John Elworthy in The Modern Newsroom

news_vendor11:32 Wednesday 12th March 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[P]AUL STAINTON: On the subject of the internet, which is twenty five years old today, t’interweb, twenty five years old today, this from Robbie, who says “I remember life without it Paul, pre-1989. It was fine. Absolutely fine.” And Brian says, “Thanks to the ‘net, I’m in touch with many friends I was in the RAF with many many years ago. I’ve traced the history of my father, who died in World War Two as well. So it’s incredibly useful.” Of course many professions have changed beyond comprehension because of the internet, this one in particular. Radio, much easier now. It allows people like Steve on the ‘phones to work in the industry. What? Sorry Steve. And others, like myself. No it’s much easier today to find out information than it was when I first joined here, me and Andie Harper first joined here. You had books and things you had to go through and look for contacts, in big thick books. You had to type everything out. People on computers used to type things out. It was remarkable. You used to chop bits of tape with razor blades. Now, these sports boys upstairs, it’s all digital. It’s done in a flash. It used to take all day to take a clip out of tape. Then you’d stick it back together and find out you took the wrong bit. And you’d lost the bit of tape on the floor somewhere. Another man who remembers it back in the day of course, John Elworthy. He is the Editor of the Cambridgeshire Times, Wisbech Standard, Ely Standard. He’s bought the t-shirt, been a journalist since my dad was a little boy. Morning John.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: Different back in the day, wasn’t it?

JOHN ELWORTHY: Well yes. I’m just trying to remember 1989. I was in an auction the other day.
PAUL STAINTON: Did you sell?
JOHN ELWORTHY: (LAUGHS) And they put a typewriter up, and people were just poring over it and looking at it. There were some young people ..
PAUL STAINTON: (LAUGHS) A thing of beauty.
JOHN ELWORTHY: It went for a very good price. It was quite interesting, an old Olivetti. And I remember I used to haul one of those around in the car and set up shop somewhere. But the internet, it’s completely and utterly amazing. We’ll talk about probably Twitter, because I think that, from a news point of view I think even the BBC now concedes, has become a predominant force. We’ve stopped explaining it in the newspaper. We used to call it a social media outlet like Facebook or Twitter, and the assumption is now that everybody knows what these sources are. So that has just become an incredible force in news gathering.
PAUL STAINTON: Well Twitter, Facebook, without them now some of our stories would never get to air. And the comments that come in from social media these days are remarkable considering where we started at. I remember when I first came here working on sport, asking people to write in.
JOHN ELWORTHY: The other day in fact we recruited some new sales people. And one of the ladies is of the older generation, and she was enquiring where the fax machine was.
PAUL STAINTON: (LAUGHS) That’s laughable now, isn’t it?
JOHN ELWORTHY: And the Sales Director was up from Stevenage, and he says “I don’t think we have any of those anywhere in the company any more.
PAUL STAINTON: In the country, I think.
JOHN ELWORTHY: So that’s been a change. But there are some perils associated with this new form of news gathering, and I’ve been having to learn, because there are no rules about something like Facebook or Twitter. There were no rules on how to integrate these with newspaper.
PAUL STAINTON: It was a Wild West back in the day. When it first all came in, it was a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Yes. You can do it for fun if you like, but you can go on Twitter and you can download all of your tweets. And I’ve done 36,000 of them, and for reasons that best not detain us now, last year I downloaded about 30,000 of them into this incredible document. And it’s like a diary of the last three or four years of sometimes random thoughts that I’ve had.
PAUL STAINTON: You see that’s what’s happened with the internet John, it’s given you too much time on your hands.
JOHN ELWORTHY: It does extend the working day. Even though I’m trying to maintain this work-life balance, it’s going on Twitter as a journalist at night, it’s a part of a work-life balance.
PAUL STAINTON: You never stop, do you?
