In the course of a Saturday afternoon in January, 1993 I discovered what older journalists had told me was “the pressure of the job”. I’d been asked to “look after” the sports section of Scotland on Sunday that week owing to the sudden illness of the two senior desk executives who normally piloted the pages through to the Saturday evening print deadline of 7pm.

By some degree, I was far too young and inexperienced for this job, but being the only sub-editor who knew how to design and draw up pages it had to be me. The task of filling a few pages with match reports and summaries of all the live sport worth covering across the UK and abroad might seem straightforward enough.

This was during the so-called ‘golden age’ of print when each section of a national title employed dozens of reporters and production journalists – both staff and freelance. Most of them were masters of their craft, being able to write and file up to 1,000 words in the 45 minutes or so between the end of a match and the tight copy deadline.

This made the job of editing those pages easier. Still though, the production journalists then had to process reports from literally hundreds of matches and events. This involved composing headings; writing captions; make the copy fit its allocated space on the page and make it pristine. There was a lot of swearing; inappropriate imprecations and the occasional physical confrontation.

The Herald: Reflections of a golden age: Journalists at work in the Herald and Times newsroom on Albion Street during the 1990sReflections of a golden age: Journalists at work in the Herald and Times newsroom on Albion Street during the 1990s (Image: The Herald)

The big dailies and Sundays had multiple editions running through the night until around 2am. The early editions would be carried by train and distributed by John Menzies to the North of England; the Highlands and Islands and the Borders. The later - main - editions would hit Edinburgh and the east coast and Glasgow and west central Scotland.

Part of the magic of working through the night to catch the later editions was updating them with as much late news as possible. In later years I had one deputy sports editor who viewed it as a minor triumph if we caught the final results of the Under-16 world table tennis championships from Beijing. “No other paper in the western hemisphere had those results,” he told me.

We managed to hit the deadline by a few minutes that mad January afternoon, despite several big games being cancelled due to adverse weather. This required some fancy footwork and design legerdemain to re-arrange the pages. And then it was straight into the welcoming arms of the Jinglin Geordie tavern, which lay across from the back of the old Scotsman building on Edinburgh’s Fleshmarket Close.

Read more in the series, Scotland & Alcohol:

In less than an hour I’d downed around four pints of lager, the adrenalin of successfully completing the sternest test of my professional abilities neutralising their effect. Not a single one of those pints hit the sides. They might as well have been Vimto.

This would be the normal pattern of Saturday production nights. Later in the evening, we’d be joined by the news reporters and fall to bitching about the editor’s page-one choices or bragging about eye-catching headings. We were bound by a uniform sense of exceptionalism; that we were part of an elite band of brothers (and one or two sisters) and that few others could do what we did.

We convinced ourselves that the white heat of producing a national newspaper in a highly pressurised environment justified the consumption of industrial quantities of alcohol. Many of us had lusted after a staff position in a ‘national’ and been bewitched by tales of alcoholic excess by old campaigners. These were variations on the same template. How ‘Big Davie’ or ‘wee George’ had downed half a bottle of whisky and eight pints of Guinness before filing the front-page ‘splash’ word-perfect and on time before winning a couple of big ones at the late-night casino.

The Herald: The Herald and Times' newsroom on Albion Street during the 1980sThe Herald and Times' newsroom on Albion Street during the 1980s (Image: The Herald)

In popular culture, journalists were often depicted as flawed anti-heroes whose poor social skills were misunderstood by non-combatants, forcing them to seek refuge in the arms of the licensed trade. It was gratuitously exaggerated, of course, but it was a beguiling portrayal. And if those of us who lived through those years were being honest, we liked to convey this image too.

Throughout this ‘golden era’ of Scottish journalism, the headquarters of every major Scottish and UK newspaper was surrounded by pubs and wine bars. The Daily Record and Sunday Mail had three and virtually all to themselves: The Copy Cat and the Off the Record on the Broomielaw and the slightly more upmarket Montrose Bar on Carrick Street.

Underneath the old Glasgow Herald on Albion Street was the legendary Press Bar. The former Scotsman offices on Edinburgh’s North Bridge had four taverns lying in wait for the 300 or so journalists of the Evening News, The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. As well as the Jinglin’ there was the Halfway House, The Doric and The Scotsman Lounge at the top of the steps. The Belfast Telegraph had its own pub on the top floor of its office block.

