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35 Years of the independent

A road well travelled: How my life as a journalist has changed

Since joining in 1994, The Independent’s travel correspondent Simon Calder has gone from filing by phone and floppy disk to podcasts and live-streams – and, he says, it’s never been more fun

Monday 18 October 2021 00:00 BST
Calder began contributing to The Independent shortly after its launch in 1986
Calder began contributing to The Independent shortly after its launch in 1986 (The Independent)

Dismantling a Soviet-era telephone took only a couple of minutes. The cheap plastic cover was easy to remove, and the rudimentary design made it easy to identify the two copper contacts that constituted one end of a long chain of wires. Punctuated by countless exchanges, the umbilical cord ultimately stretched 3,525 miles: from my room in the Intourist monstrosity known as the Hotel Sibir in Novosibirsk, central Siberia, to a former insurance office at 40 City Road, London EC1.

Hooking up the modem (a piece of kit that converts digital data into a form transmissible on Stalin-era analogue technology) to the business end required a little more persuasion with the screwdriver. Once connected, I typed in a series of digits and letters and crossed my fingers.

A familiar series of shrill tones, sounding like a cage full of electronic parrots, signalled that contact had been made with the mothership.

The “handshake” was confirmed with a reassuring message. My article plodded off, at a stately 180 words per minute, to the mighty mainframe computer at the heart of The Independent. “The best bit is when the beating stops,” read the initial couple of seconds, describing a night in a bathhouse in the bleak wilderness of a Russian midwinter.

While waiting for the dispatch to send, there was plenty of time to open a beer and contemplate the miracle of technology that was my laptop: so bulky and heavy that it almost required its own baggage allowance, yet possessing a hard drive that could hold a massive 40 megabytes. (I am currently using a machine with 25,000 times that capacity.)

In Majorca in 1997, when life as a travel correspondent was very different (BBC)

The transmission terminated with my final word: “NNNN” – a weak pun on “ends”, and a series of letters that even the worst typist would be unlikely to produce by accident.

It was December 1994, and I had recently signed up with The Independent as its travel correspondent. Conveniently, for the purposes of sending copy, I happened to have had a proper job as a radio engineer before becoming a full-time journalist.

As a hopeful freelance contributor, though, I had been writing the odd story since soon after the paper’s launch.

For The Independent, it was editorially convenient. The “no freebies” policy introduced by founding editor Andreas Whittam Smith was particularly challenging for the travel desk: hitherto, this entire branch of journalism had been built on the provision of flights, hotel rooms and rental cars in return for a mention at the end of the article. Being an unknown writer of guidebooks, no sensible company would have given me any facility, which meant that I funded my own trips and could cheerfully offer travel articles to Frank Barrett, my illustrious predecessor.

In Berlin in 1999 (BBC)

Often, getting the words to the newspaper took as long as writing the actual article. Sending articles electronically was pioneered by the sports desk, who used rudimentary Tandy laptops of the kind last seen in Back to the Future.

”Tandying”, as the technique was nicknamed, was a cut above all other options. The device plugged straight into what would now be called a content management system. None of the attendant risk of extra errors that came with faxing copy – a process that necessitated an unfortunate assistant having to retype the whole lot, usually at speed.

The other hi-tech method of remote working was less reliable: posting a floppy disk to the office. I am convinced that a story of mine from 1991 is still lurking in an envelope adorned with colourful stamps in some dusty corner of a Venezuelan sorting office, ready to confound future archaeologists.

No trace remains of the original City Road building that housed The Independent, where at around 11am each morning you could spy the tea trolley approaching through a haze of tobacco smoke.

The then architecture correspondent, the great Jonathan Glancey, would pause from his normal hunched hyperactivity to regale the Independent Weekend Magazine team with his weekend antics, which more often than not involved his latest Jaguar and at least one Spitfire – “one of the most beautiful machines ever made: brilliant but flawed”.

Jonathan, along with Weekend editors Stephen Wood and Harriet O’Brien, were formidable, inspiring colleagues. But do I miss the olden days? Not one electronic bit.

Boarding a flight at Stansted in the early 2000s (The Independent)

I am “writing” this article by talking to my slim, light laptop. Which takes the world of journalism full circle, back to a time when the standard way to file stories was by dictating them to a copytaker. These expert individuals were on call day and night, waiting for far-flung journalists to dial in on crackly phones and read out their stories. While costly in terms of time as well as money, it was good discipline: if you stumbled over a phrase, you knew it would not read well.

I can carbon-date the last time I talked to a copytaker as 14 August 2005. The story was about a dreadful plane crash in which the pilots of a Cypriot jet were incapacitated and their Boeing 737 crashed, killing all 121 people on board. The newsdesk tracked me down to a boat in the Atlantic off the Canary Islands. Using a mobile phone that was still the size of a small brick, I endeavoured to place the tragedy in the context of aviation safety.

Flying has become steadily safer – the then upstarts, Ryanair and easyJet, now have the best safety records in the world – and phones are much smaller. But my, they are versatile, which is just as well. Because since going fully online five years ago, The Independent has blossomed into several media dimensions.

Jetting off to Faro, trusty laptop at the ready, in May 2021 (Simon Calder)

Never has travel journalism been so exhilarating, so close to the audience and such fun. I deliver a daily podcast on the constantly changing travel landscape. At least once a week I devote an hour to speed-answering questions online on journeys during the coronavirus pandemic, in an Ask Me Anything.

Remote working is fully living up to its name: the location is simply wherever I happen to be. In recent times I have reported live from the top of the Rock in Gibraltar, the trans-Pennine railway line from Carlisle to Leeds, and the very edge of the UK – and mobile coverage – in Shetland.

The key to all this is the smartphone. Forget the pencil and notebook: most interviewees are happy to be captured on camera, generating video and audio as well as words and pictures. With the help of a robust data-roaming contract, I can upload content immediately. And, at 12 noon UK time on Saturdays and Sundays, I take questions live on travel in the Covid era via Facebook, typically while wandering through a corner of a city.

One weekend soon I hope to be doing just that back in Novosibirsk – though this time the phone will remain intact. NNNN

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