Issue #160

This Week

So… what’s a journalist?

The question was raised Down Under this week, Bruce Elder reports, with a politician purporting to act as one.

What it’s not, as Richard Burton explains, is somebody who just understands IT (or what we once, in our excitement, called New Technology).

Somebody who’d know (but who might be excluded by Bruce’s attempt at a definition, because he never worked in a newsroom – at least, not as a reporter) is Mike Molloy, who is doing a Masterclass on newspaper design for Tony Delano at the London College of Communication. The only newspaper editor who’d never crunched up a gravel path or stood on a doorstep, Molloy designed the Mirror titles and then redesigned papers as varied as the Express and the Telegraph. They’ve obviously forgotten most of what he taught them, now. But he’s the guy to learn from. All are welcome to sit at his feet and discover what they’re doing wrong.

And still among the groves of academe, Roy Greenslade tells us what he tells his students, and welcomes the latest addition to the Ranters portfolio of classic books, From Grub Street to Fleet Street by Bob Clarke, in his MediaGuardian column.

Oh… and anybody remembers Ray Hyams, who used to edit Detective magazine…? Where is he now?


Trade, profession or calling?

By Bruce Elder

I was wondering whether the combined intellect of the readers of Gentlemen Ranters might be able to throw some light on a question that has been vexing both politicians and journalists in our current Australian election campaign. The question: ‘What is a journalist?’

The problem arose when 60 Minutes, an Australian version of the American current affairs program, employed a former leader of the Australian Labor Party, Mark Latham, to go out on the campaign trail and work up a piece about the election.

Laurie Oakes, probably the most senior of the country’s political commentators, said of Latham ‘He¹s not a journalist; he¹s still full of bile and settling old scores.’

This has led to every commentator, and a goodly collection of politicians, weighing into the debate. Mostly it has boiled down to whether the commentators were Labor supporters ie Latham is not a journalist (pro-Labor stance); or, anyone is a journalist if they want to be (anti-Labor stance).

It reached an interesting point when Peter Costello, former Deputy Prime Minister, retired politician, noted conservative, and now a columnist for the broadsheets in Sydney and Melbourne, declared: ‘Nothing upsets journalists more than the idea that outsiders can do their job. Who knows where that could end? The public might realise there is nothing special about the insights of political journalists – a group of people who consider themselves expert on something they have never done.’

So, dear Ranters, what do you readership think? Is there a definition of a journalist that is workable and precise?

I rather like the idea that if you have not served time in a newsroom then there’s a fair chance that you don’t understand the finer skills of the profession and you may well be a dilettante and an impostor.

But then did George Orwell ever work in a newsroom? Or Evelyn Waugh?


Have screen, will trouble

By Richard Burton

It was 1987, Murdoch had repelled the siege of Wapping, Maxwell had launched the London Daily News and Tiny Rowland had briefly taken ownership of Eddy Shah’s Today.

Papers were opening like village fetes. Andreas Whittam-Smith had left the Telegraph to launch the Independent and the Sunday Correspondent was in the planning stages in an era fondly remembered as one where greed was good, expenses weren’t queried and reporters left the office all the time.

Papers were making money, editions were fat and ad-rich and most subs’ desks were well staffed by fairly senior citizens with dark humour, red pens and at least one grey cardigan.

Except in Vauxhall Bridge Road, that is. The handful of us holding the fort on Today were breaking new ground – and our backs – on the first two-title national to introduce a seven-day rota and what was then technology so new it squeaked.

Whereas most papers could bring in casuals on a whim, a shift on Today meant hours of IT training; an ‘induction’ where one learned about copy-fitting, command strings and backslashes in angle brackets. All state-of-the-ark now but, at the time, getting some print subs to work on-screen was like asking your granny to use Tweetdeck.

Thus, the dilemma. The best casuals, the ones who could actually sub, tended to be older and not the most IT-literate. The young upstarts, the cut-from-the-bottom, ‘three die in crash’ mob from local papers often couldn’t, but they’d pick up the IT stuff in a blink.

