Journalism has changed radically over the last 50 years. This is not news. The ‘Golden Age of Journalism’, so-called because of the thriving scope of newspapers and magazines and the associated ‘glamorous’ lifestyle of journalists in the 1960s, seems a world away from journalism today.
I interviewed Don Short, one of Fleet Street’s legendary journalists, to get a clearer perspective on the transformation of the profession.
Don Short worked as the Show Business Columnist on The Daily Mirror in the 1960s. At the time, the Mirror had a circulation of over 5 million – more than all the other newspapers put together.
Not only did he have the chance to travel the world with Hollywood icons, but he was given carte-blanche to report on them. It was Short who coined the now ubiquitous term ‘Beatlemania’ to describe the excitement and hysteria that the band inspired among fans.
‘Journalism has entered a new age as everything is now on screen and online. When I was working as a reporter your main equipment was a notebook, your crucial contacts book, and a telephone kiosk if you could find one. It was always a matter of dashing to get to the telephone box first! You’d have copy-takers at the end of the phone in the office who would take your dictation as you told your story to them straight from your head as quickly as possible, while a queue of other journalists formed behind you urging you to hurry up. Of course now everyone has a mobile phone from which you can call or email so it’s much faster and more direct.’
‘The hours were quite different too: your shift might start at 9am and was set to go on until 6pm, but at 5.50pm you could be sent anywhere in the world to cover a breaking story. You could then be away for several days, so you always had to have an overnight bag ready.’
‘Fleet Street was a community in its own right, and had a fantastic atmosphere. Each paper had its own – unofficial – wine bar or pub. So if you heard that a paper had a big exclusive and wanted to find out more, then you’d go to the relevant pub. The Daily Mirror’s was the White Hart (known as ‘the stab in the back’) and there would often be physical fights between journalists over stories!’
The Golden Age of Journalism certainly seemed very glamorous indeed…
‘We always stayed in the best hotels with the stars, you had to do that otherwise you made yourself detached from the story. Although I once worked on a story about Elizabeth Taylor when she was in Paris, and she always stayed in the Lancaster Hotel, but I couldn’t get a room there at that time so I had to rough it and stay in the neighbouring Georges V hotel! [one of Paris’ most exclusive hotels] For the Cannes Film Festival I often stayed at the Carlton Hotel. When I went to cover a story in New York I either stayed in The Plaza or the Waldorf Astoria. Another favourite was the Hotel Byblos Saint-Tropez.’
‘The Daily Mirror had two aeroplanes at Gatwick Airport on stand-by as part of a contract with Morton Air Services, which they could use as and when they needed them. One of which is now outside Croydon Airport on the Purley Way in Surrey. I had quite a few flights on that plane: I went to Austria to cover the story of a plane crash. I travelled with a photographer, whom I literally had to hold on to while he leaned out the plane door to take pictures of the scene below. And I also flew to Greece where a cruise liner had gone down.’
Showbiz Journalism is very different to how it used to be, partly because Hollywood has changed so much, as Don Short explains:
‘I don’t think Hollywood has the same aura as it used to as the stars are very different; some of their personalities seem rather vacuous compared to the characters of the 1960s and 70s.’
‘Now journalists often have to agree to terms and conditions when interviewing a celebrity: the publicist hands them certain stipulations before the interview and journalists must feel almost gagged by the parameters of the questions. I’m all in favour of journalists saying ‘No’ to having to agree to the set questions. Journalists often want to discuss other areas of interest to colour their interviews, while the stars want to mainly talk about their latest show or album. Stars often wanted to see the story before it went to press, which is always problematic for a journalist.’
‘I remember Sophia Loren wanted to see her photographs to check her hair was in the right place and to make sure she was looking her best!’
Don Short described some of his best scoops:
‘I reported on the death of Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones. He was found dead in the swimming pool of the house he’d rented in East Grinstead (which had previously belonged to A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh.) I was there within a couple of hours of the incident and I wrote up the story which went to press for the front page of the next day’s paper.’
‘I also broke the story of Elizabeth Taylor marrying Richard Burton; and the break-up of The Beatles’, Surrey resident Short said with much modesty.
The Golden Age of Journalism: so very aptly named.
This interview was featured in Roy Greenslade’s Media Blog on The Guardian Website on Wednesday 26th March 2014. Click here to see it.
*Although the piece says that Daily Mirror circulation figures are incorrect, I found the information here:
(look at the top left hand story)
Picture Source: Hold the Front Page Blog