I have chosen heroes through my life, some unconsciously, some for particular reasons, but there is a certain group of characters that I’ve looked up to, felt kin with, appreciated and loved to know about. Here’s a starter – Hunter Thompson, Peter Parker, Alan Johnston, Lois Lane, Studs Terkel, Anna Politkovskaya, Clark Kent, stop me when you see a theme here.
I’ve been a journalist for almost more than half my life now. It’s the best job in the world. For me anyway.
Reading around the web where a lot of outstanding journalism exists today, there’s a certain conversation that’s coming to the top. Find these people – Bill Thompson, Clay Shirky, Phil Bronstein, Alfred Hermida Read what they are saying about newspapers.
I’m none of those people in either of those lists, I only have my own experience rather than an authority really, but I wanted to clear my mind about what I’ve been reading, I came from newspapers and my history is unravelling behind me. Not just me of course.
I was fifteen when I started out as a nervous cub photographer, carrying a kit that weighed about as much as I did. Every evening before deadline I would submit hand printed images from the dark room to the formidable smoke filled news-floor where the editors and subs sat. It was one of the biggest rooms I ever entered around that time and full of knowledgeable, opinionated and formidable people. I loved it, I love it now.
I love newspapers, but I see that they should go. If you have read the newspaper commentaries about the future of these printed sheets that I listed above, then you won’t mind if I don’t go into the argument about what might happen or be surprised that I don’t know either. Though there’s a hell of a lot at stake when it comes to things like fact checking, quality and style and democracy in news making. It’s not the point I feel like making today.
My memory of newspapers is in opposition to my rational thinking about shutting down the presses and moving onto digital realms. Thinking that those memories are heading toward history wrenches my heart so I’ll share some.
Thinking about reading a newspaper. A real honest to goodness paper document, the one you need to concertina on the train. I love the smell of a fresh paper, the ink and that thin paper that almost dissolves in water. The mix of pages, some with colour and others with black and white images. The choice of a headline, the proof of editorial decisions, the splash photographs that take your breath away.
I remember knowing someone who never read newspapers, he said it was depressing. To me, the newspaper was something adults read when I was a kid and they found out about almost everything. I know that this is a fond nostalgic moment so don’t bother with the political angles and the choices that are made and yes, I know you cannot learn everything from a paper, lets move on.
We delivered the papers when I was at school. For some child slavery wage we lugged enormously heavy satchels of paper and dropped them through letterboxes. Rain or shine, dogs at the gate and nice old ladies with Kit-Kats if you were lucky. We’d return the neon bags to the newsagent with ink on our hands, earning a living felt really grown up.
By the side of our newsagents there was a stack of old papers that were not sold. They sat outside, mouldering in the rain, rotting in the sun. If you have smelled the aroma of rotting newspapers, you’ll know what I mean. It stinks but it was an old familiarity.
I left the paper for a bit to go to University. Every holiday though, I came back to it. It paid well and the work came naturally. So many people to meet, so many stories to find out about, so many photos of so many things. There’s no room in my head to try and remember half of the images published, all without a by-line. They didn’t seem to give them out to young photographers and well, I was mostly happy to see the morning papers illustrated with some of my work.
As as student, at the weekends I would go out on a Saturday and buy the Guardian or the Times, sometimes both if I had nothing to do. I’d make coffee and toast and go straight back to bed. The supplements would fall on the floor, the sports section discarded, the world news in my hand, toast hand frozen on the way to my mouth, pictures in my mind of different worlds, trying to imagine what it was like to be other people, trying to understand what was going on.
I associate the weekend papers with leisure, having time to read them properly, sharing them with boyfriends, reading out sections of this and that, talking about what was happening, speculating on why. I used to rip out the more spectacular photos from the magazines and pin them to the wall, not as some valiant effort to inspire me as a photographer but because they moved me, because I simply loved looking at them.
Eventually at the paper I was writing as well as taking photographs. A pale blue screen and some terrible ASCII character layout. I used to panic and take calls before deadline, wondering how the hell I was going to squeeze the words out so that they made sense. I take pride in what I write for work and have probably naïve and strong beliefs about truth and taking the time to create something interesting for an audience.
Eventually, before midnight I would have sent the words down a wire, the modem squealing away, then a call to the subs to make sure they had the words. No wonder I’ve never been a happy early riser.
I love that a Newspaper is “put to bed”. The eds and subs working late to create something that will be wiped clean and started again the next day. At night time the newspaper was born. If you’ve been in a newspaper building with presses, you’ll know the sound. It’s soft but audible and it shakes the building, it used to reassure me.
In the dark room with the photographers I learned from some people who will stay in my memory forever. Formidable and gruff sports photographers with their super-zoom lenses. Locals like me in and out on the beat to snatch an image here and there. We developed the pictures in a dark room which where then scanned by a picture desk. Hand printing is brilliant, creating something out of light – artistic, technical and before long, natural.
The chemicals smell yuk and the prints come out wet, you emerge blinking into the daylight of the office and double check what you think you can see in the orangey light of the darkroom. They smoked at the paper then too, pipes and cigarettes, right there near the chemicals, a bloody minded ability to ignore the no-smoking signs. Some of the people I learned from there made beautiful images, for small distribution local rags, but still put every effort into making it right. They taught me, some of them frightened the crap out of me with their foul language and rough attitude, but they worked so hard and took time to help me out. Many of them are dead now. Already.
So from photography, through news writing and subbing, onto radio and now on-line news. I have moved and changed and read and learned all along the way. I have to. The ideas of the newspapers dying destroys parts of me, makes me want to cry, I want them to still be there in their smoky rooms, swearing and creating great journalism. There are of course still so many excellent journalists that I look up to. I get lost in their writing just as much as I did on paper.
Someone I know said that the death of the newspaper is “never gonna happen”. I think that’s a predictable view. She was told this at college some years ago. Someone much smarter than me pointed out that our short term expectations are too high and the long term ones too low. No, the papers are not dead today, but they are heading into that familiar curve of change that starts slow and stealthy but soon speeds up and before you realise, something totally different has arrived and you’re already accustomed to it.
Shutting the presses seems necessary but my visceral nostalgia fights me on every level. Heart and mind.
I hope that the great writers and photographers of the old school that we are still lucky enough to have around us are either able to write on-line or willing to learn, their knowledge and experience is far too valuable to be lost in this revolution. I still want to be taken away by their stories and pictures. The young writers now and in the future have different arenas to play in, they’ll miss out on some of the camaraderie that I feel very lucky to have seen. Maybe it’s a good job that my other heroes include Bruce Sterling, Spider Jerusalem, William Gibson and more. At least whilst mourning the past a little, I can still be inspired by possible futures.