Saturday, February 16, 2013

'Where's the WiFi?'

'Where's the wifi?' is the first question any journalist asks today when arriving at where they have to work up their next story in the field. It almost comes before the story, because without connectivity the copy won't get out. Or doesn't get out immediately, which is the same thing in this instant communications socially networked age.

It wasn't alway like that. Back in the late 70s I was getting on with a new career as a freelance journalist. There weren't word processors then, nor mobile phones. The CIE bus service was the internet of the day. Buses? Yep. This is how it worked.

Journalism didn't pay that well then. Still doesn't, but I made it work by getting two or three outlets for each story. The two local newspapers took news, and quite often I'd develop a local item into a national papers feature.

I had a big, old, but very capable office Ollivetti 75 typewriter, bought secondhand. After a meeting in Kilcullen or something else local on which I'd be reporting, the first job was to develop the film from my camera, and hang it in the bathroom-converted-to-darkroom. While it was drying I'd work up the story on the typewriter, sub the result and then retype final versions for their various destinations. I'd check the film, make contact sheets and print out the relevant pictures, and stick captions on the back. Generally past midnight, sometimes well past, it was bedtime at last.

The next morning I'd meet the buses going respectively to Carlow and Naas. The local newspapers had arrangements with the drivers to drop off envelopes with journalist copy in the shop or pub that was the bus stop, and from there the material would be collected each day. A similar arrangement was operated nationwide for the national papers. When I'd have a feature for the Irish Independent or Evening Press, it'd be given to the driver of the early bus and left in the relevant box at Store Street bus station in Dublin, from where there were several collections by the newspapers each day.

Urgent news stories could be dictated by phone to copy takers in the nationals, and in RTE. But I did mostly features work for the papers, so they weren't as time sensitive to need that kind of fast delivery.

As a system it worked very well, and saved us impecunious hacks the costs of postage too. Technically the bus drivers should have charged us, but mostly didn't. Kind of like how we hunt out free wifi today.

In the early 80s I was doing regular work for the Sunday Journal, new then and since defunct. As part of the gig I used to travel around the country doing 'Down Your Way' features. That involved going into a town cold, ferreting out a bunch of local community stories and taking the accompanying pictures, then doing a spread in the following weekend's paper. I usually managed to dig out some extra features in each place, which might make a colour centre spread in subsequent issues.

On those trips, if my choice of town was further than an hour's journey and there was a train service to it or nearby, I'd take the train, and if necessary rent a car locally for the day. My equivalent of today's laptop was an Olivetti 35 Lettera portable typewriter, a lovely machine of which I was very fond. Always one to use downtime to get stuff done, on the way back up in the train I'd type out my stories. Because typewriters were noisy, I always stopped when the train was idle in a station, so as not to disturb the other passengers.

I used the same machine in 1981 when I was travelling across the US 'minding' a group of holidaymakers who had picked up on a promotional holiday in the paper. On an overnight flight from Las Vegas to New York, I decided to get a bit of work done instead of watching the inflight movie. I opened up the typewriter and began tapping away. The general noise of the plane was drowning me out.

Or so I thought until I got a tap on the shoulder. I looked up and a big guy said, "Buddy, we can all hear you on our headphones and we can't hear the movie." That was before electronic headphones, and the earpieces picked up the sound through a tube system built into the armrests. I had no earpieces plugged in, but the hole into which they would have gone had the movie channel selected and was picking up my clattering keys. A quick apology and I gave up. Turned out the movie was lousy too.

Later I was recruited to RTE, which brought its own communications challenges. I was working with the embryo Radio 2 News and we regularly had to get material back to the studio from the field. Doing a 'phoner' live was straightforward enough, but if we wanted to incorporate some recorded 'actuality' it often involved having to dismantle the handset in a public phone box and connect an output to the exposed bits via crocodile clips. Hook up the microphone to the recorder, line up the recorded piece, say your intro into the microphone and release the pause button at the appropriate time. Most times it worked. But the presenter at the other end always had to be ready to fill in for 'dead air' coming down the line.

During those RTE years I several times put into action a technique which I often passed on to radio journalism students. You don't always need to be where the news is happening, but you do have to be where you can gather the information and report it from.

One of these occasions was a hostage and car chase. I had finished my shift and had gone to have coffee with a colleague. Before going home I phoned in to see if anything was happening. And there was. A woman had been taken hostage during an abortive raid on a city centre post office, and there was a convoy of garda cars following the kidnappers up through Meath. There was a TV news crew in the convoy, and they had the station's only wireless phone, an antique affair by today's standards and with a limited range. But they were sending back reports. I decided to follow on, make sure there was cover for our still rather Cinderella part of the news division, especially where the TV guys were concerned.

From time to time I stopped at public phones, checking to see where things were. Just before the capital town of the Royal County I was told that the convoy was in County Cavan, and that the wireless phone was no longer functioning. I decided to call into Navan Garda Station and see if I could get an update there.

I was directed to their guy in the station's radio room. "He'll know," the garda on the desk said. "He's in communication with the cars following up."

He was indeed. And he very kindly suggested I stay for the duration, so I could listen in to what was going on. They even gave me tea, and the use of a telephone to send updates on the chase back to the newsroom. I was the one who heard at first hand the end of the saga, with the kidnappers giving up, and got my report back in time for the evening TV news long before the crew up at the action could do so.

Another time was when paintings were stolen from the Beit Collection at Russborough House near Blessington. It was my day off, but I got an early morning tip-off about the robbery from a garda friend. I drove to Russborough, and along with the station's Crime Correspondent Tom McCaughren I hung around for a while, waiting for something to break. In the end I headed back into Blessington, went into Miley's Bar and phoned my contact to tell him where I was. I sat there for an hour or so, then he called me back, saying some of the paintings had been found a few miles outside the village. I knew the spot, drove there quickly, and got the details from the gardai on the spot. As I left, heading for the nearest public phone again, I waved to the arriving TV crew who were a good 40 minutes behind me getting their own report back.

When President Ronald Reagan visited Ireland, I was sent to Galway to cover the presentation of a doctorate to him at UCG. There were no passes for a lowly radio guy for the ceremony itself, but there was a Press facility set up in the city’s Post Office. I checked it out, didn't much like what was there, and decided to go to the Great Southern Hotel. My idea was to watch things on TV there and use a hotel phone to send in my reports. An assistant manager was very helpful, giving me a room to myself with a direct line. Then he said the White House Press Corps had taken over the ballroom in the hotel, and maybe I'd find some useful information there? Surprisingly, my RTE credentials got me in, and for the rest of the afternoon I watched the President’s arrival and the ceremony on the various American networks' live feeds, much more than I'd have seen on RTE TV in the room I'd been given. Every half hour or so I'd leave the American guys and do my phone report back for Radio 2 News, in the best of comfort and closer to what was going on than were many of my other colleagues.

Today it's all about tweeting, Facebooking, and blogging direct from whatever the event is. In my case now almost always related to motoring. There's no more seeking out public phones to dismantle, no clacketing away at noisy portable typewriters, or sitting in a pub waiting for the phone to ring. With mobile phones, iPads and wifi you can be, have to be, at the centre of things.

So, guys, what's that wifi password again...?