Death of a thousand cuttings

Conrad Landin reflects on the dying art of clipping newspaper articles


hen Kenny Farquharson, a columnist at the Times Scotland, opened a poetry book he had bought second

hand, out fell what he described as a thing of beauty. It was a leader column – of words dazzling yet sobering – marking the death of Scottish poet and journalist Hugh MacDiarmid in 1978, neatly snipped out from The Scotsman. The feeling Farquharson related was familiar to me. Until his death 10 years ago, my grandfather would religiously cut out articles from daily, weekly and monthly periodicals. He would then stuff them into his 5,000-odd books of every genre from computer science to fiction via politics, often on such a scale the spines were damaged beyond repair. More often than not, when I pick up one of the books I inherited from him, out falls a cutting on a topic of only tangential relevance, with a few words inexplicably underlined. In subsequent hours, I’ve careered down intellectual rabbit holes that not even Wikipedia could match.

They are hours I will never get back

– but why would I want to? There’s a real joy in finding the unexpected in research, whether it is a mundane tangent or a fruitful discovery. But, as more and more people turn to

the internet for news and analysis, the age of the cutting may be drawing to a close. Besides surprising discoveries in dusty books, what will we lose? Many of the most obsessive keepers

of cuttings are journalists themselves, who traditionally may have had no

28 | theJournalist

other means of preserving a record of their work. These days, most print publications publish articles online in a format that is often more accessible than cuttings files, even to their own authors. Farquharson, who says he has “two suitcases and numerous boxfiles full of cuttings from the 1980s and 1990s”, says that “we should not assume that digital journalism from the past 20 years is safe”. He explains: “Many stories I did

during that time are missing online. Dozens of features and interviews I wrote are missing their first paragraph. One newspaper group I worked for adopted a website that did not include journalists’ bylines; although this was later reversed, thousands of stories were left online with no known authors.” Having written for various weekly and

daily titles for 10 years, I’ve sometimes wondered if my own habit of hoarding cuttings is a little excessive. Some print journalists are more selective. Alistair Grant, political correspondent at The Herald, says he always tries to keep cuttings “if it’s a big story or something that took a lot of work” but has still ended up with “two big cardboard boxes full of them” at home. Steve Sweeney, international editor

at the Morning Star, says he keeps cuttings “occasionally if it’s a feature or an exclusive” but “admittedly, not that often”. He explains: “I did lose some writing that I did for an online-only media organisation that folded, and I wish I’d printed the articles now.” In the cuttings business, journalists are no less amateurs as enthusiasts like

“ ”

We should not assume that digital journalism from the past 20 years is safe. Many stories I did are missing online

my grandfather. The real pros are in the agencies, who burn the midnight oil to prepare cuttings for their clients on the same day of publication. Despite most such stories being accessible instantaneously – whether through automatic notification features like Google Alerts or digital cuttings programmes like ClipShare – demand is still there for scissors and glue. Frank McCallum, who runs Glasgow- based McCallum Media Monitor, says it is cheaper for clients to get paper cuttings, as there are no extra copyright costs for something snipped from the original newspaper. If companies want pdfs of their press coverage, agencies can leave them online only temporarily. If clients want them for longer or for the archives, they must pay for an extended license. “With the original cuttings already in your possession, this doesn’t apply,” McCallum adds. In the early days of his business,

McCallum would also contact non- celebrities who appeared in local papers, asking if they wanted laminated copies of stories. “Now most papers that have been read are recycled to cat and dog charities to make litter,” he adds. “In the old days you used to take a journo down a peg or two by dismissing his/ her work as ‘tomorrow’s chip wrapper’. Now it’s next month’s cat litter.”

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