Phil’s Forty, 7: Topping up the tech-spertise

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.

A typewriter
A typewriter.

Zoom? I remember it from childhood days as an ice lolly. There are imitations around now but obviously they’re nowhere near as good. And a few years later as the title of different songs by the Commodores and Fat Larry’s Band.

Now it’s something else and in less than a week I’ve had three requests from people wanting to Zoom me. It’s a sign of the troubled times and it’s triggered conversations about how keeping in touch has changed over the years, certainly since the typewriter.

Even before I add Zoom to my communications armoury there’s a sense of clutter and congestion, with rival systems scrapping to interrupt your day. Landline, mobile, text, email, Twitter, Facebook, and Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp, Linked In. Dropbox and We Transfer. There must be loads more and possibly, with Zoom, a full A to Z.

With every new system embraced so eagerly, it’s interesting to look back at the changes in the media industry, and particularly the 1980s when the newspaper sector was revolutionised by the introduction of new technology.

My first sight of it was at the Yorkshire Post, with computers installed at the Hull branch office in Ferensway. Type your story into the screen and correct it as you go, then hit SEND to ping it to the head office in Leeds.

The progress was resisted, sometimes violently, by print unions who saw it as a threat to their members’ jobs and by the National Union of Journalists, partly out of a sense of solidarity and partly because they were working out their own demands for improved pay and working conditions in the event of their members assuming unprecedented bargaining power.

But there was no turning back. A couple of years later I arrived at the Royal Gazette in Bermuda to find them a step ahead, installing a new system from Chicago which further streamlined the editorial process. Returning to Hull after the Mail’s move to Blundells Corner I trained on a state-of-the-art system which enabled me, as Business Editor, to type the stories in, draw the pages on the screen, import the pictures, write the headlines and send out the proofs ready for checking and printing.

In those days we were producing a business section of 20 to 28 pages in a very fetching Financial Times pink nearly every week – a huge workload. On occasions I was able to get hold of a chunky laptop which I could use to write stories at home before plugging into the phone socket and attempting the dial-up connection at 56 kbps. It worked sporadically. More often than not I would just get the IT gurus to download my stories the next time I was in the office, and most of the time the work was still there.

It’s advanced beyond recognition, as has the use of tech in gathering the news in the first place. Sitting in full-day conference sessions at SportAccord last year I wrote stories about drugs in sport, match fixing and organising test events for the Tokyo Olympics as the discussions took place, emailing the words to our newsdesk at the other side of the Gold Coast Convention Centre. From there the words went to a sub editor in Pocklington and then back to Gold Coast ready to be dropped into a page and forwarded to the printers a couple of miles down the road.

When I first joined the Mail in 1980 there wasn’t even a phone in the flat on Newland Avenue which I shared with a colleague. The Yorkshire Post paid for one to be installed after I joined them in 1983. For a couple of years before the computers arrived we typed everything, sent the top copy and a “black” carbon copy in a parcel to Leeds and kept a copy for ourselves.

The parcel would be handed to the guard on the train which left Paragon Station for Leeds just before 5pm and collected at the other end by a runner from head office. If it went astray we’d get a phone call and would read the words over to the copytakers, but we didn’t bother with that for picture stories because the photographer’s film was usually in the missing parcel.

For jobs outside the office we relied on public phones, sometimes in phone boxes but wherever possible in pubs. Far more civilised. This was a few years before mobiles – the first I saw belonged to a cameraman when I was at the BBC. It was the size of a shoebox and heavier than the Hull Daily Mail laptop.

Depending on sensitivities, there may be a piece in future about reporting on tragedy, but for now I’ll stick to the operational approach to the Lockington rail crash in 1986, in which nine people died. 

It happened on a Saturday morning and I was the first reporter at the scene. Having parked up as close as I could without getting in the way of the emergency services I pulled together enough details to file an initial story for the Yorkshire Evening Post and then drove off again. I read the story to a copytaker in Leeds from a phone box in Lockington and then spent half an hour or so looking for more phone boxes. The world’s press were on their way, and I knew I would need more than one rural phone box up my sleeve.

For the really important jobs the photographer would usually drive to Leeds to drop off the film. But on one urgent, big story occasion he came up with the brainwave of handing a pound to the train guard, who assured him of safe delivery. An hour or two later the phone rang and the picture editor asked where the parcel was. The photographer was bewildered and explained he’d even tipped the guard. Quizzed about it the next day the guard, very pleased with himself, said that given the obvious importance of the parcel he’d decided not to take the risk of handing it to anyone at Leeds station. Instead he took it home for safe keeping and had delivered it to the office in person that very morning.

Phil Ascough