In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Time to look back, but not go back

THERE’S an old saying that one should look back but never go back…

Half a century in this business is a long time by any stretch of the imagination, and this year will be my 54th in newspapers.

That’s how long it is since I walked into Beaverbrook’s ‘black palace’ in Albion Street, Glasgow, to take up a post as a copy boy on the old Scottish Daily Express.

Those were happy days in the newspaper industry with the Express and the Daily Record fighting it out to be ‘top dogs’ and the Scotsman and Herald flourishing in the quality market.

The circulation of the Express was knocking on 700,000 and, on high days and holidays and big story days, it was much, much higher than that.

No expense was spared in producing the best newspapers for the Express, which had six editions at that time and a correspondent in every hamlet in the country.

Express reporters were king – top professionals like Bill Allsop, David Scott, Phil Mackie, Ian Sharp, Andrew McCallum, Wilson Russell (Stashy Dan) and the Bullet, Stuart McCartney.

News editors, Jack Coupar and Ian Brown (the Bomber), sent them out, each with their own photographer – Tommy Fitzpatrick, Gordon Forbes, Jack Middleton, Robin Gray, Peter McVean and Ray Beltrami, to name a few –  in chauffeur-driven limos to cover every story from Shetlands to the Solway Firth.

No story was too small and certainly none too big for the Express to send out a formidable team on.

‘Herograms’ from the editor, Ian McColl and his deputy, Clive Sandground, were posted on the third floor editorial department praising the journalists who had scooped the Record, which they did often.

I was extremely lucky to be raised to the dizzy heights of a very junior reporter on the Express before those good and happy times rolled away.

The reporters’ expenses, which were looked on as a legitimately-claimed part of their salary, had queues forming to pick up, full-to-bursting, brown envelopes at the cashier’s department on a Tuesday afternoon.

And so it was until Beaverbrook pulled the plug, 40 years ago this year, in 1974, and redundancy notices were issued to the hundreds of journalists and print workers who produced the Scottish Daily Express and Evening Citizen.

By that time I was editing the Lennox Herald in Dumbarton and when Scottish and Universal Newspapers started a subbing pool, I was able to throw a lifeline to some of my old colleagues and give them jobs.

Little did I know at the time that the subbing pool, which was to produce pages for about six weekly papers, was the ‘thin end of the wedge’.

This started the remorseless round of staff and expenditure cuts and technology changes that has taken us to the dark place newspapers now find themselves in.

The technology changes were supposed to herald an era of undreamed-of success.

Pagination soared and advertising poured in. The old circulation department became the marketing department and, worst of all, the accounts department burgeoned from being a place employing a few people to the busiest office in the building.

The accountants were now king. Cuts were heaped upon cuts as the old caserooms and stereo departments closed and printing, like the subbing pools, was centralised.

Riches beyond the dreams of avarice were harvested as banks of tele-ads people arrived and advertising reps increased in large numbers.

Investment managers were able to persuade their clients to pay millions of pounds for shares in what had been merely modest publications.

It was then the directors and accountants had to seek out substantial returns for their clients’ investments, and so the cuts were made to bite deeper and deeper with the axe falling mainly on editorial departments.

The shareholders got greedy, as they do, and the suits pushed up their charges for advertising. Councils and commercial clients were squeezed until the pips squeaked.

Salaries soared for the managements and the shareholders’ cashed in… and then, at the start of the ‘Nineties, the internet arrived.

For newspapers, that heralded the beginning of the end.

Circulations slumped by 50 per cent and more and the advertising centimetre count plummeted as councils, the government and commercial interests took their business to the much more realistically priced internet.

The editorial cuts which started with the subbing pools and the slashing of reporters’ expenses, and has stretched now to offices being closed, will inevitably lead to more and more journalists working from home.

This is not a new thing, though. I remember Willie Inglis of the Dunoon Observer having a linotype machine in his bedroom.

And the tea cups rattling on the kitchen table at Craig M Jeffrey’s house in Helensburgh, when the old Cossar flatbed press, which printed the Advertiser, rumbled into action on Thursday nights.

Few people in the industry today will have heard of a flatbed press or know what a type scale was or ems and n’s were or what Pitman’s shorthand is or how many characters there are in a 48 point Times bold heading across three columns.

As The Scotsman reportedy prepares to move from its prestigious headquarters near the parliament building in Edinburgh and our local newspapers close their offices in High Streets across Scotland, I wish you a Happy New Year.

But please do not lose hope.

Times, they are a-changin’, as they always have. It’s time to look forward, not back.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.