The Chron of 20 years ago

The early shift finished early today – it’s still a bit quiet after Christmas.

The early shift is of course just me, as I start work at 5am (or earlier), downloading and sorting out emails. A lot of emails come overnight, so if I start early and work hard, it’s all sorted when the Chronicle officially opens at 9am.

I’ve been at the Chron for 20 years this April (and where did THOSE years go?) and it’s amazing how much things have changed.

When I started, it was the tail end of the newspaper still being part office, part factory. When I was a kid, we still used hot metal and so had a small foundry where we re-melted the type after use. Obviously as a child of nine or ten I was allowed into this dangerous room to watch the molten metal being worked. We also had a lift – the ingots were presumably too heavy to carry upstairs – and several Linotype machines. We used to print the paper ourselves, so we had the press in what it is now the back room.

When I started 20 years ago, all this had gone but we still had bare concrete floors with bolt holes where the Linotype machines used to be. (I since carpeted them over, to make it feel more like an office).

While we had computers – the Chron was one of the first weeklies in the country to get them – most of our submitted copy still came in on paper. This created a series of bottlenecks in the production process.

Monday morning, there’d be a stack of handwritten copy shoved through our letterbox. We’d go through them and sub them on paper, plus stamp them as to which edition they were for. I used to like this bit.  People obviously wrote all their letters, sports reports, club news and stuff on the kitchen table at home. We’d get reports with coffee stains, bits of food, shopping lists on the back and, at least several times a week, paper that smelled of chips.

All these bits of paper would then be taken to the inputters. We had four, and they’d spend most of Monday typing furiously. By Tuesday most of the work was inputted and the subs would get cracking, checking the stories and writing headlines. On Wednesday the page make-up department would swing into action, and start making pages. Sometime on Wednesday / Thursday morning, a huge pile of pages would appear on my desk for checking.

It was like watching a boa constrictor eating a small deer: the lump of work that came through the letterbox on a Monday would work its way through our production process, with people either having not much to do or working like demons.

Though we wrote the stories on computer, pages were still pasted up. The paste-up department (who are still called that, though they don’t) would spend the end of the week “dissing”, which (I think) meant dis-assembling the classified pages and picking up all the repeat ads, a hangover from hot metal.

The stupidest thing we did was make up the Biddulph edition first. We then changed pages for the Congleton edition, so if there wasn’t much Biddulph news, there wasn’t much space for Congleton. This was silly: Congleton was (and is) our main source of revenue. When I asked why we did this, I wished I didn’t have to change things – we did Biddulph first so it could catch the last train to Biddulph from Brunswick Wharf. The train that stopped  running 75 years previously. Mad, but endearingly so.

Early on, I could see the benefit of email and how it could help smooth out the production logjams. We had an email address very early in the game. It wasn’t a name, it was an old Compuserve one, something like 65789045@compuserve.com We had to find someone else with an email address to send a test email – it was Bridge Translation on Canal Street. They were possibly the only other people in town with email. I sent it, then ran over the road to make sure it had got there. When I called Cheshire County Council about emailing press releases, they had to have a meeting because they’d not done it before.

We were also the first weekly paper to have a website. It was on Compuserve, and as I couldn’t do a good one, I made it deliberately ham-fisted, with stupidly bad clipart etc. The first few weeks we had one reader, a bloke from Biddulph who lived in Chicago.

Today, we have one inputter. She spends most of her time doing crosswords, as the amount of material to type has fallen to a trickle.

We no longer have the logjams of work, and the production system is much smoother. It has to be: when I started we were doing 40 or 44 pages a week, whereas today we do 56 or 64 pages, and prior to the economic collapse, were doing 72 pages on a regular basis. But for many years there was a notice in paste-up saying: “Xmas Chronicle – biggest ever edition, 64 pages!”. Those 64 pages would have meant a manic week and overtime; today we rattle out 64 pages without missing a coffee break.

The logjams might have gone but so has something else – quiet Fridays.

There used to be a fantastic feeling of achievement on press day, as the paper left the building for the printer’s. Wherever I’d worked before, we’d often go the pub on a Friday and wind-down.

Today, it’s a never-ending production cycle – we often call it the sausage factory. Thursdays are as busy as Mondays.

Production might be easier, the papers might be bigger and our livers healthier but something of the magic has gone, too.

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Incidentally, you might have read about newspapers wanting “ultra local” news or “reader generated copy” or even using “citizen journalists”. I find the belief that these are cutting edge ideas mystifying – papers like the Chronicle have always had “citizen journalists” sending in “ultra local news”. Or, as we call it, readers sending in news.  We just called it “submitted copy”. The major difference with 20 years ago is submitted photos. Back then we’d get one a week, because people could only send in prints. Today, with digital cameras and cheap colour photocopiers and printers, we get loads.

Our program to put photos on the network has a week number (this week is 03) and can then accommodate 99 photos any week before it rolls over to the next. When we wrote the software, I thought 99 submitted photos in a week was ridiculous total – from one photo a week to 100 seemed unlikely – so we only programmed in a four-digit counter. Today, we have to have a protocol for all those weeks the counter passes 99.

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