The Wapping of the newsroom

The Observer looks back on Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping revolution — when he moved his papers off Fleet Street and away from antiquated rules and methods and unions as well — 20 years ago this month. That revolution changed the backshop of journalism in Britain: typesetting, production, distribution.

I wonder what it will take to bring a revolution to the front end of journalism: to the newsroom. I’ve argued that Katrina may have been the explosion news needed, though I suspect it was temporary change. Wapping was a permanent move.

Hear Andrew Neil, who was editor of the Sunday Times, a Murdoch paper, during Wapping:

‘Before Wapping,’ I explained recently to a group of young journalists, ‘if any of you had done this’ – I pressed a letter at random on the computer keyboard – ‘the print workers would immediately have walked off the job and the paper wouldn’t come out.’ …

Wapping changed all that. In the process it saved the British newspaper industry. If Fleet Street had staggered to the end of the last century with pre-Wapping, absurdly high labour costs, world-beating low productivity, antediluvian technology and the industrial relations of the madhouse, then probably only a handful of papers would have survived – concentrated in Rupert Murdoch’s News International and Lord Rothermere’s Associated.

There would certainly have been no colour printing, no multi-section Sunday newspapers, no rise of the big Saturday editions, no new sections during the week, no Independent (which slipped out unscathed during the Wapping dispute while we were locked in mortal combat), no newspaper websites, and a lot less of the diversity and dynamism that makes the British newspaper market the most exciting and competitive in the world. The idea of launching an all-colour, Berliner-size Observer would never have crossed anybody’s mind because the very idea would have been beyond the pale….

At one stage, a union official hurled a box of matches across the table at us, shouting: ‘Why don’t you just burn the place down? Don’t you understand? We’re never going to go there!’ If we’d taken his advice, not just Wapping but the British newspaper business would have gone down in flames.

Of course, the conditions are different, but the stakes are the same: survival into the future.