Image for Chronicle 55: Life and death in black and white

Don Bentley chained the front wheel of his bicycle to the railings of the Commercial Road car park and started to walk along Woking’s main drag to the offices of the Woking News and Mail. He lingered at the entrance to the Victorian, two-storey building and cast his eyes at the sign, a replica of the paper’s masthead, over the door. His excitement was palpable, he trembled at the knees. His moment had arrived, the chance to become a journalist but what to expect?

Inside the building he was introduced to the staff by the editor, and after a few welcoming words, was shown to a desk in the corner of the cramped newsroom. He was also shown where the kitchen was, and where to find jars of tea and coffee.


``Editor has coffee, black, no sugar. Just remember that son,’’ said the chief reporter, getting the priorities right before giving Bentley his first story, a list of bingo results from a local social club.


A reporter’s work was there in the newspaper for all to see, but how did they go about finding, and writing the stories? This had troubled Bentley from the time he was given the job, but on his first day he discovered that his introduction to journalism would not be about finding stories at all. Not at first. It was more a matter of typing up lists of winners in various sport and social events and learning how to write a wedding and obituary report.


Even so, rewrites of a parish council meeting from the minutes would tax Bentley’s journalistic abilities. For the harder stuff, he hid it away in an old envelope and took it home. He would hone it there, and check the dictionary for spelling.


Bentley all the same was learning about that abstract, indefinable thing called news. It was information and gossip rolled into one but what made news important was that you, or your newspaper, had to be the one to break it first. Without you breaking it, news wasn’t news it all. It was reaction, or follow-up, but not news.

Then came the task of writing a story, so the news came first, without clutter, information that bogged the telling of the story down. The structure of a news report looked so simple laid out in the newspaper, but mastering the knack of getting the facts in order of importance - so they could be cut from the bottom if need be - took some mastering. There were staff on hand, however, to help Bentley and not laugh at his initial efforts. They had all been through the same process themselves.


Bentley had attended an interview for his job on the Woking News and Mail one Saturday morning, and knew immediately the operation in Woking was nothing like the newspapers and newsrooms he had been exposed to during his days as a messenger boy in London. And more sober, literally. Bentley had arrived for that interview with trepidation after hearing of an interview from yesteryear, described by an elderly journalist at the public relations firm where Bentley was working. The old timer had said he had turned up for his interview, groomed and showered, crisp white shirt, on time, only to be told by the editor to come back next day. The editor said that he was drunk.


Commercial Road, Woking, was not Fleet Street but all the same the News and Mail, circulation 20,000, was a microcosm of what the bigger papers were. It had an editor, of course, a chief sub-editor in charge of production - editing copy and writing headlines. It had a news editor who doubled as a chief reporter, handling the more important stories, particularly the meetings of the Woking Urban District Council. Under him were four or five reporters, and a sports editor. A woman’s page editor worked part time. It was the way it had been for 75 years in Woking, and the way it was for local newspapers throughout the country.


Bentley, in 1964 and at the start of this career, was not to know that things were changing, and changing dramatically for the worst. He would revel in a career as a newspaperman for four decades before the unthinkable would happen - people would start to sound the death knell for the newspaper itself.


Xxxxx


It was a cramped affair, the Woking News and Mail newsroom where Bentley was cutting his journalistic teeth. Bentley, on his interview that Saturday morning, had noted the pot plants festooned around the office, particularly in the room caged in glass where the editor and the chief sub-editor sat.


He also noted a long table with a row of telephones, and one fixed to the wall above it. This was an ancient phone, with a wind-up handle and tubular mouthpiece on a chord, a type of phone he had seen in movies from the 1930s and 1940s, in which reporters in trilby hats shouted ``Give me a rewrite man”. This was out of action, though, and was either retained as a reminder of how things had been, or simply because no one could be bothered to take it down and dispose of it.


Bentley on that first day sat at a typewriter which was of the same vintage as the telephone, a Underwood No 5 model, which in gilded lettering proclaimed its birthplace and date, New York, 1912. It was solid and robust, with iron pillars at its four corners supporting its keyboard and roller. The keys, their letters and numerals held in place by round brass rings, were strong enough to take Bentley’s pounding and thumping in their stride.


