In My Opinion: Derek Masterton: Can we really call it progress?

WHEN pension figures start to look interesting, it’s a sign you’re getting on a bit.

Another is bumping into old colleagues more regularly. At funerals.

Just over a week ago I attended the final farewell to veteran Irvine Herald hack, Lex Brown. A local legend, it was the closest thing – as someone remarked – to a state funeral the Ayrshire town had seen.

This week, I’ll be among the crowd seeing off that doyen of Scottish motoring writers, Malcolm McDougall. The hearse driver had better be good – ‘McDoug’ never was a tolerant passenger.

Once again, all the ‘old faces’ will be out in force – well, minus one.

While these occasions are, of course, sad they also give us old hacks an excuse to indulge in what we do best – storytelling. Tales of derring-do from the ‘good old days’ on the road – days when reporters were mobile and phones weren’t.

Not many of the tales are for ‘civilian’ consumption (what happens ‘on the road’ stays ‘on the road’) but I’d strongly advise any of today’s young journalists present to listen up. It’ll be an education. A history lesson.

Like all good stories, they’ll have grown arms and legs through time, embellished during years of constant retelling in smoky (once upon a time) pubs. They may no longer bear much resemblance to actual fact, but this is the process by which legends are created. And anyway, the guys telling them will have paid their journalistic licence many times over.

These stories are our journalistic heritage – a reminder of the days when newsrooms had atmosphere (smoky) and the air was punctuated by the staccato rattle of typewriters, swearing – and laughter. Days when bottom drawers were used to store cans of beer and maybe a half bottle of something fortifying. Days when newspaper offices really did shudder as the giant presses downstairs began to roll.

In an era when characters were actually encouraged and celebrated, Scotland’s media was full of them. Names like Charlie Beaton (Record), ‘Bullet’ McCartney (Star), Jim Taylor (Express), Jack Middleton (Evening Times), Jimmy Grylls (Daily Mail) and many more will, sadly, mean little to today’s generation.

Somewhere along the line, almost without us noticing, things changed.

First, it was the introduction of (very basic) computers – ending the embarrassing dilemma of having your fingers jammed between typewriter keys.

With computers (or ‘new technology’, as it was then called in the NUJ ‘house agreement’) came on-screen page make-up and, suddenly, compositors became extinct.

As technology became more sophisticated, it was possible to produce newspapers with fewer people. It paved the way for journalists to become an endangered species.

And as staffs shrank, so did newspaper premises. One by one, the stately homes of Scottish journalism closed, their inhabitants transplanted into smaller buildings resembling a cross between a car showroom and a call centre.

Is it just by coincidence that circulations also began to shrink along with everything else?

Of course change has, in many respects, made life easier. No more trying to find a working phone box at night in the less reputable parts of town. No more tedious interleaving piles of copy paper with carbon sheets before starting a story. No more ripping paper out of the typewriter once you’ve exceeded the permitted number of cross-outs per page and starting again.

Newspapers have, inevitably, necessarily and rightly moved on.

But can we really call it ALL progress?

Derek Masterton is the media relations officer for the British Red Cross in Scotland. He is a former assistant news editor with the Daily Record, where he was a news journalist for 30 years. He is writing in a personal capacity.