Nostalgia may be comforting, but there's no looking back

They say that nostalgia isn't what it used to be, and that applies to journalism and communication in general as much as it does to any other trade. How do we research for news today as journalists? Does our dependence on the Internet make us lazy or more efficient? Are we part of a spoilt generation whose teachers would have scoffed at what they doubtless would have regarded as our over-reliance on electronic information systems?

For people of a certain age, who started out in the profession in the 1980s or earlier, looking back through the archives was a time-consuming task. Starting out on a weekly in a sleepy provincial town, getting the background to an article was either the result of asking the long-serving News Editor, or going to the filing cabinets and hoping that whoever was there last had put the cut-out articles glued to a piece of typing paper back in alphabetical order.

Moving from a weekly newspaper to a daily, however, was like a breath of fresh air. A bigger operation has more resources, and a dedicated library with staff who would find the article for you. It took an hour or two, but you would eventually receive it. However, the deadline at a daily paper, in contrast to the more relaxed atmosphere at a weekly paper or magazine, meant you could not afford to wait that long. As a result, unpleasant arguments and the pulling of strings were a near-daily occurrence.

Today, even the pedestrian weekly newspaper has gone digital. The papers are still printed, but with all articles and pictures saved on computerized systems, they are easily retrievable. Type in a keyword and the articles appear in a jiffy. And if you are searching for information for a new article, then a quick Google search provides you with a wealth of data in a second or less. What would today's journalists make of an early-morning newsroom of yester-year where reporters are energetically riffling through the pages for news they may have missed or items that they could take as the basis for a new article? One shudders to think of the ridicule that would have come our way.

We could, of course, explain to the journalists who went before us that today's way of working is the only means of ensuring that real-time news can be posted vital seconds before our competitors get news to market. But then, they would point out, they also faced a daily battle to get the news out first on to news wires, to radio and TV stations, and on the front pages.

Journalists and writers who started out 20-30 years ago are stuck in a schizophrenic bind having worked at the tail-end of the old way of producing news and being part of the new computerized systems. We look back wistfully to the days when cut and paste were not defined by Ctrl C and Ctrl V, but rather by a typesetting company employee cutting the photographic paper on which text and photographs were printed and pasting them on a blank grid representing a page of the newspaper.

Today, by contrast, several articles, enough to fill a page, can be produced in a fraction of the time previously needed, while page design programs allow us to create the finished product in an hour or less. Newsrooms with tens of reporters have doubtless been slashed back, while typesetting and production departments have disappeared. Would we swap the convenience of being just a few clicks away from background information that can save us valuable time? Are we willing to wait hours or days to provide readers with printed news when today's demand for almost instant, real-time news, aided by relatively easy to use back-office systems enable us to have an item online within minutes of having written it?

The question is actually essentially meaningless because as with every other business, including diamonds and jewelry, time has moved on, working methods have evolved in ways that were unthinkable even a generation ago, and there's no going back. Unfortunately, whoever does not evolve simply dies.

Can news be delivered any quicker than today's real-time news? I'll let you know in 20 years.