When President John F Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was as stunned as everyone else. I had just turned 10, and remembered his visit to Cork the previous June and being as charmed as everyone else by this dashing American president and his wife Jackie. News of the shooting and his death hours later were conveyed to us by that new wonder of the ages – at least in Ireland – a television set.
As events unfolded – the shooting of his suspected killer Lee Harvey Oswald, the swearing in of Lyndon Baines Johnson as the new president and the sombre funeral – we watched the TV, but mainly we devoured the newspapers. Kennedy’s death had such an effect on us my parents held onto every newspaper over those few days and put them away safely in the attic, to be taken down and marvelled at every few years. Thus began my romance with newspapers.
We were not unusual at the time in buying two newspapers daily – The Cork Examiner and the Evening Echo, were both published by the Crosbie family in Cork, A couple of years later I took a summer job with the local newspaper delivery man whose round of houses for the Evening Echo could be done in about 90 minutes in the late afternoon. I loved carrying the big bundle of papers, folding them up and dropping them through letterboxes. I loved knowing that people were waiting for the Echo and would devour the news inside. For that six-day shift I was paid £1, a fine sum then for a young lad,
I devoured the papers once my parents had finished them and marvelled at what was going on in the world. I got into the habit of reading the papers from cover to cover – happily skipping over the racing pages, though. There was so much to read, from Irish to world news, politics to, eh, politics. The Examiner was strong on local courts and council coverage, plus proceedings in the Dail. Only a little space was given back then to TV and radio listings. Sport was limited to a few pages, while business coverage was also sparse. News about entertainment figures did appear, but not to the same extent as today.
I loved the smell of newsprint and always knew every page held some surprise or new fact I could store away to discuss with friends or family. So finding my way into The Cork Examiner for the summer of 1970 was an amazing opportunity – like entering Aladdin’s Cave for a guy by then in love with newspapers. I was not to be disappointed.
Back then the Reading Room was where proof reading was done. The staff worked in two shifts of five readers and five copyholders. The readers read aloud proofs of whatever was published in the paper – from advertising to death notices (always interesting) to racing reports (God give me strength) and stock prices (another mindnumbing exercise). Copyholders were mainly young lads starting their newspaper careers or, in the case of myself and Eddie Lyons, just working for the summer. Our job was to hold the original copy and alert the reader if something was left out or the wrong words had been set. We then took the corrected proofs to the compositor who had set the copy to type and he made the corrections.
It was often dull and dreary work to be honest, especially for young guys like myself. It was hard to maintain interest with the reader’s voice droning on beside you. As for the original copy you held in your hands – it could be anything from typed pages with strange marks running though them (blame the sub editors) to advertising written on the back of a paper bag.
Still, it was my first look at the inside of a newspaper and I loved it. Back then I had notions of becoming a reporter, but that summer – which was a difficult one for me personally – convinced me to look at an alternative career path – editing. Yes, these strange men who looked like artists with pencils perched above their ears and pots of paste that they applied to pieces of text, looked just right. They worked on news reports and wrote informative headlines. I wanted this.
Two years later I was in the Reading Room, but my career path was stalled by a longer than expected stay there while I waited for an opportunity to open up in my preferred option – The Examiner Editorial rather than the Echo. The reason was simple: As the morning paper the Examiner dealt in more breaking news and sport, so I waited – and waited – for the opening.
In January 1977 I finally made it. I entered the hallowed door of the Editorial Department where the mysterious world of editing lay before me – literally. The Editorial shared a large room with reporters and copytakers and the photographic editor, but the news side of the operation had a long desk at the top of which sat the chief sub. I was put under the wing of financial sub Eddie Ashe, whose job was to select and edit copy for the pages, draw a rough outline of the pages on sheets, oh, and he also had to edit the TV and radio schedules and weather reports. Before us lay a pile of stories with written instructions about headlines – smaller reports might mean 3 lines of 24 point headings, etc – and you picked from the top. Just my luck that the first night I found myself with the Page 1 lead story. No pressure Tom!
I survived that first night – just – and worked on many stories, like the Betelgeuse disaster in Whiddy, the Buttevant train crash, the closure of Ford and Dunlop that had such a devastating effect on Cork’s economy. But it was the upheaval that was the Haughey era, the bloody Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the crazy long budget and general election nights that made me love newspapers with a passion. There was simply no better place to be when events unfolded. You never knew when the carefully planned front page would be thrown in the bin by the latest disaster. As deputy or chief sub it was my good fortune to work on thousands of front pages, and while some nights were especially difficult, I got great satisfaction when the final product appeared.
Times change, the Cork Examiner became The Examiner and then the Irish Examiner, and I was chief sub through that difficult transition. Where once we faced competition from the Irish Independent, Irish Times and Irish Press, we now face more newspaper rivals, and competitors we never expected – online media. The belief that content should be free, like music and TV and films online, is now pervasive, especially among young people. The recession has also shaped people’s finances and their spending. Newspapers are an easy saving on a tight budget, unless you have a passion for news and are willing to pay for the privilege.
I no longer work in the Examiner and deadlines no longer shape my life, thankfully. While I’m sometimes nostalgic about the past, change is always around the corner. I have faith in newspapers surviving, although not all. These are challenging times, but the Cork Examiner was founded in 1841 and I have every confidence the Irish Examiner will outlast me.