JOHN ELWORTHY: We’re all guilty of it, because it’s almost become a hobby. And that’s really interesting, where people, and it doesn’t matter what companies they work for, they’re using this new way of engaging with people. And we have to be very careful what we take, and we tend to often take lots of photographs of crashes, somebody’s on the scene. And one’s almost beginning to wonder now how many crashes might be caused by people trying to get that first photograph. We’ve had video given to us from people driving past a crash scene. And you think, well, were they taking the pictures themselves, or were they using somebody in the passenger seat? And it’s clear from the video that they were driving and videoing a crash as they drove past it.
PAUL STAINTON: Wow. Yes. Everybody wants to be a reporter these days. We’ve got to talk about that as well, because the other thing the internet has done of course, particularly in your industry, has cost jobs, hasn’t it?
JOHN ELWORTHY: Yes it’s costing jobs in terms of where we see other papers now where we’ve got an example I think up in Lincolnshire, where local papers are just going to what they call user-generated copy. In other words the readers write the paper. Somebody just puts what the readers write in between the adverts and you have a local paper. I did experiment with that format back in the ’80s. We did an edition of a paper. When I was editing a paper in Oxford we actually did a readers’ edition of the paper. But in those days that was very rare, and it was quite exciting, and it was something to opt to do once in a while.
PAUL STAINTON: Who knows where it’s all going to end John?
JOHN ELWORTHY: The problem is I don ‘t think that you’ll find that we’re going to be eliminated quite yet, because there’s got to be controls. There’s got to be a credibility factor. There’s got to be an analysis. There’s got to be somebody who’s got a memory of a story, to put it into context. And a lot of what you see on Twitter and a lot of what you see on Facebook, in particular on Facebook, where people feel less constricted, the stuff that I read on Facebook is absolutely .. well you must read it too.
PAUL STAINTON: There’s some garbage on there.
JOHN ELWORTHY: It’s garbage. And people feel that there’s no control on it.
PAUL STAINTON: Vitriolic garbage in some cases.
JOHN ELWORTHY: But Twitter, because there have been some very notable prosecutions about people tweeting comments, and we’ve lost journalists in our industry who’ve tweeted inappropriate tweets. Because when you tweet as a journalist, you’re not just an individual. You cannot differentiate between whoever you are, whether it’s me John Elworthy or you Paul Stainton. If you tweet, you have a responsibility to the company that you work for.
PAUL STAINTON: You have to be careful. I have to be very careful what I say.
JOHN ELWORTHY: But it’s interesting, this morning, listening to how social media is affecting everything. There were some very powerful commentators talking about the demise of Darwin Airlines in Cambridge, and a lot of the blame being attached to was the fact they didn’t advertise but it was a fact that they didn’t have a social media presence. So most organisations these days have to have what we call a multi-platform approach.
PAUL STAINTON: Critical, isn’t it?
JOHN ELWORTHY: We have to engage on webs. We have to engage in print. We have to engage on an audience. It’s an audience that we’re seeking to attract. Because the more and the bigger the audience you attract, the more credibility it lends itself to the newspaper.
PAUL STAINTON: Finally John, do you hanker after the old days, the banging of the machines, the cigarettes, the whisky? Wasn’t there something more pure about working in a paper back then?
JOHN ELWORTHY: No no no. Paul, that’s a load of nonsense. I like the greater scope that this gives us. I like ..
PAUL STAINTON: I was building a picture there John.
JOHN ELWORTHY: Yes but it’s history. It’s gone. Let’s live in the present, and let’s live in the future.
PAUL STAINTON: We must John. We’ve got to leave it there. Sorry, we’ve got to move on. John Elworthy, who’s the Editor of the Cambridgeshire Times, Wisbech Standard and Ely Standard. He talks well, doesn’t he? He’ll talk all day if you let him. Bless him. He’s bought the t-shirt though. He’s been there. He’s seen it all, from the typewriters, the cigarettes and the dark rooms, writing the stories, the little glass of whisky, to today, where we’ve got to move on says John. We’ve got to accept change. There’s one thing about change. It’s inevitable. You’ve got to accept it. If you don’t accept it, you end up like King Canute.