1902 Encyclopedia > Reporting


REPORTING. The curious among those who seek to trace political developments may, without any great strain on the imagination, find an intimate relation between the growth of newspaper reporting and the growth of democratic institutions; at any rate the two have always been found together. The history of reporting in Great Britain brings out the relationship with much clearness. There was no truly systematic reporting until the beginning of this century, and not until many years afterwards did it grow to be a most important, if not the most important, feature in newspapers. There was parliamentary reporting of a kind almost from the time when parliaments began. Single speeches, and even some consecutive account of particular proceedings in parliament, were prepared. But long after newspapers were commonly published no effort had been made to give reports either of the proceedings of parliament or of those of any other assembly dealing with the public interests. The first attempts at parliamentary reporting, in the sense of seeking to make known to the public what was done and said in parliament, began in a pamphlet published monthly in Queen Anne’s time called The Political State. Its reports were mere indications of speeches. Later, the Gentleman’s Magazine began to publish reports of parliamentary debates. Access to the Houses of Parliament was obtained by Cave, the publisher of the magazine, and some of his friends, and they took surreptitiously what notes they could. These were subsequently transcribed and brought into shape for publication by another hand. There was a strict prohibition of all public reporting ; but the Gentleman’s Magazine appears to have continued its reports for some time without attracting the attention or rousing the jealousy of the House of Commons. The publisher, encouraged by immunity from prosecution by parliament, grew bolder, and began in his reports to give the names of the speakers. Then he was called to account. The latest standing order on the subject at that time was one passed in 1728, which declared "that it is an indignity to, and a breach of, the privilege of this House for any person to presume to give, in written or printed newspapers, any account or minute of the debates or other proceedings; that upon discovery of the authors, printers, or publishers of any such newspaper this House will proceed against the offenders with the utmost severity." Under this and other standing orders, Cave’s reports were challenged, as were those of other publishers in other magazines. They were denounced by resolution; and threats of prosecution were made, with the result that the reports appeared still, but without the proper names of the speakers, and under the guise of "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput" or some other like title. Long afterwards, in the latter half of the century, the newspapers began to report parliamentary debates more fully, with the result that, in 1771, several printers, including those of the Morning Chronicle and the London Evening Post, were ordered into custody for publishing debates of the House of Commons. A long and bitter struggle between the House and the public ensued. John Wilkes took part in it. The lord mayor of London and an alderman were sent to the Tower for refusing to recognize the Speaker’s warrant for the arrest of certain printers of parliamentary reports. But the House of Commons was beaten. In 1772 the newspapers published the reports as usual; and their right to do so has never since been really questioned. Both Houses of Parliament, indeed, now show as much anxiety to have their debates fully reported as aforetime they showed resentment at the intrusion of the reporter. Provision has been made in the House of Lords and in the House of Commons for reporters. There are galleries in which they may take notes, and writing rooms in which those notes may be extended. In short, reporting is now one of the best marked of parliamentary institutions.

But parliamentary reporting is only a small part of such work in newspapers. The newspapers in the beginning of this century rarely contained more than the barest outline of any speech or public address delivered in or in the neighbourhood of the towns where they were published. As parliamentary reporting began to grow, so did local reporting. After the peace of 1815 a period of much political fermentation set in, and the newspapers began to report the speeches of public men at greater length. All the attempts that were made from time to time to repress public meetings and demonstrations of dissatisfaction with the existing order of things did but increase the demand for reporting. It grew as the fetters were struck off public institutions. With the Reform Act of 1832 it got a great start forward; and the Municipal Reform Acts gave it a still stronger impulse. Then the proceedings of town councils could be reported, and every local newspaper took care that this was done. It was not, however, until well into what may be called the railway era that any frequent effort was made by newspapers to go out of their own district for the work of reporting. The London newspapers had before this led the way. In London alone were there daily newspapers. The proprietors of these papers had been compelled by the requirements of the public to make provision for the systematic reporting of the proceedings of parliament. For many years after he right to report those proceedings had been practically established, the work was done in a dilatory and clumsy fashion. Early in the present century, however, greater freedom of access to both Houses was given, and the manager of the Morning Chronicle established a staff of reporters. They began the system which with improvements has continued to this time. Each reporter took his "turn"—that is, he took notes of the proceedings for a certain time, and then gave place to a colleague. The reporter who was relieved at once extended his notes, and thus prompt publication of the debates was made possible. Reporters had been found to supply the demand, and it had become the habit of the proprietors of the London newspapers to employ these men, out of the session of parliament, in reporting the speeches of public men in the country. The practice grew until there was a good deal of competition among the papers as to which should first issue a report of any speech of note. Railways were not ; and reporters had frequently to ride long distances in post chaises, doing their best as they jolted along the roads to transcribe their notes, so that they might be ready for the printer on arrival at their destination. Charles Dickens used to tell several stories of his adventures of this kind while he held an engagement on the Morning Chronicle. He was, indeed, perhaps the best reporter of his time, and he was most successful in outstripping many of his rivals. One result of the efforts thus made was that the provincial newspapers were stimulated to greater efforts. Reporters were rapidly trained, and in all directions reporting grew. There were none but weekly newspapers ; but they devoted much of their space to reporting, and public men became more ready to speak as they found that what they said would be more widely made known. As railways were extended, the newspapers were able to extend the sphere of their work of this kind, and reporting spread apace. Then, with changes in the fiscal policy of the country, daily newspapers sprang up in all directions; the electric telegraph was being improved and developed so that greater facilities were given for reporting; and in a few years the old supremacy of the London journals in this department of newspaper work had well-nigh disappeared. The country newspapers did more reporting of speeches and public meetings than the metropolitan papers. No public man made a speech but it was faithfully reproduced in print. Local governing bodies, charitable institutions, political associations, public companies—all these came in a short time to furnish work for the reporter, and had full attention paid to them. Curiously enough, while the country newspapers have thus cultivated reporting, and have made it one of their chief features, the London newspapers, for reasons into which this article need not enter, have fallen behind, and have for some years past given little attention to the work of which they were the originators. This fact explains a development of reporting which may be more fully described.

