How the newsroom changed in the last 25 years
Have you heard of a horse-shoe desk? Or a cellophane makeup page? A dark room? Or even a typewriter? Oh well, of course you probably have at least heard of them. But kids born in the last one decade are unlikely to see any of these things for real. They have become extinct. Yet, in the 'old days' these used to be the initiating symbols you would get to see or use when you joined a newspaper.
When I joined The Daily Star in 1991, it was already equipped with the most sophisticated newsroom. That big horse-shoe table, its own darkroom, a big page make up room, expanded news and feature sections and the most sophisticated of all – the "compose section" which was equipped with a dozen or so Macintosh computers.
The compose section was the only general section that was fully air conditioned. People could not walk into that section without taking off their shoes. Macintosh computers, equipped with a maximum of 5 megabyte hard disks, were too delicate to be exposed to dust. I remember back in the early 90s, those desktops, revered like deities, were so costly that one hard disk replacement would cost as much as Tk 70,000!
I worked at the desk initially for three months and then switched to reporting. The horse-shoe desk, shaped like a horse-shoe, was the hub of all work and adda. At its centre sat the Shift-in-charge, who headed an eight hourly shift and selected news copies from agencies and correspondents and deployed sub-editors like me to edit the copies. He would later hand over the copies to the News Editor who headed the night desk.
The cellophane makeup page was where the News Editor and Page Editors assembled and pasted transparent print-outs of news from desktop computers, positive films of photos, newspaper logos etc, complete with hand-drawn lines that separated newspaper columns and other material.
As these were fundamental structures of the news room, journalists tended to work late. Back then, front page journalists in an English daily were considered 'larger than life' figures. If he was a political reporter, he would walk into the office after 7pm or 8pm and the first thing he would do is draw everyone's attention to share stories and anecdotes as well as for a good laugh or two. These guys would not start typing their stories before 10-11pm.
In fact, any reporter who finished the report before 10pm would be considered a sissy, who must be too eager to get home. The senior journalists would say - journalism is about staying up the whole night, finishing your story at 3am with the latest update, and going home at 6am with the freshly printed newspaper in hand.
The result of this unwritten rule of journalistic dedication was that The Daily Star frequently failed to send copies to far-off districts in time. A day of production is lost in this phenomenon called "Mail Fail".
Till the mid-nineties, for a long time I could not go home before midnight or 2am due to this newsroom culture.
Things began to change, however, due to chronic pressure from the editor to stop Mail Fail and complete filing reports, editing and makeup as early as 2 am. Then the makeup cellophanes would be converted into printing plates and sent to the press for printing.
By early 2000, our office timing drastically changed. Reporters began to filing stories from 5 pm and then finally from 4 pm (till today).
It's unimaginable that after two decades, we actually complete reporting, editing and page layout by 10 pm and send the paper for printing directly from our computer at The Daily Star centre electronically to our press in Tejgaon. The press directly makes the plates from their computer and prints the "First Edition". This first edition is sent to the districts early; no mail fails and no wasted production of a day.
And by 2am, with a skeleton staff, we make a "Second Edition" with updates and corrections. This edition is aimed at the biggest market of our paper: Dhaka.
There was another mainstream newsroom culture back in the nineties. Whenever we missed a certain kind of news - let's say a crime story - the senior journalists used to argue with the editor: Our readers do not want to read those gory stories. And how did they know this? They would confidently show other English dailies which had also missed those stories.
I have heard this excuse frequently till the late nineties. This culture also changed by early 2000 when The Daily Star finally started comparing its daily stories with mainstream Bangla newspapers.
The newsroom in the nineties was casual. We smoked, had tea and snacks spread all around our desk. It had its perks - working was fun and full of laughter, eating and smoking. But it had its disadvantage too. We used to smell like cigarette butts by nightfall and did not feel too well with so much smoke around. I remember senior journalists smoking in front of late editor SM Ali in his meeting. This now seems unbelievable because people no longer smoke beyond the designated smoking areas in the office.
As computers made their way into the journalists' tables from the mid-nineties, we dumped our typewriters. Along with that, the sub-editors no longer needed to edit on the print outs. The sub-editors were resistant about this for a long time. But eventually they started to accept editing on their own computers. With that, the horse-shoe table died.
As The Daily Star turns 25, I can see so many changes; I cannot write them all down in just one feature. The office that was so casual back then has evolved into a formal institution and I bet if I could bring back some people who had left this organisation two decades back, they would not be able to recognise it now.
Today I asked my younger colleagues if they knew what a horse-shoe table was. Four of them looked blank at first. One of them said yes he had seen one. Where? I asked. "At a zamindar's house," he said. No, even he did not know it was a part of an extinct newsroom culture.
The writer is Deputy Editor, The Daily Star.