FEATURE 

Newsrooms: we will remember them

Widespread closures of newsrooms are taking place at Reach, the UK’s largest media group, with most staff to work mainly at home even after Covid-19. The move has sparked vivid memories, as Steve Dyson reports.

By Steve Dyson

Newsrooms: we will remember them
Birmingham newsroom's conference table in around 2007, at its then new base at the old Fort Dunlop building, on a day Bishop of Birmingham David Urquhart was visiting. (Steve is on the left.)

Phones constantly ringing, the fog of fag smoke stinging, metal spikes sagging under piles of pierced paper, and one of the oldest reporters in the world – once again – gently snoring in the corner.

The announcement that most of Reach’s newsrooms will be closing, with only around a quarter of staff going back to being permanently office-based, has brought a new outpouring of bemusement and fond memories from many journalists.

Neil White, a hugely experienced reporter and news editor who started at the Birmingham Post & Mail and went on to edit the Derby Telegraph from 2012 to 2016, penned a passionate mini blog about the closures on his Facebook page.

White said: “I am aghast at my former employer’s closure of offices in favour of home working. Every great moment in my career came from being in a team.

“From campaigns to big breaking stories to brainstorming headlines. The banter, the camaraderie, being lifted up when I was feeling fed up. But even more, the recognition of the public of the substantial presence we had in our cities.

“We were seen as a key player in our communities. I am saddened reporters working from home will not be able to soak up the experience of the office or benefit from the wisdom of colleagues who have been around the block many times.

“I feel sorry for managers who won’t be able to see the joy in the eyes of young staff getting their first big story and then going on to become stars.

“If I had been told to work from home in my 20s, I would have left the industry because it would have either meant sitting with my mum all day or then perching on my bed in a tiny flat. My career would have been over before it started. Sad times.”

White’s reminiscences sparked more from fellow journalists, with 60-plus comments on his Facebook post – many echoing, a few debating, but almost all agreeing that the exclusion of a newsroom for most journalists was a radical change.

One came from Graham Hill, a former sports reporter who worked with White when they were both at the Birmingham Post & Mail in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hill said: “A number cruncher obviously saw that, during lockdown, offices weren’t necessary (Ka-chinnng!). Whitey will remember the Birmingham Post & Mail newsroom was the size of a football pitch 30 years ago, and as busy as a small town.”

It was that last sentence that brought my own memories of the Birmingham newsroom flooding back from when I first turned up there on work experience in 1990 to when I eventually left as editor of the Mail at the end of 2009.

Every great moment in my career came from being in a team.

Neil White

Circus performers

To be accurate, that newsroom at Colmore Circus, with the presses underground and all the vans lined up waiting outside on Printing House Street, was much larger than a football pitch, with a veritable warren of corridors to supporting offices surrounding it.

Back in 1990, there were still constant queues of readers crowding the front reception, placing classified adverts and flicking through past copies, and others waiting for whichever reporter had drawn the short straw to listen to their daily gripes.

One of the most fascinating places was the balconies above and surrounding that voluminous newsroom, thick glass cutting out all the noise but the busy-bee activities of three separate newspapers taking place in miniature beneath you.

On the editorial floor itself, I remember some journalists ducking behind screens to avoid news editors’ glares as they looked for someone whose nib-count was low enough to warrant dumping the latest pile of press releases onto their desk.

The coffee from an ageing, creaking machine next to the Birmingham newsroom cost 4p a cup and was instantly weak, the milk regularly sour. But we all drank it. And everyone in the newsroom on a certain day in the mid-1990s will remember the mouthpiece on the late reporter Bob Moore’s phone as it literally regurgitated clumps from years of chewed-up sandwiches while it was cleaned.

There were several occasions every day when everyone perked up as the latest editions arrived, despite the inevitable moaning and squabbling over the typos.

On a news floor once heavy with nearly 200 staff, how we all stopped to gawp when editors Ian Dowell (Evening Mail) or Peter Whitehouse (Sunday Mercury) were screaming or throwing hot coffee at the perceived incompetence of a reporter, newspaper sales or marketing executive.

Meanwhile, Birmingham Post editor Nigel Hastilow was calmly playing the latest game of what I took to be table tennis on his desk, with a then-young news editor called Richard McComb.

And oh, how the whole floor was gripped with energy when a big story was breaking. Just one among many memories was from 8 December 1994 when the ‘Rackhams slasher’ randomly attacked shoppers outside the Birmingham department store of that name.

