Lamenting the roar of the ink, the smell of the presses

The most recent circulation figures for regional papers point to only one thing, and it is not good news for ANTON RIPPON and generations of newspaper journalists

Many years ago, when I was a small boy dreaming of becoming a sports journalist, there was a Derby Evening Telegraph newspaper seller called Sam – almost everyone knew him as “Bread and Jam” – who was small and bespectacled and who reminded me of Arthur Askey.

"Star! News! Standaaaard!"
“Star! News! Standaaaard!” was once the London alternative to “Snow in Moscow!”

On Derby County home match days Sam would stand outside the Baseball Ground before kick-off, a bagful of the Midday Edition slung over his shoulder, calling out: “Derby’s team – and what a bloody team!”

When the crowd poured out at the final whistle Sam would be there again, this time shouting: “Winners and halves!” because he had returned with the Final that contained the afternoon’s early racing results and the half-time scores from other matches.

Sometimes, when there was nothing new to report, Sam would proclaim: “Snow in Moscow! Germans in Berlin!” At least it let people know that he was there.

When he wasn’t at the football, Sam had a pitch in town where a delivery van circled him almost continually, dropping off supplies not only of the Midday Edition and the Final, but also the Late Final and the Extra Special. Elsewhere, Florrie Birtles left her pitch on the steps of Boots the Chemist in the incapable hands of the morose Pigeon Percy while she nipped up to the Green Man. Bill Tarr, meanwhile, scurried around the forecourt of the LMS Station (we still called it the LMS Station even though the railways had been nationalised), his bike clips still on for when he had to nip back for a fresh supply of papers.

Right across Britain, thousands like them brought a constant source of local news to citizens keen to learn what was happening. Many turned to the fudge (that’s the stop-press to you young ’uns) to check the latest racing result; even if they hadn’t had a bet, it satisfied them that they had the most up-to-date edition.

The other day, I was thinking about Sam, and Florrie, and Bill – and Pigeon Percy – and marvelling at how, in just a few short years, the gathering and dissemination of news – even down to the humblest racing result – has evolved. A stand has collapsed at a football match in Brazil? Give us 10 minutes and we’ll have you there, live. To think I once had to wait until the Midday Edition to find out how Derby County had gone on at Leyton Orient the night before.

No internet and no local radio, and the national papers for my neck of the woods had gone to bed before the game ended (we lost 3-0 by the way).

These days the likes of Sam would be wasting their time if they stood outside a football ground, hoping to sell a few copies on the strength of the outcome of the 2.30 at Redcar. Any punter with an interest would have had the result flashed to their smart phone before horses and riders had come to a standstill. I suppose that sums up how our newspaper business has changed, and – old-fogey alert – not always for the better.

Was it a goal? Will you be able to wait for the result?
Was it a goal? Will you be able to wait for the result in your local paper the following day? In all likelihood, probably not

Was I climbing the wall wondering how Derby County had done at Brisbane Road? Not really. I took it for granted that I wasn’t going to find out until the following lunchtime. I wasn’t worse off for waiting. Sometimes a more considered approach to life isn’t such a bad thing.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to think that there might still be a Saturday teatime crowd outside the newsagent’s, waiting for that van to pull up and drop a bundle of Green ’Uns – or Pink ’Uns – on the pavement? It isn’t going to happen, though. What would be the point? There would be no one to greet it. Everyone would be at home looking at the TV or scanning their computer screens for the latest tweets from sports reporters, or even the players themselves. You may as well hope that tomorrow morning you might hear the clip-clop of the milkman’s horse coming down your street.

It is becoming a cliché, but more and more contemporaries with whom I speak regularly agree that we enjoyed the best of the newspaper business. The roar of the ink, the smell of the presses (profuse apologies to Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) – it was a working life like no other. When that klaxon sounded and the building began to shake, they were powerful reminders of why you were there.

Recently, one old pal who worked on regional newspapers in the north of England told me that he was glad that he’d retired. He didn’t become a journalist to spend his days in an environment as sterile as a post office, where the newspaper is printed 75 miles away and the management is more concerned with how many people click on a daft website story that everyone knows probably isn’t true anyway.

Where will it all end? Well, veteran sportswriter Norman Giller said recently on that there are probably children already alive who will never read a newspaper. Judging by the latest local and regional newspaper circulation figures, Giller’s view is well-founded. A large number of famous regional titles report double-digit year-on-year decreases on their circulation figures. Indeed, “success” is measured in how less badly you are doing compared to others (“Best-performing mainland title was the Lancashire Telegraph in Blackburn with a 3.5 per cent decrease.”)

Titles that once boasted six-figure circulations now sell only a quarter of that, which probably doesn’t matter to shareholders, not so long as enough people are clicking on stories no longer judged by their relevance. Or as Sam used to say: “Snow in Moscow! Germans in Berlin!”

It still matters to me, though.


Mon Mar 23: SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, sponsored by BT Sport, at the Grand Connaught Rooms. Details of how to book your tickets can be found here

Wed, Apr 1: BT Sport/SJA lunch with Olympic champion rower Andrew Triggs Hodge. Booking details here

Mon Apr 13: SJA Spring Golf Day, Wimbledon Park GC. Booking details here

Wed May 13: SJA York Races Day, sponsored by Ladbrokes, at the Dante Festival. Click here to book your places

Mon Sep 14: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill Golf Club