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FG 175: How the world of ag journalism has evolved

It is not just agriculture which has changed over the years, but also journalism too.

 

Having worked for FG between 1970 and 2013, Howard Walsh reflects on the changing face of Farmers Guardian and why big stories always dominated the headlines.

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FG 175: How the world of agricultural journalism has evolved over the years

Typewriters, carbon paper, ‘biros’ by the dozen, Lamson tubes, molten lead and galley proofs – and a mountain of mail each morning.

 

That is how it was when I joined the Farmers Guardian editorial team in 1970 and pretty much how it had been for countless decades.

 

Back then the weekly paper was a black and white broadsheet as were the quality dailies and, as many readers will remember, with arms at full stretch you could cast an eye over as many as 20 stories over a two-page spread.

 

The front page too carried a main story, the editorial comment and perhaps half a dozen or so more stories.

 

A farm feature on the back page was the standard. While it is just less than half a century ago, this all now seems pretty archaic and it is easy to forget just how it all worked.

 

With no internet and no e-mails, telephone alerts and the morning’s mountain of Royal Mail provided the starting point for most of our reports – plus of course regular telephone calls to good contacts in key sectors of the industry. And let us not forget the facsimile (fax) machine.

 


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Editors

 

Stories were written on the typewriter and, as far as FG was concerned, with a carbon paper between two sheets of copy paper to provide a ‘black’, or duplicate.

 

The copy paper was then handled by the sub-editors who inserted a hand-written heading, plus hand-written instructions for font and print size, plus a page designation. This was then rolled up, popped in a canister and inserted into the pneumatic Lamson tube conveying the copy to the composing room, faster than you could walk.

 

Here, where trade unions tended to rule the roost, the paper copy was converted to lead-alloy type by the hotmetal Linotype machine operators.

 

The lines of type were then put together and set into a metal pagesize frame ready for a thick card page impression, and also single column galley proofs, before a curved, thin alloy page plate was produced ready for the rollers on the presses.

 

However, change was on the way – and rapidly. By the mid 1980s computers arrived. Head counts noticeably reduced and production of the paper went ‘on-screen’. And in the next decade, the paper was also to go tabloid and to have colour facility.

 

Changes were less rapid in the way in which news and features were sourced and generated however and, to an extent, followed a significantly changing agriculture.

 

Deadline

 

With Farmers Guardian having an absolute deadline of early Thursday afternoon, we were keen to capitalise on this and get in as much up-to-the minute news as possible, important in a pre-social media era.

The paper was regional at that time, concentrating on northern England, the Midlands, Wales and the South West.

 

Regional and local ADAS and NFU offices were on the regular contacts lists and until the demise of most of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food’s experimental husbandry farms, these too had been a good source of technical and practical data, organised farm visits and news of significant developments which could be adopted on readers’ farms.

 

Accuracy has always been important at Farmers Guardian and I never forgot an overheard conversation between two farmers in the 1970s with one saying to the other: “Well, if that is what it says in the Farmers Guardian it must be right.”

 

Roll on another decade and we were in the computer age and, eventually, communicating by e-mail.

 

Increasingly, in addition to having their own press officers to dispense information and handle press enquiries, many commercial companies were engaging public relations consultants to put out material and it was up the journalist to evaluate the validity or otherwise of what they were being told. Needless to say, that is still the case today.

 

By then the paper’s deadline had come forward for commercial and logistical reasons, but still, social media was not stealing our thunder.

 

When eventually it did have that potential, the forward-thinking current owners of this title – and the many other businesses in the group – took full advantage and ensured Farmers Guardian retained its leading position in the industry.

 

 

COVERING THE BIG ISSUES: From the end of the milk marketing board to Brexit

 

Brexit is currently dominating many of the magazine’s news stories and features, but then ‘big issues’ always have done. They say there is nothing new under the sun and it is easy to forget just how many ‘big issues’ there have been.

 

Not least, of course, 40 odd years ago when the focus was on our accession to the Common Market. There then followed the demise of the marketing boards including, crucially, the Milk Marketing Board, not to mention the end of subsidies as we knew them.

 

The list goes on: butter mountains, milk quotas, tightening pesticide controls, increasing red tape, brucellosis, BSE, the catastrophic foot-and-mouth outbreaks, and the continuing impact of politics on our industry. All provided plenty, if sometimes rather depressing, editorial.

 

Additionally, some of the broader but significant developments which have shaped today’s industry were regularly being prophecied by delegates at NFU meetings in the 1970s.

And how right they were.

 

Viability

 

The viability of many smaller family farms was already under pressure, but then came the supermarkets – now farming’s biggest customer to some tune and no-one needs reminding of the impact of those businesses.

 

What was perhaps less widely accepted 40 years ago were the warnings of the potential influence of the ‘greens’ and animal rights campaigners on our industry. For sure, some of those NFU delegates will be saying ‘I told you so’.

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