Life on the newsdesk: ‘Technology has changed. Expectations haven’t’

The newsdesk is the beating heart of the Guardian. Fast-paced, frenetic, and at any moment seemingly close to a cardiac crisis, it drives the publication of scores of news stories every day.

In my three years as assistant news editor, there has been no shortage of historic moments: Brexit and a general election followed swiftly by a pandemic that changed the world. Even on quiet days, our operation begins at 7am when the first editor in London picks up the baton from our Australia office and refreshes the website with new stories, and ends around 1am when the night editor puts the final print edition to bed.

Over the past two decades, news editing has had to keep up with the evolution of the internet and technology. We’re no longer focused solely on filling the pages of a paper: we commission and publish pieces throughout the day for the site. And if articles weren’t enough, we have liveblogs – including on politics, Covid-19 and any other emerging events – that tick over almost every single minute.

All this was far off when the late Jean Stead first joined the Guardian from the Yorkshire Post in 1963. Without the significant cultural changes she helped implement, the quality of our news output would not be what it is today.

In the early 1960s, the Guardian had a certain reputation for being slow on news. “What the Telegraph reports today, the Guardian comments on tomorrow,” Cecil King, chair of the publishing giant IPC, liked to quip. So when Stead joined a desk that she would ultimately end up running, it became her mission to make the Guardian a worthy Fleet Street competitor. “I was tired of us being sneered at for not being as sharp as other papers,” she recalled in an interview before her death.

During her tenure, Stead and her team produced a stream of exclusives that had real impact. In 1971, the Guardian revealed that private investigators were eliciting information from Whitehall departments, the Criminal Records Office and banks; the then prime minister, Edward Heath, ordered an inquiry and security was tightened. In 1973, an exclusive by reporter Adam Raphael established that leading British companies were often paying their South African workers wages below starvation level. The issue was taken up by a select committee, and eventually rectified.

So how does the magic happen? I’ve learned it comes from a combination of determination and sheer enthusiasm. It’s not a job that allows you to switch off. Stories are doggedly pursued, and all the facts need to be correct or you’re in trouble. As Stead said, “you use your brain all the time”.

Jean Stead in 1973: ‘You didn’t have time to rehearse.’ Photograph: Peter Johns/The Guardian

She also spoke of the “rhythm of the desk”, including conferences throughout the day with other editors. “You have to go through a news list, there would be 20 items, and you have to say something about each one, you didn’t have time to rehearse,” she recalled. “You had to get everything right because there were lots of experts sitting around a desk.” She said she was so frightened of conference that broadcasting and television were a doddle by comparison.

The timing and attendance list of the conference might have changed, but the expectations have not. Each day, one of us reads out the news list at the midday news meeting. We have to know about every one of the 20 to 40 stories that make up the agenda, from huge stories about the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, to smaller, quirky ones about lost whales in the Thames or the mysterious deaths of hen harriers in Sandringham. We sell the stories we think are worthy of the front page, those which may have been overlooked, and those which add some humour or lightness.

That’s one of the things I enjoy most about being on the desk – the collaboration. Whether it’s putting heads together with fellow editors in the morning to decide which are the big stories of the day and how we should be covering them, to working with reporters on long-term projects and sharing in the thrill or misery of significant national developments, I’ve never felt alone. In a high-pressure, hurried environment, silly things can make you laugh. Like when one of our desk administrators, who answer myriad calls through the day, was overheard shouting: “We don’t make appointments with journalists, it’s like going to the library and asking for a bag of chips!”

You have to stop doing a lot of things. I never went out

I remember huddling around our screens at around 8pm, on a cold, dark January, to watch Theresa May suffer the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the past century when her Brexit deal was shot down by MPs. As she rose to accept the verdict and welcome a vote of no confidence in the government, there were a few shared gasps. Similarly, when the supreme court ruled the government had acted unlawfully by proroguing parliament, or when Chris Whitty gave his first press conference, the tension in the room was palpable.

Then there’s the regular disagreements with reporters annoyed at having their stories changed, held or spiked. Frustration is inevitable. Sometimes, reporters will resort to what we call a “drive-by”, cornering you on the desk when you are least expecting it. “We moved the newsdesk into the newsroom, right at the centre of the operation,” Stead recalled, saying that she sat with her back to the wall, so that “no one could come up behind my shoulders”.

Stead said she found the interest in her being a female editor irritating, because she “couldn’t see what difference it made”. Still, she witnessed what she termed “amusing” prejudices, like when a reporter came back with pictures of John Lennon and Yoko Ono posing in bed and said: “This is the problem with having a woman news editor – I don’t think I should show you these pictures.” Stead once asked Margaret Thatcher about the best way to balance work and home life, to which the former prime minister responded: “Delegate”. The comment struck a chord with Stead, who spoke of her lack of a social life. “You have to stop doing a lot of things. I never went out.” Indeed, every news editor knows the pain of having to cancel plans because “work ran over”.

Today, the women on the desk outnumber the men, and there are times when we have an all-female lineup. We also have a number of editors from ethnic minority backgrounds – an important feature of any newsroom that wants to speak to and for a modern, diverse readership.

And what is that readership interested in? “The Guardian reader would have a lively and curious mind, and probably a good sense of humour too,” Stead said. “You’d like to think if you ever had a totalitarian state by accident, the Guardian would be the first to be banned.”

That much has remained the same.