'130 years of technology' - inside local gov

Picture: elycefeliz on Flickr

Something happened early in my career that I never ever mention on my CV but shapes what I do.

As the news cycle speeds up the landscape is now of Twitter, RSS, rolling blogs and 24-hour news. But not so very long ago the newspaper was all of those. Especially the small town newspaper.

I’m a local government communications officer. But my career in communications has spanned 130-years of technology across 20 years of work from when I started in the mid-1990s.

My career started on a newspaper in the dying days of hot metal in the Staffordshire market town of Uttoxeter. It’s just down the road from Alton Towers on the edge of the Staffordshire Moorlands. A town of 10,000 people, one high school, one race course and one fire station. Nothing much happened. It was circled by fields and woods and a thin ribbon of roads where people would die in head-on collisions trying to overtake tractors.

I joined The Uttoxeter Advertiser as a dark room technician. It’s one-storey offices and print works were at the end of a Victorian courtyard off the Market Square. There was a ground-floor office with no sign on the door. It led into the print room where a noisey flat bed press wheezed.

Up the rickety stairs were two linotype machines. The pair of them serviced by an old man from Derby who was the only person who knew how they worked.

The make-up compositor’s slab stood by the machines. Pages would be made-up on that slab in metal frames. Each line of type was fired out of the linotype machine. Each story was collected by hand and placed in the frames - known as formes. The page was finished when there was no more space.

The reporters’ room was just off the printers’ room lined with binders of old editions. Open them up and things hadn’t changed much. Feed prices and football match reports and obituaries were the bread and butter. A council meeting was written as one long 1,800-word transcript that started with apologies and ended with the date of the next meeting.

It was a 19th century family-owned title that was now in the third generation and floundering. Sales were under 5,000 and the flat bed hot metal press dated from 1880. It was a world of printers’ terms where slugs, emms and galley proofs were part of the language.

Uttoxeter was also home to JCB. Or rather, ‘digger giants JCB’ as the Uttoxeter Advertiser style book would have said. Only they didn’t have a style book. We didn’t have computers either. We had one typewriter. But this broke and the office manager wouldn’t replace it so we had to write our stories in biro on the back of press releases that arrived in the post or by a fax machine in the journalists’ office.

Looking back, the news process was Byzantine. The phone would ring. The reporter would make notes. Then write out a story on a piece of paper.

Then open the door and pass it to the linotype operator who would create the type. Then take a proof and hand it back to the reporter who would correct it. It would get passed to the make-up compositor who would place it in the page which once full would be carried down one man at each end down the stairs and heaved onto the press.

Every day two pages were printed. On Friday three pensioners would come in and fold each eight-page newspaper by hand.

It was known locally as ‘The Stunner’ because it was so not stunning. But it had been a regular fixture in the town for generations. Film maker Shane Meadows is from Uttoxeter and all his films are inspired in some way by something that has happened in the town. We would have interviewed him just as his career was starting but someone didn’t think it was possible that a filmmaker could come from Uttoxeter so we didn’t bother.

There’s a passage in Arnold Bennett’s ‘Clayhanger’ that talks about a print shop in Bursley the ficticious town loosely based on the Potteries town of Burslem. It nailed the Uttoxeter Advertiser: “In a general way, the building resembled a suit of clothes that had been worn, during four of the seven ages of man, by an untidy husband with a tidy and economical wife, and then given by the wife to a poor relation of a somewhat different figure to finish. All that could be said of it was that it survived and served.”

Of course, it couldn’t last and didn’t. Ten months after I started it was taken over by the Burton Mail in the mid-1990s and all but two of the office staff were made redundant. I went onto Darlington College and an NCTJ Pre-Entry certificate that provided me with a proper start in journalism.

Today, the Uttoxeter Advertiser today has merged with the Utoxeter Post & Times and on its website gives a circulation of 3,177 in June 2012. There is a hyperlocal blog in the town but this was last updated in 2009.

The news landscape has changed and the challenge for communications people like myself is to understand what went on in the past but to work out how to tell stories to people in communities that may not be in the cutting edge of technology. To me, that’s hugely exciting.

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