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Breaking News,via Morse Code

The telegram was once the reporter’s best friend

Written by P Raman | New Delhi | Published: July 21, 2013 10:22:49 pm

The telegram was once the reporter’s best friend

Sub-editors were the first to sense,rather smell,the arrival of the much-detested press telegrams. They would arrive in clumsy packets from the telegraph office,bringing with them the odour of resin gum,often still wet.

At the telegraph office,the press telegrams emerged from primitive teleprinters in the form of narrow strips. The peons would then cut the strips and paste each line on official full-scape letterheads. These “copies” would reach the news desk,and the lack of space between the pasted lines made editing a nightmare.

For over half a century,till well into the 1990s,most of the stories came to newspapers by telegrams,most of which were badly written by untrained stringers from district towns. Only major cities would be connected to the central newspaper office through teleprinters. The sub-editors on the desk would prefer edited agency or teleprinter copies,which involved fewer hassles. First,one had to decode the telegram text. Press telegrams had their own way of cutting down on the wordage. For example,‘Train ex-Bombay derailed’ meant a train coming from Bombay had gone off the tracks. Trainee subs were given a whole set of telegram codes to help them edit. Several times,the intro to the copy had to be typed out again and edited.

However,long pieces and newsletters continued to come by mail. Correspondents and stringers were given envelopes printed with their newspaper’s address and labelled as “book post”,“urgent”,or “press matter”. Postmen always treated “press matters” with urgency. Which is probably why bigger newspaper chains continued to send their edit page articles to local editorial offices by mail even after they had their own teleprinter services. It was considered more reliable even as late as the 1970s. The term “in a news despatch…” has it origins in this pre-telegram practice. Those once-revolutionary technologies are now fossilised in newspaper titles: The Mail and Telegraph.

I realised the hazards of sending press telegrams when I was shifted to the news bureau in the mid-1970s and had to cover events outside Delhi,at places where the newspaper did not have an office with a teleprinter connection. Reporting landmark political rallies and elections was frustrating. The present generation with text messages and OB vans would pity their “grandfathers” in the profession. Sending news by phone was virtually impossible. You had to book a trunk call and wait for hours for someone to connect you. Then someone at the office took notes while the correspondent read out her story. The telegram,on the other hand,was a sure-shot,and remained the reporter’s most trusted ally.

We started on a reporting expedition armed with a Press Telegram Authority Card and plenty of cash. If you were a smart reporter,the first task after reaching the venue was to spot the telegraph office and alert the department’s teleprinter(TP) operators. But they were not used to handling long stories. They only did brief messages: “Father died stop start immediately stop”. Reporters meant longer copy and more work. So the TP operators would look for ways to evade us. I would keep a few ballpoint pens (precious in those days) with me as gifts for them. Sometimes,I would leave my baby typewriter — the “laptop” of yesteryear — at the telegraph office and then “punch” the tape myself. (It was the TP operator’s job to type the message on an electric typewriter,and out would come a narrow paper tape with innumerable holes in them. The holes were the codes for the letters or words. The punched tape was fed to the teleprinter which instantly transmitted the data in alphabets to the destination.)

Until the mid-90s,election coverage in daily newspapers was exhaustive. There were no opinion polls. Field reports by journalists indicated the voters’ preferences. The headlines would give you an idea: ‘No walkover for Devi Lal,’ ‘JP on sure wicket’,‘Close tie at Indore’. Reporters moved from place to place filing stories by telegram. Back home,our families knew our movements from the datelines of the stories carried by the daily.

In 1977,Indira Gandhi had been written off as a spent force after losing power. I was one of the reporters on the campaign trail when she started canvassing in Gujarat. Her launch pad was Valsad,then Bulsar. At the circuit house,I managed to get access to the synopsis of the speech she would deliver in Baroda the next day. A quick glance,and I decided to take a big risk.

I rushed to the telegraph office,befriended the TP man,punched a report and kept it with him. I was right. That evening,Indira Gandhi,seeing a massive crowd,was at her aggressive best. She alleged that the charges against her (by the ruling Janata Party leaders) were so flimsy that it included her having stolen eggs and chicken. The fiery speech became famous,and the Gujarat offensive gave her the confidence to fight back. The rally ended at 10 pm. I rushed to the telegraph office,produced the tele-card,got a receipt and released the punched tape. The next morning,only Patriot had a report of the landmark speech. None of the local dailies had it.

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(The writer,a former Indian Express journalist,was also political editor of Economic Times and Business Standard)

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