Image for The Chronicle 59: In New Media is Grub Street reborn

Don Bentley had been brought up in the hot metal days of journalism but he found something exciting, pulsating about the electronic journalism of the internet. It gave him a buzz. He was thinking about it one afternoon, between stories, sitting at his sub-editor’s desk in the Chronicle newspaper.

Don Bentley’s life-time love affair with newspapers embraced not only the printed word squeezed between pages of newsprint but the purveyors of this arcane and archaic trade, the journalists.

Both were under threat in the rapidly changing environment of electronic journalism and Bentley, never opposed to change like so many of his ageing collegues, looked for plusses and minuses, the good and the bad.

He accepted that the modern newspaper must present a modern face on the net but did the image of the journalist, of eccentricty and rebellion, really require a makeover, a clean-up to resemble something as sleek and functional as the computer keyboard?

His criticism of so much modern journalism, the concentration of its supposed power in just a few hands, and its appeal to a mass audience with celebrity, frivolity and superficiality, was matched by his distaste of a new breed of journalist, clean-cut and sober, keen to toe the corporate line.

It was not so much the changing face of newspapers that worried Bentley, but the changing face of the journalist.

Newspaper owners might be worried about the internet poaching both advertising and readers, undermining their businesses,  but Bentley took a different view,  that of the journalist. The internet spelt freedom and liberation.

In cyberspace, Bentley saw a world of journalism that, paradoxically, was not new at all.

If he was writing a headline to his thoughts this day he would type ``back to the future’‘. The future that Bentley was travelling back to was not the Fleet Street he had known, but a glorious age that predated this, that of Grub Street. Bentley, sitting at his sub-editor’s desk between stories,  was reaching back and grabbing an evocative name from the past.

In his last year working in London, before starting a new life in Australia with his Australian wife, Don Bentley had touched base from time to time with his craft, wandering down a street that led to the birthplace of journalism as he knew it. On his walk to the offices of the Independent newspaper, just north of the City of London, each work day he would take a detour along Grub Street.

It was not the Grub Street of old, of course, the squalid, over-crowded district brimming with society’s misfits, and the misplaced, in the early 18th century. Then it was a maze of alleyways and lanes, of courtyards overhung by tiered half-timbered, crumbling buildings that had survived the great fire of London 100 years previously.

Bentley could see it had changed beyond recognition. It was not even called Grub Street any more. It now carried the name of Milton Street and,  after being devastated by bombing during World War II, formed the ultra-modern Barbican complex of apartments, shops and an entertainment centre on the fringe of the city business district.

This may have been the late 20th century but for Bentley ghosts of journalism’s glorious past still stalked Grub Street, as they did Fleet Street, their most recent home. The poets write of place and time, and Bentley always felt, standing on his hallowed ground, that this had been the place and time of journalism. Here was not only journalism’s tomb, but its heart and soul.

As a poor area of London, straddling the walls surrounding the city’s traditional square mile, it attracted writers looking for cheap digs. They were playwrights, poets, pamphleteers and those writers who worked on or published small-circulation journals, men of letters soon to become known as journalists.

By all accounts Grub Street was as magical as it was squalid. Writers tussled and fought to outdo each other, publications sprung up and suddenly died, forever testing still-to-be-defined markets, along with testing the limits of political, moral and religious censorship.

Among esoteric publications to emerge was one called The Night Walker: or Evening Rambles in search of lewd women,  predating by just a few years Daniel Defoe’s Weeky Review, and Jonathan Swift’s Examiner at the start of the 1700s. There was also the Flying Post and Common Sense, and John Dunton’s Athenian Mercury, in which he pioneered the advice column.

Other notable figures to ply their trade in Grub Street at one time or another were Dr Samuel Johnson, the author of the first dictionary, Anthony Trollope, Alexander Pope, and Henry Fielding. And there were artists, too; among them William Hogarth who depicted the plight of the under-paid and under-nourished Grub Street writer in his work The Distressed Poet.

Their endeavours were not always noble and honourable. Some of the reporters, poets and playwrights also doubled as speech writers and political propagandists, writers of small reputation willing to sell their labours to the highest bidder, for whatever cause. They became known as ``Hacks’‘, after the transport for hire, the Hackney carriages, but they all had one thing in common: they were wordsmiths and relied on their command of the English language to earn a crust. Words and grammar were the tools of their trade.

There might have been dreams of plays, or of starting a newspaper to change the world, but the reality often remained a damp and musty loft, and a hungry stomach. Journalists were forced to take on work to pay the bills, to prostitute themselves. It troubled some, to the extent they felt compelled to use their skill at writing to publicise their plight.