Read more in our series, Scotland & Alcohol: 

Their profits were fuelled by the generous, few-questions-asked expenses of the journalists and desk editors. It was always assumed that these were spent entertaining contacts who were supplying the goodies for your page lead. It was also assumed that you had to be adept in handling voluminous quantities of swally with no effect, the better for loosening the tongues of lay people whose constitutions were less robust.

Yet, there was a darker side to this bacchanalian tomfoolery. For starters, I’m not sure that men who had spent their working lives in coal mines or beside the blast furnace of a steelworks or building houses in freezing conditions would be impressed by what we called ‘pressurised environments”.

And for every one of us who eagerly participated in the seductive, high-octane drinking culture of newspapers there were many others who drank modestly, or not at all. Some of us liked to believe that the best journalists, the ones who chivvied out stories from the mean streets of Glasgow, were those colourful, hard drinking boulevardiers who sashayed into the editorial conference bearing the tales that would lift that week’s front page. Many of them, they assured us, had been procured by selfless dedication entertaining anonymous sources in louche taverns.

The Herald: 'Other sexism was more subtle. Several promotions and plum writing assignments were handed out to those who participated most eagerly in the drinking culture''Other sexism was more subtle. Several promotions and plum writing assignments were handed out to those who participated most eagerly in the drinking culture' (Image: The Herald)

Many of them were indeed like this and would entertain the rest of us with bawdy tales of the dodgy characters and fast women they encountered on their far-flung assignments. But there were many brilliant journalists who often rescued our paper because they’d stayed out the pub.

In the last 20 years I’ve attended the funerals of many gifted journalists – mainly men – who died well before their time because at some point in their professional careers the drink had ceased to be the reward for a job well done, and had become the sole means by which they felt they could reach the end of the week.

The old newspaper trade, like many others in the ‘creative and media’ sectors were disfigured by sexism, though perhaps not as egregious as others. This was evident on many levels. The worst case of this was when a very gifted female journalist – a mother of two young children – expressed an interest in being promoted to a junior executive role on our news desk. This would allow her to balance her job with her family commitments.

The Herald: The Herald and Times' canteen on Albion StreetThe Herald and Times' canteen on Albion Street (Image: The Herald)

She was, in my opinion, the outstanding person for the job. But when she emerged from her interview with our editor she informed me that he’d asked her if she planned to have any more children. Fortunately, she was given the promotion … after a few of us had suggested to the editor that he may have broken the law by making such an enquiry.

Other sexism was more subtle. Several promotions and plum writing assignments were handed out to those who participated most eagerly in the drinking culture. Most of the women I worked with – being possessed of better taste and discernment – tended to avoid the stained-carpet howffs which we often frequented. I witnessed several fine female journalists passed over for promotion or high-profile jobs in favour of much less talented men. In several of these cases the men were favoured drinking chums of the desk editor.

Today’s Herald is brought to you by far fewer journalists than the edition of March 6, 1999. This is a consequence of the dramatic, but inevitable, changes in the model of newspaper journalism. The transition to a digital format; the 24/7 churn of television news and, in particular, the unregulated wild west of social media have seen every newspaper title reduce staffing levels significantly.

The Herald:

Yet, by having anticipated these changes better than almost every other newspaper group in Scotland, the Herald publishers have begun to create a raft of new jobs for a different – and younger - breed of journalists.

They belong to a generation that have far fewer of the perks that we enjoyed in the so-called golden age. They are also hidebound by more challenging financial realities that make it far more difficult to access the property ladder. There is less security of tenure and permanence in several aspects of their lives. They’re required to be more nimble and more prepared than I needed to be at a similar stage in my career. They have neither the time, inclination nor means to be pubbing it every night.

Yet, they somehow indulge me, a grizzled relic of another age and have the good manners not to wince too often at my untutored, indelicate language and challenging cultural outlook.

Some of my old print brethren still insist that this younger generation of journalists wouldn’t have survived for long in the charnel house that was the old print news room. My arse.

The question to be asked is this: how many of us would survive in the modern environment where perks are fewer; where women are equals and where one story a day simply won’t cut the mustard?