Hacks Gone, Fleet Street Buttons Up For Business p.76

By: DAN EHRLICH An expatriate American journalist's guided tour of London's former ink-stained 'Street of Shame'

TWENTY-FOUR YEARS ago, when I first set my Los Angeles eyes on London's Fleet Street, its most amazing aspect, besides being the center of a dynamic and competitive national press, was the amount of time its denizens spent imbibing alcoholic beverages at lunch ? before completing the day's work.
Well, with all the national papers long since moved to other parts of London, and since the only paper left in the immediate area is the Jewish Chron-icle, boozing has so sunk in status that this once-sacred lunchtime practice can now get you fired.
The Street of Shame, as it was known, thanks to its unrepentantly sensational tabloids, formerly the Western world's greatest watering hole, where news spread and dreams became news over liquid petite d?jeuner, has been transformed into an avenue of trendy coffee bars and sandwich shops designed for a new business work force, one less inclined to drink on duty. Just another example of American cultural imperialism? If so, it won't be the last: Americans seem to be taking over the street.
I find it hard to imagine the street's crusty politically incorrect hacks nipping down to the Cafe Rouge or Coffee Republic for the standard two to three hour hack libation. "I believe it's your round old man. Yes, quite ... the same? Oh, garcon, cinq cappuccino, s'il vous pla?t. And can we have another round of those yummy croissants? Merci."
From a quick outward glance, today's Fleet Street looks just as dull and gloomy as when I first set eyes on it. Of course bleak rainy winter days will do that to most places in London. Upon closer examination, however, evidence of post-media rot is everywhere, notably in that universal American icon known around the world: a McDonald's hamburger bar.
Sandwiched between the courts and the financial district, as the retreating legions of hacks vacated the street, other more respectable people moved in ? those whose only paper is the Financial Times. But more was yet to come ? Wall Street Journal readers. That's right, Americans took over and rebuilt the Daily Telegraph building into a sparkling and shining art deco edifice that Superman could mistake for the Daily Planet, but whose real name is Goldman-Sachs. And, now the investment bank is set to, at long last, rescue the old Express Newspaper Building, affectionately known as the "The Black Lubijanka."
Looking more gray than its former glistening black appearance, it will get the complete American treatment ? and, presumably, no booze during working hours.
Across the way, the old Bouverie Street headquarters of News International, publisher of the tabloids Sun and News of the World, has been beautifully redeveloped by the Freshfields legal firm into a British version of L.A. Law. How appropriate that the former home of so much legal business ? in the form of libel suits ? should wind up as a legal office.
Still, these developments are few and far between. The trendy snack bars can't conceal a graveyard atmosphere only a short distance down Whitefriars Street. Deserted and boarded up, the former home of Associated Newspapers, parent company of the Daily Mail, Northcliffe House looks more like a haunted house ride ? much as it looked when in use. The corner of Tudor and Whitefriars always seemed to have a seedy atmosphere, or maybe it was romantic charm.
A dark brown Harris Tweed sports coat, matching hat, cheap dark green trousers, black boots, a traditional, but cheap Oxford Street gents umbrella and a briefcase full of travel stories . . . in the mid-l970s ? this was my idea of a Fleet Street reporter. I didn't know I looked more like a bookie's runner. Yet, amazingly, it opened doors for me to most of the national newspapers and several magazines. Or maybe it wasn't so amazing, given the fast-moving betting shop predilection of journos then.
Generally, the area bordered by Blackfriars on the south, Holborn Circus on the north, Fetter Lane on the west and Ludgate Circus on the east was considered the heart and soul of British journalism. It's also an area where I wore out several pairs of shoes as a literary Fuller Brush man.
It was a time when London had two daily newspapers, each selling more than the surviving one does today. The Daily Mirror was in the midst of a losing battle to hold onto its circulation lead against Rupert Murdoch's Sun and conservative bent.
As for the "quality" press, the Times was running third behind the Guardian, and its Canadian owner, Lord Thompson, was dying to unload it. But more than anything it was a time when an outsider like me, not even working through an agent, could gain entrance to several national publications in a single day. Without appointments I managed to see any number of editors and personally pitch stories, some already written and others about to be written. Try doing that now.
