July 28, 2017

Going out in style

Bruce Leyland picked up the Chronicle style book, looked briefly at its ink-stained and worn cover and tossed it into the rubbish bin. Another piece of detritus from the past, the flotsam and jetsam of a life spent in newspapers, a life coming to an abrupt end.

Leyland had been at his desk all morning, clearing out the set of draws and cupboard that supported the desk’s flat, polished top on which sat a computer keyboard and monitor.

An ink well at one corner of the desk revealed it had been witness to another age in journalism, as had Bruce Leyland. He didn’t want to dwell on that though. He didn’t have time to dredge history, the past. He was concerned with the immediate present. Deadlines had dominated his entire working life and now he had another one. He had half an hour before he was to be logged off from the computer terminal and he had to clear files, both electronic on the screen and the physical ones in his drawers and cupboard before his password expired, as did the code which give him access to the Chronicle building on one of Hobart’s main streets. After the latter expired, it would be difficult to enter the building to collect anything he had left behind. And he didn’t want to be “signed in” by a security guard like a stranger at some later stage. Not after 40 years, he didn’t want that.

There was not much to salvage from those drawers, and especially from his electronic files on the screen. Faded cuttings with stories carrying bizarre and blazing errors, headlines misspelt, a sports one with the word “cunt” instead of count. They had been handy to show other “hacks”, as Leyland referred to his journalist colleagues, or to cub reporters being taught the pitfalls of sloppy reporting. To whom would he show them now?

So the cuttings and clippings along with the faded style book and union leaflets announcing work-to-rules and strikes, were consigned to the bin.

As he approached retirement at the age of 65 years, Leyland had hoped he would be able to see out his days as a sub-editor at the desk he had sat at for nigh on 30 years, from the time he had stepped up to the role of sub-editor from that of reporter. Even so, all around him in recent years colleagues in the sub-editors’ corner of the newsroom had vanished into redundancy or retirement as the Chronicle cut staff. It was like that across the whole industry as the impact of the internet hit newspaper circulations.

Many journalists of the old school were happy to be going, especially as they neared retirement age. Although younger sub-editors with families and mortgages might be bitter about having to start afresh, in all probability in another career, the older journalists nearing the end of their working lives had a generous redundancy package to contemplate, before drawing their pensions.

“Well, we saw the best of the newspaper years,” was a common refrain, and Bruce Leyland would agree. Over 40 years he had held a solid, secure and well-paid job in an industry he had been proud to serve.

He should have had no complaints when he was called into the editor’s office to be told be was being made redundant. Although just short of retirement age, he was receiving a severance payment equal to a year’s salary, covering the period until he could dip into his superannuation and also draw the state pension. He shouldn’t feel bitter, resentful, he should be content with his “pot of gold”, as the editor had described it.

All the same, Leyland still considered he had a contribution to make at the Chronicle and had always hoped he could continue at work beyond retirement age. He loved his work, and had no desire to retire.

As redundancies among the Chronicle’s production staff became more and more frequent, Leyland had marshalled himself into a position in the sub-editors’ department which he considered the company could never phase out.

Leyland had made out a case for what was termed a check-sub-editor to go through the work done by the increasingly overworked sub-editors, to double-check for mistakes.

To initially press his case to be the newspaper’s check-sub-editor, Leyland had started a clippings collection of errors appearing in the Chronicle, showing them at week’s end to the editor. This to the chagrin of some of his colleagues.

The errors made the newspaper look amateurish, and silly, he pointed out. A check- sub-editor was vital for the newspaper’s credibility. The editor finally agreed and Leyland now thought his position secure into the future.

Perhaps Leyland’s advocacy for the position of check-sub-editor was an unspoken acknowledgement of his sense of frustration with his career. When he had set out to be a journalist all those years ago he had reporting in mind, and like so many keen and eager reporters he was lured into the sub-editors’ department in the hope editing the work of others would improve their own writing. He had never escaped.

Set hours, increased penalty rates for night work; sub-editing made sense to a young man newly married, with a mortgage and a wife employed as a nurse, who could arrange her shifts to mesh with his.

