Why I was not born to be a local hack

Apologies that this blog deviates from the theme – but this seems the best place for it to live.

Not too long ago (ok – long enough that it’s not news anymore), I read a report by former editorial director of Northcliffe South East, Mr Alan Geere, in which he looked into the reasons only 43% of local journalists are still in the industry a few years after beginning their careers. Among many things he said, one comment he made particularly annoyed me:

“Money is, I feel, is often used as an excuse to get out. Complaining that they are not compensated well enough is a convenient excuse when they are really finding the going too tough or they realise they are not good enough.”

Author of the report and ex-editorial director, Alan Geere

Author of the report and ex-editorial director, Alan Geere

I’m not too sure this is a fair statement, or one that is true of many reporters who worked under his wing. I’ve read quite a few ‘my first weeks in journalism’ reports, usually written by an aspirational young person hoping to claw their first job, or a sarcastic up-start hoping to prove a point. Here is my own.

“When did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?” – asked the head of a regional newspaper business in our one-to-one interview.

“I was 7 when I decided I wanted to be a journalist”

In my reply, I proved I was capable of one the essential skills required of a news journalist: I told a little white lie. I’d encourage anyone ready to offer this little white lie, however – to think very carefully.

From the age of seven, I have wanted to be an author. I wanted to tell stories, about people and places and adventures and mystery. I wrote little stories in my free time – and handed them in as ‘extra homework’. I wrote the whole way through my teens in the standard, traditional and self-indulgent prose. Writing was a release, an expression of being. I realised quite young, however, that not everyone can be a ‘writer’.

I remember my first vox pop – this being an assignment off-loaded to all junior journalists. The task is simple – find 4-6 people who will let you take a mug-shot to go ‘in the paper’, ask their name, street on which they live, age, occupation, and get a quote from them. Until you’ve tried it you might not realise how hard this is – but you get some amazing excuses: “I’m being chased by the police/my ex-husband/the mafia and can’t have my face/street name/age in the paper” being my favourites.

I wondered around Chelmsford, in Essex, for hours looking for people to interrogate and photograph. The first is always the hardest, after a couple of weeks I could head out and come back with 4 mug shots in half an hour. The art, by the way, is to ask the right people – avoid asking women who look like they’re wearing lots of make-up – they don’t like photos. Ask the middle aged man who will be flattered to have his opinion requested, or ideally, the couple – people prefer pictures with other people – so simply take a photo of them side by side, and crop them so you get two in one. Genius.

After three days at the Essex Chronicle, in which I lived in a Premier Inn, I was packed off to Redhill for a few days at the Surrey Mirror. Christmas wasn’t far away, and the office was alive with banter and traditional journalist games – mainly punning and wordplay, with a sprinkling of sarcasm and mockery. We did have a lot of fun, amongst the pencil biting and ear-steaming. I went back home for Christmas to prepare for my final exams, but wrote a few stories for the Surrey Mirror and worked on New Year’s Eve before heading out.

The paper kept me on as ‘work experience’ for several months. I was rewarded for my dedication with £50 a day, which admittedly, is more that most interns will receive. I’d packed up my university home, and moved my belongings back to my parents home, but since that was an hour away from the suburban town where the paper was based, I took up yet another lodging. I went home every weekend, and couldn’t really settle anywhere, since my contract was ‘rolling’ and I found out every Friday if they wanted me back again on Monday. After about 3 months I got a real contract.

My first by-line as a working journalist wasn’t a big deal – but I do remember my first front page splash. It was a trading story – a local butcher told me the highstreet was dying, and after spending his life nurturing his family business, he was going to the bank to declare bankruptcy. He was ‘suicidal’ and had ‘given up all hope.’ In reality, he’s still trading now – he wanted to be front page news in order to get some sympathy custom – and it worked I’m sure.

My favourite stories were often those inside the paper – the school where children spoke 44 languages (unfortunately my story celebrating their diversity was stolen and ripped apart by the Daily Mail – not something we could prevent since we were owned by the same company), the family who lost their chickens, the argument between local theatre and Freddie ‘ate my hamster’ Star.

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The chicken story was excellent. A lady called me up appealing that we help her find her lost chickens. They were family pets, and had names like ‘Blackey’ and ‘Star’. It was one of those phone interviews that you’re so glad you didn’t do face to face, so you could stifle the giggles and try to remain serious.

You have to do some funny things to get a story, sometimes. Since we all had bank holidays included in our entitlement, but had to produce a paper every week, the days leading up to a long weekend were fraught.

I remember once, we all had to have three stories in the bag by Thursday. Some weeks that might be easy, but it just so happened that week it was not the case – I was dry – had nothing. I called all my contacts – nothing doing.

So I hopped over to Reigate in search of a story. An off-hand comment from a shopper prompted a chain of thought – could Reigate benefit from late night shopping, once a week?

