In 1973 I left school with a couple of ropy A Levels and no real idea what I wanted to do, my Careers Master’s final words ringing in my ears: ‘Whatever you do, don’t drift’. Well, drift was exactly what I did … having a vague idea of a career in journalism I joined the Cambridge Evening News as a Sub Editorial Messenger at the Princely wage of £14 a week.
The job – better known as a ‘Copy Runner’ – was basically a messenger boy, involving carrying bits of paper round the building; simple, undemanding and giving a great insight into the running of a newspaper (and quite enough to put me off journalism).
My aim here is to explain how the Blue sports paper was put together, so first we need to understand how a newspaper was put together 50 years ago, before computers and modern technology.
At the time the News building had recently moved to the site on Newmarket Road (handy for The Bird in Hand, where many of the journalists did their best work). The News Room, print room and all the associated parts of producing the paper were on the ground floor; upstairs were offices, the Features department, accounts, etc.
On entering the building a door to the left led into the News Room. Here were the journalists. Along the left wall was the News Desk – a long desk with typewriters where the reporters worked. To the right was the Sports Desk, home to luminaries such as Mike Finnis, Randall Butt and Dave Hallett. A door at the end of the Sports Desk led into the Print Room.
The centre of the room was occupied by desks and filing cabinets. Here the weekly papers such as the Royston Crow and the Cambridge Independent Press were produced. At the far end was the Subs Desk. ‘Subs’ were the sub-editors: a reporter wrote and typed up a story, where it was passed to the Subs, who checked spelling, syntax and content, added a heading for the story and otherwise prepared it to go to the Print Room.
This main room contained three other vital elements. Firstly, the Copy Typists, a team of three female typists near the entry door. Their job was the sit, with head sets, typing stories being phoned-in by reporters off-site. For football reporting their skill was essential.
Next was a small room set off from the News Room, but accessed by a large sliding window. This was the home of Ron Best and his team, operating the news tape service. Older readers will recall the Video Printer on Grandstand, in which football scores appeared on Final Score. This was a service provided by Reuters and Associated Press, supplying up-to-date national and international news via tickertape. Obviously this was a key part of the newspaper, and Ron made sure everyone knew it.
Finally, the Copy Runners. We were situated at a desk in front of Ron’s window, with the Subs Desk behind us. When Ron passed something through, we took it to the Subs.
That’s the News Room. I have mentioned a few names, but I have, sadly, forgotten quite a few, and the libel laws prevent me mentioning others - these were days when lunches were long and liquid! I should,however, mention Tony Rixon, though: a thoroughly nice chap, he was Chief Sub on the Sports desk, so it was he who ‘subbed’ the stuff for the Blue.
So now, producing the paper. When a sub called ‘Copy’, one of the three Copy Runners (me, Janice or Jane – later replaced by Chris) would take it to the Machine Room. This was a large, hot and very noisy place where the heavy metal print machines lived.
Each machine – I can’t remember how many, but there must have been 15 to 20 – was operated by a male operator who, effectively, typed the story into the machine. The end product, however, was not a sheet of paper, but a tray of metal typeface. This would be taken to a central desk, where it would be covered in ink and a sheet of newsprint (paper) placed over it. A heavy roller would then be run across if, providing a ‘proof’ of the story.
This would then be taken back to the Subs Desk for checking. They would make any alterations or corrections at which point the corrected proof would return to the Machine Room. At some point in the process the story would also pass through the Proof Readers’ office where it would be checked and corrected for spelling, etc (no mistakes between ’there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ in those days).
When everyone was happy, a page layout would be made and checked and the final result would appear as a semi-circular drum which went onto the print machine … and the paper would appear. The most difficult part, and the cause of the worst language, was trying to get the metal blocks of stories to fit the page size: we’re talking about large chunks of metal rather than words on a computer screen.
The print machines were at the back of the building. Extremely loud (louder than the machine room), huge rolls of newsprint would be loaded … and at the end, ready-folded copies of the paper would appear. They would be loaded into vans and despatched to newsagents across the county.
