So, having secured your prized job as a tea maker and trainee journalist, what does the training involve?
In the UK, you could (at the time) enter journalism through a number of routes:
- direct entry onto a newspaper with, usually, A-levels
- taking a one-year journalism course after school
- getting a direct entry job as a graduate
- taking a one-year post-grad course.
The first involved a tedious long apprenticeship.
The second meant a shortened apprenticeship and with a pre-qualification in shorthand.
I discounted the fourth on a) grounds of far too much competition to get into the few universities offering the courses and b) why do another year without a job if you can get a job immediately and still end up with the same qual? Doing the post-grad course only shortened your indentures, it didn’t give you a pass for the all-important National Certificate.
Entering as a graduate meant a load of snotty comments if you happened to be the first grad on the newspaper though. But it did mean very short block-release college training, presumably on the grounds that if you had a degree, you might not need to spend years boning up on the essential subjects.
‘We’ve not had any graduates on this newspaper before.’
‘Don’t know why we need someone with a degree, they just think they know everything..’
‘Graduates don’t know how to write.’
That last one was true actually.
I carefully wrote my first story like a university essay. I wrote an introductory paragraph about the whole theme, discussed the issues, and made a conclusion.
This was a ten or twelve paragraph council story, not a 1000 word essay about Augustus Caesar.
I had a lot to learn.
It seemed the end should come first. Um? Whatever happened to my carefully crafted essay? Arse about front really. Get that hard-hitting news point in the first par and then witter on about how you got there.
Really, I thought. Such terrible writing.
I peppered my stories with the lady expressed, the gentleman replied.
Big no. Just no, no and no again.
Apparently there were no ladies. The whole office churned out the mantra. ‘There are no ladies in this town, only Lady Whatshername.’ Who happened to be a genuinely titled lady that had a residence in the town, for some reason that was beyond me.
A lady was to be called a woman. I was shocked I tell you. I had been brought up to believe that all persons of the female sex aspired to be ladies and that woman/women was such a derogatory term for rather rough persons. Like fishwives. Dear me. What had I got myself into?
Next, no one expressed, replied, stated, explained, or asked.
‘Said is a perfectly good word,’ said the DCR (the one of the previous post). I supposed it saved taxing the brain. I dutifully and sadly wrote said instead of my inspired variations.
My copy was poured over and criticised. I wilted like a delicate flower whenever it didn’t meet approval.
We had to ring people to interview them over the ‘phone in the open-plan office and everyone could hear my inadequate interviews. It was all so embarrassing.
Sometimes, we couldn’t hear the person we were speaking to because of the noise of the typewriters clack clack clacking away. When that happened, the accepted office procedure was to catch everyone’s eye, wave your one free arm in a horizontal motion, and the office fell silent. And natch, everyone listened to your conversation.
Even worse, was when you had got hold of someone important, some local bigwig or whoever, for a very serious interview. Colleagues would wander over and try to distract you. Tickle you. Pull faces. Anything to catch your eye and make you snort laughing when you were discussing the state of the nation, and trying to get a meaningful quote from The Bigwig.
When I joined the team, there were three reporters who had done the one-year training course after school, two direct-entry reporters who had joined after school, and me. I was the only one who had zilch shorthand.
After not too long, I was despatched to The Big Newspaper office in the city where shorthand classes were held for all trainees within the group.
This involved wandering up to the railway station on Monday lunchtime, a pleasant 20 mins or so on the train, and a couple of hours grafting away in the afternoon. I did get home a bit later than normal, but still, it was a nice change.
It was at shorthand I met the two reporters from the sister paper. The non-nepotistic editor really had hired two junior reporters. I could see why I didn’t get a look in with my red-brick university degree.
One of my colleagues had a degree in either PPE or Politics from Cambridge, and the other one had read English at Durham. And this is a bog-standard weekly paper.
As an aside, I always found it fascinating that people seemed to think an English degree was a pre-requisite for being a journalist. Given that an English degree is about a) studying literature and b) studying Anglo-Saxon and other such oddities I can’t really see the relevance to current-day journalism.
Politics or PPE yes. My own degree of history too. Because what you learn in history is to ask questions, research, not take things on face value, and track down as many sources as possible. Pretty appropriate for a journalist I would have thought?
I hit it off well with my two colleagues though, and looked forward to Monday afternoons.
Wednesday afternoons were the best however. The paper went to bed (ie got printed) on Wednesday, so there was stuff all to do. I was absolutely gobsmacked the first time the office started playing charades. Even the editor would wander in for a laugh. That’s when he hadn’t gone for a sauna.
In fact, it wasn’t charades per se, it was the television variant, ‘Give us a Clue.’ Those of you who remember it, will know exactly what I mean, those of you who don’t can look it up.
It was something on the lines of film, book, musical, can’t remember what else. And obviously you had to enact it. Whoever guessed first, got to go next. Luckily I was utterly useless at guessing so I rarely, if ever, got to do the enactment scene. So, so, embarrassing. Even worse than interviewing people over the ‘phone when everyone else could hear.
Sometimes we even played on Fridays too. Fridays was POETS day (although I didn’t learn the phrase until I joined the civil service where it was also POETS day), but we left the newspaper office at 4pm instead of the usual 4.30pm.
Aside from charades, shorthand, and those awful ‘phone calls, my training was pretty decent. I was taken to council meetings and court by senior reporters, who introduced me to people, showed me the ropes, and we both took down the stories together so I could attempt a few of my own.
Some time later I was chatting to another (graduate) junior reporter from the daily paper in the group, and he said he envied our all-round and thorough training that he didn’t feel he got on a busy paper.
The truth is, it was all so novel and strange, I was caught up in the whirlwind of actually being a trainee journalist. Perhaps the most exciting moments were just answering the ‘phone when it rang and saying, ‘Hello, reporters.’ We didn’t say ‘Newsroom’ unlike our stuffy upthemselves sister paper, and one of my colleagues insisted on doing it with an American accent which was pretty bizarre in the middle of Yorkshire.
Some years later another colleague on a different paper was having a difficult conversation with an irate punter, and she said sadly ‘I’m just a reporter.’
Then she put the ‘phone down and said: ‘Why on earth did I say that? I AM A REPORTER.’
Anyone who makes it into journalism, passes their exams, and holds down a hard, not usually very well-paid job, is not just a reporter.
Next: indentures, college, and – exams!