When the second half of this century began, parliamentary reporting was a leading feature of the London newspapers. They had a monopoly of it. All the reporting arrangements in the House of Lords and in the House of Commons were made with sole regard to their requirements. There had indeed been a long battle between the Times and some of the other London newspapers as to which should have the best parliamentary report, and the Times had established its supremacy, which has never been shaken. But, while its reporting was fuller than that of other London daily newspapers, they did not neglect the work, and they gave in shorter compass admirable digests of the proceedings, with full reports of the most important speeches. The provincial newspapers were in the main obliged to copy the reports thus provided, and rarely made any attempt to get reports of their own. When the electric telegraph came into use for commercial purposes a change began. The company which first carried wires from London to the principal towns in the country started a reporting service for the country newspapers. It gathered up scraps of news and sent them to the journals that subscribed for the service. In addition, it procured admission to the parliamentary galleries for reporters in its employment, and began to send short accounts of the debates to the newspapers in the country. These newspapers were thus enabled to publish in the morning some account of the parliamentary proceedings of the previous night, instead of having to take like reports a day later from the London journals. The effect was greatly to stimulate the appetite of the provincial public for parliamentary reporting. The telegraph companies for a long time could or would do no more than they had begun by doing; and they offered no inducements to the provincial newspapers to telegraph speeches. The public meanwhile wanted to know more fully what their representatives were saying in parliament, and gradually the leading provincial newspapers adopted the practice of employing reporters in the service of the London journals to report debates on subjects of special interest in localities; and these reports, forwarded by train or by post, were printed in full, but of course a day late. The London papers paid little attention to such debates, and thus the provincial papers had parliamentary reporting which was not to be found elsewhere. Bit by bit this feature was developed. It was greatly accelerated by a movement which the Scotsman was the first to bring about. The telegraph companies had increased in number, but they had not given more facilities for newspaper reporting. About 1865, however, a new company having come into existence, it was agreed. that wires from London should be put at the disposal of such newspapers as desired them. Each newspaper was to have the use of a wire—of course on payment of a large subscription—from six o’clock at night till three, o’clock in the morning. This was the beginning of the "special wire" which now plays so important a part in the production of almost all newspapers. The arrangement was first made by the Scotsman and by other newspapers, in Scotland. The immediate result was that the parliamentary reporting in these papers was greatly increased, and was no longer confined to debates on local affairs. Ther special wires were used to their utmost capacity to convey reports of the speeches of leading statesmen and politicians ; and, instead of bare summaries of what had been done, the newspapers contained pretty full reports.

