Enduring Appeal of Newsprint

Sunday Mercury print editor Paul Cole takes a trip down memory lane, as he celebrates the 100th birthday of one of the region’s most popular publications.

Sunday Mercury Editor Paul Cole today

Sunday Mercury Editor Paul Cole today

“When I spent my first day working as a journalist, I was shown round the print hall.

It was a huge noisy room filled by lines of heavy, hugely complicated metal linotype machines.

At each sat a man in short sleeves hammering away at the keyboard to create blocks of type.

The old linotype machines at work

The old linotype machines at work

They’d rattle down into trays like toy soldiers on manoeuvres.

In the centre of the room strips of paper hung from hooks, each bearing the proof copy of a story, waiting to be checked.

The scene was one of organised chaos, like an old Heath Robinson cartoon come to life.

And the smell, the glorious smell! The noise was complemented by the heady aroma of printer’s ink.

Because these were the days of hot metal, mechanised and modernised, but essentially unchanged for decades.

In the newsroom, I worked at a formidable Imperial typewriter, a black behemoth bigger than today’s computer screen.

I wrote stories a couple of paragraphs at a time; the top copies were whisked off to the newsdesk by young runner boys; the carbon copy underneath remained on the roller so you knew where you were up to.

That was in 1974, when I joined my first newspaper, a weekly publication in the North-West.

Paul Cole as a young reporter

Paul Cole as a young reporter

It seems so much longer ago, mainly because of the pace of change that has swept the business since.

But the Sunday Mercury, whose first edition we have reproduced, would have been produced in much the same way.

Hot metal typesetting was introduced in the 1880s, so would have been commonplace when the Mercury was born.

These days, of course, things are very different. The old linotype machines have long gone.

You can edit and produce a newspaper with a laptop computer and a broadband connection.

And many people get their news online, glued to their mobile phones 24/7 lest they miss anything.

But, do you know, there’s still something special about holding a newspaper in your hands, turning the pages for real.

It’s the same with books. I have a Kindle and an iPad; I read books and browse the news on them.

Yet I return to print for the books I treasure, just as I buy newspapers and magazines to read news, sport, opinion and features.

I love the feel of a paper; I love that moment of clean freshness as you open YOUR paper for the first time.

I love the smell of the ink–I even fondly remember inky fingers – the sound of pages turning. I love knowing each page I turn will bring something new, something unexpected. A paper is a treasure chest.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Luddite (if you’re past a certain age, Google it!) and the Internet is part and parcel of my everyday life.

The Mercury’s sister online brand BirminghamLive is doing a fantastic job of covering the big breaking news stories. If you haven’t tried it yet, then you should. The number of people who visit regularly is mind-boggling. The digital future is thrilling and assured.

But don’t write off print. There’s life in the old dog yet, new tricks learned every day.

As we celebrate the 100th birthday of the Sunday Mercury, our principles remain the same: to inform, to entertain, and to educate.

You’ll see in our very first edition, from December 29, 1918, that readers of the Birmingham Gazette, asked what they wanted in their new Sunday newspaper, demanded news, sport and entertainment.

One reader pleaded for “spicy love and divorce, and dope news”. Yes, you may find a wry grin spreading across your face.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So enjoy today’s recollection of the past, the celebration of the Mercury’s proud heritage.

And thank you for being part of our continuing success story, for keeping the printer’s ink flowing through our veins.

You’re the reason we do this. Without you, there’d be no Sunday Mercury.

It is, at the end of the day, YOUR newspaper, and I am simply its current custodian. Thank you for that privilege.”