Wrote one of the Grub Street fraternity, Ned Ward in 1698:

The condition of an Author, is much like that of a Strumpet, ...and if the Reason by requir’d, Why we betake our selves to so Scandalous a Profession as Whoring or Pamphleteering, the same exclusive Answer will serve us both, viz. That the unhappy circumstances of a Narrow Fortune, hath forc’d us to do that for our Subsistence, which we are much asham’d of.

Grub Street may survive to this day as a pejorative term for journalism but it had possibly a greater influence than the latter Fleet Street and certainly left a far greater mark in the annals of English literature than the ``street of adventure’‘, whose literature was mainly concerned directly with the newspaper industry and reporting the news, with Evelyn Waugh’s newspaper satire ``Scoop’’ among its heritage.

To be a called a Grub Street author may have been viewed as an insult in some quarters, but another writer, James Ralph,  defended the trade of the journalist, contrasting it with the supposed hypocrisy of more esteemed professions:

A Man may plead for Money, prescribe for or quack for Money, preach and pray for Money, marry for Money, fight for Money, do anything within the Law for Money, provided the Expedient answers, without the least imputation. But if he writes like one inspired from Heaven, and writes for Money, the Man of Touch, in the right of Midas his great Ancestor, enters his caveat against him as a man of Taste; declares the two Provinces to be incompatible; that he who aims at Praise ought to be starved. The author is laugh’d at if poor; if to avoid that curse, he endeavours to turn his Wit to Profit, he is branded as a Mercenary.’‘

* * * * *

A decade after visiting what remained of Grub Street, Don Bentley now looked at it from afar, from his new home in Australia. He thought of writing about it once, and without reference books at hand, turned to Wikipedia for an account of it there. And there an irony struck Bentley, an irony that, 300 hundred years previously, would certainly not have been lost on the great, emergent satirists of the 1700s.

When Bentley looked at the internet, of blogging and of what the internet meant to the journalism of the future, he suddenly saw a Grub Street there, of writers with an individual voice. In the old days - before the media was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands - all a writer needed was a friendly and patient printer willing to give an author a little credit and a readership eager for information and words. And now, in the 21st century,  all a writer needed was a laptop and a domain to broadcast his creative effort, and his views, out to world.  ``World’’ was perhaps the wrong word. Bentley considered ``universe’’ more appropriate. What was happening out there was infinite.

The internet and websites and blogging was not confined and constricted, as newspaper journalism was, between the pages of newsprint. More importantly it was not tied to the rich and powerful who owned newspapers, or chains of them. It had economic freedom, not only free of the expensive resource of newsprint, and the need to pander to advertisers, but free of the reliance on a retail and transport infrastructure to get the ``product’’ out there in the marketplace.

A website carrying news and views did not have to be termed a product as newspapers were by big business, but if it made money through advertising, that was, of course, to the good and would enable those wanting to write to be paid for it.

At the time of his own ramblings in London, Bentley had lamented the past and the characters who had died with it. His own world of Fleet Street had died more recently with newspapers removing their offices and printing operations to new high-tech plants in the London Docklands. What had been Fleet Street was now scattered across dockland office blocks offering cheaper rents than those in the central business district.

The Independent had emerged has the new face of Fleet Street, born of an age when it was possible to out-source printing, but Bentley had found it did not have a history, a tradition. A team of competent and experienced writers who had been recruited was no substitute for the layers of history that had gone before.

Bentley had spent two decades lamenting the end of tradition, not just of journalism but the journalists, the characters who forged this strange trade. From far way in Australia the pain of journalism’s loss had been even more palpable. It was an ache, a mourning, mixed with the homesickness he sometimes felt when he saw pictures of London.

In the years he had spent in Australia, Bentley had forgotten that journalism was an evolving, changing thing; a fragile bird that could change its shape and song to meet a new environment. It was a creature that would have done Charles Darwin proud.

Amid the much-feared death of the newspaper in the internet age, reflected in the countless closures of American newspapers, and the cutbacks to hit newspapers in Britain and now Australia, Bentley had not paid attention to the evolution of the internet itself. Like many journalists of his age, entering their sixties, Bentley had been suspicious, nervous about the rise of the internet, not so much about this means of communication but about what it was doing to his beloved newspapers.

But Don Bentley had become a blogger, recalling tales of journalism past on a website. It gave Bentley a thrill,  the sort of thrill he had experienced four decades earlier when he got his first bylines in the Woking News and Mail. Bentley had realised the internet and blogging contained the seeds of not just a revival of journalism, but was a Grub Street reborn.

In its day, what made Grub Street important was the number of publications that embraced every political opinion. For one viewpoint there were others to give another side of the story. Could Bentley say this of the press - newspapers, radio and television - today?