The Woking News and Mail newsroom echoed to happy banter, it was fun. Men and woman spoke eagerly of the stories they were working on, exchanged notes, the older members of staff - older to Bentley although they were probably not out of their twenties - were friendly and supportive, even if two younger staff members, just out of their teens, were a little less friendly, perhaps seeing Bentley as competition, a new kid on the block. There was much competition and rivalry in a newspaper office.


One reporter, John Gerard, who would later serve as a mentor to Bentley in the art of drinking alcohol, pulled rank. He demanded tea out of normal tea-making times, and gave Bentley the nickname of ``Noddy’‘, something it took Bentley some years to shake off.


It was the camaraderie that excited Bentley, as much as the mechanics of writing news. It might have been Commercial Road, Woking, and not London or New York, but the newsroom was electric, pulsating. Bentley would go on, in his 40-year career, to work in many newsrooms, but he would always remember them as the same - smoky, busy, rowdy, noisy, beer-fumy. A heady mix, a primordial soup from which a certain life-form emerged, a culture, a sub-species of human called ``the journalist’‘, or ``the journo’’ in Sydney, ``the newsman’’ in New York, ``the hack’’ in Fleet Street. They were brothers at arms, forever fighting among themselves, but a community all the same, a fraternity, and ultimately they would look out for each other, especially against forces that were out to rein in their supposed powers, silence their voice and, in the extreme, put them behind bars.


Bentley loved it all.


The News and Mail was part of the fabric of the community, part of the family, and Bentley was proud to be its representative. It was the weekly newspaper his parents took, and like the rest of the Woking community, they respected and trusted it. They believed it was truthful in its reporting of the town’s life.


Shortly after Bentley joined the News and Mail, the newspaper celebrated its 75th anniversary. Over three quarters of a century not much had changed in the way the newspaper went about covering the events in the town, evident in the content of back issues sometimes bought into the office from the vaults back at head office.


It was a tried and tested formula but one to be tested in coming years. Bentley had learned from his book on how to be a journalist, loaned from the Woking Public Library a year previously, that the local newspaper was not only a part of the fabric of a community, a clarion for its hopes and aspirations, but a chronicle of that community’s history. His book had noted that modern historians always looked first at the local newspaper. The hallmark of a vibrant local press was that it laid out an accurate record of a town or city’s life on any given day. It was a window on not only how a town functioned, but an insight into what were the concerns of its residents, what was news to them at the time.


The newspaper was the beating heart of a community, steady and consistent, its lifeblood. Like the community itself it was a living thing. It celebrated with the townsfolk in good times, and commiserated in bad. It laughed with them, cried with them, shared their pain. It recorded new births, giving words to new parents’ joy; it followed children through school, recording their happy faces at fetes and speech nights, at school sports days. When they left school it followed their progress, at work and at play. It also recorded their indiscretions if they should fall foul of the traffic court, and worse. It followed them into retirement, and it mourned them when they died.


It was also the citizen’s champion, taking their side against what was wrong and unjust. It spoke for them. ``Tell the News and Mail,” the cry would go out when there was a troubling issue in town, and the News and Mail would listen.


The newspaper belonged to the people and it was a bond built on trust. Even from an early stage in his career, Bentley would learn to appreciate that a newspaper was an institution, founded on a reputation for honesty and integrity over the years. It was also accountable to the people it served, the readers who invested in it each Friday. All journalists, wherever they worked, had it drummed into them, that 75 years, a hundred years, sometimes 200 years of credibility could be lost with just one badly written, badly sourced report. The editor had said as much when he interviewed Don Bentley that first day, that Saturday in his office lined with pot plants.


``This job here, this business if you like, is not like any other. Its commodity, the thing we sell, is not just news, but honesty and accuracy, getting the facts straight and that is what we build our reputation on. You understand that son?’‘


The editor looked at Bentley gravely. Bentley merely nodded his reply.