When the telegrapbs were taken over by the state, the facilities for reporting were increased in every direction. But now, as to parliamentary reporting, a new difficulty arose. The London papers, with the exception of the Times, had given less and less attention to parliamentary debates. There were, indeed, fairly long reports in one or two other newspapers in London, but the tendency was to shorten them, while on the other hand several of the provincial newspapers were giving more space than ever to the debates. These newspapers had to get their reports as best they could. The demand for such reporting had led, on the passing of the telegraphs into the hands of the state, to the formation of news agencies which undertook to supply the provincial papers. These agencies were admitted to the reporters’ galleries in the Houses of Parliament, and they provided longer or shorter reports of the debates, to meet the wishes of their clients. But the reports which any agency supplied were identical; that is to say, all the newspapers taking a particular class of report had exactly the same material supplied to them—the reporter producing the number of copies required by means of manifold copying paper. It is easy to see that, though this might serve the purpose of most of them, it could not meet the requirements of all; and accordingly attempts were made to get separate reports by engaging the services of some of the reporters employed by the London papers. Nothing else indeed was possible. The "gallery" was shut to all, save the London papers and the news agencies. The Scotsman sought in vain to break through this exclusiveness. The line, it was said, must be drawn somewhere, and the proper place to draw it was at the London press. Once that line was departed from every newspaper in the kingdom must have admission. But in 1880 a select committee of the House of Commons, was appointed to consider the question. It took evidence, and it reported in favour of the extension of the gallery and of the admission of provincial papers. The result was that some of the papers entered into combinations to procure reports ; that is to say, three or four papers which would be satisfied with the same report joined in providing the necessary reporting staff. In other cases individual newspapers put themselves on the same footing as the London newspapers by engaging separate staffs of reporters. This is the arrangement now. Parliamentary reporting is much fuller in the leading provincial newspapers than it is in most of the London papers, though the reports for the former have in all cases to be telegraphed to them.

The mode in which parliamentary reporting is carried out deserves some description. It has been said that the manager of the Morning Chronicle early in the century laid the foundation of the present system when he divided the work of reporting debates among a staff of reporters. That is exactly what is done now. The "gallery," as it is familiarly called, is arranged with boxes for note-takers overlooking the floor of the House, and with seats behind for other note-takers who are waiting to take their turn. The Times has three of the front boxes—one for the chief of its staff of reporters, one for a summary writer, and one for the note-taker engaged in the fall report. Most of the other London papers have each two boxes—one for a .summary writer, the other for a reporter. Each of the press agencies has two boxes. Hansard has one. The rest are occupied by provincial newspapers or by combinations of those newspapers. The staff of reporters attached to each paper or combination of papers numbers from six to sixteen shorthand writers. If, for the purpose of describing the work of parliamentary reporting, a staff of eight be assumed, the process can be made clear. One other preliminary point should be kept in mind: an expert and intelligent reporter can transcribe from his notes as much matter as that contained in a column of the Times in rather less than an hour and a half. The staff of eight men may have turns of a quarter of an hour or of half an hour, or of any other length of time that may be agreed upon. The House of Commons begins its ordinary sitting at a quarter to four. At that time reporter No. 1 takes his place in the box and notes all that passes in the House. At four, assuming quarter hour turns, No. 2 relieves him; at a quarter past four No. 3 relieves No. 2, and at half past four No. 4 relieves No. 3. It will thus be seen that the eight reporters will cover a period of two hours, and that each of them has an hour and three quarters in which to extend his notes. If he has had a quarter of an hour’s note-taking of an important speaker he will have about three-quarters of a column of matter to write, and this he can do easily and have some time for rest before he has to take another "turn." In the case of an important debate extending far into the night, or into the morning, the "turns" are shortened. Instead of a quarter of an hour, each reporter takes ten minutes, or five, or even three. The reporters go from the box to a writing room and there transcribe their notes, their "copy" being gathered by messengers attached to their paper, and carried by them to the printers. In the case of the provincial newspapers, the "copy" has to be telegraphed over the "special " or other wires, before it can reach the hands of sub-editors or compositors. That, however, is no affair of the reporter’s. He has to produce his report with as much rapidity as he can. In the case of the Times his efforts are seconded by what is in practice an annihilation of the space between the House of Commons and the office of the paper. The reporter reads out from his notes to an operator on a telephonic wire, who speaks what he hears through that wire to the office of the paper. When it is received there it is spoken off again to a compositor at a composing machine; and thus it is most commonly in type and ready for printing long before the reporter’s "copy" could have been received from the House of Parliament. The telephone is also used in a similar way by some of the newspapers which have special wires. The latest parts of the report of a night’s sitting are spoken through the telephone to the point from which the special wire starts, and they are promptly telegraphed to the newspaper for which they are intended. Thus it often happens that the finishing passages of a report of a late sitting in the House of Commons are actually in type in a newspaper office 400 miles away, before the members who have taken part in the proceedings have got on their greatcoats for their walk home.

