Newspapers: They went, they saw, they filed: hail the reporter as conquering hero

Great reporters are the subject of a new book by David Randall. Their modern-day counterparts, he says, need to get out more

Or William Russell in the Crimea, receiving yet another email from the office: "Bill, Sky coverage of Charge pretty thorough. Can you stick to the colour and keep it to 700? There's a royal story breaking. Return to office soonest, please."

When you've just written, as I have, a book that chronicles the greatest reporters in newspaper history, you're apt to finish the task asking yourself questions about the directions reporting is going in. Some of them, like technology, are positive. Lap-tops, mobiles, sat phones, and the net give us the means to research any subject, trace and contact sources, pool knowledge via story archives and file from anywhere in the world. Dorothy Parker's excuse for missing a deadline - "somebody was using the pencil" - won't wash any more.

In return for such kit, reporters now have to tolerate working in a far more structured environment. Gone are the days of the 1960s when Roy Thomson could arrive at The Times and find to his horror that its newsroom provided sheltered accommodation for a collection of registered eccentrics. Too many papers are run by accountants for that to happen these days, or for the staffing levels which allowed general reporters to routinely spend entire days (or, in spectacular cases, whole weeks) out of the office. Andrew Alderson of The Sunday Telegraph said: "I once did a story working with someone undercover. We spent five months on it. That wouldn't happen now."

Michael Williams, the deputy editor of this paper, says: "In former times when a big story broke, I would automatically want as many reporters out on the story as possible. Not now. There are a lot of TV news channels and the web to monitor, and it's more time-efficient to have reporters in the office. The downside is that by not having many reporters on the streets, you inevitably dilute the flavour of the story."

Today, a movie accurately depicting the work of most reporters would show them almost permanently seated at a computer in what appeared to be a call-centre. In the modern newspaper, there are more pages to fill and smaller staffs to do it. Hence the rise of office-bound reporters churning out researchlite material that is cheap to produce: "controversial" comments from B-list figures whipped up into "storms" that last for days, each story more derivative than the last; confected "say stories" presenting mild disagreements as "furious rows", "lifestyle" reporting that has neither life nor style, "personality" political stories that are a cop-out from the issues, and "trend" spotting conducted with all the sociological nous of an unprepared GCSE candidate.

Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times in its 1960s and '70s heyday, shares such concerns. When I called him in New York, he told me: "There's a vast amount of cotton candy on news pages these days. To fill space with really good reporting takes time, money and talent." Although he still finds reporters he admires, like Barry Bearak of the New York Times, he is also bothered by columnists "being placed on a higher pedestal than reporters". He adds: "There's no doubt that the collection of facts has diminished in relation to entertainment and opinion." John Lichfield, the Independent group's man in Paris, agrees that reporters are undervalued. "These days editors would rather poach columnists than great reporters like The Independent's Robert Fisk." Lichfield believes that newspapers can still score over other media by "reporters going out and finding things out", but he's concerned about how young desk-bound reporters will learn the necessary skills.

How different, how very different, from the working lives of the great reporters. People such as Floyd Gibbons, who during the First World War booked himself on to a ship likely to be sunk by the Germans so that he could report its torpedoing; George Seldes, who single-handedly took on the tobacco industry over the links between smoking and lung cancer; Nellie Bly, who feigned madness so that she could be committed to an asylum and report its cruelties; and Hugh McIlvanney of The Sunday Times who I rate the best writer ever to apply words to newsprint, a judgement with which Harry Evans readily agrees. And intro writers like Edwin Lahey of the Chicago Daily News. Faced with the tale of Richard Loeb, a murderer and avid reader who was killed by a fellow prisoner after making advances to him, Lahey wrote: "Richard Loeb, the well-known student of English, yesterday ended his sentence with a proposition."

Greats like the 13 reporters I've profiled in my book will always shine through. Current operators such as our own Patrick Cockburn and, in the US, Alan G Breed of AP, prove that. But we ought to be concerned about the downgrading of news, and the increasingly office-bound lives of most reporters. They should be going into the world and poking about where authority does not want them to look. If they don't, editors will have nothing worth editing, and columnists nothing worth twittering about. Reporters should be the information hunter-gatherers of any society. But what, now, are they hunting? How are they gathering? And why are so many of them still hanging around the camp-fire?

David Randall's 'The Great Reporters' (Pluto Press, £14.95, details at www.greatreporters.co.uk) is published on Tuesday

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