We gathered, a small group of us, on the other side of the traffic lights. I wished I had worn warmer clothing – the bright sunshine that morning had misled me. This was a bracing Coventry day, and there was not much of a welcome on other fronts either.
Across the road was the office where I had started my career. More than an office: the words “COVENTRY EVENING TELEGRAPH” were bolted to the front and side of a four-storey building which, my dusty memories told me, dominated the entire city centre.
I squinted at the place. The memories must have played me wrong. Sure, the building was still four storeys. But a reconditioned theatre and modernised shopping mall took the eye away, and the pedestrians passing did not shoot the newspaper office even a glance.
We looked, of course. The building was the reason we were back for our reunion. Organised by BBC environment correspondent Roger Harrabin, who normally covers the destruction of the planet, these former journalists with the CET had returned to reflect on the distress of a somewhat smaller world: newspaper journalism. Writes Jeremy Vine…
I have much to be grateful to the Telegraph for. It took me on as a trainee in 1986 and taught me that the first sackable offence in regional reporting is to spell someone’s name wrong. Even worse was for the first name of the principal character in a news story to change mysteriously during the copy (yep, I did that once). The paper impressed on me law for journalists, shorthand and the importance of detail.
I once came back from reporting on a compulsory purchase order to make way for a new road and, despite having spoken to all the people who were losing their homes, I was bawled out for not asking what the new road would be called. The Evening Telegraph gave its trainees the fundamental journalistic insight: what is a story and what is not. “A man comes up to a woman and shouts ‘I want sex’ is not a story,” the deputy news editor lectured me sternly, “because everyone wants sex. The story is that she fought him off with a shoe.”
When the Telegraph was a powerhouse in Coventry
The editor, Geoffrey Elliott, was a stickler who sent us a weekly briefing containing gems I have never forgotten: “Do not use the words ‘incident’ or ‘situation’ in the paper,” he once wrote imperiously, “for they have no meaning.” In those days the Telegraph had 85 editorial staff, numerous sub-offices in places such as Nuneaton, and was a powerhouse in the city. What you typed in the morning could fly off the presses and be sold on street corners that same afternoon. I had never felt so excited in my life as I did when I saw my first front page lead hit the desk beside my typewriter. And it really was a typewriter, with a ribbon: there were no computers back then. We used carbon paper to create second and third copies of what we typed.
Which is why the sight of the paper now was a sobering one for our group. More than 20 years on, the editorial staff was down from 85 to less than 20 (the ghost of the news editor appeared before me as I wrote that: ‘”Less than 20?” How many exactly? Haven’t you checked? Why not fewer?’) The paper no longer occupied all four storeys – in fact, it apparently had trouble filling one. When I worked there, aged 21, I would walk out past the deafening presses to collect my bicycle. Now the printing was done in Birmingham to save money, and ‘paper’ was almost the wrong word. The Coventry Evening Telegraph had become a website.
So if ever there was a day that demonstrated the pulverising power of technological change, that visit to Coventry was it. I think we all felt sad, standing across the road in the chill wind and looking at the bedraggled giant we had abandoned two decades before. But a sense of the inevitable takes the edge off any sadness: it had to happen, didn’t it?
All around us we see the effects of technological change. Born in 1965, I had my childhood in black and white. Not just the small TV in the corner of the living room that took two minutes to warm up, but all the holiday photographs too. We now live in a world in Technicolor. I do the BBC election graphics – VR, they call them, virtual reality: because they are that close. Augmented reality, 3D, 3G, use whatever term you like. The change has sucked the air out of our lungs.
The great irony is that newspapers were supposed to use all this innovation to coast into a new and greater age. During my brief time in Coventry I had seen the city squad win the FA Cup and the first delivery of enormous desktop computers (in fact, I tripped over the boxes in reception: just like the newspaper, I was not looking where I was going). Soon after I left, the CET printed the odd picture in colour. But somehow the technology started as slave and ended as master. In the US, many towns are without any printed newspaper now, and there have been predictions that before 2050, on an unspecified street corner in the USA, the very last newspaper will be folded and thrown into a bin.
What the case of Phil Laing tells us about the power of Google
I was struck by the case of Phil Laing, a first-year sports technology student at Sheffield Hallam University who urinated on a war memorial while drunk. Someone took his picture. Twenty years ago it would have gone into his local newspaper, and, if he was especially unlucky, a national tabloid might have printed it and lived off the reaction for a couple of days. Now the image went global. People abused him on YouTube from places as far afield as Sydney. If you ‘Google’ Phil Laing you see pages and pages of photographs and rabid commentary. He was tried and convicted by Google before he ever saw the inside of a courtroom. The image is permanent – it will outlive Phil – and will be instantly searchable forever. Phil has become the image. That is the change.
Power has shifted to the hands – and keyboards – of a new army of internet warriors, variously described as bloggers, citizen journalists, trolls, tweeters and many other things. They do not have a boss and their name appears on no-one’s payroll. Their activities can suddenly coalesce like a swarm of hornets and then just as quickly they are gone in their different directions. It makes the solid four walls of the Coventry Evening Telegraph look like a positive disadvantage, and the same goes for many other old media outposts, even though some have bent over backwards to embrace the change. I regret not seeing how big this was going to become in the early 1990s; or, come to think of it, the early 1980s, when my dad bought one of the first retail computers and I used the entire memory by typing in song titles from my record collection.
So if you are reading this because you are about to ‘go into journalism’, good luck. You have chosen the worst time and the best. They used to say you needed an eye for detail and a nose for a story. Now it would be best to have an ear for what is coming around the corner. The only reassurance I can offer is this: the values I was taught on that newsroom floor in Coventry have not died. A journalist must fight to gain attention and trust. That has become harder to do, but more important than ever.
After his stint reporting on the Coventry Evening Telegraph, Jeremy Vine joined the BBC in 1987. He currently hosts the BBC Radio 2 programme Jeremy Vine, which presents news, views and interviews with live guests.
This piece is the foreword to a forthcoming book, Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble, to be published by Abramis in April.
Many Thanks to BBC College of Journalism