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Keeping up with the changing times

‘The Post’ evokes an era when no newspaper wrote about a woman’s worries about farting while having an orgasm

Those journalists of my vintage who have seen ‘The Post’ on the big screen were struck by memories of the ‘good old days’ of journalism and for once the term ‘good old days’ actually rings true.

There were great performances from Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham the paper’s owner and publisher, Tom Hanks as the editor Ben Bradlee but what struck me most forcefully was how things have changed in the newspaper business since The Washington Post and the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

‘The Post’’s newsroom in the movie would be familiar to journalists of my age but I wonder how many of those whose by-lines appear today would have recognised it. There were clunky machines called typewriters on the desks. Reporters battered the typewriter keys to produce their articles. The occasional expletive thundering above the rat-tat-tat of the typewriters gave the impression of being on a battlefield.

The resultant reams of paper went to sub-editors (copy editors in the US) to be edited and then entered the special world of highly-unionised printers. Next came the clatter of the linotype machines where the articles were cast into slugs of metal before being assembled into page forms. There was a foundry, there were big paper-cutting machines and finally from the news-room the comforting roar of the presses could be heard to confirm that the first edition was on its way.

Now there are no typewriters and no copy-paper. There are no linotype machines and no foundries. The comfortable roar of the presses is not heard in the newsroom because the presses are now sited at the edge of the city.

Today’s newsrooms are quiet and far more reminiscent of Banks than Battlefields but despite the outward calmness certain battles continued after the change from hot-metal to electronic publishing. In my early days in The Irish Press, Independent Newspapers and The Sunday Tribune I was barely aware of these as I was learning my trade as a reporter and, at one stage, as a sub-editor.

The battles took place between two sides of management: the Commercial Side, known as ‘The Suits’ and the Editorial Side known as ‘The Hacks’. The Suits did everything they could to influence the newspaper’s content and The Hacks did everything they could to stop them. In ‘The Post’ the clear winners at the end of the day were The Hacks. The managing director, the board members, the businessmen, the accountants, the lawyers and the other Suits all tried to use everything in their power to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. In the end the decision fell to Katharine Graham the owner and publisher. She was no Suit. Although the movie does not mention it she was trained and had worked as a journalist. She decided to publish the Pentagon Papers.

As I rose through the ranks in The Irish Times I became more and more aware of the battle between the Hacks and the Suits and eventually became a soldier in the struggle.

The set-up in the The Irish Times in my time was different from that of The Washington Post in the movie. There was no owner and no publisher. The paper was controlled by a Trust similar to that which runs the Guardian but closer still to that of US Newspaper The Tampa Bay Times which is owned by the non-profit organisation The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

There was a strong commercial man in the form of the chairman of the board Major Thomas Bleakely McDowell, an Edwardian-style gentleman with sculpted hair and a waxed moustache. He had his foibles but he stayed well clear of interference in editorial matters. He was not technically a Suit although he wore one of pinstriped bespoke elegance and authority. He was simply The Major.

There was a strong man on the editorial side too. Robert John Douglas Gageby was known by all as Mr Gageby to his face and The Editor in general conversation. To describe him as a Hack would have been to diminish his true stature but there was no doubt as to whose side he was on.

When a big story broke and space was too tight to do it justice he had been known to pull advertisements from the paper to make room. Two of my experiences with him come to mind. When I became what is known nowadays as Features Editor (News Focus Editor was the official title) I was approached by two journalists, Maev Ann Wren and John Stanley, who wanted to run a series of articles illustrating the true nature of the real-estate business.

I decided it should be published in the knowledge that the Suits would raise hell since property advertising was a major, if not the major, source of the paper’s advertising income. After the first article of the series appeared I happened to be in the Editor’s office when the Managing Director arrived to complain. He was sent away with a flea in his ear.

The other occasion was when a businessman threatened to stop advertising because of articles I had written on the issue of sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa. The businessman asked for a meeting with The Editor. The meeting took place and when it ended I received a phone call from Mr Gageby asking to meet him across the road which was a euphemism for the nearest pub. My worries on the subject were assuaged with the following words: “People advertise in the Irish Times because it’s good business to do so”. Any businessmen who would remove their advertising because they didn’t like someone’s articles would, he said, simply cut off their noses to spite their face. My articles opposing contacts with apartheid South Africa continued to be published and the businessman’s advertisements continued to appear.

Douglas Gageby, editor of the Irish Times 1963-1986

When Douglas Gageby retired as editor his place was taken by Conor Brady, the first person from the Irish Roman Catholic tradition to become Editor of the Irish Times since it was founded in 1859. Brady and I did not see eye-to-eye on many issues. His right-wing views and particularly his disparagement of Nelson Mandela in my days as correspondent in Johannesburg set us on different sides of the political divide. But in the constant battle between the Hacks and the Suits we were on the same side. The Suits nicknamed him The Prince of Darkness as he fought strenuously to maintain the status of Editor as equal to that of Managing Director.

After my return from Russia and Africa as a foreign correspondent I was appointed editor of the electronic editions of the paper and soon found myself fending off efforts by the Suits to influence editorial content, sometimes directly. Later as International Editor my section of the paper was the one most pressurised by the Suits for cost-cutting. As one wag on the Hacks’ side of the fence put it, for accountants the international horizon ended at Lanzarote.

The battle continued under the paper’s next Editor Geraldine Kennedy but I had retired by that stage. My main contact with the paper nowadays is attendance at the annual lunch for retired staff members. I once attended these functions as an editorial executive. The formal protocol of these occasions in the old days was that the former staff, composed of retirees from the commercial, editorial and printing sides of the house, would be addressed by the current leading executives with the Editor and the Managing Director given equal time.

The arrival of modern technology has made the process of publishing a newspaper much less expensive than it was in the days portrayed in the movie about ‘The Post’. It has also driven the romance of those hot-metal days into the fading memories of old-timers like myself.

The advent of the World Wide Web of Social Media such as Facebook and Twitter has had its influences too. Puffed-up non-entities have carried out a relentless campaign of disparagement against the mainstream media to further their own political aims. People can get information without paying and as a result newspapers have suffered a precipitous drop in circulation.

Straitened financial times in which every cent counts have given the accountants a battlefield weapon they didn’t have in the old days. The tippingpoint has been reached and the Suits can now outgun the Hacks if they want to.

My knowledge of the situation in my old newspaper has diminished over the 15 years since I retired but I have found it faintly worrying at those more recent lunches for retired Irish Times staff. Nowadays the attendance is addressed only by the Managing Director. The Editor is present but says nothing.

In the paper itself a strikingly bizarre example of Tara Street’s new priorities has been witnessed. The Rome Correspondent has been given the push on the eve of a Papal visit to Ireland while an article in which a woman expresses her worries about farting while having an orgasm has been considered worth promoting on social media.

Mr Gageby must be revolving at a ferocious pace in his grave.

Séamus Martin

Séamus Martin is a retired International Editor of The Irish Times. He served as a Foreign Correspondent, based in Moscow and Johannesburg.