Over the years, though, being deskbound and not being out there at the frontline of journalism nagged at Leyland. Reporters always came back with not just stories to appear in the next day’s newspaper, but stories of their own about their adventures out on the road. And they had cuttings, with their bylines, a trigger to recall those happy, adventurous days when it came their turn to retire. Leyland noted when reporters retired they were always given a scrapbook of their best stories; sub-editors went quietly into the night. No one ever mentioned a sub-editors’ headlines.

There were compensations. He may not have been a reporter, a witness to the news, but he was still part of a vital team. He would argue over the years to those in and out of the newspaper trade that the employees of no other occupation invested so much time in its product. It wasn’t literature but it could have been. Literature was about stories after all, and how many tales detailing the human condition, of tragedy and triumph, were contained in a single newspaper edition? A newspaper also set impossibly high standards for accuracy and English grammar, even if each edition produced over a 24-hour period – comprising possibly a million words – was destined to fade and die in an even shorter space of time. Unlike a classical work of literature, a newspaper, the result of all that blood, sweat and beers, had a bookshelf life of just 12 hours before it was recycled as wrapping for fish and chips.

And all the time, for four decades, Leyland played his part in this great and good endeavour. Each night he’d take raw, unpolished copy and give it a burnish and shine, often with a witty headline and caption to match. And after each piece he would sit back and read it again, taking a quiet pride in how he had made a solid, industrious effort on the part of the reporter even better.

Sometimes the reporters noticed, and thanked him. Leyland might not have won prizes for scoops and exposes, but a beer bought by a grateful reporter in the pub after the shift was reward enough, or so he thought.

The bylines Leyland had added to stories over the years – being careful to spell the author’s name correctly – also gave the reporters a status that Leyland increasingly came to regard with envy as he approached the end of his career.

In his new role as chief check-sub-editor, as if that did not carry status enough, Leyland hit on an idea to advance his position. He canvassed the editor about updating the Chronicle’s style book, something he said he’d do in his spare time, as long as his role was acknowledged.

Leyland was at pains to point out he would not approach the task as a pedant; unlike so many sub-editors he had known, adherents to the strict rules of grammar which sometimes did not mesh with the realities and practicalities of news reporting. Leyland believed language was a living, evolving thing and sometimes formal, precise grammar did not result in syntax which was clear and understandable.

The same with style, but there were one or two things that irked him in the Chronicle style book, small things which just didn’t seem right. They remained blemishes to the perfection which Leyland increasingly strove to apply to the news stories he edited.

The value and role of the style book in the halcyon days of newspapers, Leyland and his older colleagues often recalled, could not be dismissed. Every newspaper has its own style book, something handed down and updated from the birth of the newspaper itself, in the Chronicle’s case 150 years or more in the past. It was the journalists’ “bible” from those days of old but in modern times the myriad reference sources accessible through the internet had made the style book increasingly redundant. A younger generation now regarded Google as their bible, and what it said on grammar and style went.

As could be expected, the Chronicle style book contained anachronisms linked to the past. Why should the village of Bagdad be spelled without the “h” in Tasmania? Who beyond the state’s shores would recognise the term “rum’un” for what might be termed a “larrikin” on the mainland? And a “piner” for a logger, the former cutting down endemic huon pines. The greatest eccentricity in the Chronicle style book was represented by a chart giving distances by rail from Hobart, even though Tasmania had not seen a passenger train for 50 years. Conara and Parattah Junctions on the Hobart-Launceston mainline were there in black and white, even if they hardly warranted an entry and mention on current maps.

Leyland in his style book revision could not bring himself to excise the railway routes, arguing to the editor that one day passenger trains might return. And besides, there were memories etched into those tangled routes of steel. When once posted to the Chronicle’s northern office in Launceston as a young reporter, Leyland had discovered the steaming meat pies served in the then extensive dining rooms at Parattah Junction, where passengers travelling on the mainline were invited to take a break during the long journey. The smell of a hot, juicy meat pie rose from the style book every time Leyland opened to the “R” in the alphabetical index signalling the rail routes.

