Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now

Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now

by Alan Rusbridger


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374279622
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/27/2018
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 74,541
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Alan Rusbridger was editor in chief of Guardian News and Media from 1995 to 2015. He is the author of Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible and is currently chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University.

Read an Excerpt


Not Bowling Alone

In 2017, 40 years after joining my first newspaper, I find myself trying to describe the technology of those beginner times to a class of bright young students at Oxford.

I intended the class to be about 'digital' life. Within minutes it becomes obvious these 18-year-olds have little idea what I mean. All their lives have been 'digital'. What on earth is there to discuss?

They know of newspapers, of course. But they rarely read one in printed form or understand what, for 200 years or more, had been involved in the act of communicating news. Does it matter? I think perhaps it does. Otherwise how would you know that this present age is experimental, that there are other possibilities they may not have dreamed of?

I take a deep breath and start drawing little L.S. Lowry stick figures on the whiteboard to show them what – even in recent history – was required for one person to communicate to more than a small group.

I describe the Cambridge Evening News of 1976. It was the paper I joined a week after graduating. It was where my own journey in journalism began.

First I draw a reporter – stick figure (SF) 1 – typing words on a manual typewriter (brief explanation necessary) onto a sandwich of paper and carbon paper (ditto) copies. Then I draw SF 1 handing the top sheet of paper to SF 2, the copy taster, and giving the carbon copy ('the black') to SF 3, the news editor. I show a copy taster assessing the stories, then bundling them up with pictures before passing each page plan to SF 4, the lay-out sub, who would then design the page and draw up a plan for the printers to follow, indicating the typographical instructions – type size, across what measure, the length required for each story to fit the allocated space, the size and typeface of the headline needed, and so on.

SF 5, the sub-editor, would then take over and edit accordingly – cutting to length, correcting spelling or grammar and querying any facts. The copy would travel down the line to a revise sub, SF 6. The pages would then pass through a metaphorical curtain to another part of the building, to the composing room where a Linotype operator would key in the copy all over again.

By this stage of my drawing, my students are looking lost ... and maybe a bit bored.

Deep breath, plough on: they need to know. Linotype machines, I explain, were squat dinosaurs of machinery, not much changed since Victorian times, used to compose metal lines of type. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, is said to have called these typesetting machines the Eighth Wonder of the World. An operator (SF 7) would sit in front of the clanking contraption – all cogs, chains, rods, wheels, plungers, pumps, moulds, matrices, crucibles, asbestos, pulleys, pistons and grease – and key in the text in front of him. The machinery included a tub of molten metal – a mix of lead, antimony and tin – heated to about 400 degrees Centigrade, which would produce a slug of type.

The students look mildly interested at the thought of foundries of boiling metal being in some way associated with communication.

Elsewhere in the composing room SF 8 would be sitting at a Ludlow machine – a heavy-duty version of the Linotype machine – casting a headline. Enter SF 9, who took all the type and arranged it into columns on a flat iron surface ('the stone') – adjusting it from time to time as readers elsewhere compared the original with the typeset print and sent through corrections. Then came SF 10, who, in a high-pressure press, would stamp a papier mâché mould of the metal-set page. SF 11 would place the mould, now curved, over a semi-circular casting box and pour more molten metal into it to create a semi-circular printing plate.

One of the students is surreptitiously consulting his mobile phone under the desk.

SF 12 placed the curved plate onto the vast rotary presses, capable of printing 50,000 copies an hour. In the belly of the cathedral-like printing hall, SF 13 would negotiate enormous rolls of newsprint onto the printing presses and gradually thread the paper through the presses' rollers. The presses would thunder into life and, in time, a printed newspaper emerged from the other end of the units and would be cut, folded and counted into bundles of 26 copies by SF 14. Then SF 15 stacked and sorted the bundles with the names and address of the wholesale and retail newsagents.

Not done yet.

It was the job of SF 16 to drive the papers in a van (or, once upon a time, a train for national newspapers) to the wholesale distribution points. SF 17 made sure they got into the hands of newsagents (SF 18) who would employ young children (SF 19) to cycle around the local streets delivering newspapers though people's front doors.

Nineteen stages (in reality, dozens – if not hundreds – of stick figures) needed for me to enable my act of communication with someone else.

'And, of course, now,' I say superfluously, because they already know this, 'if I want to communicate with any of you I just use this.' I wave my mobile phone in the air. 'And then I can communicate not only with you but, potentially, the whole world.'

'And so,' I add even more pointlessly, 'can you.'

The group look as if I have been relating how cave dwellers created fire by rubbing dry twigs together.

'But what if something happened just after deadline?' one of them asks.

'Well, we'd come back and update you the next day.'

The questioner doesn't look impressed.

* * *

In 1976 journalism was, by and large, something you did rather than studied.

