News is all about change. So it is a sad irony that journalists, whose work is often reporting change, are facing the biggest upset in their industry since the advent of computerisation. When I first joined the workforce as a journalist in the 1970s, newspaper compositors still set “hot” (metal – not salacious) type, we punched out our stories on Imperial 66 typewriters in triplicate using carbon paper, and subeditors were much-feared hard-bitten arbiters of the language who hammered home grammar and honed the clarity of our writing. I have been recalling the wonderful but sometimes-tough lessons learnt from chief subs while reflecting on how the job of these behind-the-scenes journalists has changed over the years.
Working late at night, they were mentors who figuratively held the hands of young reporters, coaching us through the drama of breaking news, growling at mistakes made under pressure, and praising lively writing, clever story ideas and gritty determination. My experience of major news events of that era, such as the Erebus disaster and the various dramas of the final Muldoon Government, were shaped by the questions they raised. In recent times, the two main newspaper companies in New Zealand have centralised some of the work of subeditors, taking them out of the newsroom and in some cases contracting out the work to other companies. There are parallels here with the demise of proofreaders, whose work was largely assimilated by subeditors when computerisation did away with carbon paper and noisy typewriters. Though I can’t imagine not having one-to-one contact with a subeditor, their interaction with reporters today is typically virtual, or minimal. Many journalists don’t like it, seeing it as a threat to the quality of their work because locally based subs are a safety net for checking facts. But in these straitened times, when newspapers are battling for survival, it is a fact of life.
The work of journalists today is very different to that of 35 years ago in the way they pursue their craft. Blogs, online video interviews, Twitter and a host of other technologies support the written words that form the basis of news. These changes are a subset of the broader restructuring going on within New Zealand’s two main newspaper groups, involving job cuts in their thousands (in Australia only, at this stage) and a radical streamlining of how news is gathered and advertisements are sold. This recognises that increasingly consumers get their news fix (and the advertising that supports its production) online. Unfortunately, the revenue associated with internet-based news and advertising is just a fraction of the print-based form. But over time those dollars should grow, if my personal experience is indicative of the broader transformation of the industry.
My daily paper, the Dominion Post, is no longer delivered west of Richmond. A cost versus benefit business decision has presumably been made and, based on the relatively modest sales in northwest Nelson, its distribution there is no longer justified. So, rather than ending the reading habit of a lifetime, I have – a bit reluctantly – joined the digital newspaper age and am now a subscriber to the “print” version online; I’m naturally resistant to reading large amounts of type on a screen. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, it also has its advantages and I can now recommend it. The full paper (even the poster) is “delivered” to my laptop. I don’t need to take a trip to town to buy it and I can read it wherever I happen to be. It cuts down on the amount of recycling generated, too. And I can still “clip” stories of interest, or forward them to other people. The point of this is that change is usually disruptive, requires adjustment, can cause problems and people often don’t like it. But ultimately we get used to it and often find there are plenty of positives as well.