In 2000, I was back in the North East to research a feature for The Daily Telegraph's arts pages when, by rather less than pure coincidence, there was an evening game I could also attend (Sunderland beating Man Utd 2-1 in the League Cup). Killing time beforehand, I wandered through the grim Bridges shopping centre where I spotted a Sunderland Echo newspaper billboard announcing “Shack is dead”, Shack being a wonderful if eccentric old Sunderland player, Len Shackleton. When I handed the vendor my money, she told me: “It’s not in the paper, pet. It was too late for them. I just thought people would like to know.” What a marvellous gesture, I thought, buying a paper anyway. Now, from a former Echo chief football writer, Graeme Anderson, I hear of a rumour that the ailing Echo is doing away with all its remaining vendors.
Another sign, if true, of the declining times of print just as - by the skin of my teeth, maybe - I make it to a journalistic half-century*. My 50 years in the trade began with a fortuitous entry into local newsapers (thanks Mike Amos, my first immediate boss and essential mentor) on the Northern (later Evening) Despatch, Darlington. From there, the journey has taken me to the now-defunct Despatch's bigger sister, The Northern Echo, the Harrow Observer, Press Association, Daily Telegraph and The National, UAE (for which I still write). I wouldn't, perhaps couldn't, have chosen another career path ...
The glamour of foreign reporting. Resplendent in yellow, courtesy of the thoughtful Singaporean authorities, during a ferocious downpour as the media pack awaited the release from jail in 1999 of Nick Leeson, the man who brought down Barings Bank. Photo: Ian Jones
Cricketers from the Indian subcontinent to England, Australasia to Cape Town recognise 50 not out as a decent enough tally, nothing yet to write home about. Half a century at the crease of journalism makes it a familiar feeling.
WF Deedes – formally Lord Deedes, but Bill to those who knew him – not only fought in the Second World War, served the British cabinet and edited a national newspaper, but had one last, powerful piece on Darfur published a fortnight before his death at 94 in 2007. Since he began journalistic work in his teens, this was a supremely more impressive innings.
Abbie Trayler-Smith - check out her work here - kindly consents to my use of this photograph of Bill Deedes, taken in 2005 as he retraced wartime steps from Normandy beaches to Hannover as a young officer
We hear of plenty of people – academics, taxi drivers and, from a quick internet search, a sweetshop owner and cloakroom attendant – who have worked well into their 70s, 80s and beyond. So my own half-century is cause for restrained satisfaction, not wild celebration.
Perhaps as a function of age, all who follow a single trade or profession for long periods reflect on how much better it used to be.
Journalism is by no means the only pursuit that can be said – again, mostly by older practitioners – to have dumbed down. This, in itself, is a phrase few would have used when starting out, though its usage dates from 1933.
There have been countless changes since that first day at an evening newspaper’s branch office as a nervous cub reporter in September 1967. For a start, the newspaper is no longer with us, a fate to have befallen so many other publications that the creation of The National in 2008 and its continued presence can be seen as a commendable departure from the norm.
My earliest tools were a notebook and pen. Stories were written, clunky-fingered, on old typewriters to be sent in parcels by train to the head office or dictated laboriously over the phone, straight from notes if time was short, to impatient copytakers.
Pagers, mobile phones, laptops and the rest were unthinkable gadgets far into the future.
Important developments in trials were reported when there was a chance to leave court and find a telephone, not tweeted constantly from the pressbox.
Much, however, remains essentially the same. Journalists are still figures commanding little respect from others in society.
The reality, now as then, is that the worst of their efforts is shallow or tawdry, whereas the best shines a necessary light on dark corners. But in common with estate agents and politicians, though unlike doctors and police officers, journalists tend to be judged by the lowest prevailing standards.
Today’s journalists are better educated than my generation. One friend and contemporary** remembers being told by his first editor: “There's an old saying that the better an education a man has, the worse a journalist he will make. If that holds true, you should do rather well."
With his modest diplomas, that friend would struggle to gain a foothold today, and so would I. Both of us have gone on, between us, to cover conflict, man-made and natural catastrophe, political upheaval and other major events in countries we might not have hoped to visit but for the opportunities we were given.
And we have worked with editors and correspondents whose curriculum vitae would reveal academic backgrounds as diverse as their natural abilities.
Higher entry standards do not always ensure greater competence or flair. But for the sake of good journalism, it may be as well that the world has moved on from when word that a university graduate had been hired by our local paper needed an old-timer’s reassurance: “Don’t worry. They're only going to let him cover entertainment stories."
Dumbing down - or a legitimate bit of newspaper fun? When EasyJet began flying to Nice, someone's bright idea was to test the efficiency and convenience of different ways of getting from London to the south of France (mine was much slower, but enjoyable in a way low-cost flying is not). Pic: John Cobb
* The article is from my monthly comment column for The National, Abu Dhabi, with my thanks to the editor for permitting me to reproduce my work for that newspaper
** Some readers will rightly recognise the source and subject of this anecdote as Bill Taylor, a great friend and also a regular contributor to Salut! who reached his own half-century last year
**** The incomparable - and very generous - Telegraph pocket cartoonist Matt captured one setback in the career ...
**** And these days, I have to admit to deriving the same pleasure from attracting readers to my websites - notably here, salutsunderland.com and salutlive.com, as I have always done from being published in print. Mighty thanks to my first web guru Craig McGinty for setting me on the right road.