I subscribed to the i when it came out, for my children to read on the bus to school as a step up from the Metro – to which I am indebted for giving them a newspaper reading habit. They seem to enjoy its lively, youth-friendly format – when they remember to take it. And it sprang to mind recently as, in the process of compiling an anthology of the writing of my father, journalist Arnold Kemp, I have been going through old Scotsmans from the 1970s in Edinburgh’s Central Library.
Tussling with the now outdated technology of microfiche, spooling rolls of photographed newsprint through a screen made my head spin. So I am now using some huge leather-bound volumes of the newspaper from 1979. Frequently, as I flip through the thin pages, I find myself diverted from my research task, engrossed in a newspaper at once familiar and unfamiliar. Familiar because of the bylines of people who must in some cases be older than they look: Alan Massie, Neal Ascherson, James Naughtie, Sally Magnusson, Robin McKie, Conrad Wilson, Julie Davidson, and because of the themes that still recur – violence at Old Firm games, arguments over nuclear power.
Some of it is very much of its era – an article about feeding the family while camping on what sounded like military manoeuvres recommends reconstituting dried food at every meal – it was the 70s after all. Another on the subject of feeding vegetarians is headed, quite justifiably given the content, ‘Wind of Change’. Jack McLean’s column appears in the summer of 1979, no doubt provocatively entitled in those feminist days, ‘Travels of a Chauvinist’. I am sure that one filled the post bag.
The paper looks a bit different: black and white, fewer photographs, more drawings, but in the main what struck me immediately was that the articles were much, much, shorter. The first few pages of each edition were covered with closely-packed news items followed by a few features. One page of book and theatre reviews, one of features. But six or eight full pages of small ads most days.Presumably the tightness of the editorial space was down to the expense of the labour-intensive industrial process. I remember as a child being taken round the gloomy old Scotsman building on North Bridge, now a hotel. The place’s beating heart was the thundering presses and the case room, with its distinctive smell of hot metal where men with ink on their fingers locked lines of metal type into heavy frames. As a young sub, my father often used to have to alter copy at this stage and he recalls in a memoir how a caseroom worker breathing down his neck as he was at this very stressful task, said lugubriously: ‘You’re the boss, I hope you know what you’re doing’ – a phrase which he heard reverberating in his head many times subsequently.
Despite the laborious process, or perhaps because of it, very few errors seemed to creep into the finished product. Journalists then had to be able to type their copy cleanly and accurately on to carbon paper. At a recent NUJ freelance meeting, I was recounting to some student journalists how when I was young there were no spell checkers ‘Spell checkers?’ said the Scotsman’s eminent theatre critic Joyce McMillan at my elbow, sounding rather Lady Bracknell-ish.
Looking back at the 1970s Scotsman, it is obvious that the work of a number of highly talented professional writers was funnelled into a cramped space. There must have been real competition to get stuff into the paper. Of course the unbylined news pages would have absorbed a lot of effort. A 300-word report of a complex court case or a foreign war takes time and skill.
But as the comparative leanness of the paper reminded me, one result of new technology was that newspapers started to put on a lot of weight. In the same way that portion sizes of coffees and snacks have risen in the last 20 years, so has the length of the average article. There has been a proliferation of long pieces, illustrated by ever-larger and more flattering photographic bylines.
Many journalists blog constantly on their newspapers’ blogging sites to stay in the public eye. Do they over-write? It certainly seems that some must hardly ever have a thought which they don’t share with the wider world. Newspaper opinion pieces now are far longer than they were, and though fluently written and well-argued, they are basically confections which don’t contain much nutritious information, so that reading a full-page column in the Guardian for instance can resemble the experience of consuming a grande latte or a doughy American muffin. I find I generally can’t manage the whole thing.
In many ways, the new media has led to an age of exciting possibilities. But ‘TMI!’ – a popular expression on social networking sites – stands for ‘Too Much Information’. It is a problem. Busy people have limited reading time. Those who want to be well-informed still turn to newspapers, online or in print. And despite the free content available on the internet, some are still prepared to pay for content packaged in a disposable, user-friendly format – the newspaper. The Independent group deserves credit for continuing to believe in that, and for rediscovering an old approach to the organisation of information.