Technological revolution for ACN
02 / 08 / 2023
We want to make a supersonic man out of you... Roger enjoys the chance to test out Concorde’s cockpit
It’s a fast-moving world – and journalists have to keep up. Former Air Cargo News editor Roger Hailey reports on the changing world of publishing over the past 40 years.
After 40 years in logistics trade journalism, this old dinosaur was asked by Air Cargo News editor Damian Brett to look back at the significant changes I have witnessed as a reporter.
Earlier this year, I was at the Transport Logistics show in Munich – and that experience seems to sum up those changes.
As a young reporter (okay, I was 26 but that was considered young back then) on Air Cargo News International (ACNI), now Air Cargo News, in the mid-1980s I went to Japan.
I had to organise my trip by phone: the flights, hotel and interviews, not on a mobile but with an old-fashioned landline – younger readers, ask your parents.
Surprisingly, it went without a hitch, although I had to travel long distances in Tokyo by tube to find a cheap enough pizza house in order to be able to eat.
I took shorthand notes and used a camera with rolls of film. The latter was a bit of potluck: you had to get the photographs developed when you got back home. Only then would you know if they were in focus.
The next great revolution was the fax machine. You would feed a sheet of typewritten paper into one end and a copy would magically appear at the recipient’s machine, many miles away.
A wise old freight forwarder told me that the fax machine was a data blip on the way to digitalisation. Remember, this was predicted in the 1980s. How right he was.
The next faltering steps in the digital journey was the arrival of electronic typewriters, quickly followed by a desktop computer, the size of a small suitcase and with a small black screen.
You would type out a story in a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor – very basic editing software with no spall-chocker (sorry, spell checker).
Obviously, you could print out the document, but the real beauty was sending it electronically to a colleague in the same room or from deepest continental Europe to the UK.
You had to use something called a modem (a router-type piece of equipment).
One freelancer, now an award-winning journalist, moaned and groaned that he had to buy a modem – and sent me the invoice. Plus ça change…
Now, that sounds easy, but when I went on a European reporting tour of Belgium and Germany, among other countries, I had to take all the different phone plugs for each country and they were all shapes and sizes – enough to fill a small backpack.
Basic ‘laptops’, the size of a briefcase and much heavier, using small metal discs to save data, would connect by cable to the phone plug.
You would dial back home and wait for the audible electronic modem “handshake”, a screeching noise like a Dalek with a bad cough. If you were lucky, the connection would last long enough to send several documents.
Next came the mobile phone (the size of a brick and so expensive only stockbrokers in Thatcher’s Britain could afford one).
I got my first mobile phone in the 1990s, and all you could do was make or receive calls.
The greatest revolution was the arrival of desktop publishing. Interlinked computers in an office could produce a newspaper by placing stories and pictures on a screen, exactly as it would look when printed.
Unfortunately, this killed off thousands of typesetters’ jobs but gave power to the journalists, as they could create imaginative page designs. Perhaps some went too far with this new toy.
Next, came email and the internet. The title I worked on had a queuing system for 25 journalists to use the single computer connected to the web (to stop us idling).
Internet connectivity via increasingly lighter and more sophisticated ‘smartphones’ changed trade journalism for ever.
You had to be on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or you did not exist. Stories had to be tweeted so you could develop a digital audience on social media (given the stream of hate online, it is more like antisocial media). We now have Instagram and all the other look-at-me apps that now allow any Joe Public idiot to post nonsense without regard to research, fact-checking and the laws of libel.
Newsrooms are smaller these days, and the demand for 24-hour news is insatiable (air cargo is a global business, so time zones matter less).
And so to this year’s Transport Logistics in Munich. About 20 years ago I would use an internet café near the Hauptbahnhof where you would pay to use an array of computers connected to the web.
Wi-Fi killed the internet café business model as it became freely available in hotels, conference centres – anywhere in fact.
The Munich press room used to have large shelves piled with trade magazines, newspapers or press releases.
Those same shelves in 2023 were almost empty. I asked why: “That was years ago. Covid means that everything is digital now.” And sustainable too – all those saved trees.
During Covid, the Zoom call became king, and pessimists said that the conference circuit was dead. Well, not yet.
The beat goes on
A busy conference, buzzing with chatter and the exchange of new ideas can still provide stories beyond a press release, but also give areal feel about industry sentiment and future trends.
Technology can accelerate the speed with which stories appear online or in print, but you still need a real person to ask those difficult questions.
In the late 1970s the chief reporter on a local paper warned us young newshounds not to rely on phone calls but to walk the beat and talk to people. Just as relevant now as it was then.
Another trend is where press officers (who often fed you exclusives) have been replaced by those who want to manage the message: they want to know the questions in advance and see the story before it goes to the editor.
I worked with a journalist who observed acidly that if the chief executive needs to see my questions in advance, what are they doing in the job?
Much of this has to do with the corporatisation of logistics. There used to be many smaller companies who did not have to worry about the stock market and share prices.
Today there are big publicly quoted companies, where the wrong answer to a question will hit the share price. It’s the Ratner effect (look it up online).
One editor told me: “Financial regulators are so tough you will never get another exclusive.”
Fortunately, there are still up-and-coming journalists with inquiring minds and tenacity to ask those difficult questions of the industry bosses they cover.
Air Cargo News may be celebrating 40 years, but it is young at heart and will keep you informed as much as it ever did.
I am proud that I still work for Air Cargo News as a freelance journalist, although it is a new generation carrying the torch.