Days of manual labour

Twenty years ago this very month I left behind the world of journalism, at least that branch of journalism that still had a distinctly 19th Century air about it.

Okay, by the final years of the 1980s, the print workers may have lost the power to input your stories and the writer was finally being seen as, perhaps, the key component in the newspaper-making process rather than a minor subsidiary in an anachronistic hierarchy, one premised on the union control of the machines, the very means of production.

But, even at the end of this phase, news-room technology remained more Victorian than Thatcherite, more 1880s than 1980s. Beginning in 1978, I spent about a dozen years clattering my reportage into a manual typewriter – the machine-gun rat-a-tat was the constant soundtrack of all newspaper editorial offices, almost as noisy as the printing presses themselves when a dozen or so news and features reporters were belting their thoughts into carbon imprints on slips of copy paper.

Then, those pieces of paper would be passed on to the compositors who would, once more, key-in your very words to the pre-press systems, a repetition only made necessary by the restrictive practices of those ancient and powerful unions who remained at the seat of power in British newspaper production.

Numerous and acronymous trade bodies, like the NGA, NATSOPA and SOGAT, dominated the shopfloor and, in essence, called the tune. Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch, in league with a smaller newspaper magnate called Eddie Shah, took on and, eventually, won victories over these long-standing and broadly archaic operating methods in the mid-1980s.

During this period, many of us were caught in the metaphoric crossfire. If you were a union member, too – I was in the NUJ for more than a decade, served as office convenor or Father of the Chapel, the title a hang-over from the days when it was the monks who drew the illuminated scrolls and ran medieval publishing concerns – you weren’t too sure whether to back your blue collar colleagues or accept that the age had come to abandon the historical curiosity of journalists needing middle-men to feed their paragraphs into an intermediary machine before the presses produced tens of thousands of copies of the newspaper ready for the news-stands and the street corner vendors.

Until the end of the 1970s, there had been a certain logic to this principle. Compositors had actually created the very blocks of hot-metal type that would leave their inky and permanent impression on the newsprint: theirs was a skilled task built on long apprenticeships. By the start of the next decade, though, the words were being fed in to first generation office computers, so the print-workers were simply duplicating what journalists had already done on their own typewriters.

The upshot for me was that I passively supported the printers (even though they had proved rarely available to back up the journalists, notably standing back in 1978 from our six-week strike in support of improved pay and conditions) while realising that the inevitable tide of change could not be held back.

Newspapers could only be commercial propositions if large and expensive tiers of the newspaper-producing chain were dismantled and journalists became the new masters of the emerging computer hardware. And so it proved – a picket-line battle raged at Wapping for a number of years but eventually an intransigent Murdoch proved that The Times and The Sunday Times could, under a slimmed-down labour regime, join The Sun and The News of the World as profitable stable-members rather than prestige-heavy and debt-laden cousins.

I never bought a Murdoch paper again – tens of thousands who saw this media revolution as monetary muscle crushing the seething masses underfoot never did either. But the process did release the print media from the shackles of its own past and, for the next decade and a half, the newspaper world became a dynamic sector which saw titles in appear in some numbers – Today, The Independent, The Sunday Correspondent, News on Sunday – and some even survive.

Now, of course, the business is another, possibly catastrophic, trough with the web undermining older financial models built on advertising revenue. People still want to read newspapers – the online traffic of The Guardian and even The Daily Mail is phenomenal – but not actually buy them over the counter. How this critical juncture is handled will decide on the fate of the very industry itself in the next five years.


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