Friday, January 21

Life at the desk: ‘Technology has changed. Expectations have not ‘| Membership


The newsroom is the heart of The Guardian. Fast-paced, frantic and at any time seemingly close to a heart attack, it prompts the publication of dozens of news items every day.

In my three years as deputy news editor, there has been no shortage of historic moments: Brexit and a general election quickly followed by a world-changing pandemic. Even on quiet days, our operation starts at 7 a.m. M. When the first editor in London takes over from our Australian office and updates the website with new stories, and ends around 1 a.m. M., When the night editor puts the final print edition to bed.

For the past two decades, news publishing has had to keep up with the evolution of the Internet and technology. We no longer focus solely on filling the pages of a document: we commission and publish pieces during the day for the site. And if the articles weren’t enough, we have live blogs, including on politics, Covid-19, and any other emerging events, lasting almost every minute.

All of this was a long way off when the late Jean Stead first joined The Guardian from the Yorkshire Post in 1963. Without the significant cultural changes she helped implement, the quality of our news production would not be what it is today.

In the early 1960s, The Guardian had a reputation for being slow on the news. “What The Telegraph reports today, The Guardian comments tomorrow,” Cecil King, president of the publishing giant IPC, was fond of joking. So when Stead joined a desk that he would eventually end up running, his mission became to make the Guardian a worthy competitor to Fleet Street. “I was tired of being made fun of for not being as sharp as other newspapers,” she recalled in an interview before her death.

During his tenure, Stead and his team produced a series of exclusives that made a real impact. In 1971, The Guardian revealed that private investigators were obtaining information from the Whitehall departments, the Criminal Records Office, and the banks; then-Prime Minister Edward Heath ordered an investigation and security was tightened. In 1973, an exclusive by reporter Adam Raphael found that major British companies often paid their South African workers wages below the starvation level. The problem was addressed by a select committee and finally rectified.

So how does magic happen? I learned that it comes from a combination of determination and enthusiasm. It is not a job that allows you to disconnect. Stories are doggedly pursued and all the facts must be correct or you’re in trouble. As Stead said, “you use your brain all the time.”

Jean Stead, September 1973.
Jean Stead in 1973: “You didn’t have time to rehearse.” Photograph: Peter Johns / The Guardian

He also talked about the “desk beat,” including lectures throughout the day with other editors. “You have to go through a news list, there would be 20 articles and you have to say something about each one, you didn’t have time to rehearse,” he recalled. “You had to do everything right because there were a lot of experts sitting around a desk.” She said she was so scared of lectures that broadcasting and television were a piece of cake by comparison.

The conference schedule and attendance list may have changed, but expectations have not. Every day one of us reads the news list at the noon press meeting. We have to know each of the 20 to 40 stories that make up the agenda, from huge stories about the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, to smaller and more extravagant stories about lost whales in the Thames or the mysterious deaths of hen harriers at Sandringham. . We sell the stories we think are worthy of the cover, the ones that may have been overlooked, and the ones that add some humor or lightness.

That’s one of the things I enjoy most about being at the desk: collaboration. Whether it’s gathering heads with other editors in the morning to decide what the big stories of the day are and how we should cover them, to working with reporters on long-term projects and sharing the excitement or misery of major national developments, I’ve never felt only. In a fast-paced, high-pressure environment, nonsense can make you laugh. Like when one of our desk administrators, who answers countless calls throughout the day, was heard yelling, “We don’t make appointments with journalists, it’s like going to the library and ordering a bag of potato chips!”

I remember huddling around our screens around 8pm, in a cold, dark January, to watch Theresa May suffer the harshest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the last century when MPs rejected her Brexit deal. When he rose to accept the verdict and welcome a vote of no confidence in the government, there were some shared gasps. Similarly, when the supreme court ruled that the government had acted illegally by extending parliament, or when Chris Whitty gave his first press conference, the tension in the room was palpable.

Then there are the regular disagreements with reporters upset about their stories being changed, withheld, or enriched. Frustration is inevitable. Reporters sometimes resort to what we call a “drive-by”, cornering you on the desk when you least expect it. “We moved the newsroom table to the newsroom, right in the middle of the operation,” Stead recalled, saying that he sat with his back to the wall, so “no one could get behind my shoulders.”

Stead said she found the interest in her being an editor irritating because “I couldn’t see the difference it made.” Still, he witnessed what he called “funny” biases, such as when a reporter came back with photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono posing in bed and said, “This is the problem with having a female news editor. I should show you these. photos “. Stead once asked Margaret Thatcher about the best way to balance work and family life, to which the former prime minister replied, “Delegate.” The comment struck a chord with Stead, who spoke of his lack of a social life. “You have to stop doing a lot of things. I never got out. “In fact, every news editor knows the pain of having to cancel plans because” work got stuck. “

Today, women at the desk outnumber men, and there are times when we have an exclusively female lineup. We also have several editors from ethnic minority backgrounds, an important feature of any newsroom that wants to speak to and for a modern and diverse audience.

And that it is what interests readers? “The Guardian reader would have a lively, curious mind, and probably a good sense of humor as well,” Stead said. “You’d like to think that if you ever had a totalitarian state by accident, The Guardian would be the first to be banned.”

That has remained the same.


www.theguardian.com

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