Friday, July 27, 2012

How a little production difficulty brings out the best in journalists

I AM FROM the last generation of journalists to work in ‘hot metal’, where type was set on labyrinthine machines and made up into upside-down back-to-front pages by men in aprons who held all the cards.
At the old Cambridge Evening News in Newmarket Road I found out the hard way what I could and couldn’t touch (anything) but also learned a respect for the beauty and integrity of typography.
“I haven’t got f****** rubber type,” shouted Nigel from the random where headlines were made up. Either the letters fitted on the line or they didn’t. No kerning, tracking or electronic wizardy here.
I can still count a headline from a hundred paces and cast off copy – decide how much it would make as set text – both now skills consigned to the history books.
Fast forward 35 years and this week we had a harsh reminder of the fickle finger of production fate. Our normally robust system let us down and we lost about 240 hours of production time. With nearly 40 papers to get out the door this could have cost us dear.
And everything did get done – eventually – but not without a delayed distribution here and a reprint there.
And that was all due to the spirit, flexibility and not to forget good humour of all our journalists across the region.
Back in the 80s I was production editor of Today, Britain’s first ‘electronic’ newspaper, wobbly colour ‘n’ all. The big mainframe Hastech system didn’t work very well and the Datrax system to send the pages to press was even worse. But it brought on the best in everyone, determined as we were to conquer the technical issues and produce the best possible newspapers.
And so it was this week. Contrary to what some nameless online trolls might say no-one was forced to work extra hours but everyone who could, did. They will be entitled to time off, but as of now no-one has even asked for it.
That’s what we do as journalists and that’s why I love this game so much.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A tearful goodbye to a lifetime of front pages

I’M SAT in my now deserted office surrounded by the debris of three and a half years editing and some of the hundreds of front pages we have put together in that time.
Much to the chagrin of the ‘property and facilities’ people I stuck them on the wall with Blu-Tack and Sellotape (other brands are available!) and used them daily as a learning tool, something to impress visitors and a good place to go when you run out of ideas.
I’m also reminded of Rachel, who came to us on work experience for six months via Mencap and plastered a lot of them together at just the height she could reach – which wasn’t very high.
I’ve had too many jobs in too many places to get over-sentimental about leaving a building but these pages make the place feel more like a living being than just bricks and mortar. Some were award winners, others were turkeys. Some fell into our laps and other we had to work hard for. But all of them reflect the very best efforts of everybody at the time.
Now we’re off to the other side of town to a spiffy office with nice desks, posh computer stands and a ‘printing station’. I wonder if there will be room for a new ‘living wall’…

Friday, July 13, 2012

Headlines that lie and the pursuit of truth

WE’RE all used to the nationals and TV coming down when there’s a big story in our patch and trampling all over the community.
The reporting of the death of ‘cop killer’ Peter’s Reeve’s death in a churchyard just two miles from our office was no different. The live TV feeds were full of wild speculation and the Daily Mail’s story (right) the following day just wrong, wrong, wrong.
But we’re aghast at how a local free newspaper – our ‘opposition’ here in Chelmsford - can get it so wrong in its sensationalist reporting of the events.
Whilst it really grabs the reader’s attention, the Chelmsford Weekly News’ headline Murderer kills himself on wife’s grave is simply not true. Even more so, because she is actually ALIVE and pictured on our front page.
To top it off, there is nothing in the story to corroborate this wild assumption.
Here at the Essex Chronicle, however, we did everything possible to find out the truth, after several national newspapers also made the same error.
On the day of the suicide, we had one reporter at the local register office trying to find out who the gunman’s relatives are.
Furnished with that information we sent three reporters down to the graveyard at 10pm, once the cordon had been lifted, so they could painstakingly search the gravestones to find that emotional link that the nationals had been so ready to peddle.
We even returned in the morning, and with the help of the local vicar, scoured the burial records.
So what was the local link? Was it Peter Reeve’s late father, mother, wife?
Neither. The truth is Peter Reeve had no close family connection to the gravestones in Writtle.
There are some Reeves buried there, but they are from the early 50s, when Peter Reeve would have been a small boy.
His mother and father are, in fact, buried at Chelmsford Crematorium, and his estranged wife is alive, and still living in Chelmsford.
I think we all deserve some sort of explanation.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Fun and games on work experience

WE LOVE having young people here on work experience – student journalists as well call them – and have had an many as six at a time over the past few weeks.
We always involve them in everything we do and get them out doing ‘proper stories’ that then appear in the Essex Chronicle and Brentwood Gazette
It’s nice to get at a thank-you note or even a box of chocolates but one of our latest recruits, 15-year-old Jaymie Baker went one further and penned this poem about her time here.
I think she may have a future in journalism…

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The sex change teacher and the editor

A LETTER lands on my desk written to parents by the headteacher of our much-lauded Grammar School.
It starts:
“I am writing to inform you that Mr XXXXXX XXXXXX, our Head of XXXXX, is undergoing the process of gender reassignment. After taking leave until the end of term, followed by the summer holidays, Mr XXXXXX will return to school is September as Ms XXXXXX XXXXXXX.”
And so it goes on, praising the courage of Mr X, directing parents to a gender identity research website and asking that they look at it with their son, pointing out that Ms X should be allowed to return to work “without fear of prejudice, intolerance and harassment” and stating that it is “not appropriate” to ask questions about the transition.
I remember someone much more vaunted than me writing about the “lonely hour” of the editor, when you have to decide what to do. I sought out m’learned friend - not really a privacy issue if you don’t name him – and a couple of editor chums, who said they would run with it, both with tasteful provisos.
My biggest concern was not the legal, or even ethical, position but what would the 100,000 or so readers of the Essex Chronicle make of it.
It is one of the best schools in the country, which even managed to put up with me from 1967-74, and an important part of the fabric of our city. As most local paper editors know, readers don’t like it when you run stories that portray community institutions in what might be considered an unfavourable light.
But, having found references to the letter on Twitter, spoken to pupils and got a response from the head, I ran this story, which I think shows the school in a very positive light and shows us to be a responsible local newspaper.
The readers, or even you, may know better. The paper is out this morning so we’ll see.

Monday, July 02, 2012

What every editor needs: A bottle of Drambuie and a telephone

WE'RE changing the guard here at Chronicle Towers and moving to new offices the other side of town.
We’ve been here at Westway since 1962, but the clanking press, men with inky rags and even the NGA chapel meeting call to arms are long consigned to the memory of the dwindling number of Chronicle staff from those times.
Before that the paper had hopped around Chelmsford, ending up in a High Street office now occupied by Jessops, the camera shop.
Scrambling around for some pictures to illustrate our latest move we found this evocative image of the Editor’s Office.
For students of the genre, it contains:
  • An empty milk bottle
  • A bottle of Drambuie
  • A complicated looking telephone
  • A door with no window
Make of all that what you will…