The electronic age

It’s been an interesting day. At around 10am, we found ourselves without access to the internet, and other online services, at the office. Predictably, work ground to a halt. At first, colleagues enjoyed a chat and a cup of tea, or sent a few texts. A few hours later, computers were still saying no, and brows were furrowing. It’s fair to say almost everything exists online these days. It’s really clever, but when technology lets you down, it hits hard.

The nature of general correspondence and the way in which the publishing industry functions in general have changed vastly over the years. I went into journalism because, as a teenager, I loved to write, which in those days meant exactly that – pen and paper. The first time I was asked to “write” directly onto a screen, I was dumbfounded. These days, online rules OK, and I find it hard to be creative without a keyboard to hand. Cutting and pasting makes the process so much easier, as does the delete button.

My other half remembers the days of typewriters and hot metal, when all copy was produced in triplicate and a copy sent down a tube to the print room to be set. This is all ancient history; but the funny thing is, he isn’t that much older than me, which just goes to show how technology moves on apace.

Even I recall the times when the internet was but a hazy idea – science fiction. It’s hard to believe that we are now so enslaved, with Google and Wikipedia as essential research tools. No longer do I have the traditional journalist’s little black contacts book – everything’s on Microsoft Outlook. Today, I would have greeted that contacts book with open arms, like a long-lost friend. I even hankered after the spike, that time-honoured keeper of old press releases. Are they even allowed today, under health and safety rules?

When I got my first job at the Western Morning News in 1997, internet use was in its infancy. We still turned to the phone book, or Directory Enquiries. By the time I reached Devon Today in 2002, we considered ourselves lucky(ish) to have one internet terminal shared between five staff. I can hardly imagine an employee today being given any less than a personal e-mail account and internet access.

Although Cornwall Today is popular chiefly as a print magazine, its staff are nonetheless expected to fly other flags in this multi-media age. Cornwall Today has a Facebook page, and I have not one, but two profiles. While my work profile is all about Cornwall, and reaches out to readers and professional contacts, my personal profile offers family and friends news of baby progress and what I’m cooking for dinner. A few lucky people are privy to both – I’m sure they’re thrilled.

In truth, I really enjoy using social media. It’s great for promoting the magazine, for forging contacts and sourcing content. Used carefully, it offers a warm online community. I’m friends with people I’ve never met, purely by dint of reading their comments on friends’ walls and recognising a kindred spirit.

However, it’s a huge time-sucker. Profiles and pages need constant updating and cross-referencing in order to achieve their goal of maximum outreach. If I write what I consider a witty update, I want to see how many likes, re-tweets and comments I’ve got. Surely that’s the point? And with friends around the globe, and the web on our mobile phones, interaction is 24/7. Therein lies addiction – technophobe OH is constantly telling me off for having twitchy fingers, and I even considered giving up Facebook for Lent.

Another downside to our online activities is that while we expected them to reduce our paper mountains, they simply created virtual versions. One of my first interviews on return from maternity leave was with Lady Mary Holborow, outgoing Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall. “In the old days, I would get 30 letters a week. Now, it’s X e-mails a day, and they all expect an instant reply.”

As editor, I get around 100 e-mails every day, all of which are important, interesting and often both. In an ideal world, they would be opened, considered and responded to within a quick time frame. In reality, competing pressures and a part-time schedule mean that while an e-mail may be read straightaway, a response might not be immediate or even evident – a simple yes or no is easy, but the grey area in between requires consideration. By the end of the day, if an e-mail has dropped off my screen, it might not be seen again until an e-mail trawl along the lines of the one I conducted today while offline.

It’s curious to see the reactions of others to this predicament. Occasionally, it would seem e-mail has made it much easier, and more acceptable, to get angry with people. This happens on the rare and regrettable occasions that someone doesn’t receive a service they were expecting: a response to an unsolicited freelance pitch, for example, or an eagerly awaited competition prize. I’m always sorry to hear the words “I am deeply disappointed,” and feel justly chastised. But I find it harder to tolerate sarcasm: “Thanks for ignoring my pitch.” Or untruths: “You clearly had no intention of sending out this prize, and had us under false pretences.”

The truth is, more often than not, that I was really busy, and I forgot. Obviously a swift response to both would have been nice; but I’m human, and fallible, as are they. I sometimes wonder whether people would dream of picking up the phone or coming to the office, and saying such things in person. Probably not. But clicking “send” is so much easier, and without a human voice to lend softness, an e-mail can appear brusque and even aggressive even if such a tone wasn’t intended.

On the other hand, punishing print deadlines are rewarded when the mag hits shelves and doormats, followed by almost instant e-mails and Facebook/Twitter comments – thanks from those covered, and praise from readers. It makes the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.

My partner and I have visited several primary schools in recent months, ahead of our daughter’s first school term. All were very proud of their IT suites, which certainly beat the few Commodore 64s we enjoyed in my day. And of course, all the 4-year-olds were conversant with iPads – our daughter loves to see photos and videos on my smart phone, and gets frustrated when our digital camera doesn’t respond to her finger.

Although I’ve embraced modern technology, I am still a dinosaur in many ways. I love the permanence of print, and prefer shorthand over a Dictaphone any day. Today’s trainees are learning how to fit all the new tools in and use them well – and I envy them that.


About kirstienewton

Editor of Cornwall Today magazine, and excited new mum
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1 Response to The electronic age

  1. writewyattuk says:

    Spot on Kirstie, and I too miss that ‘spike’ from my early near-lethal days as a reporter. As for computers at school, I seem to recall our secondary school had one in the language lab. which we’d pair up to use, with no technical support I knew of. Needless to say we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, and just waited for the bell to ring and let all the boffins get back on there, playing dungeons and dragons or some such.

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