Technology : Editing before computers 1

Printers ink still runs in  George Richards’ veins.

George came from a family of newspapermen, with a father, Chas, an uncle Len, and a brother, Dick in the trade before him. George was a journalist in Sydney for more than half a century and in his time, he was a sub-editor, a London correspondent,  a Chief of staff, a cadet trainer and editor of Column 8 at  Fairfax newspapers. But George Richards would help change newspapers forever, introducing computer systems which would revolutionise journalism culture.

When he  started as a copy boy in 1950, he said a lot of the subs were “old diggers”  and the women journalists who had taken their places during WW2 had gone;  sent “back to the kitchen”. “The [news] copy was either typed or hand written with 6B pencil on copy paper,” he said. The sub-editors round desk was all male, with the chief sub-editor at its centre.  Copy was re-written and re-typed with amendments stuck on with Clag glue. “It was a dog’s breakfast”, he said.

The Herald subs room was closed. I would get in there on late shift at eight o’clock at night and there would be this almost visible fug of cigarette smoke coming down from the ceiling as the room filled up. About three or four of us didn’t smoke and everybody else did. The room was pretty daggy. The lino was peeling a bit. It wasn’t air conditioned until 1961. The masters on the fourteenth floor [the Fairfax executive offices] got it first of course, then the compositors and then us.

International news came in on tele-printers, typed in capitals. Sub-editors cut  sentences into strips and glued them onto paper backing. Reporters copy was also “pretty daggy”, Richards said. Some journalists were ordered thinkers who could produced “clean copy where you just had to put a few paragraph marks in it and put a heading on it”. Other stories however came in scraps and had to be heavily sub-edited before being put into type.

Reporters often operated out of pubs, where they would carouse for much of  the day with their sources .  Richards worked with the then famous Industrial reporter, Jack Simpson, who sat on a stool next to the servery at the Trades Hall Hotel. When officials who ran the unions (and the state Labor government) stopped to buy a beer, Simpson would swap tips on the races for inside information. “Newspapers stopped recruiting the rough and ready guys,”  Richards said. Fairfax started hiring reporters with university degrees.

When I was a cadet, you would be going out interviewing lottery winners. The next day you would do a car smash. You might do a bushfire and go out there and live with the fire-fighters. Now days that’s left to AAP. The hard news stories, describing what was going on, now goes to television. There’s no point in describing a fire when people can go and watch it on television. The reporters we got were interested in smart writing and sometimes even spelling.

Richards was in the London office in 1976 when he was asked to go to Amsterdam to look at a new system, Arsycom. “The instructions were in Dutch and it had a terrible keyboard,” he said. Richards then went to the United States to look at computers in use at the Detroit News, “risking life and limb” in the tough neighbourhood. Fairfax printers went on strike in that year, in an unsuccessful attempt to take control of the new technology. However, first systems were un-reliable and clunky. “The Arsycom system was pretty awful and kept on falling over,” he said.

A more effective computer system was needed. In 1984, Richards led the training team to introduce Systems Integrated Incorporated with its Coyote terminals to about 800 Fairfax staff.

It was a beauty. It was a Rolls Royce of computer systems. It had been devised for newspapers…. It had been used widely in the United States for advertising and editorial. One of the best things about it was that it was something you could customise yourself. It taught you how to customise it to meet your own requirements…it was so good they kept it on in classified until 2011. It lasted for twenty seven years. For a computer system that’s amazing.

Computerisation allowed reporters to type directly into the system. “When you went to computers, everything was neat and tidy on the screen”, he said.

It was the silence you noticed.  Typewriters, teleprinters and shouted exchanges  made a lot of noise. “With computers all you heard was click, click click,” Richards said. The conversation around the news desk was muted.

Next Posting; Technology: Outsourcing to Pagemasters

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Technology : a very short history of journalists and computers « Online Journalism

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