TThe internet may have revolutionized the media in the 21 years since I joined The Guardian, but my role as a deputy editor has remained essentially the same. We check facts, write headlines, and cut stories to the correct length, with a final spell check before moving on to the next stage.
But until the end of the last century, the sub-release looked completely different. Chris Dodd began working the then Manchester-based feature counter in 1965 after a pub “interview” (he didn’t know whether to drink, abstain, or buy a round), while Barry Johnson and Jay Sivell were they joined the London office on Farringdon Road in 1986. Shifts began at various points in the afternoon, and the submarines (as they are called) enjoyed a leisurely start. “People used to read chess games and books, or do crossword puzzles. You could sit for hours with nothing, “says Johnson, who retired in December.
As news shifts progressed, subs sketched page layouts on paper and waited for the stories, or “copy,” to arrive in a wire basket as numbered pages, each containing a paragraph or two. The subs were assigned the length of the stories, measured as inches in a single typography column, and had to estimate how many words to cut. Once the story was approximately the correct length, it was passed to a review subgroup to be deemed fit for publication before being placed in another basket to be picked up by a courier and sent by pneumatic tube to the composition room at the basement. The submarines were prohibited from touching the tubes as this task was controlled by a different union; all three fondly recall that Peter Preston, article editor and later editor, was the only journalist who dared to break this rule.
Writing headlines, often two to three hours after editing the story, also involved calculations. The subs got a title size, say three lines of type 36 points in two columns, and used a table to evaluate how many characters would fit. Wide letters like M count as 1.5 characters and spaces count as half. “If you cut down to half a character, you can send it in and hope for the best,” says Johnson. “If it didn’t work and the compositions [compositors] they felt useful, they could squeeze it out a bit. ”Unless they sent him the headline in a tube because it broke, that was usually the last time he saw of his work until the morning.
“When we started, the secondary review was a little scary,” says Johnson. “He’d been in Bomber Command during the war and he was quite gruff, yet kind, and he would sit there smoking his pipe. He would look at his travel alarm clock and look at the copy, smoking his pipe more as the night wore on. If he didn’t like a headline, he would literally give it back to you. “
Fact-checking can be time consuming. Without search engines, having extensive general knowledge was crucial, as was frequent use of the desktop gazetteer and Who’s Who. During business hours, subs can call the library with questions, and answers are usually provided in about half an hour. But, says Johnson, at night you had to go up to the library yourself. “It consisted of some outdated textbooks and shelves of clippings, so you needed an idea of how the minds of the people who took the clippings worked and what they might have filed things under.” Some reporters, like now, needed more verification than others: Dodd recalls that one spelled the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s name 13 different ways in a story.
A senior member of the team known as the stone submarine would go down to the basement, a cathedral-like space filled with Linotype machines, at 5 p.m., when the compositions would begin to work. The stories were handed over to Linotype operators, who placed them in cast metal in simple lines, known as slugs. Comps would assemble the page, guided by the outlined design, using the type of chilled metal, before securing it in a frame; dropping it was a disaster known as press cake.
There were strict rules for the stone submarine. The competition (always male) was on one side and the submissive was opposite. That line could not be crossed. The composition told the sub how many lines a story had finished, and the sub made cuts in the paper and returned them to the composition, who pulled out the equivalent bits in the type of metal. At the deadline, the submarines had to be able to read the main oversize placed on the upside down side as well as upside down.
Sivell says: “It was a responsible shift and I was pleased to do it, although it was hard work. I was a very young journalist and they knew my business better than I probably did, but they tended to be more useful to men. “
Dodd recalls that while most of the interactions in the writing room were friendly, it was “a difficult relationship: you’re working [for your editor] on a page with a layout that works for the main printer ”.
Diversity was not a priority. When Sivell arrived, she was one of two home news subs, and The Guardian was such a masculine vibe that she and her colleague Celia Locks were invited to lunch at the home of Mary Stott, the women’s editor, to discuss their experiences. . The now improved diversity, in terms of gender, class, ethnicity, age and sexuality, is reflected in more reflective language. “We are more aware of reflecting changes in vocabulary for readers, and that the very white male vocabulary that used to be part of the job has disappeared,” says Sivell, who still does freelance shifts for the newspaper. “We have a style guide that is constantly being revised and challenged. Prostitute or sex worker, the use of pronouns like ‘they’, that’s how language evolves, and that’s in the hands of the submissive. “
The biggest change in my time has been the focus on the website. From a secondary activity in an annex, with mostly junior staff, it has grown into a 24-hour global operation, with subscribers in London, Sydney and New York.
These days many of us in London work through web and print. Some prefer the daily rush of printing for the 9:00 pm deadline. Others like the flexibility of the network replacement, as well as its speed and range. Regardless of which desk we work at and which period we come from, we can all remember the electric atmosphere when working on a great breaking story: from Watergate (Dodd) to the death of Diana (Johnson), the night Portillo lost its seat (Sivell) or the UK voting for Brexit (me).
The new technology first came for printing in the mid-1980s, in the form of Tandys that runs on four AA batteries and has a memory of approximately 1,000 words. Computers were gradually introduced and eventually only the news pages used hot metal, until it was also loudly “beaten” (a traditional sendoff in journalism) in 1987.
The time when journalists were on typesetting machines was a big step, says Sivell. “It was a tough time to replace when the new technology came along,” admits Dodd.
So were the days before all technology the era of “proper” replacement? No, says Sivell: “Now you can focus on the words; you’re not playing with counting how wide a letter is. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism