Technology : a very short history of journalists and computers 1

Australia’s most prestigious newspaper group, Fairfax Media, this week moved to sack about eighty experienced sub-editors to outsource production and cut costs. The move followed share price falls resulting from from weak advertising markets, currency fluctuations and the impact of the internet on readership. It may have long term implications for the journalism culture which has sustained quality Fairfax newspapers.

Newspapers, like the automatic wrist watch or the big gun battleship, were inventions of the mechanical age. Journalists were at the front end of an information assembly line where reporters collected the raw materials, sub-editors refined it, lay out staff boilerplated the words together and printers manufactured the industrial out put. Newspapers were called “the daily miracle”.

But it couldn’t last. To make a newspaper you had to cut down half a forest in Tasmania and convert it to wood chips. These were fed through a toxic chemical process to create tonnes of newsprint which was then carted in oil burning ships to ports along the Australian coast. The newsprint was then fed into steam and later electric driven factories which before dawn each day, reproduced images and text on sheets of paper. These were sorted and packed before being trucked to shopfronts which employed child labour (paper-boys) to hawk the final products to people on their way to work.

Compared to a click on a computer link, it was slow, carbon intensive and increasingly expensive.

Computers were introduced into Australian journalism in the early seventies by Australian Associated Press (AAP), a news wholesaler owned by the major newspaper groups. I encountered them at Queensland Regional News, which distributed stories to Queensland’s regional newspapers. Before that, carbon paper was used to create multiple copies of stories banged out on manual typewriters. The Regional News sub-editors, who favoured green eyeshades and wore steel arm bands to keep their sleeves up from the ink, collected these copies twice a night. They would check stories and fling them to the teleprinter operators who punched paper rolls which could then be fed into a mechanical device which converted them to an electronic signal. As the sub-editors waited on the ebbs and flows of the news copy, they played cards and drank rum.

The early AAP computers were simple monochrome terminals connected to a mainframe in Sydney. They had limited capacity to progressively save copy and lacked even a spell check facility. But they allowed stories to be accumulated in centralised files which could be processed by editors employed on twenty four seven shifts. There was little time for rum and cards.

The new newspaper computer systems were unstable. A red light would flash in the Fairfax newsroom, the system would go down and stories would disappear. One sub-editor was so enraged that he smashed his keyboard with his fist.

But it was the printers who were to become the first casualties. By the late seventies, newspaper groups had acquired word processing networks which allowed journalists a paper based system which did not need words to be cast in hot lead on a Linotype machine and  then bolted together by compositors on “the stone”, to make pages. The introduction of this new technology prompted Australian journalists to go on strike in 1980, complaining that reading computer screens might affect their eyesight. However their industrial action was not in support of the printers, who drank at other pubs, belonged to another union and whose jobs would be lost.  Journalists successfully sought extra allowances for using computers.

In the eighties, laptops, or more correctly luggables, arrived. This allowed reporters to write and file without having to make a telephone call to a news copy taker to take down the story. Modems which clamped on telephone handsets became plug ins and then wireless. Ethernet networks became more powerful.  Much later in the nineties, the internet allowed sub-editors to operate off shore. I learned of a South China Morning Post sub-editor who did his work from a beach shack on the Sunshine Coast, while linked to Hong Kong.

In 1991,  Pagemasters  was founded, initially composing TV listings and sports results. This company, which became an AAP subsidiary, evolved into an operation which sold page ready news and sport, magazine material and centralised sub-editing.

Printing presses, which once rumbled in the basement of newspaper buildings became remote suburban operations, allowing the old press buildings to be capitalised and journalists installed in leased office accommodation, preferably located away the pubs. Australian Provincial News meanwhile developed a network where sub-editing of century old mastheads was located far away from the rural communities they served, so that local newspapers  became templates filled by teams of young reporters.

However, computers and the internet did more than allow newspapers to economise on their operations. They allowed new players to compete for advertising revenue and claim the papers’ future audiences. In 2005, Rupert Murdoch warned in a speech to the American Society of editors that younger readers were rejecting newspapers. Murdoch said that unless newspapers recognised changes in the way people used media, “we will as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans”. Four years later, a survey I conducted of more than 200 journalism students showed that two thirds read newspapers once a week or less. You had to ask, if elite journalism students didn’t read the papers, who would?

News Corporation acquired  popular websites, cross promoted company cultural products including news, music  and movies and erected pay walls around its most valuable information. Fairfax established Fairfax Digital, placed its classifieds on the web and launched an online newspaper, the Brisbane Times. But revenue was still down.

This week, Fairfax  outsourced its sub editing to Pagemasters, ending a 150 year continuity of in-house editing for its broadsheet newspapers. Fairfax Managing Director, Greg Hywood, said that he was seeking to establish “sustainable publishing models”, with $25 million worth of redundancies.

Gaining these efficiencies from our production processes is also facilitating further investment in the creation of quality, independent journalism. Fairfax will be investing in more high calibre reporters and writers, an expanded trainee program and multi-media training and equipment.

However, while paying attention to the perceived future of print, Fairfax may be abandoning the very people who made newspapers power-houses of journalism. Radio and television newsrooms relied on newspapers to set their news agendas, in part, because they lacked in-house intellectual depth. In some senses, the fat old blokes sitting on the backbench may represent the accumulated knowledge, memory and ultimately wisdom of journalism culture. You can make newspapers without the rum and the card games, but you have to wonder whether spell check will be enough to guarantee accuracy and context, if not quality.

To be continued…

One comment

  1. Pingback: Technology : half a century of Sydney journalism « Online Journalism

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