How to become a journalist

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No doubt you’ve seen the Facebook post from former English teacher Abi Elphinstone on failing the SATs tests and telling children all you needed were “ideas + passion”. It was the subject of one of my infamous rants on how ridiculous a message it is. Tell children they don’t need education and can get by on “ideas + passion”? Nonsense.

It got me thinking about my own life and want I would tell my younger self if I could go back in time.

And it would be to learn to type.

I studied typing at school because my pal Susan and I had a free period in sixth form and thought it would be a laugh. We giggled and sang songs more than we typed but thanks to Mrs Rowntree, I learnt the rudiments.

Fast-forward two years and I’d dropped out of poly and needed a job. Any job. I’d given up on thoughts of a career because my professional life was obviously at an end with leaving my course. So I applied for everything and everything and got knocked back time after time – your loss, Sock Shop. But then I saw an ad for a touch typist a family-run DTP firm.

They turned me down.

Two months down the line, they got back in touch and offered me a job as the girl they’d employed instead of me wasn’t a good typist. Now, neither was I, I used to memorise passages and then type them , but they obviously were pleased with the rest of my work because in the two years I was there, I was the only person who left of their own accord. Everyone else was sacked – which was one of the reasons I’d decided I had to leave. That and the prospect of typesetting price and details of thimbles up for sale for the rest of my life (we’re talking serious money, by the way. Check out the Thimble Society of London if you don’t believe me.).

This was June 1989 and I was one of the few people in Newcastle who worked each day on Quark Xpress and Apple Mac – a computer so new and basic that now Apple would name it the iEmbryo. And because of that, I became one of the UK’s first electronic page make-up artists at the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle.

A few days before my interview, my horoscope said I would soon get good news about a long-held dream. When, after a few drinks in the Printer’s Pie, I told my new colleagues this obviously meant working at the Chron, they pissed themselves laughing.

“Aw, pet, we change them around depending on where the copy fits that day. If Sagittarius fits into Pisces, it gans there.”

It was the days of hot metal and paste-up, with long galleys of copy pinging out of machines to be manually cut and pasted onto a page. It was noisy and busy and full of life.

I think I learnt more on the Chron than on any other newspaper I’ve worked at. I entered the business at the tail end of the old days, when editors worked their way up from covering WI festivals and local council meetings and expenses were flexible.

My first editor, Graeme Stanton, was scary as hell. He was “the boss”: tall, imposing, booming voice and huge presence (plus an impressive array of bow ties). When he stood behind you, you knew it. I for one would sit taller, hoping my shaking fingers would hit the right words as he cast off front-page headlines that fit perfectly – no swapping around for him. I was petrified of him but he wasn’t a bully. It was that he inspired such respect I wanted nothing more than to impress him and make him proud.

His death, in 1993, shocked the entire newsroom. There was something about it felt like the end of an era.

If Graeme was imposing, my deputy editor, Mel Waggitt, was your dad. I can’t think of him without remembering his smile, Dastardly and Muttley laugh and the fag in his fingers. (It’s hard to imagine now, but smoking was everywhere and every journalist seemed to have a cigarette on the go. Think of that moment when Sam Tyler first enters the Life on Mars police station and you have the idea.) A fog of smoke followed Mel like dust around Pig-Pen in Charlie Brown. It clogged up his screen so much that we’d write “Clean me” notes in it. “Pass me one of those wipes, pet,” he’d say. All the women were “pet”. He was a Geordie, you see.

More than that, he was a devoted regional newsman, giving everything to his paper and region.

Oh my goodness, I’ve gone all nostalgic and sad, now.

I worked closely with the sub-editors, proper old hacks who’d scrutinise copy and attack it mercilessly or go into raptures about the beauty of the writing (a bit rare, I have to admit).

People think subs merely proof copy – I’ve even had a reporter say loftily that subs aren’t writers – but they do so much more and the casual way publishers think they can dispense with them now scares me.

