Pioneering Reuters journalist Nick Carter has died aged 83.
Carter was a Reuters journalist who played a front-line role in the agency’s conversion from typewriter to computer in the 1970s and 80s.
Under a series of roles – from production editor to deputy editor, and operations manager to news products manager of Reuters World Service – he helped Reuter journalists accept and make use of a technology which was at first widely disliked and to modernise a global news agency operation.
Born Anthony Carter in south London, he was brought up from the age of nine in rural mid-Hampshire.
Thrilled by wartime news reporting, in 1945 he went from grammar school to ‘tapes boy’trainee in the newsroom of the London Daily Sketch.
The pay of 35 shillings (£1.75) a week was not enough to cover lodgings or restaurant food, so he lived inside the Sketch building in Gray’s Inn Road, eating solely in the canteen, sleeping on the camp beds provided among the printing presses for off-duty printers to nap, learning the arcane practices which surrounded hot-metal printing, and assembling agency news stories for the sub-editors.
Within a few months he was out of London in his first job as a reporter on the Reading Mercury, before being conscripted into the RAF and training as a radar mechanic.
On his release he resumed a newspaper apprenticeship which took him to papers across the country including the Northern Echo and the Sheffield Telegraph and Star, where he was industrial correspondent before joining Reuters in 1953.
Move into radio
Although it was the most famous news agency in the world, Reuters was at that time short of money and relatively small, a trust owned by newspapers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
It was full of former World War Two correspondents and ex-servicemen, cynical about the ethics of Fleet Street newspaper owners and tabloid news values, mentoring a new generation that included Derek Jameson, Sandy Gall, Robert McNeil, and Frederick Forsyth.
In 1966, convinced that commercial radio would be permitted in Britain and would lead to increased demand for radio skills, Carter left Reuters for the BBC World Service, becoming one of the first duty editors to produce the well-loved Radio Newsreel programme in a globalised Bush House edition.
Just over four years later Reuters decided to produce its own news-in-voice service for radio subscribers.
Carter set up and equipped its audio studio and trained reporters to write and speak despatches that could easily be razor-cut into ever-changing updates, and to avoid the low quality of telephone handsets by recording their reports on cassettes and clipping the recorder directly into the phone wires.
For the first time, Reuters’ correspondents were paid a separate extra sum for providing such material, but there was no money for overseas studios – in Singapore the ‘studio’was four walls of empty boxes, and other correspondents learned to put overcoats over their heads to shut out unwanted noise.
Beset by rivalry
After a year Reuters audio service broke even and Carter turned to his main role as production editor responsible for all general news output from the Fleet Street headquarters, where computerisation had recently begun amid the usual problems of system crashes, competition between users for inadequate memory and capacity, and writers’ cynicism.
At this stage there was no video-editing and telegraphists still had to re-key every word onto paper tape, while there was only rudimentary auto-sorting of news items by priority rating and destination area.
Reuters was also beset by rivalry and competition between its economic and general news services for priority on its limited newswire space through the new computers.
Familiar with technology through radar and radio, Carter became the interlocutor between the technical experts and the journalists, and also between the economic and general news writers.
With endless consultation, the problems were gradually ironed out, while Reuters moved into new fields of economic data displayed on subscriber screens, which were to make it rich beyond its owners’ dreams.
Carter was given the additional title of deputy editor in the general news service but in 1975 began three years as deputy manager for South East Asia, with the special task of introducing computerised message-switching and communications there.
It was also an experiment in combining executives from general news and economic backgrounds in ‘company’posts.
Reuters World Service
A few years later the rival editorial fields were merged under the single title Reuters World Service, with economic news specialists in top roles. Carter, by then manager of the general news service, became operations manager of the new combined editorial.
By now video-editing and personal computers were beginning to appear, but were often very limited and unstable.
Carter got himself the first true portable computer, the Osborne 1 introduced in 1981, but at over 24 lb it was useless for journalists.
He took the lead in analysing the needs of different bureaux around the world and choosing the best kit for the newly-combined economic and general news teams to use for video-reporting.
There was also intensive consultation with fellow journalists on the characteristics of Reuters’ own design of desk-editing terminal, and Carter produced the first detailed plan under which the computers and editing desks in London and Hong Kong were interlocked, with Hong Kong responsible for the world news file during the London night from 1982 onwards.
At the same time, the unitary control of the global Reuters editorial was broken into three areas – Europe, Asia and Americas.
Carter was appointed news products manager with a brief to co-ordinate the development of news handling systems to ensure global compatibility between regions, and give impetus for new services.
Reuters’ first style guide
Once again he became an interlocutor, fostering agreement on what new features and services should get priority, and what systems could produce them.
The old low-speed teleprinter services, tapping out the news at about one word per second, all in capital letters and unsorted, quickly gave way to services on screens as well as paper, with full typesetting capability and extensive coding on subject matter as well as destination, usable for historical databases as well as newspaper, banks, television studios and trading rooms.
He completed a full training course as a system controller on an expensive new editing system so as to be sure Reuters’ version would meet the agency’s editorial standards.
Three fully-duplicated copies were bought, fulfilling the dream of having news service control following the sun, passed from Asia to Europe to America.
The costs involved had become acceptable as the economic data services were bringing in millions, with more to come after the company was floated in 1984, producing cash for its former newspaper and agency owners to launch their own computerisation.
Reuters also bought the photo service of its struggling American rival UPI, and Carter was a member of a four-man team which in 1985 turned it into a digital news picture and graphics service, delivered direct to editing screens, years before digital cameras and photo software became generally available.
Carter’s final years before retirement were spent on the effort to ensure that diffusing editorial control to the regions did not affect editorial standards.
In three years of negotiation with Reuters editors and journalists worldwide he produced Reuters’ first full, alphabetically listed international style guide, covering everything from objectivity to technicalities.
He also set up a quality unit which continually reviewed and compared the stories sent out, using pages on the company’s instant screen services which only its own bureaux could read.
After his retirement in 1987 he tailored specifications for Reuters video-editing systems for Japan, South Africa, the Middle East, South America and Visnews, then devoted himself mostly to world travel and local community activities at his home in Beckenham.
He died on 10 April after a five-year battle against malignant melanoma, leaving a wife, and two daughters. He was 83.
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