Recreating a 1960s newsroom

I’m old enough to have worked at a desk with a spike, on which to save your work as proof until no longer needed, although mine was only ever about money. Here Peter Bartram (whose novel Headline Murder the Resident IT Consultant reviewed here yesterday) tells us about those smokey, crazy days in the 1960s, when they could make newspapers despite having no mobile phones or anything.

When I decided to set my Crampton of the Chronicle crime mysteries in the 1960s, I had to travel back in time to recreate the atmosphere of a newspaper’s newsroom of that era.

I first walked into a newsroom as a young reporter in 1966. Newspapers were very different in those days. No computers. No mobile phones. No digital cameras.

The new technology has been essential to keep newspapers alive. But it seems to have made newsrooms less exciting places. I love those old Hollywood newspaper movies – such as The Front Page – where newsrooms pulsate with a kind of chaotic energy.

I wanted to emulate that in Headline Murder, where Colin Crampton works in the Evening Chronicle’s newsroom as the paper’s crime correspondent. So I needed to cast my mind back to those far-off days when I was a reporter.

What were the sights and sounds like? Well, first thing I remember is how 14 of us – all reporters – were crowded into a room sitting at desks grouped mostly in fours. We pounded away at old sit-up-and-beg typewriters. As deadlines approached and everyone was typing together it sounded like a volley of machine guns firing.

We typed on sets on paper, called folios, interleaved with carbon paper, never more than a paragraph or two on each folio – so that if the sub-editors wanted to change the order of the copy they could easily re-order the folios. (No on-screen cut-and-paste in those days.)

On each of our desks there was a big black telephone and a spike on which we’d impale carbons of old stories we’d written. (No Cloud back-ups!). We worked in an atmosphere of constant noise – telephones ringing, shouted conversations, the rattle of typewriters. (Elsewhere silence may be golden, but on a newspaper, it means there’s no news!)

There were a couple of telephone booths at the side of the room into which we retreated if we needed to make a call to a special contact we didn’t want colleagues to overhear. The room was lit by harsh fluorescent lights but most of the time they were shrouded in a fug created by cigarette smoke.

Research is important for writers – and there are many ways to do it. Yet the best research often comes from personal experience. Although not all memories are reliable. Did I really hear the editor cry: ‘Hold the front page’?

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