I UNEXPECTEDLY came across this piece written seven years ago for the British Journalism Review. Little, it appears, has changed. Extracts from earlier columns are in italics.
IT CAN get rather lonely down this end of the subs’ desk.
They don’t seem to want my thoughts on Page One headings. They certainly don’t want my thoughts on split infinitives, up with which I will not put. But they tend to leave me alone as long as I churn out the routine pages they give me. Although I’m not entirely sure that I’m the right man to be subbing the Drum and Bass listings, whatever Drum and Bass might be.
It wasn’t always thus. I’ve chased Ronnie Biggs around Rio, I got the second interview with Terry Waite and I was on the back bench the night Kelvin decided “Gotcha” was an appropriate way to mark the deaths of 368 Argentine sailors. After dropping to the regions, I’ve survived pods, modules, and no-sub newsrooms.
And I’m still here. For another few years, anyway, unless the management consultants find my hiding place. I’m not ready to fall on my spike just yet.
THE Grey Cardigan emerged blinking into the spotlight 18 months ago in the pages of trade magazine Press Gazette as an antidote to the soulless, journalist-free news factories that seemed to have taken over large swathes of our regional press. His view of life around him is undoubtedly jaundiced, but hopefully any bitterness is tempered by a true love of the newspaperman’s craft; the black arts of em rules and spikes, of cut-throat competition and the ever-ticking clock – many of the things that have left us poorer by their absence.
I DON’T suppose that at any point in his young life, Bob Woodward turned to his mother and said: “You know what, Ma? I really kinda fancy being one of those sub-editor fellas.” And I don’t suppose that Carl Bernstein emerged triumphant from his college course with a burning desire to tabulate snooker league tables in 6pt.
So it was with some surprise that I saw an inquiry posted on an internet message board asking how a young university graduate might train as a sub-editor. The response from one poster, clearly an aggrieved writer, wasn’t exactly edifying:
“Has he got a beard, glasses, bad breath and an appalling taste in jumpers? Does he lack social skills and have a penchant for eating his lunch out of a Tupperware container and then spills it down his front and over his keyboard?”
“Does he live in his car? Is he prepared to shamelessly destroy a fabulous intro in order to steal it for “his” headline and leave something soul-destroyingly (sic) bad in its place?”
“Can he take poetry and turn it into prose? Can he change the spelling of people’s names to something similar but wrong? And can he find something new to complain about every fucking moment of the day? If so, then he’s in.”
HARSH, but you have to admit, occasionally true. Our sub-editor wears his badge – the grey cardigan – with honour; the scars of the pipe sparks, the ink on the elbow. Bewildered, baffled, but never bowed, his years of experience are an asset that few recognise and even fewer value. Yet here he still is, hanging in there as the world he knew collapses and re-grows about him, like a time-lapse photograph in a nature documentary.
Of course, the Grey Cardigan has to have a newspaper, the mythical Evening Beast, and that newspaper has to have an Editor. If not, who else could he patronise and pillory?
THERE IS a strange atmosphere in the newsroom. The Boy Wonder, our recently-appointed editor, is to address the troops. Given that the team of management consultants has just departed after their in-depth examination of our business (“So, just how long does a story take to write?”), the signs are not good.
The Boy Wonder climbs onto a desk and hops from foot to foot like an incontinent Labrador. Words like “synergy” and “rationalisation” spatter his stream-of-consciousness psychobabble. Eventually it becomes clear. Thirty of us are going. And before Christmas, too.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of Mungo, a peripatetic Glaswegian alcoholic who took up subbing as part of his early release programme, sliding open the bottom drawer of his desk where, for some reason, he keeps a house brick. This could get messy.
TO DATE, the Grey Cardigan has been contacted by hacks from 12 different regional newspapers who all fervently believe that the Boy Wonder is based upon their own dear Editor. More to the point, half of those Editors also secretly believe that they have inspired this grey-suited cipher. That admission alone probably tells us all we need to know about the new breed.
Because Editors have changed, beyond recognition. The avuncular gentlemen of your youthful career, beneficiaries of the industry’s Dead Man’s Shoes policy, used to pop home for a spot of lunch before returning to cast a scholarly eye over the following day’s leader column. The Chief Sub ran the paper; the deputy chief sub ran the meat raffle and the pools syndicate.
Then came the young firebrands of the late 1980s. These men – shock horror – wanted to decide what actually went where in “their” newspapers. And they wanted to decide what stories said and how they looked. Tut-tutting abounded. Good Lord, some of them even began to employ women in key roles.
They probably had the best of it: the new presses, the new technology, the new investment and the new editions. Yet how quickly the tide turned when the corporate investors decided that 30 per cent was a more amenable profit margin than the previously respectable 10 per cent. The Angry Young Men had become the Awkward Squad, to be replaced with an altogether more malleable – and probably respectable – management executive.
Yet for all his many faults, the Boy Wonder is not the natural sworn foe of the Grey Cardigan. That singular honour is reserved for the Red-Socked Twats – the marketing men.
THE BOY Wonder, our recently appointed Editor, fizzes around the newsroom, effervescent with his own importance. It really is difficult not to picture him in short trousers, school cap and prefect’s badge.
