One day, a colleague took me aside and confided that she was applying for a new job. In PR.
‘In PR!’ I said, horrified. ‘Whatever for? Don’t you like being a journalist?’I asked, thinking that was all anyone would ever want to be.
‘It’s more money,’ she answered pragmatically. It was a gas board job as I remember.
She didn’t get it, and the editor never knew. For some reason he didn’t take kindly to people applying for other jobs, so any job apps had to be done on the quiet.
I applied for two while I was still there, one was a daily paper, and the other was – yes, a PR job for a local council at the other end of the country.
I didn’t get either of them, but basically got the non-existent runner-up prize. I got a nice letter from the editor saying I had only just missed the reporting job, and for the council PR job, I was invited back for a second interview with two others, and was told the only reason I didn’t get that one was because the winning candidate had relevant PR experience which I lacked.
At the newspaper interview the editor asked me one of those classic questions. ‘Where do you see yourself in X years time?’
I replied I would be a reporter on a national newspaper.
‘The Observer.’ That was probably the wrong answer as provincial editors are not known for being remotely left-wing. Neither was I at the time but it was the paper I enjoyed reading the most so why would I not want to work for that one?
Didn’t I want to be an editor?
No. Probably wrong answer number two.
But a while later, I had my first chance to get on that sort of ladder. Someone had left our office and we needed a sub-editor. Our editor decided that I could be the next sacrificial victim, presumably because of my spelling and accuracy. Or whatever.
I should say that one of the fun things we did on Tuesdays and Wednesdays was start checking the proofs as they came from the printers. This was technically a sub-editor’s job, but our lazy editor seemed to think it was a good idea for the reporters to do it. In fact, it wasn’t a bad idea, and I really enjoyed proof-reading for mistakes, missing capitals, paragraph run-ons etc etc and I would usually whizz through as many pages as possible.
I was plucked out of the noisy reporters office, dropped into the editor’s hole, and expected to absorb the skills of sub-editing by osmosis. I didn’t.
Back in Ye Olden Days of tripewriters and paper, you were expected to mark up the copy for the comps (compositors = printers) – that was easy enough. I’m not sure why we were expected to mark up the copy for the comps as they were well aware of what they were doing, but it was obviously traditional. We put paragraph marks around every new paragraph, double-underlined capital letters, and if we really wanted to play with fire we might change a bit of text, or run the odd paragraph on, or split one up. Mostly we didn’t. We were meant to check the stories for accuracy and readability but as all the trainee copy had usually been vetted by senior reporters anyway, that was a minimal job.
At this point, I should add that journalism was doing text speak before mobile ‘phones were invented. We didn’t write ‘said’, we wrote ‘sd’. ‘To’ became ‘t’. There were loads of others too, but you couldn’t just make them up, they had to be the accepted ones. Some reporters did it, others didn’t. So if comps cd cope with the pre-cursor of txt spk I’m sure they didn’t need our marking-up.
After the easy job, it got difficult – think of an incredibly witty headline, allocate the appropriate font size and calculate the space it would take in the column(s), and then work out how many column inches the story would take as well. There was a blank page that was set on a grid, with advertisements already marked out and you had to fit in your stories, headlines, and photos in the gap. This is not an easy one to learn by osmosis, I tell you.
I missed the noisy newsroom, the excitement of going out on stories, I missed writing, interviewing people on the ‘phone, the gossip among the reporters. I felt excluded, bored, and incompetent sitting next to the middle-aged editor who spent far too much of his time rubbing his fat belly.
There was a short window of opportunity before he appointed a reporter to fill my place. So, I sat there helplessly with a couple of sad tears gracefully dropping down my face.
‘What’s wrong? Aren’t you happy doing this?’
No,’ I said very sadly. ‘I miss reporting.’
With one bound I was free and back in the newsroom. One of my colleagues wasn’t too pleased as she had already taken over my desk so she had to slink back to her own miserable place.. There was a hierarchy of desks and positions in the office and I was pretty near the top. Phew! I’d had a narrow escape.
Some years later on another paper, I went on an excellent sub-editing course in Rugby. We were working on computers by then, but there was still a lot to learn about the rigours of sub-editing, lay-out and design. And that’s what I should have had before I was thrown in with Fat Belly.
In the end, I didn’t move for another job, I left to travel. One colleague was horrified.
‘How will you get a job when you come back?’
Um, apply for one? The confidence of the young. I had a degree, a professional qualification and a few years experience. Should be easy enough I thought.
And indeed some 18 months or so later, it was. Ironically there weren’t many newspaper jobs and the only one that offered me an interview expected me to pay my own expenses. To Cornwall. I didn’t go.
But I did end up with choices of press office work in local government, the NHS, and central government (one in London and some provincially).
I chose London.