It is the sub who knows which councillor has a dodgy background when the cub reporter doesn’t; the sub who separates the grain from the chaff of the overwrought copy presented to them so it makes sense; the sub who keeps the editor out of jail, and the sub who makes each page sing with headlines and captions. Trust me, it’s never the reporter who writes those Super Caley headlines that get everyone talking.

(On a side note, I cannot sub my own work. Kill my darlings – are you kidding me? Another reason it is so important for reporters to have their work sub-edited.)

My first job was working alongside the TV sub, who’d sift through piles of programme details and then dictate a synopsis which I’d key in, a task I was given because I was the only one on our team who could touch-type. It sounds boring, but working alongside him – and all the subs were male – I learnt how to extract the most vital details from copy, condense it to fit the space given and rewrite where necessary while avoiding widows, orphans and bad word-breaks.

In a TV sub’s hands, the 31,842 words of Hamlet can be succinctly reduced to: Young Danish prince destroys all he loves in his search for truth and justice after the death of his father.

It was a sub who was my first mentor, Simon Thirsk, who’s now chairman of Bloodaxe Books. He got me thinking about going back to education, so I signed up to do my degree part-time, going to night classes for five years and using holidays to sit exams.

Simon was followed by my second editor, Chris Rushton, at the Sunday Sun, who demanded the impossible and infuriated me so much I was determined to deliver (think Devil Wears Prada, only without the Louboutins, or the Hermes, or any of the style, actually, but a lot more swearing).

Thanks to Chris’s demands, I realised I could do more. Indeed, there was a lot of that “Right, I’ll bloody well show you” that made me apply to be a trainee sub back at the Chron. That and being inspired and helped by the team I was working with at the time and the encouraging smile of Barbara, the chief sub, throughout the interview.

“I think it went well,” I told the other subs once I’d finished.

“I think it went very well,” she answered.

I didn’t have a degree and neither did my fellow trainee, another paste-up woman (yes, women had infiltrated the subs’ desk by that time). We were supervised by the other subs and learnt law from the legendary Walter Greenwood, who was delighted that we had worked our way up.

From Newcastle, I went to Edinburgh and that’s when things happened. I was part of the launch team of the Sunday Herald, was poached to work on The Scotsman as production editor of its new (now defunct) business section and then became its first female night editor in 186 years (yes, 186 years).

And it was wonderful. I have some amazing memories, such as seeing my first headline in print (Help in the wee small hours – about bed-wetting), standing outside the Sunday Herald offices watching the first edition roll around and off the press, working till 3am on September 11, leading my team as we covered the bombing of Afghanistan, then again for the capture of Saddam Hussein…

I’ve been bolloxed and shouted at, praised and rewarded, cried in the toilets and drank until the early hours of the morning with the editor in their office.

I have had the pleasure of working with some amazing journalists – and some arseholes, who could also be amazing journalists – and every day I continue to learn and be inspired.

All this, because I had spare lessons in sixth form and learnt to type. Thank you, Mrs Rowntree.

Yet why did I go crazy with Abi Elphinstone? After all, aren’t I proof that you can succeed without knowing modal verbs and subjunctive clauses (which I actually know, because I had to learn them before I could teach them in Spain)?

No, I’m not, because I doubt my story could happen today. I don’t know a single young journalist who hasn’t been to university to study how to be a journalist or done an NUJ course and as for starting out on the regionals – what regionals? They’re a dying breed and that’s not good; it’s not good for the communities they serve nor for the industry as a whole, because you can’t learn in a classroom how to deal with an editor having a breakdown because a story is 50 words too short or what to do when your sub screams across the newsroom that someone has changed Nicolas Cage to Nicholas Cage.

But that’s the way it is, now. Yes, you need “ideas + passion”, but you can’t even get your foot in the door unless you’ve got a degree.

And that’s a shame. Because the way you learn how to be a journalist – is to be a journalist.

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3 thoughts on “How to become a journalist

  1. Pingback: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old – and other tales | 50 Sense

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