure we’d got all we needed.
The biggest difference in working practice was photography. Our images were all black and white and most were taken with twin-lens Rolleiflex reflex cameras with 3.5in roll film, which produced huge negatives. John Quigley had a Mamiya, which I think suited him better, and he was also the first to use a 35mm single-lens reflex camera. Pictures were taken, driven back to the office (often from 15 miles away), developed and printed. Subs would mark up the negs with Chinagraph pencils to get the crop they wanted and the photographer would print to the actual size needed.
Les Goode used to pour scorn on John’s SLR – heaven knows what he’d have made of Photoshop.
In the office of the 1970s, there was paper everywhere – newspapers, letters, telephone directories, copy paper, dictionaries ... items you’d dealt with went onto your spike in case they were needed again and that could quickly build up into a mass of paper.

The thing that would strike most people, however, would be the atmosphere in the office – it was noisy (on account of typewriters clattering away) but also decidedly smoky. Ruth Eaton chain smoked, Debbie and I both smoked and I’m sure there were others. Pipes and small cigars were not uncommon. There was often a haze of cigarette smoke hanging around shoulder height across the office. Everyone must have stunk of cigarette smoke.