Producing the Blue
So how did all this affect the Blue?
The aim was to have the Blue on the streets as soon as possible after the final whistle on a Saturday, so you can imagine the time constraints. As a result, most of the paper was ready to go by Friday afternoon. The ‘Feature’ stories (the background stories, stuff about Royston Town’s new groundsman or Haslingfield’s stolen mower) would be written during the week and prepared for publication.
The real problem was the match reports and scores – the reason why people bought the paper, so how did these appear in those pre-computer, pre-mobile phone days?
This is where Ron Best’s team and the Copy Typists came in. Ron would be receiving scores from PA or Reuters: as these arrived they would be passed to the Subs (Copy Runners didn’t work at weekends; I was normally at the Abbey) and thence to the Print Room, suitably marked and edited and put in a box on the front page.
The United and City match reports were phoned in by the reporters covering the games. At the Abbey in those days the Press Box was next to the Main Stand (before it had been extended), between the stand and the Corona End. It was a wooden box on top of a brick plinth, with two rows of bench seats with a desk in front. It was equipped with telephones so the reporter (Hallett, Finnis, Butt) would phone in the report. This would be done in stages – at half time and at full time. The Copy Typist back at Newmarket Road would type this up as it was dictated and then pass it across for subbing.
Speed here was essential, so a dedicated team would be on hand to ensure that the reports were prepared and the Blue could be out as quickly as possible. Once the final report had been phoned through the reporter would track down the Manager for comments, and speak to anyone else prepared to comment; these would be added to the report in Monday’s paper and also be used for filler stories in the next week’s Blue.
Generally, League grounds were all equipped similarly to the Abbey so the reporter could phone his report from away matches as easily as for home games. Non-league grounds could be a different thing, though, as I found out on the 22nd November 1975.
United had been drawn away in the First Round of the Cup – to Isthmian League Leatherhead, home of the notorious Chris Kelly, ‘The Leatherhead Lip’. I went with the reporter (I cannot for the life of me remember who it was) to assist. There was no real Press Box, and the only phone was in the club house. As a result, the reporter wrote up a report half way through the first half and gave it to me to phone through.
This required me to leave the stand where we were sitting and run along the touchline to the club house and call the typist. Same again at half time, mid-half and at the end of a very depressing 0-2 (while the reporter went off to get quotes from Big Ron … given the result, I bet they were good).
This sounds quite simple, but remember this was early 1976. The pitch was a pool of mud and I was wearing four-inch stacked shoes, trousers with a 28” flare and a greatcoat with lapels the size of an aircraft carrier. By the time I got home I looked like I’d been digging on the allotments. My mother was not pleased.
As an aside, before leaving school I worked for a while at Stop’s on Newmarket Road. I never understood why they didn’t deliver the Blue until the manager pointed out that a walk to collect a copy meant that the blokes bought a packet of fags plus some chocolates for the wife, and possibly sweets for the kids. It was an early demonstration of marketing! Interestingly, my father had always sent me, but he did give me the money to buy his Weights; the Happy Harry cartoon on the front was always the first thing I looked at.
While I worked at the News I cadged a lift to away matches several times. Apart from the Leatherhead game I was able to see a crushing 0-6 at Aldershot and a thoroughly depressing 0-2 at Scunthorpe, both in 1974 but a cracking 2-0 at Doncaster in 1975 (debuts of Spriggs and Biley).
Looking back over nearly 50 years is like a different world. A long process to provide news that we now expect immediately. There wasn’t even teletext back then – the result of a Fourth Division game on a weekday evening would have been unobtainable until the following morning’s papers and even results of a Saturday match would be a mystery if you missed Grandstand or the scores on the radio.
I left the News about the time of the Leatherhead game but over time my respect for the team who put the paper, and especially the Blue with its extremely tight time constraints, has grown. It all changed not that long after I left so I really feel proud to have been present at the end of an era of newspaper production.