There were very few postgraduate journalism schools. The common route into the business was being thrown into the newsroom of a local paper to learn on the job – with a few months at a local technological college to pick up shorthand along with the basics of law and administration.

A crash course in journalism included a single class on ethics and an awful lot of Pitman's or Teeline textbooks for shorthand. You were required to read two other books, one on libel and another explaining the mechanics and processes of local government written by a former member of Bolton County Borough Council. I was, in due course, to fail my shorthand exam. But I still 'qualified' to become a journalist. Sort of.

A week after finishing my finals paper on the dense modernist poetry of Ezra Pound, I swapped my university college – founded in 1428, all medieval courts, honeyed stone, velvet green lawns, punts and weeping willows – for the prosaic 1960s offices of the Cambridge Evening News, a mile to the east on the unlovely Newmarket Road. It was another education: three years spent in a different Cambridge, reporting on a world of factories, housing estates, petty crime and bustling community life.

There were not many graduates in the 20-strong reporting room of the CEN, a paper then selling just fewer than 50,000 copies a day. University types were – rightly – viewed with suspicion as arrogant interlopers who would trade the experience we gained in the provinces to secure a better-paid job in Fleet Street just as soon as we had even uncertificated proof of our ability to write quickly and of our familiarity with the finer points of the Local Government Act, 1972.

For the first week I wrote nothing but wedding reports – the journalistic training equivalent of intensive square-bashing or boot-polishing. It was a far cry from the Cantos of Pound. It was also more difficult than it looked: the mundane but essential ability to record every small detail with complete accuracy. The news editor took an ill-concealed pleasure in pointing out each and every error to arrogant young trainees with newly acquired degrees in English Literature.

The newspaper was owned by one Lord Iliffe of Yattendon, a largely absent figure who owned a 9,000-acre estate 100 miles away in Berkshire. More important to me was Fulton Gillespie, the chief reporter, known as Jock – a growling silver-haired Glaswegian with dark glasses and the stub of a cigar permanently lodged between bearded lips.

Jock became my new personal tutor. He was not a graduate, but a coal miner's son who had left school with no certificates of any kind and had started work at 14 as an apprentice printer at the Falkirk Herald in Scotland before crossing to the editorial side at 16.

He had cut his teeth recording market stock notes and prices in old pence and farthings along with shipping movements and cargoes from the nearby Grangemouth docks. From this he progressed to writing cinema synopses – A and B pictures with titles and stars' names. His equivalent of English Literature essays had consisted of funerals and lists of mourners; amateur dramatic societies' plays and musicals with cast lists; local antiquarian society meetings and debates; miners' welfare committee meetings; WI fêtes recording best cake and best jams. There had been farm shows to record, with their prize bulls and heifers to spell correctly, before turning up to report on local sports matches. And a quick change in the evenings for annual dinners of all kinds of local charities, sporting, civic and faith groups. The following morning back in courts, councils and other public bodies.

That was Jock's life in the mid-'50s. It would have been the same for any trainee reporter in the mid-'60s and it was – give or take – my life in Cambridge in the mid-'70s.

Early in my time as a trainee reporter Jock told us about the ritual for covering Scottish hangings. This involved befriending the murderer's soon-to-be widow by promising to write a sympathetic account, possibly hinting at a campaign to demand an 11th-hour reprieve. Once he'd extracted the quotes and purloined the family photographs the reporter would, on exit, shout at the distraught soon-to-be widow that her husband was an evil bastard who deserved to rot in hell.

'Why did you do that?'

'So that the next reporter to turn up wouldn't get through the door.'

That was what real reporting was about. Get the story, stuff the opposition. Jock saw it as his duty to school us in hard knocks. We would begin the day with the calls – a round trip to the police, ambulance and fire services. As we set off in the office Mini he would deliver one of a small repertoire of homilies about our craft. 'If you write for dukes, only dukes will understand, but if you write for the dustman, both will understand. Keep it short, keep it simple, write it in language you would use if you were telling your mum or dad.'

He explained that police work involved keeping one foot on the pavement and one in the gutter. You got their respect by kicking them in the balls at regular intervals, because, in the long run, they needed us more than we needed them. That, he emphasised, was a good rule applicable to all those in authority. It had been hammered into him by the old hacks on the Falkirk Herald and it would always be true. He repeated this homily often in case I had failed to grasp it. They needed us more than we needed them.

We owned the printing presses: they didn't. End of.

In time I was dispatched to a district office where the routine was the same, only with more alcohol. I drove the 20 miles to Saffron Walden in Essex on a clapped out old Lambretta scooter. There were three reporters for a town of fewer than 10,000 people. The chief reporter poured whisky into my morning coffee before we made the police calls. There were two or three pints at lunchtime, more Irish coffee in the afternoon and more pints in the evening before I wobbled my way back to Cambridge.

