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Dyson at Large: Time travelling back to a live news floor in 1993

Do you remember the thrill of arriving to work at your local daily paper at 7am when no-one knew what was going to make that day’s main news pages?

Well now you can re-live the experience by watching a fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary about a day in the life of what was then the Birmingham Evening Mail way back in 1993.

Multiple news editors shout and argue, reporters and photographers rush out to gather stories competing for the splash, one grabbing the paper’s only brick-sized mobile phone as he departs.

Meanwhile the editor draws out the back page in pencil, subs try out news headlines in dazzling yellow font on green screens, and phones endlessly ring with yet more breaking stories.

The 24-year-old video called ‘Scoop’ was apparently never broadcast, but it’s been unearthed by former reporter Paula Elwood (née Whittingham) who saved a preview copy which has now been shared on Facebook by her partner (Mark Langford, another former reporter).

The documentary records breaking stories that would grace a decent news list for any local paper today:

  • A six-year-old girl critically ill after she was hit by a motorbike.
  • A man recovering at home after his ear was bitten off in a fight.
  • A resident who saved a man who’d attempted suicide by pouring petrol over himself and lighting a match.
  • Members of a local women’s rugby team dressed as nuns who were thrown out of a match at Murrayfield after drinking smuggled-in alcohol.

What gripped me most was how all the above news items saw a reporter or photographer – and usually both – despatched from the office to talk face-to-face to whoever was involved.

Even the lightener – later to get the headline ‘Nuns on the rum barred’ – sees hardened news reporter Joan Smith sent out to make sure the story stands up, and you can watch her as she checks the spelling of every single name.

Joan’s none too impressed at the soft story, and in the car on the way back to the office tells the videographer why she prefers harder news: “Hard news writes itself – it’s the easiest thing in the world because it glares you in the face as long as you’ve got the who, what, where, why, when and how.”

Meanwhile reporter Andy Comber juggles at least two live stories: he knocks doors most of the morning desperately trying – and finally succeeding – to interview the mum of the little girl hit by a motorbike; later he meets an informant for a sit-down chat about alleged police corruption.

Paula herself takes the call about the man who torched himself, and leaves the news floor to meet the hero who saved him, taking him upstairs to the paper’s canteen for the interview.

And photographer Andy Fox finds the man whose ear was bitten off, looking pretty black now it’s been sewn back on, and gets him to pose in front of the window to get the best light.

The Mail video is not the first footage from yesteryear’s newspapers to have been found recently: it was only last month that HoldtheFrontPage reported on one featuring the Coventry Telegraph from 1991.

But the Coventry example was more of a polished production and so feels less earthy, based more on talking heads and posed scenes than real live action.

In the Scoop video of the Evening Mail you find yourself there amid the cigarette smoke, strangely feeling the vibration from the keyboards hammering away, almost able to reach out and touch renowned editor Ian Dowell and his journalists.

The video only emerged on Facebook on Friday, but as this blog is being completed there are already hundreds of reactions, shares and comments, including:

  • Tony Collins, ex-Mail reporter now semi-retired and freelancing, who said: “Excellent snapshot of life in a busy, thriving daily newspaper with same day publishing, when reporters were actually sent out on stories – remember those heady days!”
  • Roz Laws, still a reporter on the sister Sunday Mercury, who said: “Amazing. So much to discuss. Those computers! Smoking! Canteen! So many people! Joan Smith! Paula’s scarf! Yellow notebooks!”
  • Richard McComb, an ex-Birmingham Post reporter now working as a freelance food critic, who said: “Epic stuff. It looked like a genuinely exciting place to work, which it was, with no lists on ‘13 Places to Eat Crisps in Birmingham’.”

The video was recorded when the Mail was said to be selling 200,000 copies a day; today it sells less than 20,000 (although it has many more reading it online).

It was the year before I joined the Mail, and so I was sitting out of sight in the far corner of the news floor at the Sunday Mercury desks, opposite fellow reporter Keith Harrison – now editor of the Wolverhampton Express & Star.

The footage does capture a young Dave Whaley in the background though – then a sub at the Mail, now the well-known editor at the Oldham Chronicle.

There’s a sad element too: news editor Ian Sangster, who features throughout, died a much-too-early death that rocked the news floor back in 1999.

Yet modern media has now lifted that memory with a ‘happy times’ Facebook comment from Gill Shaw, a former Mail librarian describing a love affair with Ian that none of us journalists knew about until this weekend.

That’s local stuff, of course, and probably only of interest to staff who worked at the Birmingham Post & Mail in those pre-Trinity Mirror days.

But this video is worth watching by all HoldtheFrontPage readers and by trainees across the UK as a detailed archive of what life used to be like on a live, on-day regional evening newspaper just 24 years ago.