The following is a journalist’s account of an international news agency’s factory-like routine. Beginning in Fleet Street as a trainee in 1952, r.f. worked 5 years as an agency sub-editor‘the most anonymous of all johs in the news agency world.’ A writer, he is married, with one child.

I never got used to the editorial hall. After five years it was as strange to me as at the start. Familiarity neither bred contempt nor filled the space between me and it, the distance that had to be crossed at the start of each shift. A disjuncture always remained.

Hub of the news agency’s business, the hall was 50 yards long and half as wide, dusty in summer and grimy in winter. It offered an immediate air of confusion and noise. Apart from a narrow central passageway which led the length of the hall from one swing door to the other, the floor space was crowded with banks of teleprinters and tables, set down in no apparent order or relation to each other. A muffled clattering, like the noise of riveting, which the sound-proofed ceilings and floors only partly absorbed, filled the place. The teleprinters responsible for the noise threw up belts of paper that curled in rolls on the floor and which, now and again, people picked up, read and as casually dropped back on the floor. At the tables, each lined with a row of swivel chairs, people worked at typewriters or leant back reading the papers. The angled passageways between machines and tables were full of others hurrying back and forth or standing talking. My first day I was taken to a long L-shaped table at the far end of the room, found a seat at the bottom and told to read through the files of news the agency had put out during the past 24 hours.

I had become—or was trying to become—a journalist more by accident than design. Under-educated, without skills or any determined idea of what I should do now that my National Service was finished and I had to do something, journalism had seemed a possible solution. It offered an escape from the sad rituals of ‘county’ life which had been my lot, and from business which seemed my remaining fate; it was also, I thought, the closest thing to being a writer. Family contacts and a few part-time jobs I did for the agency, got me a two-month trial as a trainee. A compromise, it was, for all that, a start to making my way. I was 20.

Two other trainees began with me. We sat at the bottom of the desk reading and re-reading the agency’s file and trying to look occupied. We waited a long time. Above us, along both sides of the desk, a dozen or more people were at work re-writing the news. They didn’t pay any attention to us, but then they hardly appeared to notice each other. I had only a vague idea of what was going on. This table was called Main Desk and we had been put there because it was the centre of the agency’s operations. The best place to learn, the man who led me there said. I hoped someone would show me what I had to do. But it soon became clear—and each day confirmed this—that we were expected to pick up the work by exposure or osmosis, for no one instructed us. The only certainty was the hour at which the shift started, for this was clearly marked on a roster pinned to the wall: Monday morning at 10 a.m., Tuesday at 4 p.m., Wednesday at 7 a.m., the hours went round the clock. It unnerved me to think that this place was never empty. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the news flowed in, was processed and sent out again, by teleprinter, radio and cable.

The agency collected and distributed only foreign news. Main Desk was the largest of a dozen or more desks which served specific geographical areas; it was the heart of the operation for it served all the others. It also distributed the news by teleprinter direct to the British papers, which gave it a special importance.