Parliamentary reporting, important as it is, yet forms a small part of the reporting which is done by the newspapers. All the public expositions of our complicated and busy social and national system are reported with a fulness, and on the whole with an amount of accuracy, that are surprising. Every newspaper of importance in the provinces has a more or less numerous staff of reporters at its command. In some cases, papers have separate staffs in different parts of the country. It is the business of these gentlemen to report all that is worth reporting for their journal. In the case of a long and important speech or meeting they will take turns in the reporting of it in the same way as turns are taken in the Houses of Parliament. But no newspaper is able to confine its reporting to events in its own neighbourhood. It must give to the public full accounts of speeches of prominent public men, no matter where they are delivered. Sometimes a reporter is sent far away to do this work. In such a case he usually joins for the occasion the staff of one of the newspapers of the neighbourhood; or he and other reporters from a distance make up a staff to do the work. Again the system of turns comes in. But, for the most part, speeches of statesmen in different parts of the country are reported for newspapers at a distance by one or other of the news agencies, which send down staffs of reporters for the work. In some cases, all these modes of working are seen together—there are representatives of individual newspapers from far and near, and there are the staffs of the news agencies. During Mr Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign he had seldom fewer than seventy reporters in his train.

As a rule, reporters are shorthand writers. That became a necessity when the demand for reporting greatly increased, and when the very words of a speaker had to be given. But what is spoken of as verbatim reporting is in no sense the best. It is a necessity, but to a great extent is merely mechanical. The reporter has acquired dexterity in shorthand writing, and he can read his notes fluently. Far more is required for that better reporting which conveys to the public the full sense of what a speaker has said without giving all his superfluous words. This is an art which is not universally acquired by reporters. They have learned to depend so much upon their notes that they do not learn to exercise their brains. There is much reporting which shortens speeches by wholesale excisions rather than by judicious and intelligent compression. It would, however, be unjust to pass over the many proofs of high intelligence which the reporting in our newspapers contains. The task of the reporter is often not easy. He has, to use a familiar adage, to make many silk purses out of sows’ ears; and he does it patiently and well—so well that the author of the material operated upon is often inclined to take all the credit to himself.

So far, the reporting which has been spoken of is that by which speeches and debates are produced in print for the public information. But there is another kind of reporting which ought not to be passed over. What is commonly called "descriptive reporting" has in some cases nearly shouldered the reporting of speeches out of newspapers. Is there a royal progress, or a military display, or a pageant of any kind—the descriptive reporter is called into requisition. He has to describe as best he can all that happens. It is a simple statement of fact to say that newspapers have on many occasions had word pictures from their descriptive reporters which have never been surpassed in prose writing for elegance and vividness and force. The special correspondent is a "descriptive reporter." He goes to war to describe what he sees. The electric telegraph has made a great change in the manner and perhaps in the character of his work ; but he is still among those who help in newspaper reporting.

Mention has been made of the connexion of the electric telegraph with reporting ; and it has been said that, since the telegraphs have been extended and telegraphing has been cheapened, the sphere of reporting has been widened and the demand for it has increased. No daily newspaper now confines its reporting to the affairs of the part of the country in which it is published. The electric telegraph brings the most distant places within easy reach of every newspaper. It has also made the work of the reporter more arduous and his responsibility greater. He cannot postpone the transcription of his notes to another day. The speech that is not finished in Manchester at midnight must be printed in full in the London newspaper which goes to press before three o’clock in the morning. The meeting which does not finish at Wick till midnight must be reported in the next day’s papers in Edinburgh. All this means that the reporter must work under great pressure, and that he must exercise the greatest care in extending his notes. He has no time for revision, no opportunity of amending any doubtful passage. When these drawbacks are considered, it will most likely be felt that the work of reporting is not easy. Yet its importance could not well be overrated. Reporting is the feature in the journalism of today which the public could least afford to lose. The editor of a newspaper may influence public opinion, but the reporter furnishes the material for its formation. Fair reporting is indeed a great security for freedom and for moderation. It enables all who can read to see the arguments for and against any proposal ; it shows how public bodies discharge their duties ; it indicates the wants and wishes, the hopes and fears of the public ; it puts within easy reach the means of combating wild and foolish propositions, however superficially attractive they may be ; in short, it makes the whole country an open council on all questions affecting the souls and bodies, the education and the government, of the people. It is but fair to add that reporting is done as a rule with great ability and fairness. The reporter rarely carries his likes or his dislikes into his work. He is scrupulously just, and as scrupulously impartial, though it may be that this is not always the opinion of some men who make speeches of which little is seen in the shape of reporting. (C. CO.)

The above article was written by: Charles Cooper, editor of the Scotsman.

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