Hacks were shouting across the newsroom as the first calls came in, then jostling for space at the news desk to sort out who was doing what, and then hurrying to the scene with snappers and orders to meet the deadline for that afternoon’s main C1 city edition.

Birmingham was a particularly large office, of course, but similar microcosms were played out at many smaller newsrooms across the country when all those venues were still their papers’ beating hearts.

Back in 2018, news that the Carmarthen Journal’s town centre office was closing brought a call from an old colleague who once worked there in the mid-1980s, and we ended up swapping newsroom memories that had stuck in our minds.

In Carmarthen, my pal remembered the editor’s wife bringing her husband’s lunch in on a tray every day for him to consume with knife, fork and napkin in his office, door closed.

This reminded me of my earlier stint as a student journalist at the tiny Lancaster Guardian office in the late-1980s, and the buzz every Friday afternoon as an assistant from finance wheeled an old tea trolley around, handing out small brown paper envelopes with that week’s expenses in cash. (And then the room emptied to the Brown Cow pub.)

“When I first read that the [Carmarthen] offices were closing, I felt emotional,” my friend confided, “and it left me thinking ‘how will the community now be served?’. The paper still exists, of course, and reporters will undoubtedly still find their stories, but it still feels like the closing of a newspaper office that’s been in the community since 1810 is a huge page turning in history.”

A number cruncher obviously saw that, during lockdown, offices weren’t necessary (Ka-chinnng!).

Graham Hill

Fun times

I wrote about all this in my HoldtheFrontPage ‘Dyson at Large’ blog back in 2018, and it’s worth revisiting just a few of the comments that poured in from journalists about their own views on newsrooms.

“It wasn’t perfect in those old newspaper offices of yore and neither were the papers,” said one poster calling himself ‘Paperboy’. “But it was a lot more fun … at least towns had newspaper offices.”

‘Former Journo’ said: “I also remember the sweet smell of newspapers which, a bit like magazine print, was always a joy.” Meanwhile, ‘echoandthebunnymen’ lamented: “And didn’t we have fun? That’s another element which is missing these days.”

Someone else remembered how many newsrooms were often above newspapers’ own press sites. It was ‘Toggy McTogface’ (yes, the names of posters on HoldtheFrontPage were almost always silly pseudonyms) who said: “And the slow trundle of the presses starting up which would slowly vibrate the darkroom floor. Ahhhh, the aroma of bleach fix and a crafty roll-up where no H&S exec would dare tread.”

‘Disgruntled Toggy’ grumbled: “A bit sad. Fun in newspaper newsrooms seemed to have gradually dwindled since the mid-80s before all but killed off in the last five years. It’s now like being in a different job to when I started thirty-eight years ago.”

One of the best comments came from ‘Geronimo’: “That rang lots of bells with me of life in a smoky, dusty but bustling newsroom in the 1960s. No phones on each desk but just a few on side tables.

“Early starts and late finishes plus weekend duties. We got exciting buzzes and flogged a fair bit to the nationals. Enjoyment and job satisfaction with lots of pages of hard news and pride in our tales written.

“We even had company motor scooters to go out to our district every week and one minivan. The junior made the tea for all and once a week on press day took orders for sandwiches and went out to get them.”

But the last post worth reviving came from the above-mentioned Richard McComb: “For clarity, I would like to point out that we played tennis, not table tennis, in the editor’s office. Both singles and doubles matches were played twice daily.”

And oh, how the whole floor was gripped with energy when a big story was breaking.

People need people

That blog of mine was three years ago, sparked by talking about the small newsroom in Wales. The macrocosm now is dozens of newsrooms closing in towns and cities as large as Chester, Derby, Huddersfield, Leicester, Middlesbrough, Stoke and many more urban centres.

The flow of news tips from visiting readers, the gaggle of hacks advising on intros or contacts, the backbench staff creatively sucking pencils to crack the best headlines – those days are largely disappearing.

And while modern, online journalists might justifiably point out how old-fashioned those days were, and how irrelevant they might be to audiences on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the old high street office had one crucial element that no number of websites, phone screens and social media can replace: people in the flesh.

People talking, smiling, greeting, laughing, commiserating, advising, shouting and sometimes snoring, but people all the same, breathing into that day’s or that week’s newspapers, then read by the audience we served, becoming their conversations, delights, debates and sometimes moans.

Most importantly, for reporters in 2021, those soon without an office to feed them, where will they find a new source of humanity, an alternative supply of ideas, jollity, guidance, syntax and resolve? Answers (and more memories) on digital postcards, please.

The old high street office had one crucial element that no number of websites, phone screens and social media can replace: people in the flesh.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.