'Agencies are at the bottom of the pile'

The
good old days? Maybe, but now no-one will take over my
business,retiring Brian Steed tells Julie Tomlin, as he closes the
Fleetline news agency that he set up 40 years ago.

A LOT HAS changed since the days when Brian Steed began running his
news agency from his front room, putting his typewriter away at the end
of each day.

Steed, who set up Fleetline when he lost his job at Headline news
service in 1965, moved into offices in East Finchley a year or so later
and gradually took on more staff. When the court reporting business was
at its height, Steed employed 15 journalists.

But these being
days before fax machines and mobile phones came along, he had on his
staff two or three women who would phone stories through to the
newspapers they supplied. “In those days we were more or less phoning
everything out that was coming in,” says Steed.

“We had two or three women phoning the stories all day long – the same stories to the nationals, eight times.”

While
that method was essential to make sure the national, provincial and
regional evening papers got the copy in time, they relied on the post
to send stories to local papers.

“In the days of typewriters we
used to have flimsy paper and eight carbon papers. You would type it up
as fast as you could and there would be a bank of people, once I’d read
it, folding it up and putting it in envelopes with a stamp on and
dashing across the road to catch the half past five post,” says Steed.

“Every night that was – and we did it.”

He
had hoped that someone would take over his business when he retires
finally this month but, because no-one came forward, is having to close
it.

This is a reflection of how difficult it is for a news agency to survive, says Steed.

The
bread and butter work of supplying local papers with stories from
magistrates courts and coroners courts has dropped significantly over
the years. “They have cut back because they’ve been told to by their
accountants,” says Steed.

But court reporting agencies have also
been hit by the fact that most newspapers long ago dropped the practice
of paying a retainer.

“The local papers used to pay for every
inquest we went to regardless of whether it was used,” says Steed. “You
didn’t have to worry about looking at newspapers, apart from local
cuttings. You just had to send them an invoice once a month and you got
paid. But people aren’t going to pay you for just sitting in court
these days. It doesn’t make sense.”

But for the agency it means they can have a reporter in court for five days and only get paid for the copy for one day.

“If
you have an order for a story and you sit there for five days and they
use it at the end of the week they give you one payment for what’s put
in their paper,” he says.

Some regional papers now pay as little
as £5 or £10 for a story – and if you are only covering the story for a
paper and a radio station, the sums don’t add up, says Steed.

“You
can’t make up a reporter’s wage for a tenner a day,” adds Brian’s wife
Joyce, who has looked after the accounts since joining the agency in
1967, shortly before they married.

“We have said to editors in
the past that if you can find a reporter who is prepared to work for
£7.50 an hour, we’ll have a dozen please.”

Invoices that Joyce
found while clearing out the office show that national newspapers that
paid £20 for a story in the eighties pay £25 today.

“Basically news agencies seem to be at the bottom of the pile when it comes to national newspapers,” says Joyce.

Steed
says in recent years he could only employ six people, whereas when he
had “money coming in” it was necessary to have more so that you could
send two reporters to a long-running court case to ensure you beat the
opposition.

Some people have started at the agency only to leave
after two days but there are others “who just fall into the category
and do it straight away,” says Steed.

“A good court reporter is
someone who will sit there and in their brain ask the questions, and
then afterwards go and ask people the questions so they can explain
what it’s all about,” says Steed.

“You have to know everything about everything. You might have a financial case that’s completely baffling but you have to make it make sense.”

One of the journalists he took on as a 16-year-old was Bob Cox, who went on to become chief press officer at New Scotland Yard.

“A guy who previously worked for me told me there was a teaboy who wanted to be a journalist,”

says
Steed. I told him to bring him along and he wrote a few things, most of
which I tore up and told him to start again. He went from there to
where he is now. I see that as one of my main achievements.”

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