We covered all the local council committees and courts. There were golden weddings to record and local amateur dramatics to review. On Saturdays I would be packed off to cover 'The Bloods', Saffron Walden Town Football Club, who were forced to play in a modest Essex league because the sloping pitch at Catons Lane was deemed to have 'excessive undulations'. I knew little about football – just enough to be able to record the bare facts about the game on a telex machine in the corridor at the top of the stairs.

Above the telex – a machine that punched holes in paper tape to transmit the copy back to Cambridge for typesetting – was a list of footballing clichés. For every cliché that survived the attention of the subs back in head office and made it into print, we had to buy the other two colleagues in Saffron Walden a pint. They included describing the goalkeeper as 'the custodian of the woodwork'; 'a fleet-footed midfielder'; and (to describe a penalty) 'he made no mistake from the spot'. By 6 p.m. the match report was on the streets of Cambridge, along with all the other local and national football teams or in the special late Saturday afternoon 'pink 'un' sports edition.

Most of the news – back in Cambridge as well as the district offices – was pre-ordained, in the sense that the news editor in each newsroom kept an A4 diary on his desk in which he or she would record every upcoming council committee along with the relevant health, fire, ambulance, water and utilities boards. Late in the afternoon you would check the page to see what job had been assigned for the following day.

Often you would travel with a photographer. There was a strong demarcation between writers and snappers. A reporter would not dream of taking a photograph and a snapper would never dare to write a line of text. Indeed, union rules forbade it.

Around two thirds of the work was what you might call 'top down': the newspaper telling the citizens about the workings of the assorted institutions put in place to regulate or order local and civic life.

The other third of the news flowed the other way, bottom up. This was not a Bowling Alone world – the deracinated hollowed-out communities described by Robert Putnam 25 years later in America. There was bubbling social and institutional activity all around, and where we lacked the resources to cover it ourselves we recruited local stringers (today they might be called 'citizen journalists') to file accounts of discussion groups and scout sports days and charity baking mornings for the local hospital scanner. Every name sold a paper, as the news editor would remind us at regular intervals. We were duly encouraged to cram as many names as possible into our reports. Every picture sold a paper, too, so photographers knew to take group pictures and collect the names for the captions.

A typical week might include residents with damp problems who wanted to get on the radar of an unresponsive council. The petition about the dangerous pedestrian crossing. The man with the dog who'd made friends with an owl. A couple of times a day a reader would find their way to the Newmarket Road office and one of us would have to sit down in the reception area to debrief them. The representative of a group trying to stop the bulldozing of a few acres of Victorian cottages to make way for a shopping centre. The reader who has brought in a potato resembling Winston Churchill. Another is obsessed by an electricity junction box at the bottom of his garden. All our visitors want the local paper on their side.

The first edition of the paper hit the streets before lunchtime, with two or three more editions during the afternoon. A hinged door was all that separated the newsroom from the industrial machinery required to turn our words into type. Within a few yards of the sub-editors' desks were the Linotype and Ludlow machines. The smell of molten metal and grease would waft into the newsroom with each swing of the door. Around 11 a.m. the entire building would shudder as the rotary presses started to roll with the first edition.

It was impossible to forget that newspapers were as much light engineering as fine words.

* * *

There are many things we did not discuss back in 1976. We didn't talk about business models. The model for the Cambridge Evening News was relatively straightforward: nearly 50,000 people a day parted with money to buy a copy. There was display advertising – a local department store or car showroom promoting a special deal or sale. And then there was the lifeline of local newspapers: classified advertising. The vast majority of second-hand cars or houses in Cambridge and surrounding towns were offered for sale through the pages of the Cambridge Evening News. Every job vacancy was announced in the paper, along with every birth, marriage and death. Every official notification from the council or other public authority: they were all printed at the back of the newspaper between the news and the sport.

The profit margins on local papers at their peak – and the mid-'70s were as good a time as any – were in the 30 to 40 per cent range and would continue to be until the end of the century. Nearly 30 years later the regional press was still taking something like 20 per cent of the UK's advertising spend.

So, no, we didn't talk about business models; we didn't need to.


Excerpted from "Breaking News"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Alan Rusbridger.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

1 Not Bowling Alone 1

2 More Than a Business 15

3 The New World 24

4 Editor 31

5 Shedding Power 44

6 Guardian … Unlimited 55

7 The Conversation 63

8 Global 72

9 Format Wars 80

10 Dog, Meet Dog 98

11 The Future Is Mutual 103

12 The Money Question 124

13 Bee Information 134

14 Creaking at the Seams 150

15 Crash 163

16 Phone Hacking 181

17 Let Us Pay? 197

18 Open and Shut 219

19 The Gatekeepers 244

20 Members? 269

21 The Trophy Newspaper 279

22 Do You Love Your Country? 301

23 Whirlwinds of Change 336

Epilogue 355

Timeline 380

Acknowledgements 383

Bibliography 389

Notes 393

Index 428

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