Xxxxx


The editor, Ronald Sweetman, took off each year with his wife and his Austin A40 on a grand tour of Britain, usually starting in the West Country and heading north as far as Scotland if he had the time. He collected weekly and daily regional newspapers along the way, studying them carefully in bed each night in bread-and-breakfast establishments. And when he returned to the office, usually ahead of his postcard to staff from some far-flung outpost of the nation, he would carry into the office a great stack of newspapers for the staff to read. Occasionally, crossing the newsroom beyond his office, he would see one spread out on a reporter’s desk, and pause to glance at it again. There would be comments like “Now that’s a way to use a picture like that”, or “A strap-line in caps, breaks all the rules of good layout”, or “Now what a ridiculous lead”.


Sweetman loved newspapers with the same passion that was developing and growing inside Bentley. As Sweetman described it, the young Bentley’s passion was still in the first flush of youth, a love at first sight. Sweetman brought a certain maturity, a life lived in the embrace of newspapers, to his romance, but it was a love still pure and unsullied all the same. Until now.


Sweetman talked like that, in metaphor, and more often that not clichés. He sometimes spoke in headlines. An argument was a rumpus, a fire a conflagration.


Sweetman summoned all the clichés, and metaphors he could to describe what was happening to his beloved newspapers.


A chill wind blew through the newspaper industry, just a slight breeze, but chilly and foreboding all the same. It was enough, though, for journalists to button up their coats, to pull down their caps and hats. It would build to a buffeting and then a storm.


The storm came for the Woking News and Mail a little earlier than for other newspapers in the country, most of which would wait another 10 years for a hurricane of amalgamation and rationalisation. 


Smaller publications would be swept aside, and towns with two or three newspapers would find themselves with only one. Sometimes these were mere editions of publications in bigger centres of population close by.


Like many of the regional and local publications in Britain, the News and Mail was part of a small group of newspapers run as a local business which also embraced jobbing printing. The owners, the Woodbridge Press, had a print works in the Surrey county town of Guildford, a printing works that took its name from a bridge spanning the town’s River Wey. It ran three newspapers including one in Guildford itself, the Guildford Times, which was in competition with a larger masthead with a reach across the county, the bi-weekly Surrey Advertiser.


Bentley knew nothing of the modern economics of newspapers, of expansion and consolidation, but Sweetman did. He knew that the Woodbridge Press was an ideal takeover target for the Surrey Advertiser, owned by a local family who drew their main source of income from the medical profession, but with an ambitious managing director who saw the Surrey Advertiser as a launch pad for bigger things.

Within a year of signing an indenture agreement to keep him on the News and Mail for three years, Bentley found himself with a new employer. In what seemed an overnight exercise, Sweetman and his deputy were moved to the Surrey Advertiser’s building. The editor would lose his status, falling under the control of a managing editor who now had charge of all the Surrey Advertiser Group’s newspapers in north-west Surrey.


Out of the three Woodbridge Press newspapers, the Guildford Times was allowed to wither and die. The owners of the Surrey Advertiser Group went on to bigger things as planned, helping drive an expanding empire which would become one of the biggest publishing operations in Britain, with a flagship national newspaper.


In his 40-year career in journalism, Bentley would look from affair and follow the progress of his old newspaper, like one follows the progress of a family member or a relative through life.


Bentley at first, in his first days at the News and Mail, viewed his newspaper as a microcosm of Fleet Street, but it was to become to Bentley over the years a metaphor for what had happened and what was happening to the newspaper industry as a whole. After losing its editor - a man with a close identification with the town, who lived there - Bentley would observe the News and Mail shedding more and more staff until it had became virtually a mere edition of the Surrey Advertiser.


The scale and breadth of its coverage of local news would also be reduced.


Bentley would see a concentration on profit and less of a commitment to the community, but then again that was only Bentley’s view. He was a journalist, who loved journalism in its broader sense, and was not a businessman.


Mergers and rationalisation were not new to the newspaper industry, explaining why newspaper titles often incorporated several titles, like the News and Mail itself, or the Telegraph and Star in another part of the country, or the Chronicle and Echo. But ownership generally remained central to the area the newspaper covered. The latest range of mergers had removed the ownership from the people, the newspaper had lost its heart to profit and indifference. The newspapers had become mere money-making machines, like any other business.


Things were changing, for the worst, but the glory years of newspapers were not over yet, and Bentley would have a stake in these times, and share in the fun.