Journalism, as everyone knows, is the most exciting, well-paid and rewarding job any ambitious graduate who thinks they can write, can aspire to.
Including those who end their sentences with prepositions. And start them with conjunctions.
But back in olden days I would never have dreamed of doing either of those.
Like half of the graduating world I applied to the BBC. I seriously feel for the personnel/HR staff in such a prestigious company who are not only inundated throughout the year but also get the annual flood of applications from about-to-graduate students.
Like most of that half of the graduating world I got nowhere with that, so set my sights a bit lower. The local reasonable quality daily and a somewhat less reasonable quality weekly, both in the same group of newspapers.
My great-uncle had worked for years on the weekly as news and sport reporter, and was a regular correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. My older cousin/godmother had worked for the daily paper, albeit in advertising. [Note, journalists look down on advertising staff even though we rely on the income they bring in for the company].
Sadly nepotism was not alive and kicking and I failed to even get an interview on either. The editor of great uncle’s weekly wrote back and said he had just recruited some other junior reporters. A likely story I thought.
Luckily, a few months later, a sister paper in the company advertised a vacancy. I went for the interview and landed the job. What I didn’t know was that the editor had already interviewed someone else and offered her the job. If I had would it have made any difference? Would I have declined gracefully? Of course not. I wanted a foot in the door, the only difference it would have made, is that I might have been a bit more aware that I was working for an immoral untrustworthy bastard.
And in fact, after a few weeks, someone else left, so the other person was offered a job anyway. So all was well with the world, except that she didn’t exactly like me. Especially as the new person had to do tea and coffee duty in the morning. As I didn’t drink either I was crap at making the morning cuppa anyway, and everyone was probably extremely relieved that I was quickly dismissed from that duty.
So what was the heady life of a trainee journalist like?? Well, I actually did think it was exciting. But I would have found visiting and writing up flower shows exciting and was rather sad I didn’t get to do that (reports got sent in of prizewinners and we just typed them up).
In the morning, I usually did ‘calls.’ Which were obviously, ‘phone calls, to hospital, fire, and ambulance to find out what amazing disasters had happened overnight. Then I would amble off to the police station to hear about yet another dead cat or an RTA (road traffic accident) that involved a blue Ford and a red Vauxhall colliding. They always had to collide so that no blame was imputed to either of them. On the way back I brought back the sandwich/pie orders from the local Greggs (?maybe) bakery.
The rest of the day consisted of chasing up human interest stories, going to court, juvenile and magistrates, or council meetings. Occasionally there was a juicy story in Crown Court in one of the big cities so that meant a nice day out.
If we worked through, or part-way through a lunch hour, we got a couple of quid, and similarly for an evening job. There was a strange distinction between staying late, a ‘tea’ job, and going home and out again which was a ‘supper’ job. Say at the time, £1.50 for tea, and £3.20 for an evening job. We also got time off in lieu for evening work, which was invariably either a council meeting or a review of some local amateur production.
To make a decent profit on your expenses though, you needed a car. Bus or train trips were rubbish because you just got reimbursed the cost of the ticket. The mileage allowance however was generous, and the distances on the ‘official’ list for our destinations out-of-office were even more generous. Put the two together and on a wage of £77 a week you could come out with half as much again.
Exes (expenses) was the very first job on Monday morning. The Chief Reporter dished out the forms and there was silence in the office for probably the most creative moments of the week.
We had a house style guide. I liked this. I liked the simpleness and the clarity and the rules. When we wrote about planning applications we couldn’t write erection – usually for a garden shed, or occasionally to erect a two-bed dwelling. We had to use construct or build or whatever. We couldn’t say facility – it was too vague. We had to describe exactly what it was.
Our intros had to be within the prescribed limits. Twelve words was regarded as the minimum and not to be used too often, twenty being a rather good one, and thirty being the absolute limit. Any more than that and it was regarded as being one of the long-winded dropped-intro styles of the Sunday Express. [A long descriptive par for the intro, and the actual point of the story is hidden somewhere about half-way down or even further]. The intro for this post is 23 words – to save you the effort of going back and counting.
We did the classic Who What Where When Why. Usually in that order. And we double-checked lists, and wedding forms. It is not good to make mistakes in a wedding report. We wrote them in advance, but waited for the photographs to come through before the copy was submitted to the editor. Even worse than getting the names wrong in a wedding report is to publish the one that never happened….
I made mistakes. One of them managed to combine a wedding and a name. If an unusual advert gets placed, the advertising staff ring up the reporters and say ‘you might be interested in following this up as a story.’
This particular one was about a wedding that hadn’t happened. The wording was strange, so I went to chase it up feeling embarrassed about poking my nose in. Not a good reaction for a journalist to have, I might add. I came back with not much of a story and handed it over to the Deputy Chief Reporter to read through. Copy from juniors was rigorously checked by seniors, before it even got to be subbed.
‘Did you check the spelling?’ she asked. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘It’s Anne with an E’ (or whatever it was).
‘The surname,’ she said witheringly, as only a senior reporter can, to a junior one who has just made one of THE classic mistakes.
I gulped. Of course I hadn’t. In my embarrassment I had been so keen to get out of there, I had checked the obvious and never even thought about the wretched surname. ‘Well, it’s usually spelled like that,’ I said. Hopefully.
‘Go back and check,’ she said. Nooooooo! Yet more cringing embarrassment. I went back and checked. I had guessed right.
I still got another lecture from the DCR though. Enough was enough. If I was going to be sacked over this or hauled in front of the editor and given a warning, they had better hurry it up. What to say? I went for the obvious.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I was wrong. I should have checked.’
‘I’m impressed,’ she stated regally. ‘I like someone who has the courage to admit they were wrong and apologise.’ After that her attitude wasn’t half as shitty towards me. Takes all sorts huh.
And what did I find myself doing many years later to a trainee PR person? ‘Have you checked the spelling of her name?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said very positively. I wasn’t convinced. We had a discussion about it. NO, she had definitely checked and there was no E on the end of the surname.
For goodness’ sake, the surname was something like Montgomery. The first name was Claire. With an E. [Names changed to protect the not-remotely-innocent].
She resigned not long afterwards although I am sure my bossy senior PR manager attitude had nothing to do with it. I guess she will be flashing her long hair around the place still, gazing fetchingly at older men and still mis-spelling names.
Golden rule number 1. Always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, check how someone spells their name.