So, as a fairly junior sub volunteered as the keeper of the rota and chief ‘inductor’ I’d spend days hand-holding a shit-hot splash sub who’d taken redundo from the Express in Manchester as he struggled with the keyboard, while some 20-year-old from the Treacle Bumpstead Free Shopper would confidently eat up – and fuck up – everything we threw at him with technical aplomb. Needless to say, we got through the odd one or two.

And these were the eighties, the days of opportunity, don’t forget. So they came in droves, from anywhere and everywhere with a rail link to London.

And then there were the imports: scores of them, mainly antipodean and from little-known Murdoch weeklies or, worse, no-circulation Outback rags he wouldn’t touch. Believe me, once your name got around the casual circuit as the one to call, you got the calls.

I’d get them on the phone, in the post, in the pub, and once or twice, in reception, armed with a tan, a g’day and a CV. The word was out: If you worked in a country where subs sat in front of screens, London was calling.

Many were memorable, but none more so than Jackie Chan (my nickname for him, but to anyone there at the time, a good one).

Most of those attending the inductions had more questions than I had answers. Not Chan. He sailed through without uttering a word and picked up the system as if he’d invented it. When it came to adding names to the rota that day, his was the first to go down.

I was copy tasting when he did his first shift. I sat on the backbench facing four rows of subs. Brendan Parsons, the chief sub, had his back to me. From where I sat, Chan was going down a storm with his new colleagues, judging by the hilarity coming our way.

An hour into the edition, Parsons wandered over. How many shifts is (he tilted his head) he in for?

‘Can’t remember. Half a dozen. Why.’

‘I suggest you have a look.’

I was at Chan’s side in a flash, looking over his shoulder at the pre-budget piece he was supposed to be honing into a simple, uncomplicated single column top. I remember it well. I didn’t exactly keep a copy but I’ve dined out on it enough to retain the gist pretty much verbatim.

The intro began: UK Govt has promising a raft of economy measure, say Iron Lady Thatcher.

What could I say? He could hardly speak English. How was I to know? I’m not sure I’d actually spoken to him, other than ask if he was free on Thursday through to the following week. He’d just sat at the back and nodded a lot.

What was I to do? I asked him to close the story, slunk back to my desk avoiding eye-contact with Parsons and let the wires fend for themselves while I tried to save face – and the wrath of the poor politico whose copy my man Chan had butchered.

A while later, he took an early cut and I kept my head down.

Naturally, I had to cancel the remaining shifts. I rang his landlord, the only number I had (only yuppies had mobiles in those days), and left a message to ring back. He didn’t.

So I left a message with reception, asking security to stop him coming up and to call me if and when he arrived. They didn’t.

And at 1.30 in the afternoon, just as the first shift was logging on, in he strolled, serenely unaware; even dropping his bag in the top-table seat usually reserved for the splash sub. I was dead meat.

Before you could say ‘English as a second language,’ he’d logged on, shaken the hands of everyone in sight and disappeared to the vending machines with a wire filing tray. I picked up his bag and coat followed him.

I caught him feeding in coins. He was five cups up and still going. So I tugged the basket away from him and he tugged it back. I waved my hands and said ‘no more coffee’ and he tried to buy me a tea. In the end I managed to get the tray off him, strap the bag over his shoulder and sit him down.

After a short, stilted and animated conversation, I put him in the lift where I watched him sink, crestfallen, eyes like a puppy, out of sight.

I waited a bit, then went to reception to dish out a bollocking before I got mine. Why the bloody hell didn’t you do as I asked and spare us all that humiliation?

We did, they said. He just couldn’t understand a word we were saying.


Hold the Front Page…

From Anthony Delano

Enough of the multi-coloured upchuck!

Does your front page sell? Or repel? Here’s a Page One Master Class with Mike Molloy – Rethinking the look of the modern newspaper.

Molloy, 30 years on the Daily Mirror, ten of them as editor, virtually created the look of the modern tabloid newspaper.