One quote set it all off. My editor loved it. Next step was to pester every independent retailer – ‘would you open late night, to give something back to Reigate?’ I had to produce a list no ‘no’, ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’ – naming and shaming those who said no. Of course, most of them were unsure, but they didn’t want to be given a bad name in the paper which complements and shapes the community.

What had been a simple ‘knock something together and submit it by Thursday’ story designed to get me out of a pickle soon became a double page spread looming over Reigate and pressurising these poor retailers to give up their Thursday evenings. I felt pretty awful about that one.

Other stories were less ‘a bit funny’ and more ‘morally questionable’. Waiting at the back of the inquest to spring upon all involved with questions. The ‘deathknock’: “excuse me, I hear you’re currently in emotional turmoil after your loved one was killed in an unpleasant way – please may I hassle you?”

One of the final nails in the coffin of my year long journalist career was the Reigate stabbing. A man was arrested and charged after stabbing a woman and her daughter. I was sent to the scene, where police officers didn’t want to talk to me. I pounded the streets, knocking on the doors of nearby houses, questioning the staff at adjacent businesses. I got sent down on the weekend to have another go, when the police where less prevalent.

Finally, I knocked on the door of the victim’s house, notebook in hand – and had the door slammed in my face. Of course, it was clearly a domestic abuse case. It was none of my business; she didn’t want to speak to me and I didn’t want to be there. Admittedly, I missed a last minute update in which it transpired the charge had been downgraded from attempted murder to GBH, but that was just the cherry on top of my hate for this story.

Of course – the public’s right to knowledge is a perfectly legitimate argument in many cases. Obviously, for example, if a national newspaper reports that a leading politician  has been involved in some form of illegal practice.

I’ll write to unearth something that deserves attention. Hell – my story on the tax bill run up by the mayor or Reigate and Banstead was awesome – and I felt every word was legitimate. But working for a local rag, and selling papers through intrigue and gossip? Maybe I’m naïve and idealistic – but that’s not my bag.

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Of course, there were other stories that brought me joy. The man who ran from one end of the country to the other, barefoot, was one of my early achievements.

I still remember meeting a lady in Costa to hear her tell me the story of her heroin addict boyfriend – he’d died of cancer and she wanted to tell his story. Having someone trust you to take their words and turn them into a piece that will allow their loved one to live on in print is a beautiful opportunity.

I was the mouthpiece for charities, churches, and special causes. I told the ‘day in the life’ of a homeless person, met people right at the start of the journey to getting back in touch with the rest of the world after years of unemployment and substance abuse. I celebrated success on exam days and revelled with the revellers when opportunity presented itself.

Working as a newspaper journalist was at times exhausting – at times it was stressful. Other days were wonderful, and there were moments when I loved my job. The truth is, however, that I wasn’t comfortable sharing the stories that people didn’t want the readership to have access to.

So no – I wouldn’t say I quit the profession solely because I was ‘undercompensated’. That didn’t help, and living on £16k wasn’t ideal. The cuts made in the business also didn’t help – as the only member of the newsdesk without 100wpm shorthand, it was always in the back of my head that if anyone was going to go, it would be me. However – the nub of it was that I didn’t want to make a living sharing private misery. I wouldn’t say in all cases it was ‘wrong’ – some facts need to be exposed – but some news, I think, is not our news to share.

It’s likely only 43 per cent of people who start out on local papers want to be writing for a local paper. Many of us just want to be writing – or maybe specifically want to be writing about something else. The high drop-out rate, I think, might well be because though many of us are born to be journalists and story-tellers, not everyone is born to be a local hack.

Check out Alan Geere’s post on this blog: http://alangeere.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/why-i-was-not-born-to-be-local-hack.html#links

There are 2 comments

  1. cyclingwithheels

    Nothing wrong with deviating if it’s a story worth telling. It’s one that really chimes with me. Like you, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer. I’m sure I remember writing in a piece of school work when I was eight – a ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ – that I wanted to be a writer and an artist so I would write my own stories and illustrate them myself. By the time I was a teenager this had turned into being a journalist – but that never happened. I wanted to write about things I was interested in, but I didn’t like the idea of invading people’s privacy in the name of getting a story.

  2. michellearthurs

    Thanks for the comment – great to hear your story. Absolutely, if someone takes on a role that encourages public interest they do so in the knowledge they forgo privacy (to a certain extent.. there is a line!!) – but Mr Smith, 46, from Blacksmith Road who just lost his wife should be left well alone unless he invites the press because he wants to share his story. In my opinion…

    There are some stories that are a bit grey are of course – I still remember interviewing a head teacher about poor Ofsted reports when she started crying.. but parents deserve to know if a school is failing. Admittedly, there are measures in place for that to happen without some nosey hack turning up with a notepad – but I do think something like that is newsworthy and deserves a report. Even if it did make me feel like the enemy..

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