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Adventures of a Girl Reporter, Asia, Journalism

To break an em-rule on a wheel

Tight budgets and primitive equipment didn’t stop Computer-Asia reporting on the latest technology, but they made for a lot more fun and, arguably, a better product.

emIn those early days on Computer-Asia my father Jack Spackman and I were using the most primitive tools to bring news of the latest technology to our readers.

I still have the most important of those, my brass printer’s type gauge, or em-rule, and my plastic proportion calculator, or wheel.

Both are now museum pieces. My em-rule doesn’t even carry centimetres, just inches calibrated in sixths, or ems, also called picas.

We typed up our copy on battered old manual typewriters and marked it up by hand, got it typeset into galleys which were pasted on to board, to be photographed and delivered to the printer to be strapped on to steel presses.

When our budget allowed we got in a single electric typewriter, a secondhand IBM so ancient its ribbon came on a four-inch spool which sat vertically on the side of the machine.

One day an IBM guy saw it when he visited the office and made an offer. He wanted it for their museum.

We were always going to demonstrations of the ‘next big thing’ and, to be honest, half the time I had no concept of the significance of the things I was seeing.

I made one of the first phone calls by modem, with the sales guy excitedly explaining to me that my voice was being converted to data and then reconverted instantly at the other end in the fabled Silicon Valley.

It was just a phone call to me. I had no concept of what he was on about.

The demonstrations I did understand, and the ones that really excited both me and Jack, related to our own industry.

It was a delight to take a break from bashing away on our ancient machines and painstakingly counting and measuring in sixths of an inch to get a glimpse of our future.

One day we’d be able to produce a publication entirely onscreen, with complicated design tricks at our fingertips.

Getting copy to run around a picture in those days was a complex line-by-line job which invariably went wrong on the first few attempts, for example.

We scored a coup when Arthur C. Clarke contributed an article to Computer-Asia from his home in Sri Lanka.

In it he predicted a time when oppressive regimes would fall because ordinary people would be able to transmit evidence of atrocities instantly around the world through a handheld device.

Jack immediately applied that sci-fi prediction to news gathering. The future for journalism was going to be unlimited.

I left Computer-Asia long before any of these wonders came to pass and worked for both magazine and newspaper publishers in Hong Kong and the UK before hanging up my presscard.

If there was a common thread running through the publishers large and small who supplied my daily crust, it was a reluctance to spend money on their journalists.

In my next job, at another magazine in Hong Kong, I was expected to supply my own typewriter.

At my first newspaper, the newsroom was the most rundown part of the building, with paint peeling off the walls and the reporters working on the cheapest technology money could buy – out-of-date Tandys with no useful add-ons and an eight-line LCD display which was barely readable.

Without exception, the latest technology was lavished on the ad department and the secretaries, not the newsroom.

When publishers reluctantly accepted the need to invest in technology it went into pre-press and production, not reporting. Any advances in work practices which came our way were aimed squarely at upping our output, not the quality of our work.

We were left with the lasting impression that it didn’t matter what we churned out, as long as we filled the spaces between the ever-diminishing ads.

I didn’t get to play with all those wonderful new tools we were promised back in the Computer-Asia days until I edited Hotel magazine in the UK in the late 1990s.

Suddenly, I had the Internet and a Mac for onscreen page make-up. The design possibilities Dad and I had only dreamed of were, finally, at my fingertips.

In this Brave New World, there was no room for my em-rule and my wheel.

Jack was by now working on a California newspaper where he too was seeing his dreams become reality.

Like me, he found the new work practices a lot less fun than the old.

“I didn’t expect it to be so boring,” he told me once.

If there’s a problem to be identified in the technological advances which have changed journalism, it’s that in the rush to keep up publishers didn’t pause to consider the implications of where they were headed.

It was great to be able to put the publication online, but should it have been done for free?

It was fantastic that press releases could turn up via email and be instantly converted into copy, but should they ever have been regarded as ‘news’ in the first place?

It was truly revolutionary that reporters could input their copy straight on to a page, cutting out a lot of the editing stage of production, but did that make for better journalism?

Of course not, but in the race to slash costs and keep advertisers, that’s just what happened in many cases. And it’s still happening.

The one question publishers have never seemed to address, for all the lip service they pay to giving their readers quality content, is this: How can we use these disruptive technologies to help our reporters do their jobs better?

Instead of freeing us to spend more time getting out and talking to people, technology was used as a way to keep us chained to our desks.

Here our output could be measured in column centimetres with ‘churnalism’ rewarded and old-fashioned interviews and an understanding of the complexities of an issue consigned to the ‘no time for that’ basket.

There is no better example of the disregard for old-fashioned journalism than the decline of the subs’ desk. You’d think the careful checking and pulling apart of a reporter’s work would be even more crucial when you’re filling your newsroom with unpaid interns, but it seems not.

All those marvellous design tools Jack and I looked forward to with such relish have led to a marked deterioration in the ‘look’ of publications, both in print and online.

Does anyone even know what an orphan or a widow is these days? Does anyone even care if the reader’s eye is drawn helpfully around a layout in a pleasing and comprehensible manner?

Does anyone really feel that the huge, wordy headlines all aiming at search engine optimisation enhance the readers’ experience?

I’d love to hear from you if you do.

In the meantime, like Jack, I mourn the passing of the traditional skills of my trade.

I wouldn’t go back to those old days, even if I do still have my em-rule and my wheel, but I’d urge the latest generation of journalists to make technology work for them, not the other way around.

That’s the mistake publishers made when they embraced change. They saw these advances as a way to control the previously uncontrollable – their journalists – instead of realising they were the most valuable asset they had.

As a new publishing model takes shape, let’s not make that mistake again.

And finally:

A vision of newspapers and the internet from 1981 courtesy of Mr Denmore

© Sally Baxter 2013

About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter, blogging as Sally Baxter. Now I'm writing under my name at www.mariaspackman.com covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.


3 thoughts on “To break an em-rule on a wheel

  1. “I mourn the passing of the traditional skills of my trade.” You wouldn’t be the only one. Read: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2006/jan/15/rupertmurdoch.pressandpublishing. If the link doesn’t work, search Wapping: legacy of Rupert’s revolution, The Observer, Saturday, Jan. 14, 2006. I remember Wapping very well. Didn’t understand much about it at the time. Now I do.


    Posted by yellowbrickbooks | June 13, 2013, 2:46 pm
  2. And the link works. An excellent article – three views of Wapping and its impact on journalism. Poignant reading.

    This quote from journalist Ian Griffiths particularly struck me: “Through Wapping Murdoch set the tone for a compliant and non-confrontational press. He dealt a body blow to journalism from which we have not yet fully recovered.”

    Thanks for the comment. S


    Posted by Sally Baxter | June 14, 2013, 5:36 am
    • This all reminds me of a charming apocryphal story about Zhou Enlai. When asked what he thought about the French Revolution, he is reputed to have said, “It’s too early to say”.

      Traditional newspaper reporting might have taken a “body blow”, but I’m not sure that’s true of journalism as a whole. I think it’s too early to say. As stories come at me left, right, and center from every conceivable source, right now it’s looking pretty good to me.

      I’d say Rupert must be struggling to reach for his ventilator.


      Posted by yellowbrickbooks | June 14, 2013, 1:48 pm

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Your Girl Reporter is now filing as Maria Spackman at www.mariaspackman.com Same great content, whole new website. I’m leaving Sally Baxter up, as I can’t quite bring myself to let her go completely, but it’s time to honour my family name – and use it. Hope you’ll join me for the Further Adventures of a Girl Reporter. It’ll be fun.

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