When I was a kid I fell in love with a marvellous French film that began with the words: ‘I was born in the last days of the goatherds’.
The film was an idyllic look back by an old man to his childhood in the Garden of Eden that was growing up in an idyllic lost pre-First World War Provence.
I started my career in the last days of hot metal newspapers in the early 1990s and I stayed for 12-years until the responsibility of fatherhood edged me out of the newsrooms to public sector communications. Standing outside burning factories in Smethwick was no longer as exciting as they had been. Besides, I had an extra mouth to feed.
When I left newspapers in 2005 the cracks were already appearing. Today, the busy room of 12 reporters and three photographers in a regional daily district office building which shook when the presses rumbled into activity have gone.
Like a pit head deputy, the skills I learned there were hard won but no longer valued.
The start of my career mirrors Lytollis’. He remembers the newsroom when it started where the climate of dark humour felt like home. Much of the day really did pass to a soundtrack of laughter and the journalists’ mantra: ‘for fuck’s sake.’
Lytollis’ newsroom was in Carlisle, where the News & Star sold 28,000 a day and the Cumberland News 37,000 a week. Readers would come into the front office to make a complaint rather than abuse people online.
He remembers the vox pop, where armed with a photographer the author would venture onto the streets to capture the wisdom of people on the street. I found myself nodding at the recollection of the street interviewee who will pass five minutes on a topic with a reporter and then vehemently refuse to give a name making the whole exercise a waste of time.
He recalls the Elvis tribute act and interviewing Dave Allen but also covering the story of the gunman who left a trail of dead across the county and the storms that flooded Carlisle. There is dark and shade as well as colour.
I laughed more at this book than I have done at a text for a long while. Lytollis captures the weird character of local newspapers. Their readers, subjects and reporters had an undertow of oddball. He is a Bill Bryson of what made the local rag work.
But what makes this memoir excel is not just the fond recollections and anecdotes. Something happens to the tone part way through the book. The internet lands. Sales fall. The old guard at Lytollis’ employers CN are gradually thinned out.
Renowned news brand Newsquest come in to buy the company and the cycle of job losses and being asked to apply for jobs that weld four jobs together commence.
The book does not shy away from what this feels like for those left behind an analogue artist in a digital click world. The warm colours of the author finding his feet are replaced by a sinking despair.
“Newsquest might not have been notably worse than other big local newspaper publishers. All were partial to making staff redundant,” Lytollis reports.
“All were searching for a solution that may not have existed. Newsquest demanded we slow the decline in newspaper sales while insisting that we put even more stories online.”
Newsquest as a company, Lytollis observes, likes to talk about investing in frontline journalism by cutting journalists. In 2009, the Glasgow Herald had 240 reporters and at the time of writing now has six. As a former reporter, I just can’t imagine there being any fun in local journalism when it looks like that. As a former Newsquest employee I can see they have not changed.
I commend anyone who has ever bought a local paper to buy this book.