Breaking News, via Morse Code

Jul 21 2013, 17:08 IST
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SummaryThe telegram was once the reporter’s best friend

The telegram was once the reporter’s best friend

Sub-editors were the first to sense, rather smell, the arrival of the much-detested press telegrams. They would arrive in clumsy packets from the telegraph office, bringing with them the odour of resin gum, often still wet.

At the telegraph office, the press telegrams emerged from primitive teleprinters in the form of narrow strips. The peons would then cut the strips and paste each line on official full-scape letterheads. These “copies” would reach the news desk, and the lack of space between the pasted lines made editing a nightmare.

For over half a century, till well into the 1990s, most of the stories came to newspapers by telegrams, most of which were badly written by untrained stringers from district towns. Only major cities would be connected to the central newspaper office through teleprinters. The sub-editors on the desk would prefer edited agency or teleprinter copies, which involved fewer hassles. First, one had to decode the telegram text. Press telegrams had their own way of cutting down on the wordage. For example, ‘Train ex-Bombay derailed’ meant a train coming from Bombay had gone off the tracks. Trainee subs were given a whole set of telegram codes to help them edit. Several times, the intro to the copy had to be typed out again and edited.

However, long pieces and newsletters continued to come by mail. Correspondents and stringers were given envelopes printed with their newspaper’s address and labelled as “book post”, “urgent”, or “press matter”. Postmen always treated “press matters” with urgency. Which is probably why bigger newspaper chains continued to send their edit page articles to local editorial offices by mail even after they had their own teleprinter services. It was considered more reliable even as late as the 1970s. The term “in a news despatch…” has it origins in this pre-telegram practice. Those once-revolutionary technologies are now fossilised in newspaper titles: The Mail and Telegraph.

I realised the hazards of sending press telegrams when I was shifted to the news bureau in the mid-1970s and had to cover events outside Delhi, at places where the newspaper did not have an office with a teleprinter connection. Reporting landmark political rallies and elections was frustrating. The present generation with text messages and OB vans would pity their “grandfathers” in the profession. Sending news by phone was virtually impossible. You had to book a trunk call

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