Journalism by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

When the mystic midnight passes, the bustle of Fleet Street slackens; but on each side of the thoroughfare hundreds of workers with hand and brain are toiling with eager intensity. In tall buildings here and there the lights glitter on every floor, and throw their long shafts through the gloom; not much activity is plainly visible, and yet somehow the merest novice feels that there is a throb in the air, and that some mysterious forces are working around him. Hurrying messengers dash by, stray cabs rush along with a low rumble and sharp clash of hoofs. But it is not in the street that the minds and bodies of men are obviously in action; go inside one of the mighty palatial offices, and you find yourself in the midst of such a hive of marvellous industry as the world has never seen before. On one journal as many as four hundred and fifty or five hundred men are all labouring for dear life; every one is at high pressure, from the silent leader-writer to the fussy swift-footed messenger. In that one building is concentrated a great estate, which yields a revenue that exceeds that of some principalities; it is a large nerve-centre, and myriads of fibres connect it with every part of the globe; or, say, it is like some miraculous eye, which sees in all directions and is indifferent to distance. Go into one quiet, soft-carpeted room, and certain small glittering machines flash in the bright light. “Click, click–click, click!”–long strips of tape are softly unwound and fall in slack twisted piles. One of those machines is printing off a long letter from Berlin, another is registering news from Vienna, and by a third news from Paris comes as easily and rapidly as from Shoreditch; subdued men take the tapes, expand and make fluent the curt, halting phrases of the foreign correspondents, and pass the messages swiftly away to the printers. From America, Australia, India, China, the items of news pour in, and are scrutinised by severe sub-editors; and those experts calculate to a fraction of an inch what space can be judiciously spared for each item. If Parliament is sitting, the relays of messengers arrive with batches of manuscript; and, when an important debate is proceeding, the steady influx of hundreds of scribbled sheets is enormous. A four hours’ speech from such an orator as Mr. Gladstone or Mr. Chamberlain contains, say, thirty thousand words. Imagine the area of paper covered by the reporters! But such a speech would rarely come in late at night, and the men can usually handle an important oration by an eminent speaker in a way that is leisurely by comparison. The slips are distributed with lightning rapidity; each man puts his little batch into type, the fragments are placed in their queer frame, and presently the readers are poring over the long, damp, and odorous proof-sheets. There is no very great hurry in the early part of the evening; but, as the small hours wear away, the strain is feverish in its poignancy. There is no noise, no confusion; each man knows his office, and fulfils it deftly. But such great issues are involved, that the nervousness of managers, printers, sub-editors–every one–may easily be understood. Suppose that a very important division is to be taken in Parliament; the minutes roll by, and the news is still delayed. Some kind of comment must be made on the result of the debate, and an able, swift writer scrawls off his column of phrases with furious speed. Then that article must be put into type; a model of the type must be taken on a sheet of papier-mache, the melted metal must be poured into the paper mould, the resulting curved block must be clamped on to a cylinder of the waiting machine, and all this must be done with strict regard to the value of seconds. A delay of half a minute might prevent the manager from sending his piles of journals away by the early train, and that would be a calamity too fearful to be dreamed of. In one great newspaper-office ten machines are all set going together, and an eleventh is kept ready in case of accident. The ten whizzing cylinders print off the papers, and an impression of a quarter of a million is soon thrown out, folded, and piled ready for distribution. But imagine what a loss of one minute means! Truly the agitation of the officials at an awkward pinch is singularly excusable, and many a hard word is levelled at pertinacious talkers who insist on thrusting themselves upon the House at a time when the country is waiting with wild eagerness for momentous tidings. The long line of carts waits in the street, the speedy ponies rattle off, and soon the immense building is all but still. Comfortable people who have their journal punctually handed in at a convenient hour in the morning are apt to think lightly of the raging effort, the inconceivably complicated organisation, the colossal expense needed to produce that sheet which is flung away at the close of each day. A blunder of the most trivial kind might throw everything out of gear; but stern discipline and ubiquitous precaution render the blunder almost an impossibility. Sometimes you may observe in a paper like the Times one column which bristles with typographical errors. All the slips are clustered in one place, and the reason is that the few minutes necessary for proper revision could not be spared. Good workmen are set on at the last moment, and an attempt is made to set up the final scraps of matter with as few errors as possible; but little mistakes will creep in, and people who do not know the startling exigencies of the printer’s trade are apt to express scornful wonder. Very comic have been the errors made during the recent furious and prolonged debates, for the frantic conflicts in the House were extended far into the small hours. One excited orator, in closing a debate, dropped into poetry, and remarked that a certain catastrophe came “like a bolt from the blue”; a daily journal of vast circulation described the event as coming “like a bolt from the flue”–which was a very sad instance of bathos. The amazing thing is that such blunders should be so rare as to be memorable.

