Simon Calder: How My Life As A Journalist Has Changed

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DThe disassembly of a Soviet-era telephone took only a few minutes. The inexpensive plastic cover was easy to remove, and the rudimentary design made it easy to identify the two copper contacts that made up one end of a long chain of wires. Punctuated by countless exchanges, the umbilical cord eventually stretched for 3,525 miles: from my room in the Intourist monstrosity known as Hotel Sibir in Novosibirsk, Central Siberia, to a former insurance office at 40 City Road, London EC1.

Plugging in the modem (a kit that converts digital data into a transmissible form over Stalin-era analog technology) for business purposes required a bit more persuasion with the screwdriver. Once I logged in, I typed in a series of numbers and letters and crossed my fingers.

A familiar series of high-pitched tones, resembling a cage full of electronic parrots, signaled that contact had been made with the mothership.

The “handshake” was confirmed by a reassuring message. My article flew, at a majestic rate of 180 words per minute, to the powerful mainframe at the heart of The independent. “The best time is when the beating stops,” read the opening seconds, describing a night in a public bath in the wild, dark nature of a Russian winter.

While waiting for the shipment to be sent, I had plenty of time to open a beer and contemplate the technological miracle that was my laptop: so bulky and heavy it almost required its own deductible. luggage, while having a hard drive that can hold a massive 40 megabytes. (I am currently using a machine with 25,000 times this capacity.)

In Mallorca in 1997, when the life of a travel correspondent was very different

(BBC)

The transmission ended with my last word: “NNNN” – a weak pun on “ends”, and a series of letters that even the worst typist would be unlikely to accidentally produce.

It was in December 1994, and I had recently signed with The independent as his correspondent travels. Ideally, for the purpose of sending copies, I had had a real job as a radio engineer before becoming a full-time journalist.

As a hopeful independent contributor, however, I had been writing the strange story shortly after the newspaper launched.

For The independent, it was editorially convenient. The “no free” policy introduced by founding editor-in-chief Andreas Whittam Smith was particularly difficult for the travel office: until now, this whole branch of journalism had been built on the provision of flights, rooms and apartments. hotel and rental cars in exchange for a mention at the end. of the article. Being an unknown author of travel guides, no sane company would have given me any ease, which meant that I financed my own trips and was able to happily gift travel articles to Frank Barrett, my illustrious predecessor.

(BBC)

Often, getting the words out in the newspaper took as much time as writing the article itself. Sending items electronically was initiated by the Sports Bureau, which used rudimentary Tandy laptops of the type last seen in Back to the future.

“Tandying,” as the technique was called, was a cut above all other options. The device plugged directly into what would now be called a content management system. None of the additional error risks associated with faxing, a process that required an unfortunate assistant to retype everything, usually at high speed.

The other high-tech method of remote working was less reliable: sending a floppy disk to the office. I am convinced that one of my stories from 1991 is still hiding in an envelope adorned with colorful stamps in a dusty corner of a Venezuelan sorting office, ready to confuse future archaeologists.

No trace remains of the original City Road building that housed The independent, where around 11am each morning you could spot the approaching tea cart through a haze of tobacco smoke.

The architectural correspondent of the time, the great Jonathan Glancey, stopped from his normal hunched hyperactivity to regale the Independent weekend magazine teamed up with his weekend antics, which most often involved his latest Jaguar and at least a Spitfire – “one of the finest machines ever made: brilliant but flawed.”

Jonathan, with Weekend editors Stephen Wood and Harriet O’Brien were wonderful and inspiring colleagues. But do I miss the old days? Not a single electronic bit.

Boarding a flight to Stansted in the early 2000s

(The independent)

I am writing this article talking to my thin and light laptop. Which comes full circle in the world of journalism, at a time when the standard way to categorize stories was to dictate them to an editor. These expert people were on call day and night, waiting for distant reporters to log on to crisp phones and read their stories. Although costly in time and money, it was good discipline: if you stumbled over a sentence, you knew it wouldn’t be read well.

I can carbon date the last time I spoke to a copier on August 14, 2005. The story involved a terrible plane crash in which the pilots of a Cypriot jet plane were incapacitated and their Boeing 737 crashed, killing all 121 people on board. The press office found me to a boat in the Atlantic off the Canary Islands. Using a cell phone that was still the size of a small brick, I tried to put the drama in the context of aviation safety.

Flying has become increasingly safer – then newcomers Ryanair and easyJet now have the world’s best safety records – and phones are much smaller. But my, they’re versatile, which is just as good. Because since it was fully online five years ago, The independent flourished in several media dimensions.

Flight to Faro, faithful laptop at hand, in May 2021

(Simon Calder)

Never has travel journalism been so exhilarating, so close to the public, and so fun. I deliver a daily podcast on the ever-changing travel landscape. At least once a week, I spend an hour quickly answering online questions about travel during the coronavirus pandemic, in an Ask Me Anything.

Remote work lives up to its name: location is just where I am. Lately I’ve been reporting live from the Top of the Rock in Gibraltar, the Trans-Pennine railway line from Carlisle to Leeds, and the very edge of the UK – and mobile coverage – in the Shetland.

The key to all of this is the smartphone. Forget the pencil and notebook: most respondents are happy to be filmed, generating video and audio as well as words and pictures. With the help of a strong data roaming contract, I can download content immediately. And, at noon UK time on Saturdays and Sundays, I answer questions about travel in the Covid age live via Facebook, usually by walking around a corner of town.

One weekend soon, I hope to do exactly that in Novosibirsk – although this time the phone will remain intact. NNNN


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