In his over-excited wake trails a marketing man clutching a ring binder of research. This is never, ever a good sign. Today’s edict is handed down, with all the certainty of ill-informed youth. Apparently we have a “paradigm schism in our core demographic”.
This eventually translates into the instruction that there are too many pictures of old people in the paper. We need to attract a young, lively readership, therefore in future we are only to use pictures of young, lively people.
I glance down at my screen, where our weekly Diamond Weddings double-page spread is nearing completion, only minutes from deadline. I have two choices: advise the Boy Wonder of the situation, or pretend to faint. I close my eyes and slowly topple backwards off my chair…
NOT EVEN the steely-eyed new management really trusts the Boy Wonder. They know what they’ve done and with a greater degree of compliance comes a lesser degree of competence. So they’ve given him a backbone, an old pro who’s taken the offer of a safe pension in return for baby-sitting the callow youth. And he’s definitely old school. We call him The Brute, a potty-mouthed bastard who introduced himself to the newsroom by putting a work experience student in a bin. And then he met Reg, one of our antique yet much respected subs …
NOW REG has a daily routine. At 12.45 prompt he gets out the Tupperware container into which Mrs Reg has packed his lunch, eats his corned beef sandwich and then quietly goes to sleep. At his desk. Exactly 21 minutes later he awakes and resumes subbing with his usual professionalism. We call him The Dormouse.
Now The Dormouse has carried out this harmless routine for as long as any of us can remember. It was unfortunate, therefore, that The Brute arrived alongside Reg at precisely 13.04. Placing his foot in the back of The Dormouse’s chair, The Brute pushed hard while bellowing “Wakey wakey, you miserable piece of shit.” A sleeping Reg was propelled forward into the desk, folded over and impaled himself on his spike which, ironically, he’d hidden from the Health and Safety Nazis during their last purge.
Once the bleeding had been quenched, Reg was sent home. But before he went he managed to find time to carefully put the wrong crossword grid in tomorrow’s paper. Well done, that man.
WE CALL it the Curse of Johnston Press. Ever since this particular group began pushing profit margins to infinity and beyond (we’re talking 35 per cent plus instead of the previously acceptable 10-15 per cent) the squeeze has been on. Never mind that many industry insiders argue that Johnston’s dividends have been fed mainly by acquisitions and the commensurate back of house savings, the beady corporate eye is now upon us all. And where better to start that cost-cutting than with that perennial management bugbear, editorial expenses.
THERE IS something of a kerfuffle in the glass corner office occupied by The Beast. Two accountants, so utterly grey that they barely exist (think Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility), sit surrounded by street maps, restaurant menus, tape measures and calculators. The expenses crackdown has begun in earnest.
On the rack is Tommy Cockles, one of our veteran snappers. A dapper man with a toothbrush moustache and an occasional Trilby, he’s spent 30 years keeping his head down and knocking out his eight jobs a day. He then goes home at night to sell picture sessions starring his naked Thai bride to neighbourhood nonces with no film in their box Brownies.
The Beast has noticed something amiss with Tommy’s mileage claim. There, amongst the carefully detailed trips from school to village fete to charity bean bath, is a regular weekly entry: Reverse Mileage – 4.3 miles @ 40p = £1.72.
“What the fuck is reverse mileage?” screams the purple-faced Beast. “And why have you been claiming it since 1974?” Tommy is not rattled. “Well you know when you’re trying to find the job, and you drive past and have to back up, well that’s reverse mileage. It all uses petrol, you know…” The subsequent explosion could be heard on nearby planets.
AND IT’S not just the poor hacks who are suffering. Deeper, more wounding, cuts must apparently be made in the services we offer our readers. It’s as if someone, somewhere, has decided that we’re now in terminal decline and that the time is right to milk every last penny out of that downward spiral.
THE BOY Wonder, our adolescent editor, perches precariously on a desk in the newsroom. His deputy, The Brute, glares in the background, radar attuned for signs of dissent from the gathered throng. Apparently it’s good news, although the body language speaks with forked tongue. The current programme of “rationalisation” is complete and there will be no more job losses – for now. Those department heads who’ve seen a third of their staffs disappear eye each other warily.
And there’s more. Recognising the burden “this very necessary streamlining” has placed on the Evening Beast newsroom, the company has decided to make life easier for us all. They’re killing our three live editions and we’re going to print overnight. The Boy Wonder slopes off, his weasel words delivered. The old-timers know the score. This was the day the music died; the day the Evening Beast ceased to be a proper newspaper.
IT WOULD be hard to think of a more effective way to emasculate an evening title. Because without the flexibility of geographic coverage (which ensures relevance) and the ability to publish up-to-date stories (which ensures topicality) we become the eunuch of local news, at the mercy of print predators and, God forbid, even the turgid local radio and television bulletins.
So there are no real deadlines on most regional evening newspapers any more. The subs on the night shift wrap things up about 10pm, push a button and off the paper goes to be printed on an industrial estate near Milton Keynes. People actually buy it as they sloth towards work the next morning, but despite the laughable label of “Late Final” printed at the top of Page One, you know it’s old news and they know it’s old news. It’s a triumph of hope over experience.