He also redesigned a number of other newspapers, broadsheets as well as tabloids. He is an unequaled authority on the technique of print presentation. He now believes that newspaper designers (and editors) have lost their way, confused by the availability of colour and computerised gimmickry; frenzied by the intense competition for circulation.

The result is newspapers, particularly front pages, that have the opposite effect on the reader from that intended. Rather than attract they confuse, deceive—and repel.

Over September 23-24 Mike will hold a Master Class / Summer School at the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing) to demonstrate his ideas. Students and practitioners of graphic designer and anyone else concerned with editorial production and journalistic presentation will want to attend.

It costs £180 (including VAT). To register or learn more go to:

Or contact Professor Delano at [email protected]


A fine history of Britain’s early newspapers

greenslade By Roy Greenslade

I routinely tell my students that the overwhelming majority of British newspapers were originally launched for political reasons.

The founder-owner-editor wished to publicise his (just occasionally her) opinions about government (or the monarch) in the hope of effecting political or social change of some kind.

But until I read Bob Clarke’s terrific romp through British newspaper history I didn’t realise that even in the middle of the 18th century there were papers being published with the express purpose of making money.

This was especially true, so it appears, of the non-metropolitan press publishers. In From Grub Street to Fleet Street, he illustrates the key importance the owners attached to attracting advertising.

Though they accepted that news was the main attraction, readers also appreciated the adverts. And profits could be made from a growing group of merchants seeking to sell their goods.

‘Most provincial papers in the 18th century were politically neutral,’ writes Clarke. ‘They were intended for profit, not propaganda.’

It, therefore, appears that I have been wrong in dating the beginnings of the rise of the commercial press to the 1850s. Its origins stretch back at least a century before that.

The true situation, as so often, was a little more complicated and a lot less linear. Despite their profit-making impetus, provincial papers did eventually adopt opposing political stances, not least to underscore their differences from rivals.

Their supposed ‘political neutrality’ returned only after they had largely eradicated competing titles in the 20th century. However, papers that served the largest cities, such as the Leeds Mercury and the Manchester Guardian, were avowedly political in intent and content (while, it should be noted, making handsome profits).

These revelations (revelations to me, at least) are among the joys of reading Clarke’s book, which has been reprinted, revised and extended since its original publication at an eye-popping £60.

Now, for £12.99 at most, you can trace the origins of the struggle for press freedom, the growing importance of advertising revenue, the beginning of war reporting, how editors mixed information with entertainment and the origins of campaigning journalism (good and bad).

But the real value is the way in which Clarke picks out a range of content that records Britain’s social history alongside pen portraits of long-forgotten newspaper characters.

One fine example is Elizabeth Alkin, nicknamed ‘Parliament Joan’, who was a Mercury Woman, a hawker of newsbooks – the earliest form of newspapers – on the streets of London during the Cromwellian era. She also wrote and produced her own newsbook while acting as a Cromwellian spy to expose covert royalist publishers.

Two quotes from the book illustrate its breadth. Both taken from the year 1762, they illustrate that papers then, as now, offered very different content.

The first is an advert placed in The Gazetteer, a populist title, by Sir John Fielding when offering a reward of five guineas for the capture of one Henrietta Reinholdt:

She is of Stature rather under the middle Size, a fair Complexion, very hoarse Voice, about 30 Years of Age, frequently dresses in Man’s Cloaths, and has been used to all the Houses of ill Fame in London, where she is very well known by the Name of Kitty Hawley. She has also gone by the name of Davis, &c, and has lately been at York.

The other reminds us of the high-minded mission to free the press from state control. It’s from the North Briton, a paper founded in 1762 by John Wilkes, and this is taken from its first issue:

The Liberty of the Press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of the country. It has been the terror of all bad Ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability, and duplicity, have thus been detected.

Has anyone ever put it better?

From Grub Street to Fleet Street: An illustrated history of English newspapers to 1899 by Bob Clarke (Revel Barker Publishing, £12.99). For more on the book, see the appropriate page on the Ranters books site.


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