I was lucky enough to start my journalism career at the end of its golden age.
A noisy and boisterous era of clacking typewriters, telephones ringing like church bells, overhead pipes loudly shuttling copy and ads to composing room and scribes shouting to be heard over the racket.
When the pressure of deadlines was released with a beer or two over the pub at lunchtime.
This current bout of nostalgia was sparked by the re-emergence of a video, now on YouTube, showcasing a day in the life of the Coventry Evening Telegraph, my local newspaper, playground of aspirations and inspirations.
And then Jeremy Vine’s return to the corridors he once strolled, as a feature for Radio Two. Where it began for him and hundreds of other junior reporters. Like me.
For the Coventry Evening Telegraph was a place like no other.
A world of characters that at once would grace the pages of a thriller and the stages of a situation comedy. For The Fast And The Furious read The Weird And The Wonderful.
And every soul that poured into the Coventry Evening Telegraph building on the junction of Corporation Street and Upper Well Street in those days played their part. It was a family, proud of achievement, proud of brand, proud of togetherness.
Heavy drinking sessions, often at the nearby Town Wall Tavern – out the front door, aim for the gap between the Belgrade Theatre and Lunn Poly and no chance of missing it – didn’t seem to dampen the talents of those who imbibed.
It brought them closer to the people who formed the Telegraph’s holy trinity: audience, subject and informant.
Photographers snapped away, then hid themselves away in the darkroom – managing to come up with world class pictures that would have the modern day equivalent, with all their computerised aid, weeping.
Talent. Sheer talent.
But everyone brought into the desire to be the best. From the security guards to the cleaning staff to the groundsman at the paper’s Lythalls Lane sports field. Newsagents were part of the family, too, and copies were snapped up outside factory and shop, sports ground and school.
The security team had a list of people not to put through to the newsroom team. One of them was ‘Jesus Christ’. On the sheet of paper in those non-PC times, the legend added to it was ‘obviously a nutter’.
Maybe we missed the Second Coming because no-one took it seriously. The one scoop the team failed to win.
Advertising bods understood what the paper was about and their part in it, journalists the same. The composing room, fresh from the smelly days of hot metal, was where the magic finish was fashioned . There, the chosen few trusted with computers inputted stories from the sheets we had handed over, readers checked stories, again and again, and ‘comps’ pointed out mistakes, too, from headlines to picture captions. The minutiae was important.
Not to say that mistakes didn’t happen. Coventry City striker Ian Wallace apparently struck a ‘hot shit’ over the bar at 1970s Highfield Road, although I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that was one mistake let through on purpose.
For a journalist it was about understanding what the readership wanted, understanding the city and county, understanding law and story writing. No time-wasting idly staring at a computer screen, trying to decide which was the best intro. In the days of typewriter it was about having a strong grip on the story, of writing an intro, tearing off the triplicate paper and attendant carbon copier, putting ‘MF’ for ‘more follows’ and then on to writing paragraph two (we called it three, because the first sheet was always 1/2).
It was the same for reporting from outside the office, from court or the scenes of crimes or tragedies. A phone call through to newsdesk, a brief chat about the story and then onto copy desk to dictate. On the spot reporting. A nightmare concoction of fun and fear, fear of getting it wrong, but fun believing that this was what journalism was all about.
And it was. Without the mobile phone, the internet or social media, it seemed easier to get hold of people. We rang next door neighbours, who would gleefully go round to get our intended interviewees to the phone. Or local post offices or shops, who on more than one occasion would send a member of staff to knock on someone’s door for us.
Only in certain cases, because we were encouraged to get out there and knock doors for ourselves back then. Get out and become part of the community.
The computer changed it all. The noise of the newsroom got gradually quieter. The telephones would purr, if you bothered to put it on the lowest setting. Colleagues would glare if you talked to loudly, or, God forbid, laugh. The modern world of journalism became sanitised, like public libraries. At one title I worked for, I ran up a small mock sign for a particularly sour-faced colleague who seemed to like absolute quiet when on a telephone interview. The sign said simply: Quiet Please!
The computer also saw staff levels savaged, from the ‘comps’ to reporters, subs and photographers. It wasn’t they weren’t needed, just that the newspaper landscape changed and suddenly profit came before product.
Maybe there were characters afresh, but not like the old days.
I remember Jeremy Vine’s splendid spoof on a Christmas tree story that had us all in stitches; Bob Cole’s incessant barking down the corridors; dragging my first editor, Barrie Clark, back to his desk from a drinking session that became immortal – nobody quite knew what to do. He leaned in his chair, a cigarette becoming a precarious pile of ash jutting at 90 degrees as the snores reverberated.
There was trying to make out sports editor Ken Widdows during a conversation at his desk, which was fog-bound by cigarette smoke from Ken and his colleagues; there was photographer John Bassett asked to get more action shots from Coventry Rugby Club at Coundon Road who accidentally walked on the pitch and nearly getting mullered in a scrum; and my first scrape with Jesus Christ, who had plenty of worries to share.
There were nine daily editions back then and most people grabbed a copy while it was still warm. I remember telling someone I thought important that I was a reporter with the CET and immediately it was as if I was someone special, just because I was part of it.
That was the power of the paper. And watching those videos and listening to that radio interview, I am back in those newsrooms, searching for background information about all manner of local story in the CET’s library archive and asking the ladies in the telephone exchange for a number somewhere else in the country.
Teamwork. Pride. Belief in a common brand.