“Let’s keep an element of the past,” he argued. “This is not the internet, where they don’t even have a style book. Let’s not kick out the baby with the bathwater – let’s promote what the style book advocates and presents: brevity, clarity, discipline, training and, most importantly, accountability and tradition. None of the internet sloppiness, of overlong, badly edited stories that take hundreds of words to make a point.”

He knew, like the editor, the demands of writing for newspapers with limited space involved its own kind of discipline on the writer, in which surplus words had to be trimmed.

The style book, except for minor changes which ironically reflected the electronic age of the internet with additions of words like “cyberspace” and “byte”, was kept largely intact. Leyland had even written a brief introduction in which he said newspapers might be derisively referred to as ”dead tree media” by bloggers, but they were not afraid to acknowledge the future.

There was one addition to the new style book, though, or slight correction, which Leyland felt particularly proud off. It made a stand for the past, for uniqueness. There had been a tradition at the Chronicle from the time Leyland was given his first style book that ship’s names be in roman letters, as opposed to the general newspaper and literary style of placing them in italics. Much to Leyland’s chagrin, more recent editions had decreed they revert to italics, to confirm to the national practice.

“Ridiculous”, Leyland had argued, to the point of ridicule from his colleagues, especially in the pub during the dinner break when they would announce his arrival with sounds reminiscent of a ship’s siren. They had noted that Leyland’s attention to detail in his style book mission had increasingly bordered on the obsessive.

“It’s like saying a ship, made of steel and iron, has the same status as a work of art, a great novel, an opera, a play. Or even a newspaper, which is a work of art in itself.”

Over pints of Cascade draught in the pub, ignoring cries of “ship ahoy” from his colleagues, Leyland would not let the subject rest. He was like a great ocean liner set on a steady course, going to great lengths to explain the peculiar history of the previous decision at the Chronicle not to italicise ships’ names.

In the days of hot metal in which every word in a newspaper was set in lead type, to italicise a word required a special effort by the linotype operator, with more complex key strokes on the heavy cast-iron linotype keyboard. For this manoeuvre, the linotype operators were given a bonus. It was a small sum, perhaps only a faction of pence in pound days, but at times when boats and ships were in the news it amounted to a considerable sum, not only for the linotype operators but for the company. Such a time was the Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, when linotype operators lined up to set yachting race results. With the Sydney-Hobart field growing over the years, and more and more yachting events attracted to Hobart, the company had decided to eschew italics to save itself money.

On the surface, reverting to roman type in ships’ names was not a dramatic change but to Leyland it represented a victory for tradition over the modernists who sought conformity, sameness, homogeneity.

So many newspapers today looked the same, read much the same and were obsessed with popularity, superficiality and celebrity. That’s how Leyland termed it in recent years as his frustration with his career and the state of newspapers grew. But he had regained his enthusiasm with the style book project. Leyland had made the Chronicle, at least when it came to ships, an italic-free zone.

The ageing redundant journalist had brought in a large cardboard box to the Chronicle newsroom to pack his things from the desk, forty years’ worth, but found he didn’t need it. A plastic bag would do.

What use would he have for a steel em and point rule with printers’ measurements for column width and print size? He had also found a chart with headline sizes with which to gauge if a headline would “fit” or “bust” in a certain type. Computer programs did that measurement now, as they measured, or “cast off”, lines of type in a given space.

Leyland had no time for thoughts of the past, of the smell of hot lead, of hot pies in a railway cafeteria, the camaraderie on the composing stone where printers and journalists came together for a noble purpose and in the newsroom, where reporters and sub-editors did the same, of cold pints in the pub during the evening break, the distant rumble of the rotary press when it started up in the basement of the Chronicle building.

Only one thought held his attention as he looked at the style book lying open in the wastepaper basket. He bent to lift it and thumbed through the alphabet to the “S” section, then looked down at “Ships: ship and yacht names do not carry italics.”

Forty years in journalism, tens of millions of words under the bridge, stormy and calm seas. Thousands of headlines, and Leyland now felt compelled to recall its best moments and his moments of triumph in this craft that had occupied such a large part of his life.

Making a difference, making his mark, changing the world. Logging off now, and returning the style book to the bin, Leyland was all too aware that after a life in print he had only one thing to show for his toil.

The revised style book with its instruction that ships’ names be in roman characters.

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