The emergence of the internet had not only crept up on the journalists of the old school, but the traditional media owners. They had previously amalgamated, rationalised and controlled to such a degree that there was little variety left and the internet had moved into the vacuum. There had also been vast profits to be made from single publications. Now it was not so much loss of circulation hitting corporations,  but loss of profits from advertising, the vast profits they had built on the annual expansion and growth so beloved of shareholders.

As newspapers had been absorbed into bigger and bigger groups - and publications had withered, died or been killed off to create one-newspaper towns - balance and ethics had vanished with them. What had happened to the great divide, the firewall, between editorial and advertising on a newspaper’s pages where Bentley increasingly saw paid-for stories and pubic relations press releases pushing a company line masquerading as news? There was an ever greater reliance on the press release to fill space. Journalism had become ``churnalism’’ in the modern age.

Newspapers, especially, might be scrambling to catch up, to transfer their newspaper brands onto their websites, but they were confronted by a competing philosophy - profit over a notion that information should be free.

The worldwide-web had been founded by academics at universities who wanted to share information. This mantra or philosophy stayed with it. People had gotten used to free information and would not want to pay for it, unless it was very specialised, like in the form of financial newsletter which would give them some financial benefit.

Newspapers had initially responded to the internet by setting up their own websites to carry their brand but Bentley believed they had made an error in diverting resources from newsrooms to fund them. Staff had been assigned to website desks without being replaced in newsrooms. Newspaper owners appeared to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They were stretching resources to pay for their websites and at the same time reducing the scope and quality of the publications that drove their profits.

Could newspapers really make websites pay when their readers had so many sources of news and information open to them? Bentley thought not.

The shortcomings of net-based journalism in its most raw form had been, paradoxically, exposed by newspapers themselves. There were aspects of newspapers that made them unique, the letters page among them. Not to mention the editorial. Television and radio had tried to replicate the letters “page’’ and it never worked, and now newspapers, in Bentley’s eyes, had devalued the experience, by allowing not only two and three-line emails on letters pages, but readers comment on web sites.

A letter traditionally required thought and reason, not to mention attention to good, concise English, spelling and grammar. It was not a flippant, spontaneous thing to be written as an email message. Making matters worse, ``letter writers’’ to newspaper websites were allowed to use pseudonyms, to hide their identity.

It exposed a bigger concern about web journalism, or citizen, journalism in particular. That question of accountability. Where were the experienced, senior journalists to filter the news,  to weed out the inconsequential and trivial and harmful? There was also no training for website journalists, no mentors as in the newspaper newsrooms of old, in the practice of journalism, its history, its ethics and law.

The internet represented an economy the size of Germany’s but it had a default value of zero for existing newspaper owners. To make involvement with the internet pay, they needed a new business model. Newspapers had lost precious classified advertisements to the web - the rivers of gold as they were once described - but there were other forms of advertising that only worked in a newspaper. On a local scale, specials on offer by supermarkets; on a national one, the branding of products and new products. There was still money to be made from newspapers, as long as profits were lower but the big media corporations were not prepared to lower their sights, or the expectation of their shareholders. Perhaps it was time for newspapers to return to local control, with governement support in the form of tax breaks under a policy that would recognise the vital role of newspapers in the democractic process.

Bentley’s conversion to the web made a major talking point in the sub-editor’s room of the Chronicle. He was a brazen, unabashed convert but colleagues of his generation were not totally convinced. They looked to retirement and an end to journalism in their own day-to-day lives, not only the journalism that they had known.

Conversation about the web and newspaper websites was not new, of course. Many hours had been devoted to it, and many angry words. In the early days it had been discussion about websites themselves as an extra platform for newspapers to broadcast their wares, then the arrival of iPads and other reading devices that might spell the end of the newspaper in its traditional form.

``Can’t swat a fly with a fucking iPad,’’ said a journalist one night, after discussion in the office had spilled to the journalists’ watering hole, Mahoney’s.

``And can’t wipe your fucking arse on one, either,’’ said another of Bentley’s colleagues.

Bentley was unswayed, unaffected by doubt. He didn’t want to see the end of the newspaper, but added:  ``So what if does go, and it is read on iPads instead?  It would take its place in a truly brave new world, alive with opinion and information, enough of it to allow the reader to make up his or her own mind.’‘

The world of an electronic Grub Street might have arrived but all the same Bentley felt a little sad. It was a silent world, probably a sober one, conducted at home, in studies and backrooms.

Now Bentley was thinking again of Grub Street ale houses and coffee shops, and smoky brothels, and grubby lofts and garrets where guests carrying a cheap bottle of claret, or port, or gin, would be invited to read tatty manuscripts and page proofs. The internet cafes that Bentley passed on his perambulations around Hobart were not quite the same.

Ed: Meanwhile, Megafauna Meedja elsewhere:
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