WHEN Connacht Tribune staff photographer Stan Shields was retiring, the newspaper group’s chief executive David Hickey noted that he had covered a lot of fires during his career. Hickey wondered how the snapper had managed to get to the scene of so many blazes in the pre-mobile phone era. “Need to know, Dave, need to know,” Shields replied. “You got the pictures and that’s all you need to know!”
Hickey told that story at the Tribune’s centenary conference, at the National University of Ireland, Galway last Friday week. Entitled ‘Journalism in the Future: The Changes and the Challenges’, it included three panel discussions and a speech by entrepreneur Denis O’Brien.
There was plenty of serious discussion – like many industries, the media is going through a period of uncertainty – but there were laughs, too. Former Connacht Tribune editor John Cunningham recalled borrowing Stan Shields’s bike to get details for an obituary in Salthill. An 18-year-old pioneer, he was promptly plied with sherry and cake by the wealthy widow, and crashed the bike on the way back.
The internet featured in many discussions. Press Ombudsman John Horgan, who spent many years teaching journalism at Dublin City University, argued that the World Wide Web ‘can be absolutely toxic’ in the context of journalism education. More than once, he told his class to turn off their computers, ‘get on a bus, get into town, and don’t come back until you get a story!’
In his keynote address, Denis O’Brien suggested that newspaper content on the World Wide Web will not remain available free of charge for much longer. The Financial Times, one of the few papers which currently operates a successful subscription model, provides a brief synopsis of a story which is free to view (‘a bit above the knee’, to borrow O’Brien’s memorable seduction metaphor), but those wishing to read the full story must ‘click and pay’.
It’s a long way from The Great Fire of London, covered in the still-existent London Gazette in 1666 – David Hickey guessed that that issue was a sell-out and added laconically: “The relationship between circulation and conflagration is a long and ignoble one!” More recently (and underlining how long some Irish provincial papers have been around), Westmeath Independent editor Tadhg Carey pointed out in a contribution from the floor that 150 years ago, his paper covered the British Empire and the Prussian Wars.
No doubt, many of the people who attend the conference will pick up a copy of ‘My Paper Chase’ by former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans over the coming months. Ian Jack of The Guardian worked with Evans and he recalled that he ran everywhere – to the composing room, to the loo. Indeed, somebody once claimed to have seen Evans in the bathroom, flies open at the urinal, a pencil in one hand, the other pressing a few sheets of paper to the wall, editing a story as his bodily functions looked after themselves.The pressure of the deadline remains eternal.