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Farewell to Fleet Street

24th July 2009, Comments0 comments

Just 30 years ago, Fleet Street was the bustling heart of the British newspaper industry. This legacy comes to an end Sunday when the last international newsroom, Agence France-Presse, moves office

London -- Fleet Street, the London thoroughfare synonymous with 300 years of journalism in Britain, bids farewell to its last international newsroom on Sunday, when Agence France-Presse moves office.

AFP's departure means that Scottish publishers D. C. Thomson's London bureau is the last remaining newsroom in the industry's spiritual home, now overtaken by investment banks and legal offices.

It is a far cry from 30 years ago, when Fleet Street, a narrow east-west road near Saint Paul's Cathedral, was the bustling heart of the British newspaper industry.

National titles and international news agencies crammed into the street behind the decorous facades, with only a host of legendary pubs to separate them.

Despite the exodus, the term "Fleet Street" is still used as a shorthand for British journalism, much as "Wall Street" denotes banking and finance in the United States.

US President Barack Obama referred to "Fleet Street" in an interview earlier this month.

The newspaper exodus began in 1986, when media baron Rupert Murdoch defied the printer's unions and controversially moved his titles The Times, The Sun, The Sunday Times and the News of the World to a purpose-built high-tech plant in Wapping, east London.

The other national papers soon followed, many driven to take on cheaper, newer headquarters further east which could better accommodate computer wiring and less labour-intensive technology.

"Fleet Street represents the past in every way: the way we produce newspapers and the way we produce journalism," said Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London's City University.

"Clattering typewriters, hot metal, the smell of ink, the thunder of the lorries delivering the rolls of newsprint and the more-or-less 24-hour drinking," the former Daily Mirror editor told AFP.

Of the last news wire's departure, he said: "I'm sorry to see it. I was sorry when the Press Association went, I was sorry when Reuters went. It's unsurprising. It's always sad to see another bit vanish from Fleet Street."

Renowned in popular British parlance as the "Street of Shame", Fleet Street began its association with publishing in 1500 when Wynkyn de Worde built London's first printing press next to Saint Bride's, still known as the "journalists' church."

The newspaper history of Fleet Street began in 1702 with the Daily Courant, a single page, two-column leaflet.

The legend of Fleet Street was not all due to reporters' pencils and printers' ink. Architecture was even part of the press rivalry.

The street contains some impressive works, such as the Daily Express Building, a shiny, art deco affair dubbed the "Black Lubyanka" after the KGB secret service headquarters in Moscow, and The Daily Telegraph's art nouveau Peterborough Court office, now home to investment bank Goldman Sachs.

In Fleet Street's heyday, its many pubs and bars were traditionally packed with gossiping journalists, newspaper executives and print workers.

Many a veteran reporter could be found more easily at the bar than in the newsroom. Each newspaper had its favourite watering hole, where drinkers shared rumours, bragged about scoops and lived it up.

At El Vino, women were banned from wearing trousers. Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson regularly supped at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

The Tipperary at number 66 is the oldest Irish pub in London.

At Saint Bride's Church -- said to have been the inspiration for tiered wedding cakes -- journalists killed in the line of duty are remembered.

A panel reads: "At this altar, day by day, we pray for all those who face danger, persecution and death in bringing the truth in word and pictures to a troubled world."

On Sunday, AFP will start operations from the 25th floor of Centre Point, a tower hailed this month by the Financial Times newspaper as "one of London's most iconic buildings."

The 1966 tower is in the heart of the capital, at the eastern end of Oxford Street, between the Soho and Bloomsbury districts.

The last word of news agency journalism on Fleet Street is due to be written in the small hours of Sunday morning, when AFP's bureau will send the final story from Chronicle House, before turning out the lights.

Pierre Lesourd/AFP/Expatica

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