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What a strange population who toil thus at night for our pleasure and instruction, and who reverse the order of ordinary people’s lives! They are worth knowing, these swift, dexterous, laborious people. First of all comes the great personage–the editor. In old days simple persons imagined the conductor of the Times perched upon a majestic throne, whence he hurled his bolts in the most light-hearted manner. We know better now; yet it must be owned that the editor of a great journal is a very important personage indeed. The true editor is born to his function; if he has not the gift, no amount of drilling will ever make him efficient. Many of the outside public still picture the editor as wielding his pen valiantly, and stabbing enemies or heartening friends with his own hands. As a matter of fact, the editor’s function is not to write; the best of the profession never touch a pen, excepting to write a brief note of instruction or to send a private letter. The editor is the brain of the journal; and, in the case of a daily paper, his business is not so much to instruct the public as to find out what the public want to say, and say it for them in the clearest and most forcible way possible. Imagine a general commanding amid the din of a great battle. He must remember the number of his forces, the exact disposition of every battalion, the peculiar capabilities of his principal subordinates, and he must also note every yard of the ground. He hears that a battalion has been repulsed with heavy slaughter at a point one mile away, and the officer in command cannot repeat his assault without reinforcements. He must instantly decide as to whether the foiled battalion is merely to hold its ground or to advance once more. Orderlies reach him from all points of the compass; he must note where the enemy’s fire slackens or gains power; he must be ready to use the field-telegraph with unhesitating decision, for a minute’s hesitation may lose the battle and ruin his force. In short, the general plays a vast game which makes the complications of chess seem simple. The editor, in his peaceful way, has to perform daily a mental feat almost equal in complexity to that of the warrior. Public opinion usually has strong general tendencies; but there are hundreds of cross-currents, and the editor must allow for all. Suppose that a public agitation is begun, and that a great national movement seems to be in progress; then the editor must be able to tell instinctively how far the movement is likely to be strong and lasting. If he errs seriously, and regards an agitation as trivial which is really momentous, then his journal receives a blow which may cripple its influence during months. One great paper was ruined some twenty years ago by a blunder, and about one hundred thousand pounds were deliberately thrown away through obstinate folly. The perfect editor, like the great general, seizes every clue that can guide him, and makes his final movement with alert decision. No wonder that the work of editing wears men out early. The great Times editor, Mr. Delane, went about much in society; he always appeared to be calm, untroubled, inscrutable, though the factions were warring fiercely and bitterness had reached its height. He scarcely ever missed his mark; and, when he strolled into his office late in the evening, his plan was ready for the morrow’s battle. At five the next morning his well-known figure, wrapped in the queer long coat, was to be seen coming from the square; he might have destroyed a government, or altered a war policy, or ruined a statesman–all was one to him; and he went away ready to lay his plans for the next day’s conflict. Delane’s power at one time was almost incalculable, and he gained it by unerringly finding out exactly what England wanted. England might be wrong or right–that was none of Delane’s business; he cared only to discover what his country wished for from day to day. An amazing function is that of an editor.

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Then we have the leader-writer. The British public have decided that their newspaper shall furnish them daily with three or four little addresses on various topics of current interest; and these grave or gay sermons are composed by practised hands who must be ready to write on almost any subject under the sun at a minute’s notice. In a certain class of old-fashioned literature the newspaper-writer is represented as a careless, dissipated Bohemian, who lived with rackety inconsequence. That tribe of writers has long vanished from the face of the earth. The last of the sort that I remember was a miserable old man who haunted the British Museum. No one knew where he lived; but his work, such as it was, usually went in with punctuality, and he drank the proceeds. He died in a stall of a low public-house, and was buried by the parish. No one but his editor and one or two cronies knew his real name, and he appeared to be utterly friendless. But the modern leader-writer must beware of strong liquors. Usually he is a keen, reposeful man who has his brain cool at all hours. The immense drinking-bouts of old times could never be indulged in now; and indeed, if a journalist once begins to take stimulants as stimulants, his end is not far off. Let us mention the kind of feats which must be performed. A powerful minister makes a speech after eleven o’clock at night; the leader-writer receives proof-sheets; he must grasp the whole scope of the speech in a flash, and then proceed with the mere mechanical work of writing. Twelve hundred words will take about an hour and twenty minutes to set down, and then the MS. must be rushed piece by piece to the composing-room. Again, supposing that news of some great disaster arrives late. An article must be swiftly done, and the writer must have a theory ready that will hold water. Work like this needs a quick wit, a copious vocabulary, and an absolutely steady hand. Moreover, the leader-writer must unhappily be invariably ready to write “nothings” so that they may look like “somethings.” News is scarce, foreign nations show a culpable lack of desire to kill each other, no moving accident has occurred–and the paper must be filled. Then the leader-writer must take some trivial subject and weave round it a web of graceful and amusing phrases. One brilliant scholar once wrote a most charming and learned article about pigs; and I have seen a column of grave nonsense spun out on the subject of an unhappy cat which fixed its head in a salmon-tin!

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This hurried writing on trifling matters brings on a certain looseness of style and thought; but the public will have it, and the demand creates the supply of a flimsy, pleasant, literary article. The best leaders are now written by fine scholars. In travelling over the country I have been amused by simple people who imagined that the articles in a journal were produced by one secret and utterly mysterious being. These good folk are mightily surprised on finding that the admired leaders are done by a troop of men who are not exactly commonplace, but who are not much wiser or better than their fellows.

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