IT’S HALF past eight in the morning in the Evening Beast newsroom and Blakey, our lugubrious deputy news editor, wearily puts down his enamel mug of peppermint tea to field a phone call. Suddenly he springs to life, like a cat plugged into a wall socket.
“Scramble,” goes the cry. “Man stabbed to death outside laundrette in Walpole Road.” The duty firemen grab coats and cameras and head for the door. The crime reporter dials the cops, ready to be lied to. The chief sub ponders the origins of the word “laundrette”. Yes, it’s French, but what if the establishment in question is actually a Laundromat? Isn’t that an American trade name, in which case an upper case L would be required?
And then everyone abruptly grinds to a halt as we realise that our beloved newspaper, once the medium of the masses, went to press several hours ago. And the next available edition for this important story? Tomorrow morning. Meanwhile the local TV and radio have free reign to make their usual hash of the tale, leaving us trying to find an angle that looks vaguely original. And what of those readers who buy the Evening Beast today, expecting to read fresh, breaking news? Tough titty.
An hour later the Boy Wonder, our schoolboy editor, wanders into the room, the security blanket of a clipboard tucked under his arm. He looks puzzled as he realises that the wave of hostility that usually greets his entrance has, for today at least, been ratcheted up a level.
STILL, ALL is not lost. In an interminable Powerpoint presentation entitled Pushing The Envelope we are told that the company plans to “sweat our assets” thus producing “added value in the electronic age”. This masterplan appears to be a new web-site, something called “podcasts” and a risible plan to have Evening Beast journalists creating their own video reports. This is deemed necessary to “reduce the decaying age profile of the demographic and to generate inclusion from those currently deselecting from purchasing decisions”.
I think this means that we’re going after younger readers again. Well, not readers as such: just people who might click onto one of our electronic offerings, so allowing us to kid advertisers that a nano-second glimpse of a web-site banner advert produces the same response as a full colour, full page newsprint offering used to do.
There is a fundamental flaw in this strategy that no-one seems to want to admit. Young people don’t buy the Evening Beast because it is perceived as an old-fashioned brand. And it is, rightly so. The vast majority of our still-profitable readers are over 50. It is they who deserve to benefit from investment and improvement.
So what on earth makes the red-socked twats think that 20-somethings will suddenly flock to our doors just because we now publish the Electronic Beast? If they won’t put it in their pocket, why would they open it in their browser? It’s madness. Youth wants celebrity froth and dance music listings, not our daily diet of dustbins, dog shit and dragonflies. But, goes the mantra, Print Is Dead And Pixels Are King.
STRESS LEVELS at the Evening Beast are on the up, as Luddite sub-editors are forced at spike-point into training sessions designed to turn them all into Web Wonders (and the lettuce allusion is appropriate in many cases). It can’t be easy trying to teach technology to this recalcitrant rabble, some of whom still struggle to cast off three decks of 48pt Nancyboy Grotesque, the font of choice of the latest red-socked twat to dabble with our design.
Suffering particularly badly is Eddie Crowther, a glum Yorkshireman (if that’s not tautology). “How’s it going, Eddie?” I stupidly ask him as he emerges from the training room, gasping for a roll-up and a brew. “They’re doing my ‘ed in, Grey,” the dulcet tones of darkest Leeds inform me. “I’m stressed, my ‘ealth’s suffering …”
“I tell you what – if they carry on like this I reckon I’m only 24 hours from t’ulcer.”
Magnificent. And proof positive that you can’t keep a good man down.
WHICH IS perhaps as well because, to add insult to injury, having butchered their way through a swathe of good men and women, closed our district offices, dumped our editions, surrendered any pretence of being a live, daily news provider and racked up some appropriately awful ABC figures, our owners have decided that we are to be put up for sale. Enter, stage left, yet another crew of clipboard-wielding consultants, all calculators and brown paper flow charts and all dying to ask that crucial question: “So, how long does a story actually take to write?”
Much has been said about our future. Assorted worthies have got up on their hind legs at public meetings demanding investment in local news. Assorted speculators have turned on their plastic grins and nodded approval. But fine words butter no parsnips.
If the venture capitalists get us then the pip-squeezing agony will continue. If one of the other groups buys us, then back-of-house synergy will become the mantra … moving shortly afterwards to front-of-house blood-letting.
I’ll tell you what we need. A philanthropist owner, or group of owners. Local men made good. High Street businessmen who see a 10 per cent return as a decent profit. The solicitor, the property developer, the ironmonger and Mister Bun the Baker. The men who very probably launched our newspapers in the first place.
Admittedly, that would bring its own set of problems, not least in the area of editorial independence. But maybe the only way forward is to look back to the future.
The Grey Cardigan has been in newspapers since the days of hot metal and expense accounts. After a lengthy career as chief sub on several regional newspapers, plus a multitude of shifts on the nationals, he was appointed editor of the Evening Beast in 2009 before being ignominiously 'rationalised' last year. He is currently collecting gas in jam jars in case the Russians cut us off. @thegreycardigan