I was an American journalist in London writing the kind of crap the British always maintained Americans couldn't write ? pedantic tabloid human-interest stories ? highlighted, for example, by two simultaneous yet completely different Richard Gere pieces, one pop version in the Sunday Mirror and a full-page straight splash over in Paris at the International Herald Tribune. Or there was my interview with ballet star Rudolph Nureyev ? one version running in the Sunday Times, another in Sunday People.
What can I say other than I was hooked on it all. I used to think Los Angeles was the center of the universe, and I probably would end up editor of some suburban weekly. And, to tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind doing that today. But then, I couldn't adequately take in the size of the British national press. It was mind-boggling, mainly because it was so huge, yet so centralized and, as far as the tabloids went, so accessible and personable.
Of course, the key element was getting in the door. And that was largely a matter of making the commissionaires, or doormen, who I initially thought were part of some sort of paramilitary police force, believe I belonged there.
Few guards would try to stop me. And if they did, my accent and some vintage lines would see me through every time. For example, I recall once being challenged in the Express Building. My response: "Oh! I wonder if you could help me. I was seeing Mr. Smith in features. I stepped out to look for a loo and got lost. I can't remember if I was on the first or second floor. The floors are different here than in America." The helpful commissionaire would let me pass ? and give me directions.
Never could I have contemplated doing at the Los Angeles Times what I did in London. Even then, the editorial offices of American newspapers were inaccessible to the increasingly troublesome and violent public.
However, I can say with certainty that what I did then couldn't be done now. The decentralization and sterilization of the newspaper industry, coupled with "information technology," makes multiple ad hoc business meetings impossible and, in fact, unnecessary. Now, trying to swan into new, ivory-tower newspaper offices is about as difficult as a junkman getting into No. 10 Downing St.
But even more depressing is the effect the press exodus from Fleet Street has had on the national press. The creativity and cross-fertilization brought on by a close-knit journalistic community, its members intermingling and mixing with the adjoining legal establishment, was unique.
Now it's lost, with the fax replacing personal contact, e-mail replacing the fax and televised Internet conversations about to replace the lot. Britain, once again, appears to be going American, with the quality of stories declining, and more power shifting to copy editors. And what's the hot industry debate today? Are women better editors than men?
The favorite hangout for gossip and debate between lawyers and journalists was the El Vino wine bar, a place hit hard when the hacks left. According to manager Daniel Thorold, "The legal people really mourned the loss of the journalists. The combination of reporters and lawyers created the lively, conversational and amusing situation you get when good minds are at work."
But old habits die hard. "We still get some of the older crowd dropping by here for dinner. But it's not like it used to be."
It sure isn't. For one one thing, women are now common in this spa, where once they were barred.
How was it? It was busy, dynamic, competitive, exciting, frustrating ? also grossly overstaffed and inefficient. Something I never understood why papers with such big staffs needed so many freelance writers and shift workers. It was a situation the U.K. media bosses later remedied, emulating American efficiency.
My first recollection of back then was of gray, rain-soaked days, wet shoes and cold feet, punctuated by endless traffic jams on Whitefriars and Bouverie streets. As usual, the cause was caravans of newsprint trucks blocking roads originally laid for horse-drawn beer wagons.
Once on my own, it didn't take long to realize which newsrooms were more receptive to a loud and aggressive American. On the whole, Mirror Group won hands down: lots of friendly people and less hostile to foreigners than elsewhere.
Another favorite, Sunday People, had relaxed and earthy staffers who had two or three slow days a week when they could chat. And the reason they and other editors wanted to do that was because they were hungry journalists in a tightly competitive arena. They were wagering that every so often I would come into a good story that no one else would have. And, I rarely disappointed them.
Hell, I'm still here. Fleet Street has moved on.
?(The frenzied clamor of hard-drinking journalists is all but gone from Fleet Street.) [ Photo & Caption]
?( Ehrlich is an American journalist based in London.) [Caption ]

?(E&P Web Site:http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher April 18, 1998) [Caption]


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