A newspaper man’s view of television

Which is better: newsprint or television?

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 8 February 1959

NEWSPAPER editor Alastair Dunnett stood at the window of his New York skyscraper hotel, looking over towards the Manhattan waterfront.

A mile away clouds of oily black smoke billowed up from a dockland fire. Flames ripped through the packed floors of giant warehouses.

Forty-nine-year-old Dunnett, who presents Granada’s What the Papers Say this Thursday, turned from the window, walked across the bedroom, and switched on a coin-in-the-slot TV set.

“What came over was the most thrilling television I have ever seen,” he told me. “The station had scrapped its scheduled programme. Every available outside-broadcast camera had been rushed to the docks to cover the blaze. Cameramen were as close in as the firemen fighting the flames. Commentators were everywhere.

“Smoke-blackened and dazed workmen were interviewed as they staggered from the blazing store sheds — even before ambulance men could give them first-aid. It was enthralling. Anybody who saw that fire on TV would read a very pale version of it in his newspaper later.”

Alastair Dunnett
Alastair Dunnett

I asked Dunnett, if, as a newspaperman, he considered TV a rival. “I think TV and newspapers are complementary to each other,” he said. “There is room for both. One does some things better than the other.

“News coverage, for instance. If a TV camera can be on the spot when a big story breaks — like that New York docks fire — then it scoops the newspaper.

“But TV’s advantage — on-the-spot immediacy — can also be a disadvantage. If the viewer sees it, all well and good. But it is over in a second. If the viewer has missed it, that’s too bad. Television is a matter of time. You must take it when it is there for you to see. A newspaper is always at your elbow. The printed word is with you for all time. If you haven’t time to read a story in your paper, you can fold it up and slip it into your pocket to read on the bus on the way to work.

“But I’m convinced that newspapers must change their techniques to meet the challenge of TV. They must become more interpretive of the news than descriptive. They will have to tell their readers why certain things happened, not just describe them.”

Can What the Papers Say criticism be damaging to newspapers? “They can take it!” said Dunnett. “It certainly is easy to criticise a newspaper. I’m an editor, and I have to do it every day.

“It is easy to forget what a tremendous technical achievement a newspaper is. You start off with, say, 16 blank pages, and they must be filled to the last quarter-inch. Everything you have done before just doesn’t matter. This must be new.

“It is so terribly easy to say next morning ‘I would have played up this story in a big way. I would have put that picture there.’ But somebody has worked through the night, making sudden decisions and spot judgments to produce it. A remarkable performance, a newspaper.”

Dunnett started his working life in a bank. “I did, in fact, take my professional bankers’ examinations. But I had always been interested in journalism. Even while still at school. I had written for newspapers. I eventually left the bank and moved into journalism.

“During the war I moved to London to be Press officer to Tom Johnston, then Secretary of State for Scotland.”

Dunnett was for 10 years editor of the Glasgow Daily Record before becoming editor of The Scotsman three years ago.

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